Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest post: Tying Your Prayers in Knots

I am thrilled that my first guest post is by my good friend, Theresa Doyle-Nelson, author of Saints of the Bible and More Saints of the Bible.  We "met" when our articles appeared in the same issue of Canticle magazine (now Women of Grace, in a new journal format).  Since then, we have traded emails, Facebook messages, writing encouragement and prayers for each other.  Without further ado, I present her unique article on prayer ropes, which originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Ligourian magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

Tying Your Prayers in Knots: An Ancient Prayer Form
by Theresa Doyle-Nelson

“For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, a simple glace directed to heaven, a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy.”        ―St. Thérèse of Lisieux

If you are like many people, you might often find your mind floating about after just a moment or two of prayer time with nonprayer thoughts … pondering your upcoming weekend, planning what to fix for dinner, reminding yourself to run to the dry cleaners, and so forth.  If so, you might want to consider trying an ancient form of prayer, known as a prayer rope, to help you stay on task while praying.  The prayer rope is somewhat similar to the Rosary, though it is far less known among Western Catholic Christians.  

Also known as a chotki (Russian) or komboskini (Greek), the prayer rope is a tool that has evolved over the centuries to help Christians follow Saint Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing” (1  Thes 5:17).  Although the precise origin of the prayer rope is uncertain, it is believed that some of the earliest desert hermits and monks who lived in the 200s and 300s used either prayer ropes or similar devices to encourage their prayer.  It is also believed that oftentimes some of these monks, desiring to spend stretches of time at prayer, would get a sack of pebbles and then say one prayer for each pebble as it was tumbled into a bowl.  Another legend states that an early desert monk, perhaps saint Antony the Abbot, recited prayers using a knotted cord, but the devil would sneak in and until each knot in an attempt to foil the holy man.  So, Antony tied extra sturdy knots that thwarted the devil.

Others claim Saint Pachomius started the prayer-on-a-string concept.  One story says he taught illiterate monks to say one Jesus Prayer for each knot on a string instead of memorizing the Psalms.  Whatever the truth is, for many centuries now, people have used string with knots or beads to put a bit of structure into their prayer and to help keep their hearts, souls, and minds focused on God.

Prayer ropes have many variables.  They usually have thirty-three (symbolizing the number of years Jesus spent on earth), fifty, one hundred, or one hundred and fifty (symbolizing the Psalms) knots or beads.  They were originally made with black wool – black to signify the mourning of one’s sins and wool to represent being of the flock of Christ.  Sometimes red wool is mixed into the tassel at the end of the rope to symbolize the blood of Christ.  Some recommend that the tassel be used for wiping away tears of remorse.  Nowadays, prayer ropes can be found in many colors, sizes, and types of cord.  While an ample selection is available for purchase online, they can also be homemade by tying the desired number of knots on a simple piece of string.
No matter the design of the prayer rope, the crucial part is the prayer.  Jesus was clear about the great importance of prayer, and if a prayer rope helps one draw closer to God, then it is a favorable tool.  What prayer or prayers to say with the prayer rope can be a personal choice as well.  The Jesus Prayer is an ancient and much-loved choice that seems to bring a great sense of inner peace to many.  It is believed to have derived from the parable of the tremendously sorrowful tax collector who cried out in the Temple area, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  (Lk. 18:9-14).  Although several versions of the prayer exist, the basic tenet is to implore God’s mercy.

Other prayers can be a heartfelt thought, a verse from the Bible, or part of another prayer.  Keeping the prayer simple yet meaningful is key when using a prayer rope.  You can use one prayer throughout the whole rope or you can change after a certain number of knots (some prayer ropes have dividers).  Practicing deep breathing while praying not only adds health benefits, but can also help to slow down the tempo of your prayer rhythm.  This in turn might help the meaning of the words settle more deeply into your heart and mind, as each knot gently nudges you to keep praying.

When we Catholics think of prayer, we usually think of the Mass, the Our Father, the Rosary, or maybe the Stations of the Cross.  But, the reality is that we have along and rich prayer tradition.  It is just as authentic for a Catholic to meditate in total silence as it is to dance with a tambourine, shouting alleluia.  While there is only one gateway to God, namely Jesus Christ, there are many languages, and not all of them are suitable for each individual.

