Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Orthodox Prayer Rope


The prayer rope has been in use by Catholics, both in the West (rosary or chaplet) and in the East (Orthodox prayer rope komboskini (Greek), chiotki (Russian)), since about the 4th century of the Common Era. Even so, the concept of the prayer rope is not a Christian idea, and was in use in the Far East and even in ancient Egyptian practice. The use of the prayer rope on which to count prayers, mantras, or recitations of any sort is a common practice not only among orthodox and traditional Christians, the devotional practice involving 108 prayer knots or beads called a mala in prayer practice  (Sanskrit, japa) is also practiced among the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and others. Muslims will frequently be seen using a mispaha (Arabic),  tisbah (Persian), or tesbih (Turkish), which are incorrectly and inappropriately called “worry beads” by Westerners, and are used to recite the 99 names of God (Allah), the 100th name being incomprehensible. The muslim prayer beads are also used in the dikhr (prayer practice) in which the 33 Subhanallah, 33 Alhamdulillah, and 33 Allahuakbar are recited. In the Sufi zikr practice, strings of 100 or 200 beads may be used.

Japa Beads

The bottom line to all of this is that from time immemorial and in many faith and belief traditions, repetitive prayer or devotional practice was managed using strings of knots or beads. The relieved the devotee from the distraction of counting prayers by allowing him or her to simply move along the string of knots or beads and, if shorter strings of say 33 knots or beads were used, to repeat the string the required number of times, in order to complete the required number of repetitions.

The Roman Catholic rosary is nothing more than a prayer rope.  The rosary is a specific devotion dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is a relatively recent development,  attributed to St Dominic and the apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by him in around 1214 in the church of Prouille. Accordingly the RC rosary as we know it today, dates back only to about the early 13th century.  Despite the promotion by various popes and notables of Roman Catholicism of the rosary and the association of various attributes such as the various mysteries etc.,  it does seem that it’s history is more legend than fact, and that the rosary, it’s prayers, and its practices go back to less “miraculous” origins. More palatable history makes the practice of the rosary quite similar to that of other faith traditions: to count prayers. Whether in some Roman Catholic Christian traditions the prayer rope or string of beads was used to count Ave Marias or Pater Nosters, the fact remains that the use of pebbles, rice grains, knots or beads to keep track of prayers is not a 13th century invention by a Roman Catholic saint after having experienced an appartition of what legend claims to be an appearance of the Virgin Mary.

The more OCD the practice, the more devout the practitioner

Of course, the Western Church, that is, Roman Catholicism, as is its regrettable tendency, had to take a simple idea of a simple devotion and complicate it by including various prayers (Psalms (50, 70), the Hail Mary,  Lord’s Prayer,  Gloria, the Creed), to various formal and configurational iterations of the simple rope, and various mysteries and promises, even so-called “secrets.” Naturally, the more complicated the ritual the more prone to idolatrous practices and superstition. But Hey! the more OCD the practice, the more devout the practitioner.

In the Western Christian tradition, Roman Catholics are the leaders in the use of prayer beads, Anglicans also use prayer beads, and Lutherans to some degree use them.

Anglican Prayer Beads

The forms, too, of the Roman Catholic rosaries also differ substantially and range from the Dominican and Franciscan traditions to the more recent so-called rosary-based devotions, such as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, have taken on a development of their own.

So, by way of a rather lengthy introduction, we finally arrive at the main topic of our article, the Orthodox prayer rope.

Legend has it that the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers, devout individuals who left the distractions of the cities during the 2nd and 4th centuries of the Common Era to seek solitude in the wastelands of desert and isolated wilderness, would keep count of their prayers by casting pebbles into a bowl or basket. Apparently,  because lugging around your basket and pebbles was a bit onerous,  they started weaving palm fronds together to form prayer ropes. Here’s one of the legends that has been handed down to us to explain the particular practice of weaving the so-called Angelic Knot for the Greek komboskini or the Russian chiotki:

The knot that makes up each “bead” of the prayer rope is a very complex one, composed of seven interlocked crosses. There is a story that has been passed down for many centuries regarding the origin of this knot:
There was a monk who wanted to make a prayer rope in order to count his prayers. However, each time that the monk completed a few knots, a demon would come by and untie them all. The demon knew for what purpose the monk was tying his rope and out of fear and spite wanted to keep him from being able to complete it. One day an angel of God appeared to the monk and, answering his prayers for help, taught him how to make a special kind of knot composed of seven interconnected crosses. This knot was so complicated and, having on it so many crosses, the demon was unable to untie it and the monk was finally able to finish his rope.

