Orthodox Rosaries


On the simple woolen rope of knots that forms the Orthodox rosary, the Jesus Prayer is recited. This practice is used as an aid to inner attentiveness, breath control and prostration, all of which are integral parts of this rite. Greek Orthodox monks living in monasteries perched on holy Mount Athos on the peninsula of Athos dedicate their lives to the pursuit of hesychia, a silence or a stilling of the heart. This spiritual quest leads to union with God. Such traditions of mysticism were lost for centuries in the Christianity of the West. But new conservative movements in the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches, and those keen to explore the spiritual practices of the early Celtic saints, are rediscovering ways of making this type of contemplative inner journey possible through the use of prayer beads.

Prayer Rites in the Orthodox Church

For centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church has used the Jesus Prayer in conjunction with the knotted woolen rosary. St. Isaac the Syrian (338-439 CE) described it as a prayer which transcends a series of physical acts to become a state of being. You endeavor to accomplish St. Paul's commandment of "pray[ing] without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17). Kyrie Iesu Christi (Lord Jesus Christ), Huie Theou (Son of God), eleison emas (have mercy on us) or eleison me (have mercy on me) are repeated on each knot of the rosary.

Attaining Godliness

The purpose of life on earth for Orthodox Christians is to prepare for union with the Divine. This is achieved by regularly receiving the Sacraments, following God's Commandments and living virtuously through prayer. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, by withdrawing within and examining the heart, all of us can perfect our Divine potentiality and dwell in God as He dwells in us.

The Jesus Prayer is a particularly powerful way to find God because Christ rests as its center, effectively Christ unified with God: his mortality represents the path of every man towards a reunion with God. As the name Jesus is believed to have the presence and energy of God inherent within it, so in repeating His name, you partake in the nature of the Divine through utterance.

Using the Breath

Someone chanting or saying Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy) remains in a passive state, as when receiving the Holy Communion. But repeating the words as part of the Jesus Prayer forces the worshipper into a more active engagement, whereby the aspirant struggles for instruction and spiritual direction as she concentrates on the repetition of the uttered words.

Breath control and postures are given as part of spiritual direction. The regulated breath supports the invocation, yoking mind, body and emotions to the act of praying. Concentration on the breath recalls God breathing life into Adam in the Book of Genesis. Each inhalation rekindles the Holy Spirit within. Ruach, the Hebrew word for "spirit," also signifies "breath" or "air." The Arabic word nff stands for both "soul" and "breath," while ruh means "spirit."

The Hesychast method sometimes introduces prostration to the practice as a way of intensifying the elevated state achieved through prayer. Spiritual guidance comes from study of the Scriptures, the reading of spiritual authors such as the Desert Fathers found in the Philokalia (1782) and from masters or elders: in Greek, geron; in Russian, staretz; in Arabic, sheikh. Currently there is difficulty in finding spiritual directors due to a widespread shortage of priests.

Prayer of the Heart

In 1782, the Philokalia, a collection of writings in Greek setting out the thoughts of Orthodox Christian spiritual masters from the 4th to the 15th century, was published. In it are related the experiences of saints such as Gregory of Sinai (590-604 CE) with the Jesus Prayer and descriptions of the life of the Hesychast. When this work was eventually translated into Russian, its increased circulation helped establish the Prayer of the Heart within the Russian Orthodox Church as well.

This alternative name for the Jesus Prayer describes the interior journey taken by the devotee using the prayer rope. Saying the words on each inhalation and exhalation while using the knots on the rope helps the devout to withdraw from the outside world and focus on the spirit within, preparing the heart to experience an emptiness filled only with God's presence. Through repetition, the words resonate in the heart as a living prayer, ensuring that Christ resides within.

The classic religious work, The Way of a Pilgrim (1930), is a wonderful introduction to the Jesus Prayer. In his search for a life of "unceasing prayer," an anonymous 19th-century pilgrim is taken on by a spiritual master, who assigns him a transforming number of Jesus Prayers to be said daily. As a result, the reader encounters a perfect example of faith and humility engendered by true spirituality.

Silent Orthodox Prayer Ropes

The knotted woolen prayer rope, known as metanoia, literally "change of mind" or kombologion ("string of knots") in the Greek tradition, contains 33, 50 or, most commonly, 100 knots. In the Russian Orthodox equivalent, the chotki, 33, 100 or even 300 knots are common. In contrast to the Roman Catholic rosary, the knots are not divided into decades, or other such groupings, and are used silently. Orthodox bead rosaries may also be employed in prayer and feature an equal number of beads and knots. These are often strung by monks from readily available natural materials, such as olive pits, nuts or shells, or they may be fashioned from wood.

Tradition has it that rosaries developed from moving pebbles from one pile to another as a way of remembering, marking repetitions or focusing the mind. It proved simple to tie knots along the length of a piece of rope to create a portable counting device which made prayer accessible anywhere.

