Bead One, Pray Too
A Guide to Making and Using Prayer Beads
By Kimberly Winston
Church Publishing Incorporated Copyright © 2008 Kimberly Winston
All rights reserved.
A HISTORY OF BEADS AND PRAYER BEADS
Just as there is one thread And on it are woven breadthwise and lengthwise Hundreds of thousands of beads So is everything woven unto the Lord
—Grantha Sahib 2352, Nam Dev, Indian poet, thirteenth-fourteenth century ce
There is something about human beings and a craving for adornment. We have an innate longing for the attention and status beads and jewelry bestow. The oldest known beads, made of teeth and shell, were found in a French cave and date back thirty-eight thousand years to the Neanderthals. But because most early beads were made of organic materials—wood, seeds, clay, and the like—finds like these are rare. Today, beads are made to last—most are mass-produced in factories in Japan and the Czech Republic. But there are still many individual artisans crafting fine handmade beads in glass, clay, ceramic, silver, and other metals.
Our instinct for decoration is matched by our instinct for religion. Every culture, no matter how modest or great, no matter how ancient or recent, has some set of religious beliefs. Perhaps it is only natural, then, that beads and religion should have such a long association. Many scholars write that the majority of beads made by our ancestors served some sort of spiritual purpose. Some were worn as a sign of station or class, often signifying the role of priest or shaman, while others served as talismans, protection against the uncertainties and dangers of life. In the Far East, ancient Tibetans made etched dZi beads of agate, giving them the patterns and symbols of the Bo religion, an early precursor to Buddhism. These are now known as "Buddha's eyes" and are supposed to have mystical powers to bring good fortune. Another such surviving bead is the "eye bead," a blue and white bead that resembles a staring blue eye believed to protect against evil. Today, it is not uncommon in Turkey and its surrounding countries to find both Muslims and Christians who carry these along with their Islamic prayer beads and Catholic rosaries or Orthodox prayer ropes.
No one is certain when people began counting prayers on beads. Many scholars believe the Hindus of ancient India were the first to engage in the widespread use of prayer beads. The first known use of prayer beads dates to a third- century BCE statue of a Hindu holy man draped with beads hung by devotees. Buddhism, another product of ancient India, probably borrowed prayer beads from Hinduism. As traders and travelers came through the Indian subcontinent, and as Indians ventured beyond their own borders, the practice of counting prayers on strings of beads spread to other parts of the world and soon, to other faiths. Today, counting prayers on beads is one of the most common spiritual practices, performed in places as different and distant as India and Indiana and by people of faiths as varied as Buddhism and Wicca. It is a practice that links the world's believers in diverse faiths, joining them in a shared longing for the divine, just as the beads themselves are bound together by a single thread or cord.
Prayer Beads in World Religions
Hinduism is the oldest of the world's religions, taking gradual shape from various local traditions scattered throughout India. In Hinduism, Brahma is the creator of all and has many aspects, including Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver. Hindu prayer beads, called a mala, or "rose" in Sanskrit, have 108 beads, usually made from seeds and worn around the neck. Devotees of Shiva favor malas made from rudraksha seeds—Sanskrit for "Shiva's eyes"—while the followers of Vishnu make theirs from the tulsi plant, a kind of basil. The number 108 is sacred to Hindus, as it corresponds to the number of Brahma's names. The recitation of these names, called namajapa, is a sacred practice. Three other Indian-born religions—Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—feature the use of 108-beaded malas, evidence of the sharing and blending of religious traditions and the common desire of the devout to count prayers on beads.
Buddhism arose in India about 500 BCE. Like the Hindus, the Buddhists call their prayer beads a mala, and it, too, consists of 108 beads. In Buddhism, the number 108 represents the number of sins people can commit and the number of virtues they can aspire to. Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps which the faithful climb to worship. In Zen Buddhism—the Japanese form of the faith—108 bells are rung at the new year, marking the number of temptations humans must overcome to achieve nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
The Buddhist mala is often made from the wood of the bodhi tree, the type of tree the Buddha was reclining beneath when he achieved enlightenment, an ideal state of total detachment and peace. As the faith spread across Asia, the mala was crafted from other materials, including bone, amber, and semi-precious stones. A Buddhist mala has beads in three sizes. The bulk of the beads—105 of them—are the same size, with one larger bead and two smaller ones at the end. These beads signify the "three jewels" of Buddhism: the Buddha himself, his teachings (dharma), and the monastic way founded by the Buddha (sangha). A Buddhist uses a mala to count repetitions of the mantra "Om mani padme hum," considered the "true words" of the Buddha and which roughly translate to "The jewel of the heart of the lotus." The person reciting grasps a bead between the thumb and second finger, which represent the body and the spirit. Buddhists believe the repetition of this mantra puts one on the path to enlightenment.
