The Rosary versus the Ars Notoria

Saint Dominic received the Holy Rosary from the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1214. It was also early in the thirteenth century that the ars notoria made its first appearance in Western letters. The latter has received some scholarly attention for its connection to the Hermetic tradition. It was an early example of the kind of connection that later Renaissance magi such as Ficino and Bruno would make between mnemotechnical art and the search for magical power. While there are reasons within the Hermetic tradition for this connection, I am not aware of any scholarship that draws the obvious parallel between the heterodox ars and the orthodox Rosary. My treatment of this connection here, however, will be as a work of piety rather than scholarship.

The ars notoria was reputed to be the work of Solomon himself, the transmission of the wisdom that God had given him as a reward for his fidelity to Him. In essence, it is a method of memorization that is supposed to be organized along the divisions of the rationes seminales that emanate from the mind of God during the act of creation. By configuring one’s own memory along these same divisions, the magus would hope to unlock the divine creative spark within his own soul, giving him an intuitive knowledge of (and a certain power over) all things in heaven and earth.

To compare, the Holy Rosary was given to St. Dominic by the Blessed Mother herself, quite literally the transmission of Eternal Wisdom directly from the Seat of Wisdom, not only as a reward to the saint for his fidelity, but as a gift to the world to obtain immense graces. In essence, it consists of fifteen Our Fathers and one hundred fifty Hail Marys, to be accompanied by meditations organized along the divisions of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord in the gospels. By meditating on these mysteries, a good Catholic can configure his memory, understanding, and imagination, and thus his intellect and will, to them, thus (with God’s help) deepening the mystical union between himself and his divine Savior.

Just as the ars promises to the one who practices it an increase in magical power over creation, the Rosary promises to the one who prays it an increase in supernatural virtue. Just as the magician hopes to obtain the perfection of the world through his Opus, so the Catholic hopes to obtain the perfection of his soul – and victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil through his prayers.

These two observances appeared at roughly the same moment in history. One was ordered to the domination of creatures, the other to the submission of all things to God. One demanded a tremendous level of sophistication from the adept, the other, absolute simplicity of mind and heart. One relied for its efficacy upon the power granted to the spirits in the atmosphere over human imagination, the other upon divine grace.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote of the ars notoria (II-II, Q. 96, A. 1):

The magic art is both unlawful and futile. It is unlawful, because the means it employs for acquiring knowledge have not in themselves the power to cause science, consisting as they do in gazing on certain shapes, and muttering certain strange words, and so forth. Wherefore this art does not make use of these things as causes, but as signs; not however as signs instituted by God, as are the sacramental signs. It follows, therefore, that they are empty signs, and consequently a kind of agreement or covenant made with the demons for the purpose of consultation and of compact by tokens. Wherefore the magic art is to be absolutely repudiated and avoided by a Christian, even as other arts of vain and noxious superstition, as Augustine declares (De Doctr. Christ. ii. 23). This art is also useless for the acquisition of science. For since it is not intended by means of this art to acquire science in a manner connatural to man, namely, by discovery and instruction, the consequence is that this effect is expected either from God or from the demons. Now it is certain that some have received wisdom and science infused into them by God, as related of Solomon (3 Kings iii. and 2 Para. i). Moreover, Our Lord said to His disciples (Luke xxi. 15): I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay. However, this gift is not granted to all, or in connection with any particular observance, but according to the will of the Holy Ghost, as stated in 1 Cor. xii. 8, To one indeed by the Spirit is given the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit, and afterwards it is said (verse 11): All these things one and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to everyone according as He will. On the other hand it does not belong to the demons to enlighten the intellect, as stated in the First Part (Q. 109, A. 3). Now the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is effected by the enlightening of the intellect, wherefore never did anyone acquire knowledge by means of demons. Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei x. 9): Porphyry confesses that the intellectual soul is in no way cleansed by theurgic inventions, i.e. the operations of the demons, so as to be fitted to see its God, and discern what is true, such as are all scientific conclusions. The demons may, however, be able by speaking to men to express in words certain teachings of the sciences, but this is not what is sought by means of magic.

If the ars notoria was ineffective for the magician’s purpose, then, what could it accomplish? It rendered homage to the devil. By pleasing the Enemy and offending God, the practice of this art merited punishment. This punishment came in the form of demonic influence. God would allow temptations to grow stronger; he would allow demonic obsession, oppression, and eventually possession. The educated European nobility who were especially prone to be seduced by such a sophisticated art, some of whom even commanded armies, were exposed to this source of discord and tyranny.

Our Lady came at exactly the right time with the perfect remedy. Because it engaged the same faculties as the ars, the Holy Rosary was a most fitting antidote to temptations of magic. And so it remains today. The Rosary is powerful enough to bring even the most depraved witch or sorcerer back from the precipice of damnation. St. Dominic employed it successfully against the Albigensian heresy, and St. Pius V used it to achieve victory over the Saracens at Lepanto. In the past century, with secret societies and their superstitious practices ruling over world affairs, the holy Mother of God has asked us to use this same Rosary to beg her Son to prevent the world from being plunged into chaos.

If one sees a child drowning in a pond, how guilty is he who doesn’t jump in to rescue him? Yet it is immeasurably worse, when the whole world is drowning in a sea of diabolical torment, and a man refuses the God-given means at his disposal to save it from destruction. Therefore, pray the Rosary every day. Let it not be said on the day of judgment that the prayers of just one more Catholic could have prevented the damnation of billions. For such is the power of the weapon Our Lady has given us.

Arboretus