Does the Rosary predate Saint Dominic?

What we call the Rosary may predate Saint Dominic. There is a tradition that the Rosary was revealed to the Church at least three times:

  1. First, there is tradition that the fourth century monks of the Egyptian Thebaid were praying one hundred fifty Angelic Salutations (Hail Mary’s) grouped into fifteen decades following the pattern of the one hundred and fifty Psalms.
  2. Second there is a tradition that the Rule of the Theotokos (150 Hail Mary’s with 15 corresponding mysteries) was revealed by the Blessed Virgin Mary in the eighth century and that “at one time all Christians fulfilled it.”
  3. It was forgotten and then revealed a third time by the Blessed Virgin to Saint Dominic in the thirteenth century.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov

St Seraphim of Sarov
Eastern Practitioner of the ‘Rule of the Theotokos’
the Eastern Rosary

The evidence for the first two revelations of the Rosary (fourth century and then the eighth century) derive from an Eastern Orthodox priest Father Zosima who is the spiritual son of the great Saint Seraphim of Sarov who said:

…I forgot to give you a piece of advice vital for salvation. Say the O Hail, Mother of God and Virgin one hundred and fifty times, and this prayer will lead you on the way to salvation. This rule was given by the Mother of God herself in about the eighth century, and at one time all Christians fulfilled it.

We Orthodox have forgotten about it, and Saint Seraphim has reminded me of this Rule. In my hands I have a hand-written book from the cell of Saint Seraphim, containing a description of the many miracles which took place through praying to the Mother of God and especially through saying one hundred and fifty times the O Hail, Mother of God and Virgin.

If, being unaccustomed to it, it is difficult to master one hundred and fifty repetitions daily, say it fifty times at first. After every ten repetitions say the “Our Father” once and “Open unto us the doors of thy loving kindness.”* Whomever he spoke to about this miracle-working Rule remained grateful to him.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov gave one of his spiritual children the task of copying a plan in which he included his prayer to the Ever Virgin Mary. Here are the mysteries as preserved in Russia at the beginning of the 19th century:

  • First decade: Let us remember the birth of the Mother of God. Let us pray for mothers, fathers, and children.
  • Second decade: Let us the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin and Mother of God. Let us pray for those who have lost their way and fallen away from the church.
  • Third decade: Let us remember the Annunciation of the Blessed Mother of God—let us pray for the soothing of sorrows and the consolation of those who grieve.
  • Fourth decade: Let us remember the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin with the righteous Elizabeth. Let us pray for the reunion of the separated, for those whose dear ones or children are living away from them or missing.
  • Fifth decade: Let us remember the Birth of Christ. Let us pray for the rebirth of souls, for new life in Christ.
  • Sixth decade: Let us remember the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and the words uttered by St. Simeon: Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also (Luke 2:35). Let us pray that the Mother of God will meet our souls at the hour of our death, and will contrive that we receive the Holy Sacrament with our last breath, and will lead our souls through the terrible torments.
  • Seventh decade: Let us remember the flight of the Mother of God with the God-Child into Egypt. Let us pray that the Mother of God will help us avoid temptation in this life and deliver us from misfortunes.
  • Eighth decade: Let us remember the disappearance of the twelve-year old boy Jesus in Jerusalem and the sorrow of the Mother of God on this account. Let us pray, begging the Mother of God for the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
  • Ninth decade: Let us remember-the miracle performed in Cana of Galilee, when the Lord turned water into wine at the words of the Mother of God: They have no wine (John 2:3). Let us ask the Mother of God for help in our affairs and deliverance from need.
  • Tenth decade: Let us remember the Mother of God standing at the Cross of the Lord, when grief pierced through her heart like a sword. Let us pray to the Mother of God for the strengthening of our Souls and the banishment of despondency.
  • Eleventh decade: Let us remember the Resurrection of Christ and ask the Mother of God in prayer to resurrect our souls and give us a new courage for spiritual feats.
  • Twelfth decade: Let us remember the Ascension of Christ, at which the Mother of God was present. Let us pray and ask the Queen of Heaven to raise up our souls from earthly and worldly amusements and direct them to striving for higher things.
  • Thirteenth decade: Let us remember the Upper Room and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and the Mother of God. Let us pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me (Psalm 51).
  • Fourteenth decade: Let us remember the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God, and ask for a peaceful and serene end.
  • Fifteenth decade: Let us remember the glory of the Mother of God, with which the Lord crowned her after her removal from earth to heaven. Let us pray to the Queen of Heaven not to abandon the faithful who are on earth but to defend them from every evil, covering them with her honoring and protecting veil.