Judaism is the only world religion that does not have a tradition of prayer beads. Some scholars say they are forbidden by Jewish law as a pagan practice. But Jews do have a form of counted prayer in the tallit, the four-cornered prayer shawl worn by men (and some women, in the more liberal forms of Judaism) for morning prayers, Shabbat, or Sabbath, services, and the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The tallit have a border with knotted fringe, known as tzitzit. The purpose of the tallit is to hold the tzitzit, which God, in the Torah, instructs the Jewish people to wear so that they might not forget the commandments:
Speak to the Israelites, and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. (Num 15:38–40, Hebrew-English Bible)
Today, there are centuries-old techniques and rules for the tying of the tzitzit. Each tzitzit consists of eight strands of thread. The tallit maker wraps one strand around the others seven, eight, eleven, and thirteen times, with a knot in between each grouping of wraps. These numbers are rich in religious significance. Some say assigning these numbers to their corresponding letters in the Jewish alphabet spells the name of God. Others say adding and multiplying them in a certain way equals the number 613, the number of laws in the Torah. Whatever their meaning, they are an integral part of Jewish spiritual life, as many Jews touch the tzitzit and their knots at designated portions of their prayers.
The very word "bead" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word bede, which means "prayer." The first mention of Christians and counted prayer is found in the third-century writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who carried pebbles in their pockets and dropped them, one by one, as they said their prayers. Eventually, these pebbles were strung on a cord and carried. A Belgian museum claims to have a string of prayer beads that belonged to Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, a seventh-century abbess. In the eleventh century, Lady Godiva of Coventry—she of the legendary naked horseback ride—left a string of prayer beads in her will to a monastery she and her husband founded. Today, the most commonly used form of Christian prayer beads is the Catholic rosary, which we'll look at in detail in chapter two.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the devout use a prayer rope called a komboskini in Greek, and a tchotki in Russian. Instead of beads, these often have knots, usually thirty-three, fifty, or one hundred, and are made of wool, to represent the flock of Jesus. Eastern Orthodox prayer ropes are usually black, a symbol of one's sins, and instead of a crucifix, they usually have a knotted cross. The Orthodox most frequently recite the Prayer of the Heart, also called the Jesus Prayer, on their prayer ropes: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner." The supplicant holds the prayer rope in the left hand, freeing the right to make the sign of the cross. The prayer rope is never worn—that would be a sign of ostentation—and is always carried. No one is certain how the prayer rope developed, though it most likely evolved from the Desert Fathers' and Mothers' pebbles. Legend attributes its creation to Saint Anthony, the father of Orthodox monasticism. It is said that Anthony tied a leather rope with a knot every time he prayed in Latin Kyrie Eleison ("Lord have mercy"), but that Satan would come and untie the knots. Anthony then devised a way to tie the knots with seven wraps and crossings of the rope, so that each knot held within it the sign of the cross. The devil, it was said, was unable to bear the sign of the cross and was held at bay. Today, Orthodox prayer ropes are still tied in this intricate fashion.
Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of their faith, once said, "Verily, there are ninety-nine names of God, one hundred minus one. He who enumerates them would get into Paradise." In the pages of the Qur'an, the holy book Muslims believe was revealed to Muhammad in the seventh century, these names cover virtually every characteristic of God, or Allah, from "Most Merciful" to "The Avenger," and from "The Giver of Life" to "The Bringer of Death." Muslims believe that to recite these names is to invite Allah's blessings. "O God," Muhammad is believed to have said, "I invoke You with all of Your beautiful names." Many Muslims count all these names on sets of prayer beads called subhah, an Arabic word which means "to exalt." Subhahs come in strands of thirty-three, sixty-six, or ninety-nine beads, numbers that make it easy to keep track of the names.
Traditional Islamic prayer beads are round and are bound together with a larger, tubular lead bead and a tassel. Sometimes the tassel has two beads dangling from it as well. They can be made from wood, olive seeds, plastic, ivory, or clay. The tassel is called the shahed, or witness.
Muslims use the subhah after each day's five set prayer times, but are also free to use them whenever they want. And there is some flexibility in their prayers. Some Muslims recite subhan'Allah ("glory be to God") thirty-three times, alhamdou'LillAh ("praise God") thirty-three times and Allahu Akbar ("God is the greatest") thirty-three or thirty-four times, the last time upon the tubular bead. Some Muslims might repeat the Islamic call to prayer, which sounds from the world's mosques five times a day, calling the faithful to turn toward Mecca, the Muslim holy city:
Allahu akbar God is great La Ilaha ila Allah wa Mohamadun rasul Allah. There is only one God and Mohammad is his prophet.
Muslims also use the subhah during the hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca all faithful, able-bodied Muslims must make at least once, using it to recite the names of God as they circle the Ka'ba, the large black sacred cube Muslims believe is the center of the universe.
Not all Muslims use the subhah. Followers of the Wahhabi school of Islam shun them in the belief that the Prophet Mohammad never used them, but counted his prayers with his fingers or with date seeds.
