These two concepts aren’t usually brought together. The Mysteries of the Rosary are a set of meditations on the life of Christ, and the ‘Hero’s Journey’ is a template for tellling a character arc.
But, both share a similar theme; transformation.
And that is the key to unlocking a really fascinating template that I think works for creating character arcs that take you deeper into the back and forth of interior change.
So, some creative licence is naturally taken, and obviously, the Rosary is inspired by Heaven, so there are always going to be found layers of meaning and fresh applications for each of us.
Here’s my shot at some theological-fictive geekery.
What is the “Hero’s Journey?”
There are many different graphics and articles about this topic, some with 4 stages, some with 12 and some 17.
To quote our beloved Wikipedia,
The concept was introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), who described the basic narrative pattern as follows: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
This is more in reference to the ‘monomyth’, a mythological archetype or a supposed mytheme that re-occurs throughout the world’s cultures.
For the purposes of a hero’s journey, this wheel provides a good breakdown of the 4 stages, each broken into 3 parts. Practically every film, novel or play follows this to some degree, and for an author, a template is a fantastic tool for orienting the role of the character throughout the story.
Below each of the mysteries have been grouped together, all the firsts, all the seconds, all the thirds, etc. They might help you dig deep into the inner questions, quaverings and quarrels that make up a believable hero who ultimately chooses to do the right thing, no matter the cost.
Now granted, if you’re writing something like Indiana Jones or Percy Jackson, then that’s a very different kind of story. Those stories are designed to have delightfully flat and single-minded characters, to allow all kinds of crazy adventure to crash against them.
So, let us embark on the Mysteries of the Rosary, retold from the point of view of the Hero’s Journey. Naturally, this presupposes a pretty good familiarity with all four sets of mysteries. If not, visit Catholic.org for more.
Stage One: Invitation
SUMMARY: Every story begins with the character in a state of normalcy. Whatever they are doing, they have figured that this current situation is the normal scope and direction of their lives.
Whether it’s Allanon, Gandalf or Obi Wan, or a life changing event, the character is challenged with new information, often referred to as the ‘call to action’. He/she grapples with it, realizing that this changes them, changes who they are, who they will be, and probably changes the direction of their lives. Such change is hard to swallow, but in a tentative acceptance, they start to become a new person.
These steps could each be their own scene, or they could burn through the mind of a character in a single chapter. Your call.
Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation
Most stories begin with – and plenty of us experience – a decisive moment of change in our lives. For Mary, it was an invitation from God to accept Christ as her child. Everything changed in her life from that point forward.
In a similar vein, Frodo is offered the Ring of Sauron and asked to take it to Rivendell, for the sake of the world. At this point in the journey, the hero is often still free to make a choice, or sees his/her involvement as limited. At this point, we meet the protagonist in his situation of normalcy, and present him with the call to adventure.
Luminous Mystery: The Baptism of Jesus
This new information calls for a change in paradigm. Learning that the world works differently often needs a change in who you are as a person. Christ submitted Himself to John’s baptism in the Jordan according to the decrees of Jewish law. The premise of Baptism is to be born again into a particular communion with God.
In a similar sense, Peter Parker discovers that he has been bitten by a radioactive spider, and that now gives him new abilities. The hero is being offered a chance to be become a new person based on the information/materials given.
Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden
Naturally change doesn’t come easy. Most characters struggle, even when they know that it is the best thing for everyone. Our human nature rebels at the prospect of sin, suffering and death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ sweat blood from the sheer intensity of His inner struggle, His mind clear on His course of action, but the fears of His human nature forcing Him to His knees.
Some characters breeze through this stage, some get stuck here for a long time. Processing all this information, this new vision of how their world works, forces the character into a corner. They have to make a choice, and often they run from it. It’s the ‘I just want to be normal” trope. Think of Maximus from Gladiator; even though the future of Rome hangs on his shoulders, he would prefer to return home to farm and family.
Glorious: The Resurrection
Christ’s triumph over death inaugurated a new era in our history, the Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord. From that moment until forever, our immortal God Hero returned from the grave and presides over us all through the sacraments of the altar. He is the New Adam, who brings life and vision from beyond the grave in an unmistakable manner.
Similarly, hero is no longer the same person. A deep change has happened within themselves whether they like it or not. They can run from it, but their conscience will hound them. Luke Skywalker learns that he is the son of a Jedi, a pseudo-magical legion of ‘space wizards’ committed to the freedom of all peoples, against the materialist mill of the Empire.
The protagonist of the story is the one who accepts the invitation, starts mastering the new gifts, processes the information and becomes someone new. They may not be totally finished, they may not completely like who they’ve become, but they recognize that it’s a necessary part of where this new journey is going.
Stage Two: Acceptance
SUMMARY: In accepting the call to adventure, the hero now has to do something with it, however incomplete his understanding of the scope of the mission. A good protagonist ‘protags’, does stuff to keep the plot moving. In responding to the call, the character binds himself to the call and its consequences. He’s still not completely aware of the cascade of repercussions, but he knows that he has to do something.
This choice often leads to the first conflict, which usually throws him flat on his face, either in real physical pain or crippling embarrassment. This pushes him to confront his decision all over again; will it be worth the effort? Either a final choice, or an additional character, or new information, catapults him more deeply into being this catalyst of change.
Joyful Mystery: The Visitation
Practically immediately, Mary takes herself to the hill country in Judea to help her cousin, Elizabeth. She doesn’t keep this massive treasure to herself, but immediately turns around and starts giving away the imagination, energy, creativity and compassion that blossoms from her acceptance of God’s invitation.
For characters, this is often the first time they try going out to rescue the world, or start their mission. For Luke Cage, it’s his rescue of Genghis Connie’s restaurant, the first chance he’s really taken to put his powers of invincibility into action.
Luminous Mysteries: The Wedding at Cana
A wedding is many things, but one of them is the binding of two people to each other. Marriage is a concrete, human expression of the ever-forgiving, undying commitment that God makes to each of us.
For a character, this moment follows pretty quickly after their proving ground. I should say it either does or doesn’t. But we are talking about heros ‘protagging’ – being protagonists – so they’re going to keep going on this journey. This is the part where, after having experienced the consequences of their decision to act on the invitation, they bind themselves to see this through. Imagine Merlin from the BBC series ‘Merlin’, where he accepts his call as Arthur’s servant, and saves Arthur from death. He knows there’s no going back to who he was.
Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar
Pontius Pilate commands that Christ be scourged to appease the crowd, hoping that they will be satisfied with the bloodloss and destroyed flesh. Christ endures the pain, and remains committed to His final journey toward Golgotha. In their devotions, many saints have regarded this mystery as a way that Christ expiated the sins of the flesh, by being stripped naked, humiliated and flogged.
This aspect of the stage often involves some sort of physical challenge, the character’s binding himself to his decision playing out as a series of actions. In ‘The Flowers of War’, set in Nanking during the Second World War, an American chooses to save a community of school girls and escaping prostitutes in a church. In committing to a pretence of being a priest, he takes a beating from the enemy, and struggles to keep them all safe.
Glorious Mystery: The Ascension
After spending 40 days with His apostles, Christ ascended into Heaven, to be seated at the right hand of the Father once more. Scripture says that a cloud took Him from their sight, and extra-Biblical sources refer to a pillar of cloud – similar to the one that led the Hebrews from Egypt – being that cloud. Known as Shekinah, it is one of the physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Instead of imagining Him flying up into sky like Superman, we could also imagine Christ disappearing into a realm beyond the capabilities of our eyesight, a realm of incredible complexity and character, in which the great truths of the world are apparent.
In this sense, ascension is more than something rising vertically. It’s the entering more deeply into a greater reality, a higher reality. Usually this involves learning more, experiencing more, being challenged and finding solutions in keeping with the decision to accept the initial invitation. This might be something like Frodo setting off from Rivendell, realizing that he’s no longer in the same world he knew of before. He’s embarking into a far greater and more complex world.
In this stage, the character often still changes his mind and leaves, cancels, or goes back. He’s not yet fully committed, even though he has started to experience the magnitude of his mission.
Stage Three: Commitment
In learning from the results of his initial efforts, and they could be multiple events, at this point the author redoubles their efforts to make the situation worse. After some initial confidence, doubt sneaks back in, and the hero has to rely in friends and supporters to keep going. He recognizes that the call to adventure is no longer something internal to him, or just his point of view on the world, but something that affects others, that will not go away if he backs down.
His very presence now becomes a source of division or unity among those around him. At this stage, he feels like he’s riding a train toward a cliff edge, but knows that the time for jumping off is over. He has to see it through.
Joyful Mystery: The Nativity
It is in accepting and acting on the invitation of the Divine Will that Mary brings about the greatest miracle of history; the birth of the God Man. Christ with us, slipped under the radar deep in enemy territory. He is now present in an irreversible way.
In the same sense, the character has now ‘given birth’ to the truth that he has committed to. It is no longer something that he assents to, or thinks about. He sees it as something outside of himself. He continues to further the plot of the story and commit to his actions, but he is no longer as easily rattled by other information or events. He knows what must be done or accomplished.
Luminous Mystery: Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
Christ announces the presence of the Kingdom on Earth, part of Heaven’s multi-stage plan to colonize the world and restore the world to its Redeemer. No longer is the world to be thought of as a tennis ball tossed between Heaven and Hell, This mystery teaches that the reconquista against the Prince of the World has begun in earnest, and is never going away.
For a character arc, this might involve an interesting facet to how the story is being told. The character becomes in himself a proclamation of what he’s trying to accomplish. For example, Aragorn grapples with his heritage throughout the Lord of the Rings, but once he accepts his destiny, he starts to impact those around him by his presence. He has become something greater, with responsibilities and needs beyond his own.
Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns
If the Scourging is devotion ally thought of as expiation for sins of the flesh, then the Crowning is for sins of the mind. In a welter of humiliation and pain, Christ is forced to wear a thorncrown, a perhaps unconscious inspiration from God’s message to Adam that the thorns of the field will obstruct his work. For all of our doubts, arrogances, and prides, the spikes on this circlet are as much for our benefit as they were for Christ’s desire to redeem us.
In this same vein, characters often grapple with self doubt. They’ve come a long way, but there are necessary consequences to any action, not all of them good. Perhaps lives are lost, or pain inflicted on loved ones, or misunderstandings.
Protagonists are often willing to do anything, if it means they might retain the respect and love of those around them. Often that respect and love is challenged, or lost, and the character now enters a new level his arc; doing everything without comfort or reassurance. His doubt can trigger a regression in his progress along the template, sometimes a full blown halt. For others, its a time for a mentor, friend or enemy to provide inspiration.
Glorious Mystery: The Descent of the Holy Spirit
With the ascension of Christ into Heaven, the next phase of the life of the Church on earth begins. The Holy Spirit unites Himself to the foundling body of the Church on earth, and brings it to life in an indestructible, transcendent manner. Fired, inspired and wired for action, the apostles head out into the world and never look back, committed to the transmission of grace, the growth of the Gospel and the salvation of every possible person in the world.
For characters, this may well be a key point in how they handle their self-doubt, a meeting with a mentor, an event, or a realization that might restore their sense of resolution or peace in carrying through with their task. They haven’t yet cinched their decision, but they now have fresh material/information to work with.
Stage Four: Change
SUMMARY: This stage is largely typified by the ‘carrying of the Cross’, the hard slog through all the events to keep the story propelling toward the climax. The character has been challenged by multiple turns of doubt and resolve, and it is in this stage when he may tire of thinking. It’s all too clear what must be done.
There is still the hope that things will turn out well, and that he will be able to return to some sort of normalcy when its all over. What he doesn’t realize is that this constant application of will and wit in the service of the call is effecting a silent, internal change, a transfiguration.
