The Prayer Rope

“Let us pause for a moment just to look at a little prayer rope, like this one made of black wool on Mountain Athos. It is a blessing from a holy place. Like so much that we have in the Church, it is a blessing prepared and given to us by a brother or father in Christ, a living witness to living tradition. It is black, the color of mourning and sorrow, and this reminds us to be sober and serious in our lives. We are taught that repentant prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, can bring us what the Holy Fathers call joy-creating sorrow—in Greek “Harmolipi”.
Prayer rope 1
We are sorry for our sins and our weakness and failings before God, our fellow men and ourselves; but in Christ, Who pours out His mercy and forgiveness on all who call upon His Name, this sorrow becomes a source of joy and comfort. This prayer rope is knotted from wool, that is, it has been sheared from a sheep, a reminder that we are rational sheep of the Good Shepherd, Christ the Lord, and also a reminder of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world (see: John 1:29). And the cross likewise speaks to us of the sacrifice and victory of life over death, of humility over pride, of self-sacrifice over selfishness, of light over darkness. And the tassel? Well, you can use it to wipe the tears away from your eyes, or, if you have no tears, to remind you to weep because you cannot weep. Besides, from the Old Testament times, little tassels have been a decoration for sacred vestments, a reminder of the sacred tradition in which we participate when we use the prayer rope.
Prayer ropes are made in keeping with a tradition whose origin is lost in antiquity. Perhaps one of the earliest forms was simply gathering small pebbles or seeds and moving them from one spot or container to another as one said his prayer rule or did his rule of bows or prostrations. The story is told of a monk who decided to make knots in a rope, which he could use in carrying out his daily rule of prayer. But the devil kept untying the knots he made in the rope, frustrating the poor monk’s efforts. Then an angel appeared and taught the monk a special kind of knot that consists of ties of interlocked crosses, and these knots the devil was unable to unravel.
Prayer ropes come in a great variety of forms and sizes. Most prayer ropes have a cross woven into them or attached to mark the “end”, and also have some kind of marker after each 10, 25, or 50 knots or beads. There are many forms of prayer ropes, some knotted of wool or silk, or other more elegant or simpler materials. Others are made of beads or the dried flower of a plant called “Tears of the Mother of God”.
Prayer rope 3
The prayer rope is one of the items given to an Orthodox Christian monk at the time of tonsure: it is given to him as his spiritual sword with which he, as a soldier of Christ, must make war against our spiritual enemy, the devil. This sword is wielded by calling on the name of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ in a plea for mercy on me a sinner.
This prayer can be said in a shorter form, such as: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”; or in a longer form, as: “By the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”.
Other short prayers: the prayer of the publican: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (see: Luke 18:13), the prayer to the Mother of God: “Most Holy Theotokos save us”, or other short prayers to the Guardian Angel, to individual saints or to all the saints can also be offered with the assistance of the prayer rope…
When monks carry the prayer rope in their hands, it serves as a reminder of their obligation to pray unceasingly in keeping with the commandment of the Holy Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing”. Anyone can keep a prayer rope in a pocket or some other discreet place where it can be easily used unnoticed when in situations where it is better to pray or remember prayer in secret, without attracting the attention of others. The prayer rope can also be placed over the head of our bed, in an automobile, with a small cross or icon, or in other appropriate places as a reminder of prayer and a kind of blessing and a holy and godly presence in our lives.
But now, let us discuss briefly the primary use for which this prayer rope was made. The whole purpose of the prayer rope is to assist us in offering our prayers before God and His Saints. In addition to serving as an external reminder and a blessing present with us, how can this little rope help us to pray? We can pray without a prayer rope, of course, and there are times when using the prayer rope may become a distraction for us in our attempts to concentrate in prayer. With that in mind, let us consider some ways in which the prayer rope can be of assistance.
There are times when our prayer is fervent and it is easy for us to pray. There are times when our thoughts are so distracted that we find it virtually impossible to concentrate on prayer. This is especially true when we try to keep a rule of prayer each day.
Prayer rope 4
Some days it goes very well, but other times—if not most of the time?—our efforts seem almost to be in vain. But because we are “creatures of habit”, as the saying goes, it is very profitable for us to set apart a special and regular time (or times) during the day for prayer.
The time in the evening before going to bed is a good time, as it is important to end the day with prayer. The morning, upon awakening from sleep, is also good, so as to begin the new day with prayer. Or a person may find other times during the day when he is able to be quiet and concentrate. We are trying to establish a rule of prayer in our lives, not an exception, so we want to find a time when each day we can find some quiet in order to concentrate and turn the eyes of our soul towards God.
We may want to read some prayers form a prayer book as part of this rule, or offer prayers and find quiet for our souls in other ways, such as reading religious literature, reflecting over the events of the past day—”Anaskopisis” – and so on.
Prayer rope 5
But one of the most effective ways to find benefit from a rule of prayer is to say a set number of the Jesus Prayer regularly each day. This does not have to be a large number, and it may take only fifteen minutes or so, but that will be the portion of our day that belongs to God, the little grains of salt that will add savor to our Christian life…
With the prayer rope, you can offer a set number of prayers and concentrate on the words of the prayer as you offer them. After collecting your thoughts, take the cross on the prayer rope in your left hand, holding it lightly between the thumb and the index finger.
Then, making the sign of the cross over yourself quietly, whisper the Jesus Prayer. As your thoughts become more concentrated, you may not need to continue crossing yourself or saying the prayer audibly. Other times, when concentration is difficult, use the sign of the cross and whispering as means to help keep your mind on prayer.
It is good to stand, with head bowed, in a humble position; some people like to raise their hands from time to time in their petitions for mercy. But others find it more helpful to sit or kneel, with head bowed, in order to concentrate. A lot depends on the individual and also on his health and upbringing. The important thing is to be able to keep still and concentrate on the words of the prayer as you repeat it. Of course, a person has to fight off the temptation to “rush”…
Prayer rope 6
We are constantly occupied by all kinds of thoughts that appear in our heads, and it seems we no sooner start to pray than we catch ourselves thinking about something else.
Here again, the physical presence of the prayer rope in our fingers can help us catch ourselves and return to our task of prayer more quickly. Or, meeting up with one of the markers or with the cross on the prayer rope as we move it through our fingers remind us that we have been robbed of the prayers we intended to offer. And immediately we can offer our prayers anew without getting further entangled in our thoughts about how easily we get distracted from prayer to God…
The prayer rope does not pray by itself, although some of them are so magnificent they may give that impression. Here is an important, traditional aid in offering prayers, and especially for a daily rule of prayer. But the important thing is to concentrate on words of the prayer, to offer heart-felt prayers to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. If this little prayer rope helps you to say a prayer or reminds you to pray or helps you in some way to become more prayerful, it will have fulfilled its purpose, it will have tied you more closely and more intimately with Christ our God, and also brought you closer to the Kingdom of God, for “the Kingdom of God is within you.” (See: Luke 17:21)”
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From “The Prayer Rope – Meditations of a Monk of the Holy Mountain Athos”, originally published in “Agioritiki Martiria,” a magazine issued by the Xiropotamos Monastery (Mount Athos) and translated into English and published in full at http://tokandylaki.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/the-prayer-rope-meditations-of-monk-of.html

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