Anglican Prayer Bead Ropes

Invoking the name of Jesus using the prayer rope has commonly been thought of as exclusive to the Eastern Orthodox Church yet it has always been part of Christian life in the West, too. An increasing number of worshippers in the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches on both sides of the Atlantic today continue the tradition of this overlooked practice. Since the 1980s, beads and invocatory prayer have been increasingly included as a support for meditation by contemplative prayer groups, such as the Centering Prayer Movement in the United States.

The Anglican prayer bead rope combines features from the Catholic rosary as well as from the Orthodox prayer rope by its containing 33 beads to represent Christ's years on earth. The founders of the Anglican Prayer Movement make reference to the traditions of the early Desert Ammas (Mothers) and Abbas (Fathers) who wove baskets or plaited rope as a method for focusing their minds on prayer while they made a living. Many of the rosaries available today are crafted and strung by those who follow a life of relative seclusion dedicated to contemplation and prayer.

Finding the Still Point

Cistercian monk Abbot Thomas Keating (1923- CE), a leading figure of the Centering Prayer Movement in the United States, has traced the history of the deeper meditative traditions of Christian prayer by his study of lost mystical methods, such as those used by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416 CE) and medieval Christian monks, who spoke of their contemplative prayer techniques as "entering the cloud of unknowing." This rediscovered tradition has inspired Keating to introduce new prayer techniques, the aim being that of teaching ways of unblocking unconscious emotional patterns which prevent the deepening of spiritual development.

Such prayer techniques help draw the devotee into a deeply contemplative state in which negative thought patterns and emotions come to be discarded and inner freedom is won as one learns to "rest in God." As the tradition is so recent, there are no official prayers which can be said just by using Anglican prayer beads, although the Jesus Prayer is often uttered, as are extracts from The Book of Common Prayer (1662).

Types of Beads

The grouping of prayer beads in the Anglican rosary is rich in symbolism. These prayer beads tend to have four groupings, each composed of seven beads, known as weeks, which are divided by four cruciform beads. The weeks signify the number of days taken to create the universe; the temporal week; the seasons comprising the Church year and the Sacraments. The four cruciform beads represent Christ's Crucifixion but also stand for the seasons and the compass directions North, South, East and West. An Invitatory bead guides the worshipper into the prayer cycle in the same way that the Invitatory or Opening Psalm ushers the faithful into their daily office.

Celtic Christian Prayer

Modern Western Christians in Northern Europe and North America are rediscovering the contemplative meditation practices of the early Celtic saints who established Christian ways of worship, distinct from those of the Roman Catholic Church, in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Brittany and Scotland. The roots of Celtic Christianity are to be found in the community that grew around the Apostle John (died c. 100 CE) in Ephesus, modern-day Turkey, as well as the lives of the desert monastics, the Ammas and Abbas. People exploring Celtic traditions today might use a 150-bead rosary based on the original Catholic template, and also use the prayers associated with it.

Prayer in the Celtic Christian tradition celebrates the sanctity of all ecological life, nature and the seasons. For Celtic Christians, the natural world represents one continuous prayer: each river, tree and mountain contains a Divine spark. Every person and everything is part of, and plays a part in, the great circle of life. Prayer helps adherents enter this circle and become aware of the invisible "other world" whence all things originate and will, eventually, return.

Prayer beads support the Celtic Christian journey into this inner world of devotion. The repetitive geometric pattern of the beads leads the eye and mind away from the material world into a place of contemplation. The knots between beads evoke the great Celtic tradition of knotwork and symbolize a line without beginning or end. This is identical to the eternal circle created by the rosary and the circular, repetitive form of the prayers it requires. Other special beads might include the shamrock shape, in remembrance of St. Patrick (390-461 CE), who likened it to the Holy Trinity.

Although all branches of Christianity honor the Virgin Mary and Jesus, reflecting both the feminine and masculine aspects of God, the feminine essence of the Divine is greatly respected in all Celtic Christian writings, and may be evident in Celtic rosaries in the form of the four-legged St. Brigid's (451-525 CE) cross, usually made in silver to resemble the original, rush-woven one. Celtic Christianity generally has more in common with the Eastern Orthodox faith than with the Western Roman tradition.

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words
Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words

Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

The practice of the rosary in various faiths is thoroughly covered in this stunning book and its accompanying DVD. For background, the commentary explains that the word "bead" has an interfaith origin: it comes from both the Sanskrit "Buddh," which refers to self-realization (the Buddha is the "Enlightened One"); and it also derives from the Saxon verb "bidden," meaning to pray. The rosaries pictured are made from such materials as rose petals, chunks of Tibetan amber, exquisitely carved Italian coral, and silken Turkish tassels. One simple mantra or prayer for each faith is also presented, as is a prize-winning DVD that takes the viewer into various world cultures where the recitation and method can be heard and seen.