how-to: using a prayer rope

In the first part of this post, how to: the jesus prayer, we talked about what the Jesus prayer is and why it plays such a vital role in our spiritual lives.  Now, we’ll discuss how to practice the Jesus prayer using a prayer rope.

To quote St. John Climacus of The Ladder again,

“With the name of Jesus flog the foes, because there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth.”

What is a prayer rope?

{image via St. Paisius monastery}

A prayer rope is a circular rope composed of a certain number of knots, most commonly 33–the number of years Christ lived on earth, but there are also 50 knot, 100 knot, 150 knot and 300 knot, ropes.  There are usually beads which serve as a marker every 10, 25 or 50 knots.  Prayer ropes are used as an aid in prayer by helping us keep our mind focused on the task at hand. How many times during prayer will your mind wander? By using a prayer rope, the physical motion of moving the knots through your fingers calls your mind back and allows you to refocus on communicating with God.

While they can be found in many colors today, the prayer rope is traditionally made from black wool. This is a reminder that we are all sheep of the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). It is also the color of mourning, to remind us of Christ’s words: “blessed are they who mourn, for they will be consoled” (Matt 5:4). The cross at the end proclaims Christ’s sacrifice, as well as His victory over death, of humility over pride, or self-sacrifice over egotism, of light over darkness.

{image via St. Paisius monastery}

Prayer ropes are one of the items given to an Orthodox Christian monastic at the time of tonsure.  They symbolize a spiritual sword, which, as a soldier for Christ, is used to make war against the spiritual enemy by calling upon the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in a petition for mercy.

My advice to both the young and the elderly is for each one of you to make a prayer rope.  Hold it with your left hand, and as you make the sign of the Cross with your right hand, say:  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.  -St. Kosmas of Aitolos

Where did prayer ropes come from?

We know through oral tradition, that St. Pachomius was trying to keep count of his prayer rule by tying regular knots in a rope. But the devil, who despises prayer, kept untying the rope. So, St. Pachomius then took small stones and put them in a bucket, but the devil dumped the buckets over. Finally, St. Pachomius prayed to God for help. An angel appeared and taught the saint how to tie a specific knot, formed by a series of nine crosses. The devil could not untie these knots because of the power of the Cross. Because of this, the prayer rope came to be a sacred object and is still of great importance in the life of Orthodox Christians.

Today, prayer ropes are primarily made in monasteries.  Though, more and more laypeople are recognizing the blessings and peace of heart that is associated with making them and seek instruction.

 How do we use a prayer rope?

A prayer rope is simple to use.  You simply hold the knots between your thumb and index finger as move it each time you say the Jesus Prayer.  It serves as an external reminder to keep our mind on God.  It can (and should) be used at all times.  There are even tiny finger prayer ropes that can be used when using a longer one isn’t possible.

Not only does it help us concentrate on praying while we’re working, driving, shopping, etc., but it also serves as an aid during quiet and private prayer time.  How many times does your mind drift to various thoughts while you pray?  I know I’ll kneel to pray and I quickly find myself thinking about the schedule for the following day, or phone calls that need to made, or housework that needs done.  But when my fingers land upon one of the spacer beads, it brings my mind back to my prayer and I begin again.

In the Philokalia Vol. I, page 224 (not the one I linked to in the previous post), it says,

The devil extremely despises the person who prays, and when someone is about to pray, he employs every means to spoil man’s goal.  He does not cease stirring thoughts of different things in our memory and arousing all the passions through the flesh, in order to obstruct this excellent work of prayer and prevent the mind’s ascent to God.

Can I use a prayer rope to pray for others?

Yes.  Prayer ropes can be used to pray for others. Below, is a story taken from the book The Prayer Rope.

Once there was a monk from the monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos, who had gone to the church of St. Gerasimos on the island of Cephallonia.  During the Divine Liturgy, while the chanters were singing, he was sitting in the altar and praying with his prayer rope:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.”

That day, there also happened to be a possessed person in the Church who had been brought to St. Gerasimos’ relics with the hope of being cured.  As the monk was saying the Jesus Prayer in the altar, the demon was being seared outside and began to shout:  “Stop turning that rope, you monk!  It’s burning me!”

When the attending priest heard this, he said to the monk:  “Pray with your prayer rope as hard as you can, my son, for God’s creature to be freed from the demon.”

The demon then shouted with even greater anger:  “You rotten priest!  Why are you telling him to pull that string?  It’s burning me!”

