Category Archives: Orthodox Church in America

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).
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

 


The Retreat: Key to Psychospiritual and Physical Self-care.


self-careWhen I write about retreat, I don’t mean those seminars held by local urban churches and similar organizations, events that are anything but retreats. I’m not talking about preregistering sometimes months ahead to sit in some hall or auditorium for several hours listening to a how-to lecture by some crackpot, who does the same thing on a circuit tour, cookie-cutter, over and again. Buy the CD and you’ll be better off. Read the book if you’re into indoctrination rather than psychospiritual and physical healing. So-called urban churches of all denominations and religious communities, some in their death throes and struggling to generate funds, tout these self-help seminars and workshops as “retreats“; they’re not, and here’s why.


First some background…

I’m in a ministry, vocation, profession–call it what you like–that takes an enormous toll on one’s spiritual and emotional capital.  I’m a thanatologist, a death and bereavement chaplain, a psychospiritual counselor.

In my, for lack of a better term let’s call it “profession”, I have to be a sounding board, an active and deep listener for the questions in the statements and the statements in the questions.  I have to authentically and compassionately companion persons experiencing some of the worst moments in their lives, and I have to stay cool, calm, responsive, and compassionate. At times I have to be an advocate for an individual, a group, sometimes an entire community.

Self-care is one of the most neglected mandates in the helping professions

I am one of the greatest proponents and supporters of what we in the helping professions call “self-care.” But what is self-care? Self-care, simply put, is taking care of yourself so that you can care for others. And it’s one of the most neglected mandates in the helping professions such as clergy, funeral directors, doctors, nurses, managers, mothers, fathers, those experiencing recent loss or bereavement. That’s just a short list but I think I’ve made my point. Anyone, everyone who is in a situation that produces stress on a regular basis needs self-care on a regular basis. Even if you find yourself in the position of being a caregiver or a support resource — as would be the situation in bereavement — for a relatively brief time, you should seriously consider a program of self-care.

Self-care can take many forms. For example, one of my year-round self-care activities is fitness training. I work out at a local fitness center regularly. During the good weather months I love to work with my hands in dirt, getting close to the soil. I find cooking very creative and relaxing. Mental and intellectual self-care is reading what I like, not what I have to read to keep up-to-date in my field. All of these things and more can be called self-care but most people may be doing them with the opposite effect: causing themselves stress.

Even the atmosphere of the gym (Planet Fitness) is stressful.

Is this you at the gym?

Is this YOU at the gym?

For example, I go to the gym to relieve stress. I see many people there creating stress, even the atmosphere there is stressful. Here’s why: They rush in, change quickly, then rush out to get somewhere else.  Stress. They bring their phones in with them and are constantly checking something or making or receiving a call.  Stress. They are hurried and get irritated when they can’t access a machine or a piece of equipment when they want it.  Stress. Even the atmosphere of the gym (Planet Fitness) is stressful.  Canned music everywhere you go. Televisions blasting. People shouting trying to be heard above the televisions and their idiotic talking heads and the canned music. All that, dear readers, is NOT self-care; it’s self-abuse.

self-care-drg

I make my gym workout a total experience; not just physical but a workout for the mind and spirit.

In contrast, my gym experience, and the experience I promote in those who seek my advice is like this: My gym time is my self-care time. I am not rushed (I refuse to be rushed). I leave my phone in my car and I don’t check it until I leave the gym. I’m not listening to wild crazy music;  if I listen to anything at all while on the cardio machines it’s either a mantra or a lecture of some sort. I rarely socialize and if I do, I keep it short and sweet.  I make my gym workout a total experience; not just physical but a workout for the mind and spirit.

It’s really comical when some of these so-called retreats are about prayer or meditation!

So, you can understand my objections to calling a one-day seminar or workshop a retreat. You rush in traffic to get there, you rush to find a parking spot. You get in line, get your name tag, and they hand you a plastic binder with everything you need to know. You rush to get the free muffin, bagel or cup of coffee, you gobble that down, then you rush to get prime seating, and you think you are ready to absorb the wisdom of some spiritual or religious pundit, and to appreciate being in the moment, mindful, spiritually renewed — Then it’s lunchtime and you get to sit socializing amid loud conversation and probably intrusive announcements and more elevator music. There’s no silent lunch, no quiet space for medication or reflection. It’s all industrial. They feed you but you’re not nourished in the end. In fact, it’s really comical when some of these so-called retreats are about prayer or meditation! NOT!

The wisdom of the East is contained in the saying:

Let no one neglect one’s own work to do that of another, however great the need. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, one can concentrate doing good.

what-is-self-care

At New Skete, you’re on personal retreat. Everyone knows that. Everyone respects that.

I go on a regular 3-day, usually a Thursday evening to Sunday noontime, retreat on a monthly basis. I make my retreats at a monastery near Cambridge, New York, the Monastery of New Skete, which is situated on a mountain, surrounded by forest, peace, quiet, nature. The guesthouse, where I sometimes stay when not in the monastery proper, is luxuriously appointed: private suites with private bath, a sitting room, a bedroom, a patio that opens to a meadow or to the forest. A small guesthouse library stocked with religious, spiritual, and secular titles. A large open social space with comfortable chairs and a large wooden table for pizza together or for games. A kitchen with microwave, fridge, free tea and coffee, etc. You can attend morning services (matins) with the monks and beautiful voices, evening services (vespers) before dinner, for a real spiritual moment. In the morning, enjoy a breakfast of cereals, wonderful breads, pretty much anything you’d like. Main meal at noon is home cooked and plentiful; the evening meal is usually a surprise and abundant. You can walk, sit and read, listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees, pray or meditate, visit the training kennels or the puppy kennel on prior arrangement. Bennington is just 12 miles away and Cambridge is a sleepy little town with lots of attractions and a couple good restaurants and coffee houses is 10 minutes down the road, if you find peace and quiet oppressive and need some stress back into your life. With all that you can make an appointment for spiritual guidance from one of the monks, or you can simply sit back and chat with them; they’re genuinely interested in you. Genuinely.

