An Ancient Contemplative Practice Enriches a Modern-Day Believer’s Prayer Practice

By Ben Franklin (with Sue Reeve)

Introduction: 

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God implored His people to stand, look, and ask for the “ancient paths, where the good way is …” (See Jeremiah 6:16). Ben Franklin, member of Sherpa Cohort 1, did just that when he decided to use Anglican prayer beads as one way to enrich his prayer practice. Ben discovered prayer beads help the pray-er become mindful of God’s presence by use of mind, body, and spirit. 

During Cohort 1’s Retreat C, Ben introduced the history of prayer ropes and beads. Inspired by his presentation, before the conclusion of that retreat, I (Sue Reeve) ordered a set of Anglican prayer beads online as well as the book, Praying Through Psalms – A Guide for Contemplative Prayer Using Anglican Prayer Beads by Cindy Hamilton. Since then, I often incorporate Anglican Prayer Beads during my devotional time and have found the practice a beneficial way to slow down and become mindful of God’s presence in my mind, body, and spirit as the gentle repetition of prayer and touching successive beads guides me into worshipful stillness.

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Sue’s morning devotional time often includes praying with Anglican prayer beads, using the book referenced in this post, her Bible, and always, coffee. The cup shown here was a gift from a fellow pilgrim during a pilgrimage to Spain, led by Dr. Gill, in 2018.

With Ben’s permission, today’s Sherpa blog post shares highlights of his presentation. 

Historical Background:

  1. The Desert Fathers of the 3rd to 5th centuries used pebbles to count prayers, typically reciting the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The invention of a prayer rope is attributed to Anthony the Great in the 4th century.
  2. The Western Church incorporated beads, divided into ten “decades,” which eventually became almost exclusively associated with praying the “Rosary.” 
  3. The Eastern Church continued to use ropes, some using intricate cross-shaped knots. A Greek Orthodox monk is given a prayer rope as part of his monastic habit as the second step in monastic life. This is called his “spiritual sword.” 
  4. Anglican Prayer Beads/Ropes, consisting of 33 beads/knots, are a modern adaptation.

Protestant Use: 

  1. Method 
    1. The use of the prayer beads or rope helps bring users into contemplative or meditative prayer, being mindful of God’s presence by use of mind, body, and spirit.
    2. Touching fingers on each successive bead is an aid in keeping the mind from wandering.
    3. The rhythm of the prayers leads more readily into stillness.
  2. Form

    1. Thirty-Three (Beads/Knots)
      1. Thirty-three beads/knots symbolize the years of Christ’s Incarnation.
      2. The four groups of seven are separated by four cruciform beads.
      3. Prayed three times (ninety-nine beads) the prayer rope equals the complete number of the Divine Names.
      4. If the Cross is added as a separate number to the ninety-nine beads, you have the equivalent of the Orthodox Prayer Rope and the symbol of the fullness of Creation represented in the number one hundred.  
    2. Four (Divided into Four Sections)
      1. The cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance).
      2. The four weeks of the lunar month.
      3. The four cardinal directions (east, west, north, south)
      4. The primary elements (earth, water, fire, air).
      5. The four seasons of the year. 
    3. Seven (Seven Knots/Beads in each Section)
      1. Spiritual perfection and completion.
      2. The conventional month (four times seven days).
      3. The seven days of creation.
      4. The liturgical year has seven seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost).
    4. Other
      1. Can use set or repetitive prayers.
      2. Can use each “week” as a prompt, such as A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
  1. Sample Prayer
    1. Cross:  Loving God,
    2. Invitatory Bead:  “You have called me, Lord, into this time of prayer to be with you.”
    3. First Cruciform Bead:  “I praise you, Lord, for …”
    4. Week Beads, Set 1: Use each bead to praise God; think of different qualities of God for which you would want to give praise.
    5. Second Cruciform Bead:  “I ask, Lord, for your forgiveness for …”
    6. Week Beads, Set 2:  Use each bead to confess your sins to God.
    7. Third Cruciform Bead:  “I thank you, Lord, for …”
    8. Week Beads, Set 3:  Use each bead to offer thanks to God for the blessings in your life. 
    9. Fourth Cruciform Bead:  “I pray, Lord, for …”
    10. Week Bead, Set 4:  Use each bead to list your intercessions – your joys and concerns for yourself or others.
    11. Invitatory Bead:  “Christ is alive in me. Thanks be to God.” 
    12. Cross:  “Amen.”

Practicing Spiritual Disciplines:

During the Certificate in Spiritual Direction training program of Sherpa: Guidance for the Spiritual Climb, members are introduced to historical practices used in the Christian church, including a variety of ancient spiritual disciplines. Encouraged to try different practices, some become important tools in a participant’s own personal journey of spiritual formation. Ben’s use of Anglican prayer beads is an example of one way an ancient practice helps us develop greater mindfulness of God’s presence in our present-day journey.