I’ve just returned from Iona where I led 10 pilgrims around the Sacred Isle so often referred to as a “thin place.”
As I settle back in at home, I’ve been embracing our recent practice of Breath Prayer in the Lent 40 Days to Pray series to help center me as I return to my everyday life. (We practiced it on Iona, too!) This week we turn to praying with Prayer Beads—a practice close to those of us who journeyed to Iona as we carried our own Iona-inspired prayer beads with us, allowing the words of St. Columba and the wisdom of the Celtic Christian tradition to guide us along the path. (Get an Iona-inspired set of your own, available in the Journey Shop for the season of Lent).
I included Prayer Beads in the Pilgrim Pack for my Iona pilgrims because I love the way the repetition of the prayers and the touch of the beads helps usher me into the presence of God in body, mind, and soul—so essential for the pilgrim’s journey, whether at home or abroad. Here’s more on the practice of praying with Prayer Beads and instructions on how you can join in, too.
ABOUT PRAYER BEADS
Beads have been used as tools for spiritual practice for millennia and across multiple faith traditions, drawing seekers closer to the Divine with each bead touched and prayer offered. They are perhaps most used as a somatic aid during prayer, some of the commonly recognized prayer beads being mala beads, used by Buddhists and Hindus, and rosaries, used by Catholics. In fact, at least in the English language, the words “bead” and “prayer” are connected—the word “bead” comes from the anglo-saxon bede, meaning prayer.
Even the Desert Mothers and Fathers used a tangible object similar in shape to a bead as a vehicle for prayer, carrying pebbles in their pockets and dropping them as each prayer was released.
Today, the practice of praying with beads has become available to all through the development of Anglican prayer beads, developed in the 1980s by an Episcopal priest from Texas. A group of contemplative practitioners in the priest’s church had been praying the rosary, but when they wanted a practice that was more experimental, the priest decided to devise a set—and a practice—of his own. Studying the prayer beads of various traditions and hoping to develop a practice that might act as a bridge between the Eastern and Western Church, the priest modeled his Anglican prayer beads after the Orthodox Jesus Prayer Rope and the Roman Catholic Rosary while also allowing it to remain distinct.
Anglican prayer beads are made up 33 beads, a number which calls to mind the age of Christ when he was crucified. These beads are separated by a varying number of spacer beads. There are two sections of the prayer beads—the stem and the circle of prayer. The stem, which consists of a charm and the invitatory bead, is where the prayer begins and ends. The main part of the prayer is recited in the second section of the prayer beads—a circle made up of four sets of week beads containing seven beads each (a holy number harkening back to the days of creation) divided by four cruciform beads which form a cross. These four beads can also represent the four gospels, the four seasons, the four directions, or the four parts of the self—body, mind, spirit, and soul.
Each type of bead is assigned a particular prayer:
A cross or alternative symbol with spiritual significance used when beginning and ending the prayer.
A single bead on the stem located between the charm and the first cruciform bead. When beginning, the invitatory bead serves as a call to prayer, stating the intention of your practice, and is oftentimes a verse of Scripture or inspirational phrase. When closing, it serves as a benediction and can be used to recite the Lord’s Prayer, spend time in personal prayer, or end with more words of inspiration.
Four beads spaced evenly throughout the circle of prayer that form a cross. The cruciform beads are connected to a repeated phrase that aligns with the desire of your heart and the theme of your prayer and can also be used for the prayers of the people, assigning a different category to each bead (prayers for the Church, prayers for the nation, prayers for the world, prayers for those who suffer, etc.).
Four sets of seven beads set in between the four cruciform beads. The week beads are the heart of the prayer and are used with a phrase you desire to repeat multiple times or an entire phrase spread across one week (seven beads) or even the entire set of four weeks (twenty-eight beads).
HOW TO PRAY USING PRAYER BEADS
- Begin at the charm with an invocation.
- Move to the invitatory bead, reciting the words that will serve as your call to prayer.
- Follow the invitatory bead to the first cruciform bead, reciting for the first time the phrase you will return to at each cruciform bead throughout your time of prayer.
- Move slowly along the week beads, calling to mind the prayer assigned for each one. You may go around this circle of prayer one time or many.
- Return to the invitatory bead when you are ready to end your prayer, reciting your chosen benediction.
- Close the prayer as desired on the charm.
You can use prayers collected specifically for prayer beads or develop your own from your favorite Psalms, quotes, hymns, and passages of Scripture. Download a PDF of four prayers created to be used with prayer beads on the resources page or purchase pocket-sized prayer bead prayer cards in the Journey Shop.
Don’t have your own set of prayer beads? Start with a beaded necklace or bracelet that you have at home. While having different types of beads to represent the different parts of each prayer is valuable, just moving your fingers from one bead to the next can still help facilitate the meditative somatic state that so many prayer bead practitioners have come to love.
You can also purchase your own set of prayer beads from The Journey Shop. Each set in the Journey Shop is designed to be worn on your wrist so your prayers can accompany you throughout your day. The limited edition set inspired by Iona is only available during the season of Lent and stock is running low!
Bead One, Pray Too: A Guide to Making and Using Prayer Beads by Kimberly Winston
A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads by Kristen E. Vincent
Another Bead, Another Prayer: Devotions to Use with Protestant Prayer Beads by Kristen E. Vincent
Praying with Beads: Daily Prayers for the Christian Year by Nan Lewis Doerr and Virginia Stem Owens
A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads by Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon