Rethinking the Joyful Mysteries

by Emily Stimpson Chapman

The Annunciation, The Joyful Mysteries, Emily Stimpson Chapman

Clue Number 9,546 that I’m a long, long way from holiness: My perpetual struggle to think of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary as, well, the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.

For me, the “Stressful Mysteries of the Rosary” often seems a bit more like it.

Consider the Annunciation. A rather fearsome archangel appears out of nowhere and tells an innocent, unmarried girl that she’s about to miraculously conceive the incarnate God of the Universe. Then he leaves it to her to first break the news to her parents and betrothed, as well as to endure the stares, questions, and rumors of her neighbors. Moreover, she has to do all that knowing that if someone doesn’t buy her story, there’s that whole stoning thing the Israelites were once so inclined to.

That’s Stressful Mystery Number One.

Stressful Mystery Number Two has the newly pregnant teenager making a long, hot, uncomfortable journey up into the hill country to stay with her cousin who has a few stressful mysteries of her own going on—a high risk pregnancy in her old age, a husband who’s been struck mute, and judgmental neighbors wondering what terrible deeds the husband did to so deserve God’s wrath.

Stressful Mystery Number Three features the birth of a baby, which is joyful indeed. But (and this is a big “but”) that birth takes place far from home, immediately on the heels of a cross-country donkey ride, and in a stable surrounded by animals. Sure, the labor was easier than your average labor, but easy or not, who wants to give birth in the middle of the night on a pile of hay? Moreover, who wants a bunch of strange shepherd boys showing up and kneeling before your child in the hours that immediately follow? And don’t forget the news that comes soon after: The king wants to kill the newborn babe, so the family needs to flee the country. Joyous news indeed.

Before they flee, however, there’s still the matter of Stressful Mystery Number Four: A painful surgical procedure for the infant and a wizened old prophet solemnly pronouncing that a sword will pierce the mother’s heart.

Finally, about twelve years later, we get Stressful Mystery Number Five. The mother and foster father lose the Son of God. For three whole days. That’s kind of a big deal.

Sure, they eventually find him ensconced in the Temple, preaching away. But do they get so much as an “I’m sorry for wandering off, Mom and Dad”? Nope, they get reprimanded for not having adequate insight into God’s plan. “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

There’s no getting around it: from a purely human perspective, there’s just not a lot of joy in those first five mysteries of the Rosary. There’s stress aplenty. There’s fear, confusion, anxiety, and bunches of bad news. But joy? Not the dominant emotion most of us would feel in similar situations.

But then again, most of us, especially me, aren’t exactly canonization fodder just yet. Those who are see those mysteries a bit differently. And the reason they see them differently is because they see joy differently. For the saint, joy isn’t merely about laughter and good times, nor is it borne from a merry trip down easy street.

Rather, for the saint, joy comes from knowing that God works in all things for the good of those who love Him, and that what seems cause for anxiety, or even mourning, is quite often cause for rejoicing, one more part of God’s perfect plan to lead us to eternal joy.

The saint also knows that time changes our perspective. News and happenings that seem fraught with peril one day, are understood more fully (and even recalled fondly) the next. Joy comes with remembering that, holding tightly to it, and trusting that time can make sense of the seemingly senseless.

Above all, the saint knows that joy is a choice, a decision to focus not simply on the present sorrow, but also on the present proofs of God’s love. And there are always proofs. Even in the midst of the Stressful Mysteries there is the news of a Savior, a canticle of praise, the birth of a babe, the fulfillment of a promise, and the finding of a son. There are, always and for everyone, immediate and real reasons for joy. But we have to choose to see them. We have to look for them, recognize them, and give thanks for them.

That’s what Mary did. That’s what all saints do. And, if we want to find joy, that’s what we have to do too. We have to trade in our doubt for faith, seeing all our sorrows and cares through the prism of God’s love. No easy task that one. But if we can manage it, what we’ll see won’t just be joyful.

It will be beautiful.


Emily Stimpson Chapman is a prolific author whose writing brings the sacramental to everyday life. Her most recent book is The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, available from Emmaus Road.