This is one of the great things about being Catholic.  We have so many authentic prayer forms from which to choose.  The prayer rope is one of the lesser-known, at least among us Westerners, but it can prove to be very rich and rewarding.  As Saint Paul reminds us, how we pray is not nearly as important as that we do pray.  So if you’re having difficulty in your prayer or just want to try something a little different, grab yourself a piece of rope and start tying those knots.

Prayer Rope Suggestions

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
(The Jesus Prayer, longer version)

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
(The Jesus Prayer, shorter version)

Jesus, I trust in You!
(Divine Mercy)

My God, I love You!
(St. Thérѐse’s last words)

Teach me your way, O Lord.
(Psalm 27:11)

A clean heart create for me, God.
Psalm 51:12

I will praise you always.
Psalm 52:11

Lord, hear my prayer.
Psalm 86:6

Note:  I highly recommend Theresa's blog, Bible Saints.   She was the featured guest on this week's Catholic Vitamins podcast, Vitamin N: Names.  (You can also hear my brief  weekly segment, Fitness for Faith, on Vitamin N: Nature)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ask Them What They Mean By Choice -- I Say Choose Life!

My blog post today was inspired by pro-lifer Jill Stanek who issued a challenge to Catholic bloggers to respond to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) "Blog For Choice" day today. According to NARAL,
"Blog for Choice Day gets more people reading and talking about reproductive rights online on one of the most important days surrounding a woman’s right to choose: the Roe anniversary. Plus, it lets your readers and the mainstream media know that a woman's right to choose is a core progressive value that must be protected."    
(Participating NARAL blogs are listed here, so feel free to leave charitable but Truth-filled comments to these tragically misguided bloggers.)
Regarding her Catholic blogger counter-campaign, Jill Stanek states:
"The idea is simple. Any time any of us reads pro-aborts spouting their obscure “choice” rhetoric on a blog, website, Facebook, or Twitter, we call them out on it. We ask them to explain what the “choice” is.  Is it to eat carrots rather than broccoli? To wear red instead of blue? No, of course “choice” is code for killing babies. What’s their problem with the A-word?"

It's tragic that an unborn baby's life has become a "choice" for self-centered women or forced upon the many unfortunate young girls and women who are bullied into abortions by others. 

The word "choice" calls to mind a DVD about the life of St. Gianna entitled Love Is a Choice.  St. Gianna was a devout Catholic wife, mother, physician and athlete who bravely and unselfishly chose death over aborting her child.  She found out she had cancer while pregnant and was given the option of essentially aborting her child with a hysterectomy or a less invasive surgery that would save the life of her child.  St. Gianna chose the surgery but died shortly after childbirth.

The word "choice" also reminds me of two Bible quotes in the January issue of Magnificat Magazine

"I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life..." (Deut 30:19) 

Also, "Before a man are life and death, good and evil, and whichever he chooses will be given to him." (Sirach 15:17)

It seems that the Word of God is pretty clear about the meaning of "choice."

This tragic pro-choice movement and the unspeakable tragedy of over 50 million aborted babies in America since Roe vs. Wade took effect makes me think of the 3rd Sorrowful Mystery, The Crowning of Thorns.  Jesus models love for His enemies in this mystery by actually loving and forgiving the brutal soldiers who mocked and tortured Him. 

I have to realize that Jesus LOVES these vocal pro-choice supporters and bloggers, along with the women who have abortions, the men who pay for, encourage or ignore them and the doctors,  nurses and others involved in the abortion industry.  Jesus offers endless mercy to these people if only they will turn to Him and ask for forgiveness.  If Jesus loves them, then I must too.  Please join me in praying a Rosary for a change of heart for those who think that LIFE, rather than LOVE is a choice.

Unrelated but still important:
Today is the feast of the virgin martyr, St. Agnes, patron of young girls and chastity.  Today, ask St. Agnes to watch over your daughters and protect their chastity.  If you have sons, ask St. Agnes to do the same for their future wives.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Rosary and New Year's Resolutions

Can you believe it's already January 20th?  If you made any New Year's Resolutions, I hope that they're going well.  If you don't make them or have forgotten them already, I have an idea for you:  Turn to the virtue of the Fourth Luminous Mystery, The Transfiguration, and resolve to become a new person in Christ.