The Baha'i faith was founded in the mid-1800s in present-day Iran by a Persian holy man known as Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'ís recite Alláh-u-Abhá, a form of God's name, ninety-five times a day. Baha'i prayer beads consist of some factor of ninety-five, usually nineteen of the same kind of bead with an additional five different beads hanging from the circle. They are usually made from wood, stone, or pearls. Some have a tassel and a nine-pointed star, the emblem of the Baha'i faith.
Neo-Paganism, Earth-Based and Goddess-Based Religions
No one can say for sure where the practice began, but today many Wiccans, Asatruar (believers in the ancient Norse religion), Druids, and followers of other earth-based and goddess-oriented faiths are making and using prayer beads for their individual and corporate practice. Some scholars of contemporary religions think that some Neo-Pagans (a blanket term for those who follow the many contemporary forms of ancient, pre-Christian faiths) are borrowing Catholic practices many may have been raised with before becoming Neo-Pagans. Other scholars say the fact that Neo-Pagans are codifying and counting prayer is a sign that these new religious movements are maturing. Whatever the reason, anecdotal evidence shows that more Neo-Pagans are using prayer beads, as the number of websites and new books dedicated to pagan prayer beads is on the rise. Some Neo-Pagans adapt a traditional Catholic rosary, removing the cross and replacing it with a more earth-oriented emblem, such as a fertility goddess, a tree, or a five-pointed star. Some also borrow traditional Catholic rosary prayers, but rewrite them with a focus on the goddess. Tirgereh is a Seattle- based Wiccan I met when I was writing a newspaper story about Neo-Pagans and prayer beads. She has made the Catholic rosary part of her practice since she was a college senior and now writes and shares her own prayers for it with others. One of them, which she calls "The Daily Elemental Rosary Prayer," begins like this:
The day has begun, the time of resting at end as I gather and prepare to go forth I take this time to pray and remember: it is not alone do I wander it is not alone do I search it is not alone do I explore it is not alone do I live For I am surrounded with the love of the Mother And I am blessed with the bounty of the Father.
* * *
There are almost as many forms of prayer beads as there are religions. How can they help build a richer, fuller prayer life for those who feel called—as I did as a little girl—to learn about and use them? To discover this, we must first look more closely at the Catholic rosary, the main form of Christian prayer beads used today.
THE CATHOLIC ROSARY
The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort.
—Pope John Paul II, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary
If I ask you to think of a rosary, you are most likely to conjure up an image of the dozens of beads connected with little links of chain and leading to a crucifix used by Catholics. You may even know that "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" begins one of the main prayers of this rosary, recited by millions of Catholics worldwide every day.
Protestants may be uncomfortable using the Catholic rosary. For many, their faith tradition does not include praying to the Virgin Mary or to the saints and they may prefer to directly address Jesus and God. But to fully plumb the depths of the Anglican rosary and other Christian prayer bead practices, we must first understand the Catholic rosary. For one thing, the newer Christian rosaries are largely based on the Catholic rosary, both in form and function. There is also a long and rich tradition of prayer and contemplation associated with the Catholic rosary that other Christian rosaries, because they are new, have not had time to accrue. Protestants can learn much from Catholics when it comes to praying on beads.
The History of the Catholic Rosary
There is a beautiful story surrounding the origin of the Catholic rosary. In the thirteenth century, a thirty-three-year-old priest named Dominic was working to win converts in the heart of southern France. Alas, he was having little success. One day, he was complaining of this to the Virgin Mary in a prayer. Suddenly, the Virgin appeared before him. "Wonder not that you have obtained so little fruit by your labors," she told the startled future saint. "You have spent them on barren soil, not yet watered with the dew of divine grace. When God willed to renew the face of the earth, He began by sending down on it the fertilizing rain of the Angelic Salutation. Therefore, preach my Psalter composed of one hundred and fifty Angelic Salutations and fifteen Our Fathers, and you will obtain an abundant harvest." And she handed the astonished Dominic a rosary.
It's a lovely tale, and one that has been approved by thirteen Catholic popes despite the fact that there is no documentation from that time linking Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, or the Dominicans, to the rosary. And as we have already seen, people were using stones and seeds to count their prayers for many years before Dominic. A more likely explanation is just as captivating. Scholars believe the Catholic rosary was developed during the Middle Ages as a way for laypeople to engage in extended prayer. At the time, priests, nuns, and monks performed the Divine, or Daily, Office, which are set prayers, based on the Psalms, sung at certain times of the day and night. Traveling orders—monks and holy men who worked outside the walls of a monastery—followed the breviary, a more truncated form of these prayers. For the common people—who were almost all illiterate—something simpler was required.
Excerpted from Bead One, Pray Too by Kimberly Winston. Copyright © 2008 Kimberly Winston. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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