“The rosary was originally an Orthodox form of prayer that was later adopted by the Roman Catholics.” — OrthodoxWiki
I am sometimes asked by Western converts to the Orthodox Church, and occasionally by cradle Orthodox as well, if they can pray the rosary as a private devotion. When asking this question they generally mean what is commonly known as the rosary in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism today. In response, I like to ask if they are familiar with a Marian devotion that is much older, a devotion that is commonly called The Rule of the Theotokos (Mother of God), Our Lady’s Psalter, or simply the Orthodox Rosary.
The Rule of the Theotokos, as it is known in the East, or Our Lady’s Psalter, as it was called in the ancient West, is an Orthodox Christian devotion based on praying the Angelic Salutation (Hail Mary) 150 times. The prayer rule consists of 150 Angelic Salutations, which are divided into 15 decades. Each decade focuses on some important event in the life of the Mother of God.
The Orthodox Rosary is prayed on a Prayer Rope or Chotki. The same Prayer Rope is used for this devotion as is used to pray the Jesus Prayer. To pray the Orthodox Rosary, a Prayer Rope is used in which the knots are divided into groups of ten, or decades.
History records 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.
The oldest known prayer to the Mother of God outside the Gospel according St. Luke comes from Egypt. It is written in Greek and dates to approximately AD 250, during the height of Christian persecution by pagan Rome. In 1917, the John Rylands Library in Manchester acquired a large panel of Egyptian papyrus including the 18 cm by 9.4 cm fragment containing the text of this prayer in Greek:
Beneath thy compassion,
we take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but deliver us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.
The oldest form of the Angelic Salutation or Hail Mary (Latin: Ave Maria), as prayed in the West consisted of two texts from St. Luke’s Gospel:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Amen.
This prayer is a combination of Biblical texts taken from Luke 1:28 and Luke 1:42.
Over time, the name of Jesus and a petition for Mary’s intercession were commonly added, giving us the Hail Mary as we have it today:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
“The first of the two passages from Saint Luke's Gospel is the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, originally written in Koine Greek. The opening word of greeting, χαῖρε, chaíre, here translated "Hail," literally has the meaning "rejoice" or "be glad." This was the normal greeting in the language in which Saint Luke's Gospel is written and continues to be used in the same sense in Modern Greek. Accordingly, both "Hail" and "Rejoice" are valid English translations of the word ("Hail" reflecting the Latin translation, and "Rejoice" reflecting the original Greek)” — Hail Mary, Wikipedia.
In the Eastern Rite of the Orthodox Church, the Angelic Salutation or Hail Mary is,
O Hail Mother of God and Virgin, Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou has given birth to the Saviour of our souls. Amen.
Another translation reads:
Mother of God and Virgin, rejoice, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast given birth to the Saviour of our souls. Amen.
While the origin of The Rule of the Theotokos, Our Lady’s Psalter, is found in ancient Egypt, the term “Rosary” — or “garland of roses” — has its origin in the British Isles.
“It was the Western Celtic and Sarum Rites that were to develop what is today called the "rosary" or "garland of roses." The Western Churches, like those of the East, had a great devotion to the Psalter of David which they divided into three parts composed of fifty psalms each. The "Three Fifties" were recited for the dead and for all manner of other intentions as well by both monastics and lay-people.”
“To accommodate monks and laity who could not read, little psalters were devised based on the repetition of the Lord's Prayer and the Angelical Salutation 150 times, divided into three fifties as well. Other psalters based on meditations on the life of Christ and the Most Holy Mother of God were also developed. Soon these were all fused into "Our Lady's Psalter" or the "Rosary." The use of such rosaries is of a venerable age and the Western Rites of the Orthodox Church continue in its use.” — The Historical Development of the Orthodox Prayer Rope and Its Importance to our Spiritual Life, by Dr. Alexander Roman.
THE PRAYER ROPE AND THE ROSARY
OrthodoxWiki provides more information on the Orthodox Rosary:
The prayer rope was formed by St. Pachomius in the fourth century. From there the rosary developed, some say as early as the eighth century… The prayers said on this form of the prayer rope are the Hail Mary (also Hail Mother of God and Virgin), the Lord's Prayer, and the Jesus Prayer. The Hail Mary is said in groups of ten, and in between each group of ten are said the Lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer. Between each grouping of Hail Marys, a meditation is also pronounced, which is then thought of throughout the succeeding Hail Marys.
• Meditation 1- The Birth of the Theotokos
• Meditation 2- The Presentation of the Theotokos
• Meditation 3- The Annunciation of the Lord's Birth
• Meditation 4- The Meeting of the Theotokos and St. Elizabeth
• Meditation 5- The Birth of the Lord
• Meditation 6- The Prophecy of St. Simeon
• Meditation 7- The Flight into Egypt
• Meditation 8- The Boy-Christ among the Doctors
• Meditation 9- The Wedding of Cana
• Meditation 10- The Crucifixion of the Lord
• Meditation 11- The Resurrection of the Lord
• Meditation 12- The Ascension of the Lord into Heaven
• Meditation 13- Pentecost
• Meditation 14- The Dormition of the Virgin Theotokos
• Meditation 15- The Crowning of the Theotokos by the Blessed Trinity
The Rule of the Theotokos or Our Lady’s Psalter — the Rosary — as prayed today usually includes introductory and closing prayers. Those following the Western liturgical tradition should follow a standard form, such as opening with the Sign of the Cross, followed by “O Lord, open thou my [our] lips. And my [our] mouth shall show forth thy praise. O God, made make speed to save me [us]. O Lord, make haste to help me [us]” followed by “Glory be to the Father…” (Gloria Patri). Then, the appropriate Meditation is named followed by the Lord’s Prayer and ten Hail Mary’s. Fifteen decades, or at least five decades, are thus prayed, each preceded by naming the appropriate Meditation and then praying the Lord’s Prayer. The Rosary, can then be concluded with a closing prayer such as the Regina Caeli (Queen of Heaven):
O QUEEN of heaven, be joyful, alleluia;
Because He whom so meetly thou barest, alleluia,
Hath arisen, as He promised, alleluia:
Pray for us to the Father, alleluia.