The monk then prayed with his prayer rope with even greater effort, and the possessed man was delivered from the demon.  (Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters, pp. 153-154)

We see from that story, that the prayer rope and the Jesus prayer is beneficial not just for us, but for others as well.  We can ask God to have mercy on our family, friends, co-workers, clergy, and total strangers.  We can pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, enlighten my children and preserve their purity”, or “Lord Jesus Christ, console the sick”, or simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on thy servant, Nicholas”.

I have been told that when praying for others, say the first three knots and then continue with the regular Jesus prayer.  For example, first knot–”Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on thy servant, Nicholas.  Second knot, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on thy servant, Nicholas.  Third knot, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on thy servant, Nicholas.  Then the remainder of the knots, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

We can also pray for the deceased by saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, give rest to the soul of your servant (name).”

We read in The Prayer Rope that, people who have departed this life have no means of helping themselves:  “in Hades there is no repentance.”  Some of our departed loved ones may be in a difficult position amongst other innumerable souls who failed to attain salvation.  These poor people nourish the hope that some Christian will remember them in his prayers and ask God to send them aid and consolation.

In the Orthodox Church, we believe that even after death, our soul lives on.  Which is why we believe in asking saints for their intercessions, as well.  They live on in the presence of God.  Their spiritual eyes are still wide open. It is also why it is extremely important to give the names of our departed loved ones for commemoration in the Divine Liturgy and for memorials.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959)  is known for reviving the use of the Jesus Prayer on Mount Athos and thus, throughout the world. (Keep an eye out for an *incredible* book coming out in English {finally!!} on his life, published by St. Anthony’s monastery, soon.)

Once when Elder Joseph was praying for a departed soul who had been condemned (people who are spiritually advanced often receive these messages from God), he had the following vision:  “As I was praying, I saw the late Fr. George in front of me.  He is a contemporary saint.  I managed to meet him because he was still alive when I lived in the world…Every day, he served the Liturgy and commemorated thousands of names.  Afterward, he would go to the tombs and read trisagion prayers and memorial services for the departed all day long…I saw him in a vision and heard him saying to me with great amazement, ‘Wow! Until today, I thought that the deceased were only saved through Liturgies and memorials.  But today I saw and realized that people in Hell are also saved with prayer ropes.’ Again he repeated with admiration, ‘Yes!  People are also saved through prayer ropes!’” (Abbot Haralambos Dionysiatis, p. 138)

God who desires the salvation of all men will always help them for whom we pray.  Even if our prayers do not have an immediate and evident outcome, as in the example above, Christ will reward us for our love and compassion and despite our unworthiness, will have compassion.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES ON JESUS PRAYER & PRAYER ROPES

Prayer Ropes

Books

For Children

Also, check out these beautiful  Jesus Prayer Rings.

Stay tuned for another giveaway coming soon! 

Comments

  1. Oooo, this is amazing!!! For one who does not know about my Orthodox faith, your posts make me think and learn and yearn!!!!

  2. Thank you so much, once again, for reminding me of how rich and beautiful our tradition is. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your blog-posts!

  3. Great post Syl;) where can I get a prayer rope? I am a Christian, and my thoughts do wonder when I begin to pray, so I would love to try the prayer rope.

  4. my mom converted to Orthodox and when she died 3 years ago of cancer I found her prayer rope. Not long after her death our oldest son was in a motorcycle accident with severe head injuries. I was scheduled for double knee replacement and we were in the same hospital. I kept my mom prayer rope with me. Anyway. I healed faster than they thought I would. My son still needs prayer for his injuries. He has a hi IQ. But can’t get past headache. I’m a Christian but discovering much to learn from Orthodox teachings.

  5. *polishes off old post* Do you know where I could procure a reasonably priced one? I am a broke college student, so not much money, but I really feel it would add to my prayer life as a ‘stumbling-towards-Orthodoxy’ Christian. Thanks!

  6. Hristos Voskrese! Sylvia, do you have instructions how to make one?

  7. Steven D, Basaraba says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful page. I was baptized into the Orthodox church about two months ago, and my Godfather just gave me a beautiful prayer rope that he made. I love it so much, it has brought my prayer life to a new level.

    • Orthodox Mom says:

      Steven, Glory to God! Welcome to the struggle! ;) I am so glad that you enjoy using your prayer rope. May your zeal and Grace of your baptism stay with you forever. Be watchful and don’t let the light be extinguished. Much love to you!

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