Angelic Knot Detail

Whether the origin of the prayer rope is attributed to St Dominic and his visions or to St Pachomius and his angels, the fact remains that the prayer rope has persisted over the centuries, even the millenia, and continues even today to be an important devotional tool for many Christians.

Our prayer rope or chiotki is used by many to recite the so-called Jesus Prayer, an important meditation practice in which the name of the Incarnate Word is recited in repetition. It must be noted that this is not a mantram (A mantram is a spiritual word, phrase,  or brief prayer that we repeat silently to ourselves to calm the body, quiet the mind and improve concentration to restore the spirit) although may have a similar effect,  and its purpose and desired effect is quite different from what we know of the Eastern mantric practices.

“The incessant invocation of God’s name is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens”

– St. Barsanuphius the Great

The Jesus prayer as recited using the prayer rope comes to us in several forms but here is a common formula in several languages:

The Jesus Prayer in Several Languages

Lord Jesus, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.

Church Slavonic: Господи Ісусе Христе Сыне Божїй помилѹй мѧ грѣшнаго. (грѣшнѹю if prayed by a female)
Greek: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱέ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν (τὴν ἁμαρτωλόν if prayed by a female)
Russian: Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне Божий, помилуй мя грешнаго. (грешную if prayed by a female)
Ukrainian: Господи Ісусе Христе, Сину Божий, помилуй мене грішного. (грішну if prayed by a female)/Господи, помилуй (The shortest form).
Georgianუფალო იესუ ქრისტე, ძეო ღმრისაოშემიწყალე მე ცოდვილი
Latin: Domine Iesu Christe, Fili Dei, miserere mei, peccatoris. (peccatricis if prayed by a female)
Polish: Panie Jezu Chryste, Synu Boga, zmiłuj się nade mną, grzesznikiem.
Spanish: Señor Jesucristo, Hijo de Dios, ten piedad de mi, que soy un pecador.

Secular prayer ropes are virtually indistinguishable from the religious type and may serve the user in a variety of ways: they can be used to cope with anxiety, they can be used to recite personal mantras, they can be used as touch tokens and reminders.

We have found a source for personalized, hand-woven prayer ropes for religious or secular use. These ropes are hand-woven in a variety of available colors and color combinations ranging from the monastic black to multiple colors with symbolic significance, or in colors of ritual, ceremonial or purely personal meaning. They are typically woven in ropes of 30, 50, 100 knots or can be woven in any number of knots, depending on personal preferences and the purpose for which the rope is used.

As shown in the illustration above, the sourced prayer ropes can be woven in a variety of styles, depending on the user’s preferences.

A bar and loop type closure for a bracelet

When the prayer rope is used as a prayer bracelet, the rope may be woven in one continuous sequence, may include a tassel or a cross, a separator bead, or may be provided with a variety of closures including clasps, magnetic , sliding knot closures, etc.

There are a great many uses for these ancient and very effective devotional items, and we would encourage anyone interested in purchasing prayer ropes or in bringing together a group to learn how to make them for your faith community to contact our source at Retreat Master.

The Editor

 

Advertisements

Death, Bereavement and a Return to Silence


Republished with permission from Spirituality and Griefcare.


Death does not respect age; any death is a loss whether it be an 18-month old infant, an 18-year old youth, or an 81 year old matron. They are all significant losses to someone and each instance has its own pattern of grief responses and challenges to overcome. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or any other feature, each death is unique and special, like no other death ever or anywhere, because with each death we lose an entire world, an entire package of experiences that may have just been in the process of unwrapping.

