This is the fifth article in a series of six focusing on the rosary. You will find links to the other articles in this series at the end of this article.
The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary: An Overview
Of the four sets of mysteries contemplated during the praying of the rosary, the sorrowful mysteries are where you may feel the most emotional connection during your meditation. While you are free to pray whichever set of mysteries you choose at any time (and I recommend praying those that seem pertinent to your situation when you are praying), it is traditional for the sorrowful mysteries to be prayed third, between the luminous and glorious mysteries. For those of you who wish to split up the praying of the rosary over the course of a week, the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary are traditionally prayed on Tuesdays and Fridays. (I also pray them on Sundays during the Lenten season, as it seems most appropriate to focus on these mysteries during that time of the liturgical year.)
These five decades of the rosary, the sorrowful mysteries, focus on “the individual moments of the Passion, realizing that here is found the culmination of the revelation of God’s love and the source of our salvation” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 22). Our own feelings of sorrow should join with Mary’s sorrow, and the sorrow of the other few, faithful disciples who followed Christ’s “Way of the Cross” and witnessed his execution. (It is notable that St. John was the only disciple to witness the crucifixion. Another witness was Catholic Majority’s own patron saint, St. Mary Magdalene.)
The instructions for praying the rosary may be found in my previous article here. Below, you will find a guided meditation on the mysteries themselves, as well as Scriptural references if you are choosing to pray the scriptural version of the rosary. The passages referenced below are of my own choosing, as they are the verses I use when I pray the sorrowful mysteries as a scriptural rosary. If you choose to pray the scriptural rosary, you may, of course, select any passages that will aid your ability to put yourself in the scene and contemplate both the sorrow of the Passion, and the love of God during this prayer. As the mysteries that make up the sorrowful mysteries are all pieces of a story that takes place in quick succession, it is difficult to find ten verses in succession for any of these mysteries. However, you should feel free to incorporate other pertinent verses from elsewhere in the Bible, as you see fit. (This is, as you will see, what I have done as well.)
If you aren’t praying the scriptural rosary, you may use the paragraphs before and after the Scriptural references as a guide, letting the scenes play out according to your own imaginations. However, it is most difficult to engage in a unique imagining of these mysteries, since they are so often portrayed in film and art. Some people find using icons (such as the images in this article) to be a helpful starting place for each mystery, rather than praying the scriptural version. You should choose whatever method works best for you.
How to Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden
There’s a certain sort of irony if you fall asleep while praying the first sorrowful mystery, as I have done on more occasions than I care to admit. Then again, if you do, you’re in good company: Peter, John, and James also fell asleep during this mystery, and they were actually there! (Also, your body is telling you that you need some sleep! Listen to it!)
Before beginning this decade, quiet your mind, tune out distractions. As you pray the Lord’s Prayer just before the decade, check your breathing, relax. Then, place yourself in the Garden of Gethsemane, perhaps under a tree with Peter, John, and James. Try to use your own imagination and not rely on movies you may have seen that depict the agony in the garden, unless you find that to be a helpful starting point.
- Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. (Matthew 26:36-37)
- Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38)
- And going a little further, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39)
- Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40)
- “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
- Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)
- Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. (Matthew 26:43)
- So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. (Matthew 26:44)
- Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” (Matthew 26:45)
- “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:46)
Pause before moving on to the Doxology. Stay with Jesus and the disciples as the “betrayer” approaches, leading the guards to Christ’s arrest. What does that look like, sound like? Does Peter immediately go for his sword, or is there a still, silent moment of disbelief? As Jesus surrenders to the authorities, take a deep breath. Then, move on to the Doxology.
The Second Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar
As before (and every time you are about to begin a new mystery), be still and silent. Pray the Lord’s prayer. Settle in to the next scene, putting yourself at the front of the crowds. Bring with you to this next scene the feelings you had at the end of the last. Christ is now before Pilate and the assembly of the chief priests. From a dark and sleepy garden, Jesus now stands before hostile crowds. Listen to whatever sounds you can pick out. Pay attention to the weather. How does it feel? Do you have a good view of Jesus? What does it look like when you turn to see the crowd behind you? What is the atmosphere? Take a deep breath and enter into the mystery.
- Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. (Luke 23:1)
- They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2)
- Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” (Luke 23:3)
- Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” (Luke 23:4)
- But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all of Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place. (Luke 23:5)
- Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in our presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him.” (Luke 23:13-14)
- “Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow!” (Luke 23:15-16)
- Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no grounds for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” (Luke 23:20-22)
- But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. (Luke 23:23)
- So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. (Luke 23:24; John 19:1)
Pause again before moving on to the Doxology. What just happened? What seemed to be hopeful moments of resistance by Pilate turned into flogging and a sentence of death, at the persistent insistence of the crowds. Where were the disciples? Were there any friendly faces in the crowd, or were you the only one? Was Mary, his mother, there? They are now leading Christ out, where he receives multiple and lacerating lashes of the whip. Next time you see him, he will look so different, so wounded. It’s becoming too late to stop this crisis. Let it sink in. Pray the Doxology. Now, take a deep breath. You are about to see your teacher, the man you have followed through this ordeal, reappear as a broken shell of a man, where the hostility will not relent as the soldiers begin to mock him.
The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns
Pray the Lord’s prayer, and then…
Place yourself in the courtyard of Pilate’s mansion, perhaps as a hidden observer. The crowds are waiting for Jesus to be brought before them again, this time carrying a cross for his own crucifixion. But before that happens, you see the soldiers at their most depraved, mocking a man who has already been beaten and carries a death sentence. Watch silently as they humiliate your teacher. Try to look at his eyes from time to time, but pay attention too to the actions of the soldiers. Sorrow fills you, and Christ himself appears sorrowful. Are you sorrowed about the same thing? Begin…
- […A]fter flogging Jesus, [Pilate] handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:15)
- Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. (Mark 15:16)
- And they clothed him in a purple cloak; […] (Mark 15:17)
- […A]nd after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. (Mark 15:17)
- And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18)
- They struck his head with a reed, […] (Mark 15:19)
- […They] spat upon him, […] (Mark 15:19)
- […And they] knelt down in homage to him. (Mark 15:19)
- After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. (Mark 15:20)
- Then they led him out to crucify him. (Mark 15:20)
Pause before the Doxology and observe as the soldiers lead Christ out of the courtyard back in front of the crowds. Watch from behind as the group disappears behind a wall, and listen for the sounds of the crowd as they see Christ again. After he is out of sight, pray the Doxology and pause again before the next mystery.
The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: The Carrying of the Cross
Now pray the Lord’s prayer and prepare to follow Jesus along the route that will take him from Pilate’s palace to Golgotha. Observe the crowds that line the streets, mocking Christ as he passes. These are the same crowds that greeted him like a victorious king when he entered into Jerusalem on the donkey, waving palm fronds and setting them on his path. As he exits, the atmosphere has changed. Something has taken over the crowds who now jeer him. But not all in the crowds are against him. Look for those in the crowds who are moved to tears. Witness their emotions as Christ walks by.
The first verse in this decade comes from earlier in the gospel. We hear Jesus’ own words as he speaks to his apostles, as a gentle reminder of what he had instructed them. Then we are immediately back on that path to Golgotha, where the disciples are nowhere to be found. When Simon of Cyrene helps take up the cross, pay attention to your emotions. Does it surprise you? There is no right or wrong emotion here. Simply note your feelings as he helps to take up the cross. Follow along the path as Christ makes his way to Golgotha, and when he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, watch their faces. Take a breath. Enter.
- “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
- So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. (John 19:16-17)
- As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, […] (Luke 23:26)
- […A]nd they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26)
- A great number of the people followed him, […] (Luke 23:27)
- […A]nd among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. (Luke 23:27)
- But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (Luke 23:28)
- “For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.'” (Luke 23:29-30)
- “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31)
- Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. (Luke 23:32)
Pause and observe. Try to imagine the two criminals who were introduced in the final verse. We’ll hear from them next, so it is helpful to call up an image of them beforehand. Then, pray the Doxology, and move to the fifth and final sorrowful mystery, the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion
As you arrive at the hill where Christ has reached the place of his impending crucifixion, consider the path you have followed. If you began with the joyful mysteries, think about the the final decade where we hear Christ speak for the first time. How did it come to this? Consider also the two criminals with whom Christ is being crucified. Linger on the first bead of this set of mysteries, as both Christ and the criminals are nailed to their crosses and raised, not long before their humiliating and agonizing deaths.