Notice that the last five mystery correspond exactly to the Glorious Mysteries in the Dominican tradition.

The Rosary, then, is truly a universal devotion. It seems that Our Lady, over and over, leads her children to rediscover the riches of the Rosary. When we pray the Hail Mary and reflect on the mysteries of life of Christ, we ask Our Lady to help us grow closer to Christ.

Question: Were you aware of this Eastern tradition for the “Rosary”? What do you think of the fifteen mystery cycle in the “Rule of the Theotokos” as compared to the cycle revealed to Saint Dominic? Why are there differences? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

* The full text of the prayer is: Open unto us the door of thy loving-kindness, O blessed Mother of God, in that we set our hope on thee, may we not go astray; but through thee may we be delivered from all adversities, fix thou art the salvation of all Christian people.

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  • TP

    Greetings,
    I was raised by Dominican sisters at school. They had always taught us that the people used the beads and prayed to be like the monks with the 150 Psalms, but that Mary gave Dominic the MYSTERIES of the Rosary to help combat the albigensian heresy. Through Dominic we have the Rosary with the mysteries, rather than just imitating the monks.

    • Raguel

      The Church has always had many different devotions, keeping track of prayers with devices such as prayer ropes or prayer beads is nothing new. It doesn’t mean that the Rosary was not given to St. Dominic in full by Our Lady.

  • Thank you for this, Dr. Marshall!!! My husband, Mark, just asked me this exact question when I was reading him your blog post about the Rosary and St. Dominic the other evening! Peace be with you and your family!

  • maryswood

    Thank you for doing this research and providing this information

  • William Olson

    I was asked not to long ago by a parishioner about the
    significance of John Paul’s addition of the 5 Mysteries of Light on the
    domestic tradition of equating the 150 Ave’s with the number of psalms in the
    Liturgy of the Hours. I told her I saw nothing but legitimate and valuable development
    in an already supervaluable devotion available to all. Does anyone see it
    differently?

    • Mina Milburn

      I agree that the Luminous Mysteries are a beautiful addition to this ancient prayer tradition. When John Paul the Great gave them to us I was delighted. I notice that in the “Rule of Theotokos” the Wedding Feast at Cana is there.

  • Rob Moreland

    The 7, 8 and 10th Mysteries are also found in the Rosary of Our Lady of Sorrows.

    Recently I discovered the Rosary of the Seven Journeys of Our Lady, prayed with the same beads as the Rosary of Our Lady of Sorrows, i.e., seven septets:
    1. Visitation
    2. Nativity
    3. Presentation in the Temple
    4. Flight into Egypt
    5. Finding in the Temple
    6. Marriage Feast of Cana
    7. Road to Calvary

    I found this in a piece titled “Famous Shrines of Our Lady: Rome, Our Lady of the Wayside,” by Msgr. J.T. McMahon, M.A., PhD.

    With these additions, I can enjoy a little more variety in my Rosarys.

  • Bill Polakiewicz

    This is the first time I have heard of any other then the St. Dominic Mysteries. However, I find it pleasing the there have been other forms of the rosary. If the Most Holy Rosary were referred to as The Life of Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Rosary I believe many more people in the world would be praying the Rosary. Many people think of the Rosary as a pray to Mary only. They don’t realize the significance of the different mysteries, which explain the life of Jesus.
    I feel naked without my rosary. It wasn’t like that about five years ago.

  • Andre

    This reinforces may previous comments that the adding of the Luminous Mysteries is outside of Tradition. We now have 20 decades of the Rosary.

    Personally, I think JPII should have introduced them as a chaplet. Thus giving the Church the gift of the Luninous Mysteries whilst preserving the traditional Rosary.

    For the record, I am not an SSPX type. I attend a regular Novus Ordo parish. But I am tired of the constant tinkering.

  • Daniel

    St. Seraphim of Sarov was the 18th century not the 8th…

    • Daniel

      Derp derp derp. I see my mistake. My bad!

  • Michelle B. Evert

    The Eastern Rosary seems to me to be a good retreat exercise. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  • Andrew

    I’ll underscore my previous comment by saying that thanks to JPII’s Luminous Mysteries, the traditional Rosary that sustained Catholics for close to a thousand years will be gone. The association of it with the 150 Psalms will be gone. It also seems out of place with the other Marian Rosaries described in the above.

    To those that say they are optional, find me a current prayer book that says they are or excludes them.

    It really irks me that JPII or any other member of the hierarchy feels they are empowered to constantly fiddle and change the devotional practices that sustain us in our faith.

    It’s not the Mysteries per se, but the principle. How can I build my life on the Rock when the sands are always shifting under my feet. New Rosary, new Mass translation, new rules on fasting and reception of Holy Communion, new Breviary revision etc. etc. when will it end? I am fed up. My life is far too busy and chaotic to have my Church mirror the frivolity and obsession with novelty as well.

    • Take a deep breath. Popes have the authority to do this – these are devotional practices, after all, not formally defined dogmatic principles. And the fact that a prayer book includes the Luminous mysteries still does not mean that you have to pray them.

      • brian

        popes have the authority to do this is an answer given many a time without answering the real question of should they do this. is it more harmful/or conversely more helpful if the popes constantly tinker with everything to their personal whims or to leave it alone as is. much as the pope has the authority over all churches, is it helpful if he lords over every church outside his own diocese much as the eastern schismatics fear he would do if they were reunited

        • The issue at hand here regards the Luminous mysteries, and I happen to think they are excellent and nobody is under any special obligation to pray them if they do not wish to.

    • JoeAllen

      Your attention to devotional practices seems a bit obsessive-compulsive to me. But then I am very sloppy in my devotional practices.

      For instance, I fail to complete most of the rosaries that I start. Does this mean that Mary is upset with me … ???

      • Mina Milburn

        I doubt the Blessed Mother gets upset with anyone who at least tries to pray the Rosary. But I’m sure that just like her Father and her Son, she’s always encouraging you to grow stronger in your virtues and the one you need here is a little perseverance. No matter what, never let the thought “I may not be able to get through it all” keep you from starting, if you do that then guess who wins? the devil! Every little prayer you manage to squeak out has supernatural power to bring about Good in you and in the world, so don’t give up! Try to figure out at least one time slot every week where you should be able to get through a full 5 decades and try to build up your stamina, one Hail Mary at a time. Heaven is rooting for you, and so am I. 🙂

    • I’ll write a post on this in the next week or so.

    • John Becknell

      I think your opposition to the new luminous mysteries is ill-advised. At some point all traditional practices now were novelties as you put it. It is for the Church, the keeper of sacred tradition to give us gifts as to little children. Shouldn’t we be grateful? Rather than complaining about how our Mother gives us gifts, including the luminous mysteries, I think we should be thankful that we have a gracious Mother willing to give them to us in the first. It’s through the Church and only through Her that we have the Rosary, and respectfully it isn’t for the children to decide how it will receive Her gifts.