We hardly ever speak of a beforelife but tend to be overly concerned with the afterlife. It may be comforting for some of us to reflect on who and where we were before we became who we are when we were born. It’s interesting to ponder that question because we can either trust that we were in fact somewhere, existing, before we were physically conceived. But where was that? The alternative is to believe that once a random sperm entered a waiting egg, a cascade of events was triggered that became the infant you and developed into the you you are today. Quite honestly, neither of the two hypotheses can really be resolved, because we have no real idea what constitutes “you.” Perhaps that’s why we prefer to occupy ourselves with an afterlife, since in that discussion we at least have a tangible quantity to work with: a physical person with all sorts of attributes has died, and we ask the many questions associated with a death, most often Why? and Where?

We are terribly uncomfortable with being so vulnerably human and can’t bear to think that we will someday, somewhere, somehow die. We will physically stop working and some rather disgusting changes will take place in our physical bodies. Like the proverbial ostrich, most of us wander aimlessly and with minimum purpose along the myriad possible paths through the time and space we call life. We greedily seek one diversion or entertainment after the other, never getting enough, and yet demanding and getting more and more distraction from the reality of ourselves and the world around us. We become a shell of what we potentially can be.

Shells of former selves.

When death finally arrives to claim a loved one or a friend, we are shocked, confused, angry, and demanding. How could this have happened? Why did it have to happen? If only…! Reality is really hard to take and when you are so arrogant that you think you can handle all the answers or can control what happens, reality gets even harder on you. You attempt to quench your anxiety with denial but it doesn’t seem to work for you – or anyone else. Death visits and seldom knocks. Death rarely makes an appointment to come around when it’s convenient. Death just drops by and takes what is his.

When a death occurs it almost always ushers in a psychospiritual process we commonly refer to as grief, and a psychosocial process we generally refer to as mourning. Both grief and mourning have their sociocultural patterns we call ritual on the “micro” level and ceremony on the “macro” or public arena. Within these we have social norms, including how grief is politicized, acknowledged, and cultural dictates, bundled together into what we call practice or on a more substantial scale, tradition. Religion / spirituality of one form or another, or one of the philosophies seeking religion, frequently provide a foundation upon which these behaviors can establish and legitimize themselves. The psychospiritual and the psychosocial environments provide the contexts in which the bereaved engage in their grief work, find meaning in their loss, incorporate the transformed deceased into their lives, continue their bonds with the deceased, and transcend the bereavement experience as transfigured persons. It’s a complex process that requires time and permission to proceed. Although the social / public process of mourning may have temporal waypoints and a particular culture may set an end time for the public display of bereavement, grief does not have such an amenity. In fact, grief may be experienced for many years after a loss even without being classified as “pathological,” or complicated, and grief is unique to each griever, it’s a personal experience and must be accommodated by each griever in his or her own way. Grief cannot be rushed nor can it be stereotyped.

Today, in the early 21st century, we are deluged with information and stimuli of indescribable variety and in asphyxiating volumes. Some of the deluge tends to shape our very physiology and repattern our nervous systems, especially our brains and the way we think. The information and stimuli enveloping us at every instant of every day is insidiously evil in that it is directed at transforming human beings endowed with free will into means to unhealthy ends. The media bombarding every single human being today is dehumanizing us and transforming our very existence from beings to doers. We are no longer mindful of the gift of the moment we are living in and we are unable to enjoy the moment in silent reflection We have no peace. Television, radio, emails invade every moment of our lives with commands to “Hurry!” “Don’t wait!” “Do it now!” “Last Chance.” Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging have all replaced real personal relationships with virtual personal relationships. The once sentient being we called human has become a mere reflection in a smartphone screen. We don’t even take the opportunity to speeddial a significant other and would rather spend the time texting rather than  talking. Even “chatting” which was once a form of informal oral communication and stimulus sharing has become realtime texting and responding but there’s nothing real about it.

All of these intrusions and incursions into our humanity and their tragic effects on who and what we are can be seen in our death practices. Digital death is a term that once described online practices centering on death-related communications; today, digital death is the counterpart of a person’s physical death. Our dehumanization is almost complete now because we have moved away from metaphysical, spiritual trust in an afterlife and are now even concerned about what happens to our Facebook page or our Twitter account after we physically die; we are now concerned with a digital afterlife! How pitiful can it get?