To learn more, read my article on this topic at The Integrated Catholic Life e-magazine.  I wrote a similar article, but applied the concept to fitness resolutions in my monthly column at

Please try to pray the Rosary every day, whether you pray it while exercising, in the car running errands, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, a decade at a time throughout the day, or before you fall asleep.  Your life will be richly blessed if you do. 

Another good reason to pray the Rosary every day is that you'll be able to offer your prayer for so many intentions.  I often pray for personal intentions and for my family, but I also pray for random strangers, people I encounter on a regular basis (like the cashier at the grocery store or the homeless man who hangs out at the library), for our nation and its leaders or for people who have no one to pray for them.  Find more inspiration at one of my favorite websites, How To Pray The Rosary Every Day.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Epiphany Proclamation 2011

Since today is the feast of Epiphany, I thought it would be fun to share an old-fashioned tradition from earlier days of the Church.  In the Liturgical Year, many important feast dates are based on the date of Easter, which varies from year to year.  Before there were widely-disseminated calendars and computer programs that could calculate significant dates years in advance, an Epiphany Proclamation was read after the Gospel on today's feast.  In the spirit of tradition, it is still posted annually (although not usually read during Mass.)  It's a beautiful proclamation, so I'm sharing the Epiphany Proclamation for 2011:

Dear brothers and sisters,
the glory of the Lord has shone upon us,
and shall ever be manifest among us,
until the day of his return.
Through the rhythms of times and seasons
let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.
Let us recall the year's culmination,
the Easter Triduum of the Lord:
his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial,
and his rising celebrated
between the evening of the twenty-first day of April
and the evening of the twenty-third day of April,
Easter Sunday being on the twenty-fourth day of April.

Each Easter -- as on each Sunday --
the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed
by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death.
From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent,
will occur on the ninth day of March.

The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the second day of June.
Pentecost, joyful conclusion of the season of Easter,
will be celebrated on the twelfth day of June.

And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be
on the twenty-seventh day of November.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ
in the feasts of the holy Mother of God,
in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints,
and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.
To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come,
Lord of time and history,
be endless praise, for ever and ever.


Another fun way to celebrate Epiphany is to watch the fascinating documentary The Star of Bethlehem on DVD.  (I bought it last year and our whole family enjoyed it.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

We Won't Forget You Theotokos!

Happy New Year!  I hope you are all richly blessed in 2011.

Today is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  Sadly, most Catholics will not realize this since the US bishops have decided that it's not a Holy Day of Obligation.  This year.  That's right-- American Catholics cannot be inconvenienced by being asked to attend Mass two days in a row, so certain holy days are "abrogated" (i.e. swept under the carpet) if they fall on a Saturday or a Monday.  This is not the case in all countries though, so if you're reading from another nation, you may be mystified.  I share your confusion.

I can't imagine a better way to welcome the New Year than to attend Mass and honor the Blessed Mother as we receive our first Bread of Life in 2011.  Today we celebrate Mary's role as Mother of God.  She is not simply the mother of Christ's human nature nor is she a Jewish girl chosen at random to bear the Messiah.  Mary is truly the Mother of God and was chosen and created by God for this role.  The ancient word that describes this title of Mary is Theotokos or "God bearer."  This title and its meaning were so important in the early Church that the Council of Ephesus declared in 431:

"If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel is truly God and therefore that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos) (since she begot according to the flesh the Word of God made flesh), anathema sit." [Anathema sit is an ancient form of excommunication that no longer exists in the Church, but does show the significance of this statement by the Council.]

Since there was no Solemnity Mass to attend today in my diocese, I decided to celebrate the occasion by reading from my new Magnificat magazine (worth every penny!) and by praying 10 decades of the Rosary.  I know that many other Catholics join me in celebrating anyway, but we really do need to get this important feast back into the US Catholic Church, even if it is on a Monday or a Saturday.  Perhaps we can write to our bishops and encourage them to remove the abrogation.  Theotokos, we won't forget you!

Today is also the First Saturday, if you honor the Five First Saturdays devotion.  Yet another reason to pray the Rosary today!

EWTN has two good articles on Theotokos and today's Solemnity.