Joyful Mystery: The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
In a conscious and cultural act based in the liturgy of the Chosen People, the Holy Family takes Christ to the temple and offers Him as the first fruits of their marriage. He is now consecrated, set apart for holy work.
Similarly, the hero recognizes himself as having gone through a series of trials, and has recommitted himself to his task. Either through a mental assent, a choice, or a scene of action, he willingly commits himself to carrying on. This one plays closely with the previous mystery, but is often an additional scene or conversation allowing the character to express his commitment.
Luminous Mystery: The Transfiguration
On Mount Tabor, Christ reveals His true nature to the favored three, and it is blinding to them.
At this point in his spiritual, psychological and moral journey, a hero may be working hard to transform how he is perceived. Whether through actions, by communicating, or as part of the actions he continues to take in protagging the novel, others can no longer think of him in the same way.
Sorrowful Mystery: The Carrying of the Cross
Christ bears up the weight of the Cross and chooses to carry it until his body gives out. With the help of a stranger, who through sharing in suffering becomes a fast and intimate friend, He picks Himself up and carries on.
Every character must struggle, or else the climax isn’t seen to be satisfying. Whether it’s a period of enduring great physical duress, or laboring under misunderstanding, or other situations, it is a hard, unrelenting and challenging road that they cannot fail to complete.
Glorious Mystery: The Assumption of Mary
Upon the completion of her life, Mary slips into her ‘Dormition’, a period traditionally thought of as a ‘sleep’, since the wages of sin could never claim her. She is then assumed, or taken up into Heaven. It isn’t something that she can do on her own. It happens to her.
The suffering that buries a character in pain and darkness may not have any seeming light at the end of the tunnel, similar to Frodo marching across the wasteland of Morder. Perhaps without his realizing, he is being changed into a new person, the crevices and attitudes of his soul are being refined by his efforts in ways that he couldn’t have consciously changed on his own. Often, repeated effort and the acquiring of new habits changes us in ways we can’t see until later.
Stage Five: Completion
SUMMARY: All doubts about the need for this mission, and the information justifying the final push toward the climax have been answered. The hero may still quail at the last moment, realizing that this quest may claim his very life. Regardless the darkness of the doubts, he realizes that saving his life, or honor, or whatever he holds most dear, is of less consequence than the greater good.
Without seeking hope or happiness, he throws himself into the final act that ties up all the consequences of the story in a last bid to make everything right. If he survives, he is crowned a hero, and the world, or his world, recognizes his achievement. A hero who has been deeply transformed by all this is no longer the facile person from the beginning of the story, and all this effort and internal searching has matured them into a greater soul.
Joyful Mystery: The Finding of Jesus in the Temple
This last stage of the Joyful journey ends with the finding of the source of truth, wisdom and love in the sacred locations of church and temple. Now that the Holy family has accepted the invitation to bring Him into the world, they will forever ‘lose’ Him unless they know where to find Him. For man, churches are a concrete place where two worlds overlap, where the rites of Heaven bring us the divine life. His presence on earth is primarily in the temples and Churches that He has established.
At this stage, the hero has moved beyond the assent to the call to adventure, and beyond the conviction to follow it through. His efforts have paid off to find the source of the truth he seeks, and he finds it in with the greatest authority on the subject. This might be the great reveal, the last few pieces of information that finally make sense out of everything he’s been through. It could even be the ranting of the enemy in revealing his plan.
Luminous Mystery: The Institution of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is the first part of a twenty-four hour drama that ends on Calvary. It is the beginning of the end, marking the beginning of a new era. For Christ, His Passover meal isn’t complete until He has drunk from the fourth chalice, and it is on the Cross that he drinks of the myrrh and declares it is finished. Without the Last Supper, the Last Breath is an incomplete thought. In this moment, Christ weeds out the wheat from the chaff among His followers, invites them to support Him in His final agony, and prepares them with sacred rites for the awesome mysteries about to unfold.
Similarly, the hero knows that his ultimate trial is facing him. Doubts, fears, please, and weaknesses may try to crowd his mind. He may quaver, or he may not. He has been through too much to back down. In this final testing point, he gathers any final resources like friends, materials, or information to support his final push toward the end of this adventure.
Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion and Death of our Lord
Christ’s life was a preparation for this great moment, an act that would pay the bloodprice for sin for all men, and open to them once more entrance to Heaven. With His resurrection and establishing of His Church, He put in place a system of Sacraments, ordinary means of dispensing the life of God among men.
This is the moment in the hero’s journey to which everything has led. And even here, he is not completed yet. Frodo comes to mind as a hero who remained steadfast right up to the tipping point and then failed, as is the great temptation of all mortal men.
Glorious Mystery: The Coronation of the Virgin
Her reward for a life of obedience, pain and sacrifice, Mary is raised on high in Heaven and crowned with a singular crown for her role in bringing the impossible mysteries of grace to mankind. It was not something she asked for, much less hoped for. She remained focused on the duties of her state in life, and when her new life began, all Creation recognized her achievements and bowed before a distinct glory that raised her higher than the angels.
No true hero seeks praise and glory. Deep down, he/she is satisfied with the rewards of having brought a good to completion. Frodo’s reaction on Minas Tirith’s plaza when the crowds bow before the hobbits is a perfect example. He cannot see the greatness that the crowd sees, because he has been through so much and seen so deeply into the true nature of things, even into himself.
While the world may praise him for his great efforts, he heads into living his new state in life with a renewed passion, knowing that he can never be who he was before he accepted the call. He has transformed.
Whew. You made it.
Talk about a potentially intense roadmap of interior reflection and development, right? Naturally, not every step is going to work, and for plenty of stories, some of these moments happen very quickly, if at all. 🙂
It’s a template, so use it, break it, get a kickstart off it. As you can see, it focuses much more on what the character goes through rather than the people he meets. We all vacillate between weakness and strength, and great stories with plenty of time for character development help us enter into the back and forth that often plagues a character’s mind.
So what did you think?
Dominic, I appreciated your essay on the rosary and archetypes. I found it through a keyword search on the rosary and archetypes that I ran because Jordan Peterson has gotten me thinking about archetypes and I pray the rosary fairly often. Your explication of the mysteries of the Rosary as iterations of the hero’s journey gives me more to reflect on.You helped me understand why the sets of mysteries are so satisfying to pray with–each has dramatic beginning, a narrative arc, and a satisfying ending. One thing I realized from your article is that the Joyful Mysteries are a heroine’s journey rather than a hero’s, a feminine take on the five stages you name. This brought to mind Kristin Lavransdatter, a very long saga with a heroine whose heroism is maternal rather than an imitation of masculine heroism. Another thing that struck me in reading through your essay is that you found four hero’s journeys within the overarching hero’s journey of Jesus’s Incarnation, life, and Paschal Mystery. This reminded me of the self-similarity of fractals found often in nature and (maybe) in the repetitions of our daily lives.Thanks for taking the time to think through and write down this framework for others to meditate on.
Hi Dominic De Souza, Thanks for sharing the idea of the Rosary as a hero’s journey. I’ve been told that apparently St. John Paul II said that the Rosary is Christocentric. That got me thinking how that could be possible in light of the last 3 (Glorious Ones) of the Mysteries of the Total of 20. I now believe the Pope was right. We follow the God-hero’s journey from conception through to his Ascension. After that we follow His continued journey from Heaven, after He has reached His Glory there,- sending the Spirit Which proceeds from the Father and Him, His resurrecting His Mother and finally Him crowning her. It is also very much an intimate relationship between Heaven and Earth. Heaven represented by Jesus Christ Who is God, and Earth by His Mother, who is human. The relationship between God and Mary is one we should aspire towards, aiming for our crowns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_crowns). Her journey of faith is heroic and was well rewarded for in the last Glorious Mystery of the King of kings, by Him. So it is apt that we pray to her asking her continuously for intercession in the Hail Marys, since she has the most pure experience of seeing through the journey and finally having the reward, while we work toward His Ultimate Eternal Glory here on Earth also.