The Historical Development
of the Orthodox Prayer Rope
and Its Importance
to Our Spiritual Life
— By Dr. Alexander Roman; included here with his permission.
Throughout history, Christian and non-Christian religions alike have used different forms of prayer counters with which to repeat shorter invocations many times a day.
Christians of both Western and Eastern traditions have a long acquaintance with such counters or prayer beads. But what are the differences in their use that are to be found between East and West and how do prayer beads come to play an important role in our spiritual life?
Early Christians used various means of counting their shorter prayers. St Paul of Thebes, for example, used to have a bag with 300 pebbles and placed one pebble for each prayer he said into another, empty bag. In Ethiopia, prayer sticks were devised and notches were made on staffs used as supports for people standing during the long services. Forty-one notches were made since Ethiopian Christians repeated prayers forty-one times in honour of their belief that Christ received forty-one lashes during His Passion. Elsewhere, pieces of wood were attached to strings and then knotted cords were devised.
It was the Western Celtic and Sarum Rites that were to develop what is today called the "rosary" or "garland of roses." The Western Churches, like those of the East, had a great devotion to the Psalter of David which they divided into three parts composed of fifty psalms each. The "Three Fifties" were recited for the dead and for all manner of other intentions as well by both monastics and lay-people.
There were even prescribed numbers of times that the Psalter was to be recited. For example, when a bishop died in Old England, before the Conquest, the Psalter was to be said by monks and laity no less than 600 times! When a lay-person died, the Psalter was said over the body immediately and then individuals would take turns reciting it a further four times throughout the night. St Patrick and other Celtic Saints would recite the first "fifty" and then stand in cold water to recite the next - this to keep alert and awake.
To accommodate monks and laity who could not read, little psalters were devised based on the repetition of the Lord's Prayer and the Angelical Salutation 150 times, divided into three fifties as well. Other psalters based on meditations on the life of Christ and the Most Holy Mother of God were also developed. Soon these were all fused into "Our Lady's Psalter" or the "Rosary." The use of such rosaries is of a venerable age and the Western Rites of the Orthodox Church continue in its use. It was and continues to be in use among Eastern Catholics, although its adoption has sometimes been linked to the issue of "Latinization."
Orthodox monastic manuals prescribe the recitation of up to 150 Our Fathers and the same number of the prayer "Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God" (Orthodox "Hail Mary") , accompanied by prostrations at the end of each prayer. The famous Saint Seraphim of Sarov had his special devotion of walking around the perimeter of the Monastery of Diveyevo, prayer rope in hand, reciting the 150 Our Fathers and Hail Mary'' for all one's relatives and friends, living and dead. At the end, one was to ask for a special grace and it would be granted on condition that the person truly needed it.
The use of a form of the Rosary was in vogue among certain Orthodox Bishops, including meditation on the mysteries. Such forms of prayer are to be found among the devotions of Saints of the Kyivan Baroque period such as St Dmytry Tuptalo, who adopted rosaries in honour of the "Joys and Sorrows of Our Lady" and who also recited a "Hail Mary" at the beginning of each and every hour of the day!
Bishop Seraphim Zvezdinsky, martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1937, prayed fifteen decades of the rosary, that is, fifteen groups of ten Hail Mary's headed with an Our Father.
He meditated on the following mysteries at the beginning of each decade of prayers: 1) Nativity of the Mother of God - for families; 2) Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple - for bad Christians; 3) Annunication - for those who are depressed; 4) Visit to St Elizabeth by the Theotokos - for the unification of persons who are separated from one another; 5) Nativity of Christ - for the rebirth of our souls; 6) Meeting of the Lord in the Temple --for a good death; 7) Flight to Egypt - to flee from temptations; 8) Finding in the Temple of the boy Jesus - for the Grace of constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer; 9) the Miracle at Cana - for the constant assistance of the Mother of God; 10) the Mother of God under the Cross of Her Son - for fortitude; 11) the Resurrection - for strength and persistence in spiritual exercises; 12) Ascension - for the grace to transcend worldly things and live for heavenly ones; 13) Pentecost - for a clean heart and the Gift of the Holy Spirit; 14) the Dormition - for a peaceful and happy end; 15) the Protection of the Mother of God - for the grace of constant protection by the Mother of God.
In the East, monks of the Desert developed intense, personal prayer lives where they repeated short prayers to God throughout the day in response to the Gospel injunction to "pray always." St John Cassian notes in his "Conferences" that the monks of the Thebaid repeated the first part of the 69th Psalm: "O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me!" throughout the day and always.
Soon a prayer developed that invoked the Name of the Lord Jesus and united it with a petition for mercy: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Forms of this prayer were used by monks to develop the Prayer of the Heart, constant spiritual watchfulness and to implore the anointing of the Holy Spirit as a healing balm over the human spirit and soul, weakened and darkened by sin.
