Recently, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about brain research.
Researchers are finding that people who use a “personal mantra” — mentally repeating over and over a positive word or phrase that reinforces their values — tend to be calmer, feel more in control and are less likely to get stressed out.
This habit of repetition apparently creates new pathways between neurons that produce changes in those areas of the brain that regulate our feelings about ourselves.
It seems there is a real power to “positive thinking.”
It goes without saying that I am not a brain researcher. But I do find it fascinating that scientists are confirming something that Christians have known from the very beginning.
I am thinking of the ancient practice of repeating the name of the Lord — Jesus. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox have long said the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” often reciting these words mentally according to the rhythms of their breathing.
Many Christians prefer to simply invoke the divine Name, speaking the word “Jesus” softly to themselves or silently thinking it. Repeating the holy name often in our hearts, we pray always and without ceasing, as Jesus and St. Paul taught us to do.
But we cannot confuse the invocation of Jesus’ name with the use of “mantras” like those being studied by the scientists.
It is one thing to use a word or phrase for self-encouragement — researchers studied people who used words like “breathe” or “shine” or “love” or “this will pass” and “never give up.”
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies.”
What this means is that when we say the Holy Name of Jesus — he is with us. There can be no more powerful name than that.
And although we can sometimes take this for granted, it is the name of Jesus that is at the heart of the rosary — “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
I was thinking about that during the pope’s pilgrimage to Fátima last weekend to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s appearance there on May 13, 1917. In her apparitions at Fátima, the Blessed Mother revealed herself as “Our Lady of the Rosary” and she instructed that a chapel should be built on the site.
Pope Francis prayed in that chapel during his visit. He also canonized two of the three children who received the visions of Our Lady of Fátima.
One of those new saints, St. Jacinta, was asked once what the Blessed Mother’s most important message to them was. She answered: “That we should pray the rosary every day.”
It was not a new teaching. Saints and countless ordinary Christians have been praying the rosary daily for centuries. But the rosary seems to be just the prayer we need for our distracted and troubled times.
At Fátima, Mary said we should pray the rosary every day for peace — peace in a violent world, but also peace in our hearts. When we pray the rosary, we join Mary in turning our eyes to Jesus — remembering the mysteries of his life. Mysteries in which we see unfolding the work of our salvation.
The rosary is a prayer of quiet and contemplation. And we need this in our culture, which is so restless and noisy, a culture that seems always to be “turned on” and seems to intrude into our every waking moment, never leaving us alone with our thoughts.
The rosary asks us to “unplug” and to “be still” — to spend time with Mary, just thinking about Jesus. Learning to love him, as she loves him.
The heart of the Rosary is Jesus, made present in his holy name. As we pray, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
As we meditate on the succession of mysteries — the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious moments of his life — we enter more deeply into his life. The mysteries of his life become the mysteries of our own.
“Each time we recite the rosary, in this holy place or anywhere else, the Gospel enters anew into the life of individuals, families, peoples and the entire world,” the pope said at Fátima.
Pray for me this week and I will be praying for you. And let us renew our devotion to Mary and to the rosary, to try to pray the rosary every day.
And let us ask Our Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Fátima, to open our hearts and lead us to Jesus, in whose name we find hope and redemption.