At New Skete, you’re on personal retreat. Everyone knows that. Everyone respects that. Even so, you can make some wonderful personal contacts while there. But the overarching understanding is that you are there for spiritual renewal, on a real retreat, and the bonus is that you leave there not only spiritually renewed but also mentally refreshed and physically rested. That’s retreat, my friends.

A paraphrase of the Dhammapada, the sayings of the Buddha, might sound appropriate at this point:

As a bee gathers honey from the flower without injuring its color or fragrance, so too the wise seeker goes about his or her retreat.

calloused-handsIf you don’t take care of your hands when you are doing heavy or hard work in the yard, you get blisters. If you do that kind of work regularly, your hands become rough, callused and insensitive. It’s only natural and it happens to protect your hands from real damage. If you’re smart you’ll take some measures to protect your hands like using gloves or applying a moisturizing cream. The same principle applies when you are exposed to hard mental or spiritual work like in the helping professions or just being a good parent. Your mind and your soul can get blistered (anger, rage, etc.), callused (insensitive, hardened), or even injured (burnout, depression, etc.) Like hard physical work, these mental and spiritual changes can occur gradually, over time, without you realizing it until, well, it’s too late. There’s a Buddhist saying that milk doesn’t sour over night (My translation: Avoid weeding your garden and see where it gets you). And, as the flood carries away the sleeping village; so too does unawareness seize and carry away the foolish.

Eight Ways a New Skete Retreat Can Heal You

In a recent issue of Organic Life, I was pleased to find confirmation and something like validation of my own teachings on what a retreat should be (I’m attaching a scan of the item below) and I’d like to summarize some of its points below:

  • A lower heart rate: Nature sounds have been shown to lower the heart rate.
  • Pump up your immune system: A forest walk can lower the heart rate and pump up natural killer cell activity (helpful immune cells).
  • Greater compassion:  Studies have shown that gazing at a forest or at treetops caused subjects to feel more compassion and generosity.
  • More friends:  Exposure to green space reduces a feeling of loneliness. Immersion in natural settings is linked to social bonding and stronger interpersonal ties.
  • Increase your brainpower: Even small bursts of time in nature can boost attention spans and exercise levels, improve motor skills.
  • A better state of mind:  Solo time in nature is good for creativity and mental health. Studies report that after a walk in nature subjects had fewer repetitive, depressive thoughts and decreased morose thinking. The recommendation: if you need to solve a problem, take a walk in nature.
  • Deeper and better sleep: Taking a break from toxic indoor air and desk jockeying can give you a cognitive boost; exposure to outdoor light can help to reset your diurnal rhythms, improving the quality of your sleep. Sunshine increases the body’s production of vitamin D, which has been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers.
  • The Bigger Perspective: Neuroscientist David Strayer has documented the “three-day effect”. Three days spent in a natural surroundings away from the daily grind helps you to tap into certain areas of the brain that can enhance your multi-tasking power. He recommends a three-day retreat in natural surroundings at least once a year. (See: National Geographic, This is Your Brain on Nature, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/, last accessed on January 27, 2017)

To read the entire piece, please click here Eight Ways Nature can Heal You

forest-trail

You can walk, sit and read, listen to the birds and the breeze in the trees, pray or meditate, visit the training kennels or the puppy kennel on prior arrangement.

If I’ve managed to convince you that you owe yourself the experience of a real retreat, during which you can achieve those eight objectives, and thus experience real psychospiritual and physical benefits, I’m recommending that you contact

Brother Gregory Tobin,  Guestmaster at the New Skete Monastery, (518) 677-3928/ brgregory@newskete.org

Form more information and some stunning photography, visit the New Skete website

Monks Monastery
273 New Skete Lane
Cambridge, NY 12816
518-677-3928

Sign up for the New Skete Newsletter

The New Skete Guesthouse

The New Skete Guesthouse

You can have your self-care  retreat at New Skete, meals, accommodation, comfort and renewal for a fraction of the cost of a modest hotel room. (The suggested donation is $80/day. It’s a donation and, depending on your financial situation, whatever you can reasonably afford is acceptable. Your generosity is humbly appreciated.). The donation you make to the Monks of New Skete for your retreat includes your accommodation in the guesthouse, meals, and access to the beautiful amenities of the monastery properties such as meadows, forest, hiking trails, beautiful sacred spaces, meditation paths, and so much more! Your donation is also tax deductible

New Skete is just about 1 hour from Albany, New York, through beautiful countryside. Just the drive is worth the effort but the New Skete experience is otherworldly.

Editor’s Note: In 2016, the 50th anniversary of the New Skete Monastic Community, the community inaugurated the unique opportunity to become a Companion of New Skete:

The Unique Companions of New Skete Cross

The Unique Companions of New Skete Cross

In 2016 New Skete celebrated its 50th anniversary. The monks at New Skete believe and are committed to those values that are crucial to a living and vital spirituality and faith, and they welcome all seekers regardless of denomination or tradition, and are further dedicated to responding to the call to extend those values to those outside the monastic community, to those who especially share those ideals. Today’s world presents profound challenges for anyone seeking to journey along such a path; the support of a wider community is needed to help each of us stay faithful to our calling. If you share the vision of fellowship in spiritual community in the world, and the ideals of the Companions of New Skete speak to you, we encourage you to contact The Companions of New Skete, in care of the monastery. Be transcendent, become part of something bigger than yourself.

To learn more, please visit the special Companions of New Skete site.


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