Once you've presented your confession and petitions to God, begin the rosary with the sign of the cross. Some people hold the crucifix in their right hand when they make the sign of the cross, kissing it on completion. I am fond of this tradition for three reasons: one, I am an affectionate person and I appreciate appropriate public displays of affection, especially toward God; two, physical actions attached to the devotion help to make it more visceral for me and deepen the entire experience; and three, I am then poised for the first prayer.

On the crucifix, says the Apostles' Creed. The Creed is essentially a "list" prayer of the tenets of the faith, almost a litany. Lists based on theology may be overwhelming for first-time meditators but I have found that when I slow this prayer down, it takes on a whole new character: it is not a long and lofty list that I must wade through, but a true declaration of my faith that allows me to join all the angels and saints in heaven who live this declaration for eternity. I frequently take one tenet of the Creed each time I pray the rosary and spend an extra moment reflecting on it. For example, I might repeat several times, "I believe in the resurrection of the body." I will reflect on what that means exactly — that Christ died and after three days rose from the dead and walked around and talked with people. Because the tenets of the Creed and the mysteries overlap and reflect one another, reflecting on the tenets one by one also helps to deepen my meditations on the mysteries.

On the first bead, say an Our Father. Of all the prayers in the rosary, this is the most difficult prayer for me to say because it requires the most of me — a submission, a turning over of my will to God's. It requires trust. The Lord's Prayer is the beginning of the recognition process, of seeing God as my true Father and as one who is trustworthy. If you're having trouble saying the Our Father, you might want to concentrate on the first portion of the prayer. Get a notebook and write out your present relationship to the heavenly Father (not your earthly father, unless that helps remind you of qualities that your heavenly Father posseses). You may want to reflect on some of the following Scriptures and what they tell us about the nature of our heavenly Father:

• "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). The Father loves you and is interested in you.

• "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). He delights in giving you good things.

• "I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters" (2 Corinthians 6:18). He wants to be with you; he has claimed you as his own.

• "You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing" (Psalm 145:16). He provides. He satisfies.

• "He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds" (Psalm 147:3). He heals and comforts.

• "Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation" (Psalm 68:5). Our heavenly Father can help us overcome any fatherlessness we may feel.

Ask God to reveal to you the ways in which he has been a father to you. What has he done for you that you might praise him for? Has he give in you the gift of life? a friend who loves you? a good brain? Has he given you the ability to read this book? to ask question? to wonder and imagine? Perhaps you can recognize the Father's hand in creation around you, in the beauty of the earth, the oceans, or animals. It is important to be open to seeing the Father's active presence in your life. God is not up in heaven waiting for you to "get it right" before he will join in a conversation with you. As Merton, addressing the Father, wrote, "You do not wait for me to become great before you will be with me and hear me and answer me." You can be confident that no matter how weak or unskilled your efforts in prayer might be right now, God hears you and is interested in what you have to say.

Parts of the Lord's Prayer might give you difficulty. Maybe you don't mean it when you say, "thy will be done" or "we forgive those who've trespassed against us." Those are very powerful words. But to say "thy will be done" or "I forgive," even if we don't entirely mean that at the time, is a step in the right direction toward actually meaning it. If nothing else, it demonstrates to God our willingness to learn to forgive as he has forgiven us and to learn to bend to his will. Our emotions on the matter will eventually catch up with our actions.

On each of the next three beads, say the Hail Mary, dedicating one to the virtue of faith, one to hope, and one to charity. Ask Mary to please pray for you so that you may live out those virtues more fully. With each Hail Mary, you are positioning yourself to accept, as Mary did, God's will for your life. You are sharing in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. Jesus is central to the Hail Mary. The words of the angel Gabriel as well as the inspired words of Elizabeth celebrate the most-longed-for moment in history. When we recall these words, we participate in this moment. We share — acutely, personally — the longing in Mary's own heart for the Messiah; we join in her obedience, her "yes," which ultimately allowed for salvation. In doing so, we too participate in the work of salvation. In many ways, the rosary is a reminder not only to strive for the virtues described and celebrated within its mysteries but also to model ourselves after the specifically evangelical example of Mary. When I say a Hail Mary I am simply asking someone I trust and admire, someone I believe led a holy, virtuous life, to please pray for me. I need all the righteous prayers I can get.

After the three Hail Marys, say the Doxology, recognizing God's eternal character and thanking him for letting you be a part of eternity. Like Mary, like all of us, you have an eternal role to play in the "world without end."

After the Doxology, move on to the next bead, where you will begin the first decade by meditating on the first mystery and saying an Our Father. At this point, some people simply announce the mystery and then recall in their minds the events of that mystery while praying the decade. For example, if the mystery is the Crucifixion, they might recall Christ stretched out on the cross, the nails in his hands and feet, the wound at his side, and the crown of thorns. They might also bring to mind the Blessed Mother in agony as she watched her child suffer. In chapters 6 through 8, which focus on the mysteries of the rosary, a Scripture passage and a prayer are provided to help you visualize each mystery more vividly.

Before each decade, or group of ten Hail Marys, meditate on mystery. As you pray, keep your mind and heart open to receive anything that the Lord would like to tell you, any insight he would like to share with you. If you have trouble concentrating o the mysteries, you may wish to add after each Hail Mary a reference to the mystery being contemplated. Conclude each decade with the Doxology. Continue this cycle throughout the rest of the mysteries.

Remember that it's not necessary (and may not even be possible) to pray the rosary perfectly. Many of the saints seated in heaven right now struggled to pray the rosary. Meditation, regardless of its form, takes time and practice. When I first started, I wasn't able to remember some of the mysteries, much less recount them in order or meditate on them thoughtfully. I had to borrow a rosary that had the mysteries written on elongated Our Father beads so that I could remember which mystery was to be recited on which day. Some people find it helpful to refer to a notecard that has the prayers and mysteries written on it.

The point is to simply begin and begin simply. If one mystery in particular really draws you, start there. You may discover that you prefer to say one decade when you first get up, one or two at lunchtime, and the rest in the evening before bed. Or maybe one decade a day is all you can manage. The amount you can pray is not nearly as important as the attitude you bring to your prayer. Be open. Don't try to begin in New York if you're in Beijing. Your efforts will be well rewarded and well guided.

Liz Kelly in The Seeker's Guide to the Rosary