“Saying the beads” is a colloquial expression for the Roman Rosary practice. It is simple and descriptive. But the Roman Catholic church is not the only one with this prayer practice.
Older than that is the Orthodox prayer rope, and the great and simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Anglicans now have their own form of counted prayer, but it not one set formula. On a set of 33 beads a chosen prayer order is followed; it can be varied.
I began to pray the rosary about twenty years ago. I had bought a rosary as a souvenir of a trip to the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, and I enjoyed the plain little olivewood beads in my hand, so I found a booklet on praying the rosary and kept it up over time. I am not a faithful rosary follower, as some of my Catholic friends are, but in times of trouble and as a prayer discipline it has been comforting and helpful.
I learned the Jesus prayer (as above) probably twenty-five years ago, and it is a steady companion. I began to use a prayer rope (although mine is beads) just a couple of years ago. The Jesus Prayer is one of the great meditation exercises, and the most basic of counted prayers.
I have not formally tried the Anglican prayer beads, because I don’t care for the mix-and-match format. It’s a little too individualistic for me. Some of the prayer exercises are too complex to be memorized.
The Orthodox prayer rope was originally a cord of wool with one hundred knots and a tassel to mark the beginning and end. The monks of Mount Athos still make these and it is possible to find them on the internet for sale from Orthodox sources, although the only prices I could find were in euros. There are other sources, and instructions are available to make them. I make my Orthodox prayer strands with glass, stone or wooden beads, one hundred beads divided into decades with a different texture bead (so the dividing bead is an “extra”) – this works best for me. Some prefer to have just the one hundred beads with the last bead of the decade (“the ten”) being different. I make a tassel from cotton or wool to match. For the threading cord, I use waxed linen thread.
I love the Jesus Prayer. I began saying it after reading a book by Henri Nouwen. At the time, when I was young and had no vehicle, I had to walk everywhere, no matter what the weather. Since I was on foot a lot, and taking the same routes every day, I found the journeys a bit monotonous, and something of a waste of time. This, of course, was long before cell phones, so there was no breaking the tedium with a good long chat! Instead, I learned to pray silently, to talk to God from the heart. That is the purpose of the Jesus Prayer, to move the heart closer to God. The Prayer was my companion. I gladly started the Prayer with the first step, and almost was sorry to reach my destination some days. It sounds tedious and monotonous in itself, but it isn’t. It puts us in the presence of God, which is the best place to be and the best use of our time.
There is an excellent book available called The Way of a Pilgrim, by an anonymous Russian peasant. It was written sometime after the middle of the nineteenth century, and is a classic of Orthodox literature. It is still in print in paperback, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in Russian forms of Orthodoxy and everyone who is interested in the prayer of the heart.
Thee may hear that the Jesus Prayer can be dangerous, but this is not true. How can the name of Our Lord ever harm thee? Some have used the prayer vainly, and some superstitiously. It is not the Prayer that harms such, but the blasphemy. The Prayer offered to the Lord in simplicity and humility cannot harm, but heal.
I doubt if I can add anything to the material available on the Roman Rosary, as it is the best known of all counted prayer practices. I know some discourage its use as promoting a special place for the Mother of God, but she does have a special place. No human was closer to Our Lord than His mother. He was “flesh of her flesh.” She was His companion in His ministry, witness to His crucifixion, and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost along with the Apostles. This is all scriptural; we don’t need to qualify it. She is chief among the saints. When we ask those who stand at the altar of God for their prayers (that is, for those saints to pray for us) we should always include her. If we ask the living on earth for prayer, why would we not ask those living in the throne room of the Lord? They know His will more perfectly than we can. (“But how do the saints hear us?” someone asked me once. “Through the Holy Spirit,” was my answer. I think that’s obvious.)
Over the years of praying the rosary, I have found that most of them wear out too quickly if used daily. Many are thin chains of soft metal. I make mine from the thick waxed linen thread or dental floss, and tie knots between the beads. These hold up better in daily use. The first rosaries were made this way.
There are many sources for instruction in the rosary, both in print and on the internet. The format is simple, and although it is difficult to memorize the “mysteries”, or the events to remember while praying, I use a prayer card for that or just pray without commemorating the mysteries.
The Anglican prayer bead information is available at King of Peace, an internet site. (www.kingofpeace.org) Prayer beads can be purchased, but it is a simple format to make.
Is repetitive prayer wrong? The Lord told us not to make vain repetitions of prayers, “as the pagans do.” But the pagans sometimes prayed words that had no meaning, or in languages they did not know. They paid for prayers to be repeated as a magical charm. They prayed ostentatiously in their temples to gain notice and status. Sincere counted prayer is not “vain repetition,” but a worthy offering to the Lord, calling on His name and His help. He tells us to ask repeatedly, to invoke His presence. We do not pray over and over just to satisfy some sort of obligation to God. We pray for our own sakes. The counted prayers are a meditation. We must say them ourselves. We can’t pay the priest to pray for us, not can we hang up prayer flags and set up prayer wheels to pray for us, as the Buddhists do. It is our hearts we sacrifice to God, not repetitions of a phrase.
Counted prayer practice is not necessary, but for some it is greatly helpful. Approach it with humility and a desire to grow closer to God, and it will be a blessing to thee.