Materialist consumerism has decided that your death-related experience, your bereavement, your grief should be limited to three days and then you need to get back to work, get over your loss, and become productive again. It’s called bereavement leave. But it’s not leave to grieve; it’s merely time to get the necessary paperwork done to dispose of whoever it was who died. Three days, people! You’ve lived with an individual for decades, sharing almost every moment and you have three days to get over his death. You’ve raised a child to young man or womanhood, watched a helpless infant become a strapping happy young adult and you have 3 days to get over the car crash that killed him. What have we become?

On April 25, 2017, at 9:20 a.m. two young men, Logan Penzabene and Matthew Hamilton, each 18 years old, were traveling down a main road near their homes, a road they had probably traveled dozens if not hundreds of times on their way to school or once they qualified for their drivers licenses. But today was going to be different, very different. Today was going to be so different that at about 9:20, one would be dead and the other, Matthew Hamilton, in a coma, and hundreds of lives would be forever changed. One would be dead, Logan Penzabene, and the other in a coma. Two families would be plunged into the darkness of despairing grief; a whole community would be plunged into disbelief. An entire school district would be offered grief counseling. Why?

Well, on that fateful morning, the two young men were driving along and for some reason we may never know – perhaps they were texting, perhaps making a call, perhaps responding to some electronic notification – the driver crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and hit a flatbed tractor trailer head-on, killing the young driver and causing critical head injuries to his passenger. Were they texting, making a call, responding to an electronic notification? Does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! One young man is DEAD, another is in a COMA, a whole community is thrown into disarray. Yes! It does matter!

The appalling part of the story is not that the event was preventable – I cannot support the belief that anything is truly preventable and must dispose of that notion of preventability as just more arrogance believing that we can control events. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those arrogant, self-important political figures who believes that if he announces to a so-called program, “No Empty Chair”,  Teen Safe Driving Campaign, which is heralded on the Campaign website as: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today launched the “No Empty Chair” teen driving safety education and enforcement campaign to raise awareness of highway dangers during prom and graduation season.” Apparently, Cuomo believes that if he announces a campaign the problem is solved.  Cuomo’s campaign  was announced on April 15, 2017, the fatal accident occurred on April 25, 2017.

What we have to come to understand is that inflated programs and bombastic political rhetoric or police efforts during a so-called “campaign” do little or nothing to fundamentally change what government and corporations have worked so hard to create: producers to produce goods and services, consumers to consume goods and services, and sheeple to hear and obey (and to consume). The hypocrisy is conspicuous, it’s glaring, but if you’re constantly gazing into your smartphone screen, constantly receiving the indoctrination (in the past called “brainwashing”) and loving every digital minute of it, you won’t notice.

The churches and deathcare providers are elated. The churches because you may never have set foot in church for Sunday worship but they’ll wheel you in one last time and the church and pastor can get 30 minutes of exposure and a check. The deathcare industry doesn’t care one way or the other; the funeral director will get each and every one of us sooner or later, but sooner is better for the bottom line, and even better if it’s a sensational death that will attract multitudes of mourners! Visibility for both. Revenues for both. Rescue and paramedical personnel get to flaunt themselves and their equipment, which is good stuff for budget negotiations. Local political hacks, including everyone from the coroner / medical examiner, to law enforcement responders, to local elected stumpers ever eager for that special moment to appear and look devastated and share “Our prayers are with you today” canned expressions for the cameras. Even the public mourners and their makeshift shrines erected at the accident site. Everyone wants to be seen meditatively and reflectively, even prayerfully standing at the roadside memorial, “paying their respects,” showing solidarity for the momentary grief of a community. It’s really difficult to tell the real from the virtual.

The Penzabene Crash Site.

But the bottom-line, naked reality is that one young man is dead; another is critically injured. The bottom-line, naked reality is that one family is grieving the loss of a vibrant and vital part of that unit called family; a limb has been amputated and just like in the case of amputation of a physical limb, it is acutely painful, and there will be phantom pain even when the limb is no longer there.

Three days of bereavement leave is not going to work. Empty political actions like “No Empty Chair” or whatever they’re calling that stupidity is not going to work. Law enforcement “efforts” – as yet ineffectual and unrevealed – don’t seem to be doing very much. People are still killing each other, and people are getting dead regardless of whether the killing is intentional or unintentional. Sorry but dead is dead.

