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)


Erika Mehlhaff said...

I just recently was thinking about this type of prayer! I am going to adapt this for my son: he will practice his knot-tying skills for Scouts while we read aloud through the Psalms, or about a particular Saint (e.g. one prayer for each sentence/fact). My eldest can join in the reading, and even tie her own knots (for jewelry/keychains she likes to make). My Little will enjoy the reading time, too! Thanks for a great article!

Peggy Bowes said...

Those are great ideas, Erika! I'll be sure to let Theresa know that you found her post so helpful.

Theresa Doyle-Nelson said...

I'm glad you liked the article about Prayer Ropes, Erika! I love your ideas about connecting the Prayer Rope to your children's activities! What wonderful ideas.


info said...

I use the prayer rope every day for prayer. Maybe in an unconventional way (whilst in the daily traffic jam) but prayer is prayer wherever you are.

It definitely helps for concentration.

The prayer I pray is the Jesus Prayer, the longer version nr 1 on the bulleted list.

God Bless,
Mara @ Prayer Necklace

Peggy Bowes said...

Mara, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I love to pray in the car! In fact, it's so automatic, that as soon as I put my car in gear, I immediately think, "Time to pray!" God bless.

Brojanica said...

Are you in a car or are you sitting by the road?

I myself pray the Jesus Prayer daily using a prayer rope. I do this in the daily traffic jam to and from work. Keeping my eyes on the road and running the prayer rope through my fingers.

I also notice the surroundings while praying, but the prayer rope helps me to keep focused.

Regards and God Bless,