    • Mina Milburn

      Dear Andrew, sure, sometimes the Church “fiddles” with things a bit. Some of the changes in the liturgy have been misguided, and the more recent ones designed to straighten things out a bit. But remember that the Rock is Christ first and He never changes. He never changes the path to Heaven on you, even if the house that he built fiddles with the decor from time to time. Remember that the Church is still partly an earthly entity and things are always going to be a little messy this side of Heaven, but Christ will never let it fall apart and like I said, He never changes the “rules” on us.
      I’m sorry that your experience has added to a feeling of chaos or of things being out of control, I know how stressful it can be when it seems like you can’t count on anything to stay steady. When I feel annoyed but such situations, I try to keep my eyes focused on Jesus, the way a pilot has to stay focused on that point way out on the horizon, and I ask for the grace to get through the turbulence. Very often the dear Holy Spirit won’t take the turbulence away but gives me just enough grace to deal with it. St. Francis’ Serenity Prayer is so helpful: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” May God bless you and help you to make your own little part of the Kingdom a little more orderly and peaceful.

    • 60’s Gretsch

      Well, after the Mother of God guides a bullet away from your fatal artery, and you realize you are the vicar of Christ who will consecrate the whole world to our Blessed Virgin Mary, and your Motto is M –“Totally Yours” you can step back with a clearer mind but an even more busy schedule and ask yourself again if that was such a bad idea. I hope it’s not just a question of mathematics that has you down! If anyone had a right to add Luminous Mysteries to a very dark world, it was JPII.

  • Dan

    I’ve come across a nice little collection by an Orthodox Priest, Fr. John A McGuckin (who teaches at Notre Dame): Prayer Book of the Early Christians. The Eastern Marian prayers included in the offices are astoundingly beautiful and rich! I don’t recall having seen the Hail Mary in there yet, though….

  • Andrew

    The Eastern Hail Mary goes like this (translations vary).

    Rejoice! O Virgin Theotokos! Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have born the Savior of our souls!

    • Is this common among Eastern Christians? Would they all know it?

      • Graham

        The Angelic Salution is forms part of the course of daily prayer. It is listed among the morning prayers is the Manual of Orthodox Prayers that I use. The faithful would be familiar with it. The Rosary, however, tends to be used more in monasteries.

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  • JoeAllen

    I propose a Rosary honoring the 6 FIAT MYSTERIES:

    Mary gave 6 FIATs in the process of becoming our GREAT NEW EVE, the Mother of all humanity. She gave her FIAT: (1) as a young girl to live as a Nazirite, like her cousin John The Baptizer, and (2) as a young woman to be the mother of Jesus and to raise him in the Jewish religion, and (3) as a matron to be with Jesus during his trials and scourging and crucifixion, and (4) as a matron to participate in the birth of Christianity on Pentecost and to support the Apostles/Disciples during the traumatic years that followed Pentecost, and (5) as a matron to help Luke write his Gospel, and, my favorite of all, (6) as a Saint in Heaven to be our SPIRITUAL MOTHER during our deadly wars with Evil.

  • Jeremy

    Could you give a source for the Fr. Zosima quotation?

    • John Russell

      I have the same question. I think maybe this comes from a little book called An Early Soviet Saint: The Life of Father Zachariah.

      If there is an earlier historical reference to this devotion and/or its association with St. Seraphim of Sarov, I would love to know of it.

  • PapalSoldier

    Why in the world would you have a photo of seraphim? Mind as well put a picture up of dioscorus or nestorius. Taylor, the eastern “orthodox” REJECT The Papacy, they are the older sister of the protestants. They are heretics and schismatics, and are Hellbound. No Salvation Outside The Church is a Dogma. If you can question this Dogma, then you can question the Incarnation, Hypostatic Union, Purgatory etc…

    Pope St. Pius V, Bull excommunicating the heretic Queen Elizabeth of England, Feb. 25, 1570: “The sovereign jurisdiction of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside of which there is no salvation, has been given by Him [Jesus Christ], unto Whom all power in Heaven and on Earth is given, the King who reigns on high, but to one person on the face of the Earth, to Peter, prince of the Apostles… If any shall contravene this Our decree, we bind them with the same bond of anathema.”

    • Lou

      You are wrong soldier, the Orthodox are not heretics, not one of their doctrines are against the Council of Trent. Pope John Paul referred to them as one “lung” of the church. Queen Elizabeth was not Orthodox.