Watch the environment in this decade. Pay attention not only to the sky and the weather, but to the sounds around you. Take your time on each bead to live out this mystery. Go beyond the words of the scriptural passages and take in the entire scene. Now pray the Lord’s prayer, take a breath, and begin.
- When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one of his left. (Luke 23:33)
- One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
- But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41)
- Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
- [Jesus] replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
- It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; […] (Luke 23:44-45)
- […A]nd the curtain of the temple was torn in two. (Luke 23:45)
- Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
- Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
- And when all the crowds had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. (Luke 23:48-49)
Again, pause before the Doxology. What was it like when on the ninth bead, Christ “breathed his last”? Did you find it hard to breathe yourself? On the final bead, as you imagined the crowds walking away, how did the atmosphere change? They witnessed a crucifixion that they insisted upon, but something happened at the end, because they left, “beating their breasts.” What changed their tone? And what about the acquaintances and women who stayed at the scene watching? Were they focused on the cross? Did they console one another? Were you with them, or with the crowd that left? Where was the Virgin Mary? Close with the Doxology.
This, truly, is an abysmal place to stop, particularly if you found yourself in any way caught up in the story as it unfolded in your imagination. Rather than spend too much time in the sorrow, remove yourself from the scene, but ponder the three days ahead. For all who were with you in your mind are convinced that Christ is dead, killed on the cross, at their own insistence. Life will be painful for them in the coming days. But you know what is going to happen next. End on that positive feeling of anticipation.
The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary: Conclusion
In his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginia Mariae, Blessed Pope John Paul II writes of the sorrowful mysteries:
The sequence of meditations begins with Gethsemane, where Christ experiences a moment of great anguish before the will of the Father, against which the weakness of the flesh would be tempted to rebel. There Jesus encounters all the temptations and confronts all the sins of humanity, in order to the say to the Father, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 and parallels). This “Yes” of Christ reverses the “No” of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. And the cost of this faithfulness to the Father’s will is made clear in the following mysteries. […]
[…T]he meaning, origin and fulfillment of man is to be found in Christ, the God who humbles himself out of love “even unto death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). The sorrowful mysteries help the believer to relive the death of Jesus, to stand at the foot of the Cross beside Mary, to enter with her into the depths of God’s love for man and to experience all its life-giving power.
As a child, I remember looking at the various crucifixes I would see in my environment. The suffering and death did not make sense to me. I wanted to help save him and take him off the cross before his death. I did not, at the time, understand the significance of redemption by the cross. At times, I still struggle with this.
The only comfort I had as a child when I looked at the cross was to think about an explanation that I had heard somewhere (regretfully, I do not remember where). “Lord, how much do you love me?” asks a child. “My child, I love you this much,” Christ said, and he stretched out his arms as far as they would go…and he died. To this day, when I look at a crucifix, I think of that story, and rather than focusing on the morbidity of it, I see a loving relative or friend who shows me how much he loves me by stretching out his arms. As an adult, I have a better grasp on the salvific nature of the cross, but this is still the first explanation that comes to mind.
I hope that you have enjoyed experiencing a different way of praying the mysteries of the rosary. The sorrowful mysteries are some of the most difficult to pray, in my experience. I find it particularly helpful to pray the scriptural rosary when I am going to pray the sorrowful mysteries. Unlike some of the other mysteries, the sorrowful mysteries describe events very close together in time. Occasionally, like with the scourging at the pillar, there is one Bible verse that corresponds (in each gospel). So by praying the scriptural version of the rosary for the sorrowful mysteries, my experience is deepened. Rather than focus on a scourging that lasts the entirety of that particular decade, I may begin earlier, and end afterwards, obtaining more of the story, as it ultimately leads to the final beads of the final mystery.
Thank you for joining me in this series. I hope that you will stay tuned next Sunday for the final article in this series, where we will conclude with the glorious mysteries of the rosary. October, the Month of the Most Holy Rosary, is right around the corner.
Publishing Schedule with Links
- September 6: The Rosary: An Introduction
- September 7: How to Pray the Rosary
- September 8: The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary
- September 15: The Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary
- September 22: The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
- September 29: The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary