The Prayer Rope

There is an old adage that that says one should not wear his emotions on his sleeves.  We Orthodox Christians may not wear our emotions upon our sleeves, but we have had a tendency to wear our Christian Faith for all to see.  Clergy and monastic’s have familiar and consistent attire.  Clergy and laity wear gold or silver Crosses that we received on the occasion of our reception into the Church or another Cross that was purchased from or blessed at a Shrine, possibly over the Relics of a particular saint or over a sacred item of Christendom.  And for many a member of the Body of Christ, whether its comprised of 33, 100, or 500 knots, a prayer rope is worn upon the wrist. 

Of course, wearing any of these items to simply be seen by the world is pharisaic at best. A priest or monastic’s black clothes are not a fashion statement, but rather a testament to the fact that we are not overly concerned with our outward appearance – our time is better spent, as it is for each member of the Church, dressing our soul with the fine fabrics and priceless gems of prayer and repentance.  The Holy Cross worn around the neck is not simply jewelry, may it never be such, but a reminder that as Orthodox Christians we have taken up the Cross of Christ, and that there is no greater weapon against the devil.  And, the prayer rope is not a trinket of the Faith or a conversation starter, but rather a traditional tool of the pious Christian who struggles to live a life of unceasing prayer. 

It was St. Paul who first directed the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.  I would imagine that the Thessalonians must have been overwhelmed by this command as many of us are today.  Nonetheless, as a spiritual directive, they struggled and we struggle to realize such a disciplined prayer-life unto the glory of God and the salvation of our souls. 

The Prayer Rope, as I mentioned before, is used as a tool of prayer. Although it’s true origin has been lost in antiquity, it’s primary purpose, whether made out of knotted wool or silk, beads or seeds, was and is to keep track of prayers said.  Dr. Alexander Roman, in The Historical Development of the Orthodox Prayer Rope and Its Importance to our Spiritual Life explains: “early Christians used various means of counting their shorter prayers. St Paul of Thebes, for example, used to have a bag with 300 pebbles and placed one pebble for each prayer he said into another, empty bag. In Ethiopia, prayer sticks were devised and notches were made on staffs used as supports for people standing during the long services…Elsewhere, pieces of wood were attached to strings and then knotted cords were devised.”

Saint Pachomius is credited with making the first prayer rope.  As the founder of coenobitic monasticism, he introduced such a rope to help illiterate monks keep their daily rule of prayer and prostrations, since it was told him by an angel that “a Prayer” was 100 Jesus Prayers.  His Rule, referred to today as the Pachomian Rule of Prayer, is the recitation of 12 Prayers (1200 Jesus Prayers) during the day and 12 Prayers at night along with a further 12 during an all-night vigil.  It’s no wonder that sometime thereafter, and in his blessed tradition, newly-tonsured monastic’s in each and every monastic community were given a prayer rope by the elder with the words: “Accept, O brother (or sister) the spiritual sword which is the word of God in the everlasting Jesus prayer by which you should have the name of the Lord in your soul, your thoughts, and your heart, saying always: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is Saint Anthony the Great who first made the prayer rope with which we are familiar today.  In accordance with tradition, Saint Anthony desired to make a wool prayer rope in order to count his prayers. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it because the Devil would come and untie the knots. One day, an angel of God appeared to him with instructions on how to make these knots with seven crosses entwined in each knot. Since the devil was in fact unable to untie this most complicated knot, thanks be to God, the monk had a means to count his prayers.

The most typical prayer rope is a black wool loop that consists of knots, made by seven interlocking crosses with a few beads at certain intervals between knots for easy counting.  The wool either symbolizes Jesus Himself, the Sacrificial Lamb, or the possessor of the prayer rope being a sheep within the flock of the Good Shepherd. The black color symbolizes repentance, that is, the possessor mourning over his or her sins.  If there is red to be found, be it on a bead or in a tassel, it is said to represent the blood of Christ as well as the blood shed by His Holy Martyrs. If the prayer rope has a tassel with a Cross, it’s purpose was and is to dry one’s tears of repentance while reminding the Christian that salvation is only possible through the Cross.

The most popular text that discusses repetitive prayer as a means to concentrate on Christ and to enter into silence is The Way of the Pilgrim.  In this 19th century Russian Spiritual Classic, the pilgrim who wished to pray without ceasing said the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner” - 2,000 times, then 6,000 times, then 12,000 times.  As one author asked though, “Is 12,000 Jesus Prayers better than 2,000 Jesus Prayers?” Absolutely not! Ultimately, quantity is not an accurate measure of quality.  Whether a prayer, like the Jesus Prayer is said once or 12,000 times, it is to be said with reverence, conviction, and sincerity in order to be an acceptable prayer unto the Lord. 

It is however not only the Jesus Prayer that is said with repetition.  Orthodox Service books and prayer manuals suggest that the Lord’s Prayer, “Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God” and intercessory prayers to Saints be said with frequency, and in many an instance accompanied by prostrations. Saint Seraphim of Sarov for instance is remembered for his devotion of walking around the perimeter of the Monastery of Diveyevo, with prayer rope in hand, reciting 150 “Our Fathers” and “Hail Mary’s’’ for his relatives and friends, both the living and the dead. 

Another beautiful prayer discipline is found in the life of Bishop Seraphim Zvezdinsky, martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1937.  Roman writes that: “[Bishop Seraphim] prayed fifteen decades of the rosary, that is, fifteen groups of ten Hail Mary’s headed with an Our Father.  He meditated on the following mysteries at the beginning of each decade of prayers: 1) Nativity of the Mother of God - for families; 2) Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple - for bad Christians; 3) Annunciation - for those who are depressed; 4) Visit to St Elizabeth by the Theotokos - for the unification of persons who are separated from one another; 5) Nativity of Christ - for the rebirth of our souls; 6) Meeting of the Lord in the Temple—for a good death; 7) Flight to Egypt - to flee from temptations; 8) Finding in the Temple of the boy Jesus - for the Grace of constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer; 9) the Miracle at Cana - for the constant assistance of the Mother of God; 10) the Mother of God under the Cross of Her Son - for fortitude; 11) the Resurrection - for strength and persistence in spiritual exercises; 12) Ascension - for the grace to transcend worldly things and live for heavenly ones; 13) Pentecost - for a clean heart and the Gift of the Holy Spirit; 14) the Dormition - for a peaceful and happy end; 15) the Protection of the Mother of God - for the grace of constant protection by the Mother of God.” 

As humbling and beautiful as his prayer discipline is, it’s important to remember that it was his discipline.  St. Seraphim’s prayer rule was his rule.  The pilgrim’s prayer rule was his rule given to him by his spiritual father.  Although we should be inspired by their examples of prayer, to simply adopt their rules is inappropriate and unrealistic.  If we choose to use a prayer rope, it must be to either follow a discipline that has been given to us by another and/or to keep us centered in our prayer routine.  And, if a prayer rope is going to be worn on the wrist or clutched in the hand in public, it better first be used in the home and in private.  For if wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeves is considered inappropriate by society, let us all be assured that displays of false religious piety are displeasing to God.