      • PapalSoldier

        Lou, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. The eastern “orthodox” reject The Papacy. The Papacy is a Rule of Faith. They are under anathema from the Vatican council. They also reject the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. They also reject the the last 13 Ecumenical councils of The Catholic Church, and allow divorce and remarriage.

    • Dan

      I would assume that someone is “hellbound” or not based on their love of God and neighbor–which would necessarily manifest itself in some kind of action–and their experience of God’s grace in Christ as a free gift enabling them to obey God’s will. Does someone need to accept the Papacy in order to be transformed by God’s grace and love so as to walk in a holy manner? I suppose that’s an arguable point. But it seems to me that the more charitable attitude would be to say that the Papacy is God’s gift to Christians and the world–that the Pope is a great under-shepherd to the sheep and a source of unity for Christians–but not necessarily an item on a checklist that says, “Acknowledge my role or you are hellbound.” But this is just a thought, brother. I could be wrong. No hostility intended.

    • Dan

      I would assume that someone is “hellbound” or not based on their love of God and neighbor–which would necessarily manifest itself in some kind of action–and their experience of God’s grace in Christ as a free gift enabling them to obey God’s will. Does someone need to accept the Papacy in order to be transformed by God’s grace and love so as to walk in a holy manner? I suppose that’s an arguable point. But it seems to me that the more charitable attitude would be to say that the Papacy is God’s gift to Christians and the world–that the Pope is a great under-shepherd to the sheep and a source of unity for Christians–but not necessarily an item on a checklist that says, “Acknowledge my role or you are hellbound.” But this is just a thought, brother. I could be wrong. No hostility intended.

  • Jerry Kirkpatrick

    Dr. Marshall, thank you for the informative and thought-provoking article. Was there an associated audio or video about some nuns and the rosary? I was trying to show my wife something totally unrelated on YouTube and kept hearing this audio about some nuns and the rosary. I was so focused on what I was trying to do that I just kept closing browser tabs until the audio stopped, at which point my wife said: “I’d have liked to heard the rest of that!” I was crushed…I had missed an opportunity for evangelization, inasmuch as she is Anglican and I am Catholic. Try as I might, I could not locate this audio or video in my recent folder or in my VLC media player, nor on YouTube.

    Thanks for all you do,

    Jerry Kirkpatrick

  • Colleen Sheehy

    The Mysteries of Light are a marvelous teaching tool, and bridge the “gap” between the childhood of Christ and the Passion. If I remember correctly, this was Blessed JP II’s intention when he promulgated their use. It’s beats me to think that any practice which gives rightful praise and glory to our Lord could be “wrong”?

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    Thank you Dr Marshall for unearthing this vital information on the history of the rosary. I was aware of the tradition of the 150 psalms recited by the monks and how this evolved into 150 “Our father” by the local peasants who knew little of other prayers, let alone the psalms. But this new revelation of how it evolved into the recitation of 150 “Hail Mary”, and later accompanied by 15 holy mysteries is very interesting indeed.

    What I found quite striking from the 15 mysteries hand down from St Seraphim Savoy was the prayer associated with the 2nd Decade: “The “Presentation” of the Blessed Virgin and Mother of God”. This mystery is not found in the Bible, but it is part of our Catholic tradition, both Roman and Orthodox, and it is clearly illustrated in the apocryphal Gospel of Matthew on the “Nativity of the Virgin Mary” This 2nd decade prayer attests to the truth of our tradition on Mary’s youth.

  • Marilyn

    When did the Rosary start with the Apostles Creed?

  • isabel kissinger

    I suggest this book: The History and Devotion of the Rosary Richard Gribble, C.S.C.

    • Jasper Monroe Ylanan

      But sadly, your heretical formula that goes like. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Mother, One Holy Spirit. Amen.” cannot be found in that book. There is no such thing as “God the Mother”. So stop leading souls into perdition.