V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
R. For the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.
Let us pray.
O GOD, who by the resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ, didst vouchsafe to give gladness unto the world: grant, we beseech thee, and we, being holpen by the Virgin Mary, His Mother, may attain unto the joys of everlasting life: through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the year AD 596, during Paschaltide, a pestilence was ravaging the city of Rome. St. Gregory the Great (the Dialogist) requested a procession be held to pray that the pestilence be stopped. On the appointed day of the procession he assembled with his clergy at dawn at the church of Ara Coeli. Holding in his hand the icon of the Mother of God that had been written (painted) by St. Luke the Evangelist, he and his clergy started out in procession to St. Peter's. As he passed the Castle of Hadrian, as it was called in those days, voices were heard from above singing the Regina Caeli. The astonished Pope, enraptured with the angelic singing, replied in a loud voice: "Ora pro nobis Deum. Alleluia!" At that moment an angel appeared in a glorious light, sheathed the sword of pestilence in its scabbard, and from that day the pestilence ceased. In honour of this miraculous event, the name of the castle was then changed to Sant' Angelo and the words of the angelic hymn were inscribed upon the roof of the Church of Ara Coeli.
Eastern Rite Orthodox Christians would of course use other opening and closing prayers that are part of their liturgical tradition, as well as the form of the Angelic Salutation appropriate for their rite.
Fr. Alexander Gumanovsky, writing about the Orthodox Rosary quotes Fr. Zosima, one of St. Seraphim of Sarov’s spiritual children:
“…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…Whomever he spoke to about this miracle-working Rule remained grateful to him.”
Fr. Alexander Gumanovsky continues:
Bishop Seraphim Zvezdinsky [1883-1937] performed the Rule of the Mother of God every day, and, when he performed it he prayed for the whole world, embracing in his Rule the whole life of the Queen of Heaven.
He gave one of his spiritual children the task of copying a plan which included his prayer to the Ever Virgin Mary. Here it is:
First decade: Let us remember the birth of the Mother of God. Let us pray for mothers, fathers, and children.
Second decade: Let us remember 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.”
— From The Walsingham Way (Vol. ii, No. 1), published by the Orthodox Christian Society of Our Lady of Walsingham
Bishop Seraphim Zvezdinsky (1883-1937) was a martyr who suffered under under Soviet communism and was shot in 1937. He was canonized a Saint in the year 2000.
The son of Fr. John Zvezdinsky, a pious Old Rite priest, he was tonsured a monk with the name of Seraphim in memory of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He had great devotion to the Mother of God; and received from God the gift of preaching, becoming well known for his sermons. St. Seraphim Zvezdinsky also possessed the gifts of clairvoyance and healing of the sick; these gifts manifested themselves many times throughout his life. He was consecrated a bishop by St. Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow, and became Bishop of Dimitrov.
St. Seraphim was arrested six times by the Soviet Secret police, and he remained under constant NKVD surveillance. In 1927, while in exile in Diveevo, the Mother of God appeared to him. “I cannot describe her amazing beauty!” he exclaimed. On the 26th of August, 1937, the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) martyred Bishop Seraphim by firing squad in the city of Omsk.
Dr. Alexander Roman, in The Historical Development of the Orthodox Prayer Rope and Its Importance to our Spiritual Life writes,
“[St. Seraphim Zvezdinsky] prayed fifteen decades of the rosary, that is, fifteen groups of ten Hail Mary’s headed with an Our Father. He meditated on the following mysteries at the beginning of each decade of prayers: 1) Nativity of the Mother of God - for families; 2) Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple - for bad Christians; 3) Annunciation - for those who are depressed; 4) Visit to St Elizabeth by the Theotokos - for the unification of persons who are separated from one another; 5) Nativity of Christ - for the rebirth of our souls; 6) Meeting of the Lord in the Temple—for a good death; 7) Flight to Egypt - to flee from temptations; 8) Finding in the Temple of the boy Jesus - for the Grace of constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer; 9) the Miracle at Cana - for the constant assistance of the Mother of God; 10) the Mother of God under the Cross of Her Son - for fortitude; 11) the Resurrection - for strength and persistence in spiritual exercises; 12) Ascension - for the grace to transcend worldly things and live for heavenly ones; 13) Pentecost - for a clean heart and the Gift of the Holy Spirit; 14) the Dormition - for a peaceful and happy end; 15) the Protection of the Mother of God - for the grace of constant protection by the Mother of God.”
In the Encyclopedia of Orthodoxy (Moscow 2003), the Russian Orthodox Church commends the Rule of the Theotokos to the Orthodox faithful. As Western Rite Orthodox Christians it is an important part of our Western Orthodox heritage and patrimony where it is known as Our Lady’s Psalter and the Rosary.
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.