Russian Orthodox chotki
Enlarge Russian Orthodox Chotki

Christian prayer beads, most recognizable as the Catholic rosary, are usually made of colored glass or plastic beads, or sometimes beads crafted of olive wood. Although there are roots to the prayer practices of the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the third century, prayer bead use was more widely developed in the sixth century. Then, Saint Benedict of Nursia asked his disciples to pray the 150 Psalms of the Bible at least once a week. Since this was a large assignment for the memory, a substitution of 150 Paters ("Our Fathers") was allowed. The faithful used beads to count the paters, and this string of 150 beads became known as a paternoster. It might surprise some who associate Lady Godiva only with unusual horsemanship, but the first recorded mention of Christian prayer beads occurs in her will. She bequeathed her paternoster beads of precious gemstones to the convent she founded in 1057.

The person widely believed to have introduced prayer beads as Christians know them today is Saint Dominic, after he had a visitation by the Blessed Virgin Mary; and Thomas of Cantimpre first called them a rosary, from the word rosarium or "rose garden," since the faithful used strung rose petals and beads made of crushed rose petals to count prayers. When using a rosary—which is divided into groups of ten beads, called decades—in traditional practice, a Catholic repeats the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" prayers as she marks off the beads with the fingers while meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, both knots and beads are used. Shorter knotted ropes are worn on the wrist. Often made of wool, the Greek prayer ropes—called kombologion—have 33, 50, or 100 knots. Russian chotki have 33, 100, or 500 knots. Sometimes the faithful use bead strands resembling a ladder (each end of a bead touching two parallel strands), which signifies the soul making its ascent to heaven.

Christian prayer beads probably once had relationships to the folklore surrounding stones and talismans. Coral, for example, was thought to guard against illness, so in many portraits of Jesus Christ as a child, he is depicted with coral beads. Later, as a result of such associations, clergy were not allowed to use rosaries with beads made of amber, quartz, or coral.

Christian prayer beads have been associated primarily with Roman Catholicism or with the Greek and Russian Orthodox tradition, because John Calvin discouraged their use by Protestant believers. He rejected materialism and ritual, feeling that the faithful should read and analyze spiritual texts in direct relationship with God, rather than simply memorize set prayers.

However, in the late 1980s, an Episcopalian priest created an Anglican rosary of 33 beads, which represent the years of Jesus' earth life. There's also a non-denominational variation known as the "Earth Rosary." Consisting of four sets of 13 beads, which indicate the thirteen weeks in each of the four seasons, the Earth Rosary has a total of 52 beads, representing each week of the year.

Like their secular counterpart "worry beads," prayer beads offer a kinesthetic comfort—they are a means in the material world to remember one's place in the spiritual world. As M. Basil Pennington reminds us in Praying by Hand: Rediscovering the Rosary as a Way of Prayer, prayer beads simply are a method or instrument "to help us pray, to enter into communion and union with God. Therefore, we should feel free to use it or pray it in any way that helps us to enter into that union."

33-bead Orthodox Chotki

Russian Orthodox Chotki

33-bead orthodox chotki comprising wax cast bronze crucifix, lampwork glass beads, and 6mm petrified wood beads.

Artisan's Notes: "Chotkis can consist of 25, 33, 50, 100,150, or 300 beads. The 33-bead chotki is said to represent the 33 years of Christ's mortal life on earth. These prayer beads are also known as the Jesus prayer chaplet because the Jesus Prayer—"Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"—is traditionally prayed on each bead.

Chotkis, komboskinis, and mequetarias are sometimes called publicans as they all use the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is taken from the parable of the Publican (tax collector) and the Pharisee found in Luke 18:10-14 in which Jesus justifies the humble prayer of the publican—"God, have mercy on me, a sinner (NIV)." (Photo: Christine Schlink Stanton)

Christianity » Religious Use of Beads » History of Prayer Beads » A String & A Prayer: How to Make & Use Prayer Beads
Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon (2007) Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

A String & A Prayer: How to Make & Use Prayer Beads

A String & A Prayer: How to Make & Use Prayer Beads

Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon (2007) Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon have taken an ancient practice and made it new. A String and a Prayer recounts the history and symbolism of prayer beads, teaches basic techniques for stringing beads and a host of other objects into prayer beads, and offers a variety of prayers and rituals to use those beads on a daily basis. Beads have appeared throughout history. Prayer beads are used in the spiritual practices of cultures as diverse as the African Masai, Native Americans, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, as well as the religious rituals of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism. But prayer is highly personal. By infusing prayer beads with personal associations, we can keep our spirituality fresh. The beads are a device to help build and rebuild meaningful ritual in our lives. With myriad ideas about what makes objects sacred and where to find sacred objects—from the personal, perhaps beads from a grandmother's broken rosary, to the unusual, maybe seashells from far away found in a thrift store—A String and a Prayer offers many suggestions for different ways that beads can be made and used, exploring the creative roles they can play in our relationships, ceremonies, and rituals. "You are the expert, trust yourself. Let the instructions be a guide to your own creativity," write the authors.