  • Mina Milburn

    Taylor, I was not aware of these past manifestations of the Rosary, thank you for educating us! What came to my mind as I was reading this was how people outside of Catholic understanding can misunderstand why we hold this devotion so dear. From the outside one might assume that these Catholics think there is power in repetition, but as I discovered as an adult convert, the structure of the Rosary is for our sake.
    We humans have a hard time getting and keeping our minds aligned with the mindset of Heaven. The repetition and the focus of the mysteries help me shift over into the things of God and keep my heart mind and soul focused so that He is able to teach me a thing or two. It is also a kind of love-fest where I get to just really hang out, adore and love on Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit, and Mom too. If it weren’t for making the Rosary a habit, I don’t think I’d ever have gotten to that level of understanding of what it means to be in this Family.

  • Daniel

    Sir,

    I read in the Life of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich Vol 2 by Schmoeger pp. 331-333 that Bl. Catherine have a vision that the Rosary was originally actually revealed by Our Lady to a hermit then later on to St. Dominic:

    “I saw Mary’s Rosary with all its mysteries. A pious hermit had thus honored the Mother of God, weaving in his childlike faith a garland of leaves and flowers for her; and, as he understood their signification, his garlands were always profoundly symbolical. He begged the Blessed Virgin to obtain for him some favor from her Son, whereupon she gave him the Rosary.”

    Then Sister Enlmerich described this Rosary; but after the vision was over, neither she nor the Pilgrim [Clemens Brentano]could clearly repeat what had been seen and heard. It seems that the Rosary was surrounded by three rows of different colored notched leaves, on which were represented in transparent figures all the mysteries of the Church from both the Old and the New Testament. In the centre of the Rosary stood Mary with the Child surrounded by angels and virgins, hand in hand, their colors and attributes expressive of the various mysteries. Sister Emmerich described each bead, beginning with the coral cross on which is said the Creed. The cross grew out of a fruit like the apple of the forbidden tree; it was carved, it had certain determinate colors, and it was full of little nails. On it was the figure of a youth, in his hand a vine which sprang from the cross, and sitting on the vine were other figures eating the grapes. The beads were joined by colored, spiral rays, like roots, each possessing some natural and mystical signification. Every Our Father was enclosed in a wreath of leaves from whose centre sprang a flower in which was portrayed one of Mary’s joys or sorrows. The Hail Maries were stars of precious stones on which were cut scenes from the lives of the patriarchs and Mary’s ancestors relating to the Incarnation and Redemption. Thus does the Rosary comprehend heaven and earth, God and nature and history and the restoration of all things through the Redeemer born of Mary. Every figure and color in its essential signification was employed for the perfecting of this divine masterpiece. This Rosary, though inexpressibly profound in signification was described by the invalid [Bl. catherine] with deep feeling and child like simplicity. With trembling joy she went from leaf to leaf, from figure to figure, describing all with the eager and joyous readiness of a lively child.

    “This is the Rosary,” she said, “that the Mother of God gave to man as the devotion dearest to her; but few have said it in this way! Mary also showed it to St. Dominic; but, in course of time, it became from neglect and disuse so soiled and sullied with dust that she covered it with her veil as with a cloud, through which, however, it still glimmers. Only by special grace, by great piety and simplicity can it now be understood. It is veiled and far away–only practice and meditation can bring it near!” (pp. 331-333)

  • Daniel

    Sir,
    Please clarify your source for the 4th century because in the book “Staretz Zechariah: An Early Soviet Saint” in Chapter Six, mention is made that the Mother of God appeared to a Monk of the Thebaid in the 8th century (700’s) and gave him the Rule or Psalter of 150 Hail Mary’s and “at one time, all Christians said it daily.” (as St Seraphim Sarov of the Orthodox said “at one time all Christians fulfilled it”)

  • Brenda Hartnett

    It bring to mind the 7 sorrows of the Blessed Mother. (The Servants of Mary in Chicago Prays the sorrows of Mary in front of a statue with pierced swords in her heart.) BEAUTIFUL!