St Pachomius once had a vision of an Angel, we are informed by the Slavonic Psalter, who recommended the use of the Jesus Prayer on a knotted cord of one hundred knots. One hundred Jesus Prayers were called a "Prayer" by the Angel. He recommended the recitation of 12 Prayers (1200 Jesus Prayers) during the day and 12 Prayers at night along with a further 12 during an all-night vigil. He recommended 300 prayers to be recited at 3:00 pm every day, that time being when our Saviour Jesus Christ died on the Cross for our sins. This became part of the Pachomian Rule.
Prayer ropes consisting of 100 to 300 knots or beads were employed to keep track of one's counting, since it was believed that this prayer must cleave to the lips, heart and mind of people through constant, incessant repetition.
Monks often recited the prayer up to 12,000 times per day, until it became "self-active" and they would then pray it day and night without counting. The famous book, "The Way of a Pilgrim" is a good introduction to this form of prayer, along with the Philokalia, a collection of Patristic wisdom about the spiritual life and the Jesus Prayer. The Pilgrim is actually a Ukrainian layman who travels Ukraine and Russia, reciting the Prayer and having all kinds of interesting and inspiring experiences.
Greek monks make what they call, "martyria" or strings attached to the prayer rope with moveable beads to keep track of the hundreds of times the prayer is recited.
The Psalter is the great model for our prayer and this is reflected in the structure of the Jesus Prayer. The Fathers of the Church divided the Psalter into twenty "kathismata" each of which contained three shorter units that ended with the longer doxology: Glory be: Alleluia, Alleluia Alleluia, Glory to Thee, O God (3x) Lord have mercy (3x) and one more Glory be.
The Jesus Prayer could substitute for a Psalter and one hundred prayers could substitute for a Stasis or a third part with 300 prayers substituting for a kathisma. Each hundred recitation also ends with the above longer doxology. Thus, the Psalter of Jesus is the recitation of the Prayer 6,000 times. The Daily Office could also be substituted, in case of need, by the recitation of 850 Prayers and 150 prostrations.
In monasteries, this is how the rite of the Jesus Prayer is conducted by the monks each night.
The Abbot stands ahead of the Monks, each with prayer rope in hand. The Abbot then recites the Prayer three times out loud. Then the monks, crossing themselves and reciting the prayer as they make the Sign of the Cross, make 30 prostrations down to the floor. Then the remaining 70 prayers are said in silence. This is repeated, in all, ten times to make up the daily 300 prostrations and 700 prayers - in reality 1,000 Jesus Prayers.
When we make the Sign of the Cross using the Jesus Prayer, we bring our fingers to our forehead and say, "Lord," then down to under our hearts and we say, "Jesus Christ," and then to the right shoulder, saying "Son of God" (as He sits at the Right Hand of God the Father), and then to the left, saying "Have mercy on me" and then as we release our arm down and slightly inclining our heads, we say, "A sinner."
To this day, Orthodox monks are given the "Chotki" or "Vervitsa" which is a woolen or leather cord, or else a string of wooden beads during their monastic profession. The woolen prayer rope is worn on the left wrist as part of the monastic and Episcopal dress. Larger beads separate the smaller beads into groups of ten, 25 or 33 knots. When separated every ten knots, a prostration is performed on the larger bead or knot and the prayer rope is recited five times, as in some Orthodox monasteries.
The use of the vervitsa in reciting the Jesus Prayer, or any other short prayer, is a tremendous spiritual help for any and all Christians. It allows one to maintain concentration and recollection during prayer time. Repeating the same prayer over and over is not tedious. The words of the Jesus Prayer are a like a stream of cool refreshing water for our souls. We need to drink of them many times to quench our spiritual thirst and to develop into spiritually strong persons, until, as our Saviour said to the Samaritan Woman at the well, "Springs of living water will flow within you."
Let us use the vervitsa to frequently invoke the Name of Jesus, the "Epiclesis of our Lord," as the Fathers have named it, to call down the Holy Oil of Divine Mercy on our hearts and souls. This is the Oil that heals and gives enlightenment to our inner selves and transforms us. This is a spiritual exercise which will last us all of our lives, an undertaking that we do in imitation of the ten wise virgins, who came to their Master with abundant Oil in the lamps of their souls.
Let us pray that we become like those lamps, alight with the fire of the Holy Spirit and strengthened by the Name of our Lord Jesus, to perform good works all our lives, so that those seeing our light and our works, will turn to praise the Father in Heaven. As St Seraphim of Sarov liked to say, "Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls will be converted around you." May we all become such missionaries of Christ!
— Dr. Alexander Roman firstname.lastname@example.org