We can’t change what has happened and there’s no way we can justify any attempt to rationalize what has happened. That’s what makes Gov. Cuomo’s “No Empty Chair” campaign so political and so scurrilous. That’s what makes Bethlehem Police Commander Hornick’s statements like “it’s a tragic loss”  and “our feelings to out to the families” so pro forma and empty. Incidents like this one are not “tragic” and they’re probably not “preventable” by inaugurating campaigns with political undertones like “No Empty Chair.” Most people would probably disagree with what I just wrote. Not tragic!?! How heartless! Not, preventable? How fatalistic, how pessimistic! But those people would be wrong and misguided, victims of their own delusions, denial, and despair.

What I will say is that incidents like these, while not tragic and not preventable, are important teaching moments. Are important opportunities for everyone concerned to re-evaluate themselves and decide what they have become. It’s a time to become reflective and for self-examination. It’s a time to honestly admit that we are all contributing to our own psychospiritual demise, some of you willingly others inadvertently, but the vast majority are all part of the “preventable tragedies” of our post-modern, post-Christian, dehumanized world.

So what’s the final take-home message? Dead is dead. Loss is loss. Grief is unavoidable. The living will bury their dead and go on living. But is it that simple? Not really.

In my thinking, grief is a unique opportunity for personal and community growth. What you can’t change you have to take good advantage of. We do this by extending ourselves in compassion and love. We have to allow ourselves to stop for a moment so that we can catch up with ourselves. In other words, we have to take a moment and sit on a rock and become lost in time watching the brook flow around the obstacles. We need to shut out the white noise in our lives, and listen to the music of the brook and the birds. We need to raise our eyes from the illuminated screen and allow our souls to be illuminated by the sunlight playing off the ripples and the leaves. We need to stop feeling guilty about caring for ourselves and for others. We need to take time off from being busy to being just be-ing. This is essential to reclaiming our humanness, our spirituality.

I recall as a child the silent dying of a favorite apple tree. Of course, as a child I had the time for be-ing and for listening, for seeing; where there is no time for be-ing there’s no time for seeing or for listening. If we slow down we can hear what the Spirit is telling us about the dying of trees, the planet, of people, and what these deaths mean to us as beings capable of creating meaning and reflecting on love and how all of these things came into being, how a Spirit of love brought us into being.

The questions that we ask about death and dying are basically questions about the meaning of being, of be-ing. These are the questions that go into the stories once told around tribal campfires, and which now become part of the narratives that are told about our dead. These stories were the subject matter of the drawings on cave walls long ago, of the poetry of love and loss, and the emotions associated with the death of green in autumn. The Spirit is very generous in using any opportunity or event to make a point to us arrogant, uncertain, hesitant creatures.

We as educators, spiritual care providers, thanatologists, human beings, need to get back to basics and enter the world of the deep soul.

No condolences, no campaigns, no law enforcement efforts, no roadside memorials, no funeralization service will every have the desired, the needed effect unless we learn to appreciate silence. Our institutions from the family to church to government have taken a wrong turn. We live in an “increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness…” [McGilchrist, p. 6]

Our institutions cannot help but have a stake in blunting our maturity even if it means they must destroy the original versions and insights on which those very institutions were founded. We can easily identify that fragmentation in our education system, our government, our churches, and even in our families. [Aside: Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating work of literature in many ways, but the story about the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best illustration of the perverse change in institution over time. Here’s a link to a brilliant portrayal by Sir John Gielgud. The Grand Inquisitor ]

I’ll close with a quote taken from Maggie Ross’ fascinating book, Silence: A User’s Guide, in which she cites a passage from Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, noting that Holloway’s use of “religion” should be thought of in broad terms, in the sense of any pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance

Hear the flow. See the light. Enter the silence.

“All institutions overclaim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights in them. They seque from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging.” [italics mine]

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

Download the final article from Spirituality & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Further reading:
Holloway, Richard. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.   Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art,  2016. Print.
Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide, 2014. Print.


%d bloggers like this: