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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.