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An ancient tradition

Throughout history people of all faith traditions have used various forms of prayer counters to track the number of prayers offered to God. This brief historical overview explores how the use of prayer beads developed from ancient traditions to that which we now know as the rosary. Although there are varying types of prayer beads and methods of use the aims, whether used by Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, are the same, to aid the devotee to enter into a deeper spiritual relationship with the creator of all that is, seen and unseen.

It is generally acknowledged that the use of prayer beads, as a means of tracking devotions, pre-dates Christianity by approximately nine centuries, and developed out of the Hindu faith. Hindu prayer beads are called ‘Mala’, and number between 32 and 108, on it the devotee recalls the names of Hindu Gods, and other devotions.

Buddhism developed in India around 500 BC as an offshoot of Hinduism. Buddhist tradition has it that King Vaidunya was visited by Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, and told to string 108 seeds of the Bodhi tree on a string and while passing them between his fingers to repeat ‘Hail to the Buddha, the law, the congregation’ 2000 times a day. The 108 beads represent the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that the devotee must overcome in order to reach Nirvana.

As Buddhism spread into China in the first century AD Buddhist prayers beads become popular among the ruling hierarchy and were known as ‘court chains’, but were seen more as a status symbol rather than for prayers.

During the fourth century AD Buddhism reached Korea. Prayer beads were popular among Koreans. They made a slight modification adding two larger beads used as dividers during special prayers.

The use of prayer beads was introduced into Japan around the sixth century AD. They were extensively used at funerals, weddings and ceremonial occasions, and were considered a mark of prestige.

Tibet became influenced by Buddhism around 800 AD. Tibetan prayer beads contain 108 beads, plus three divider beads, they also contain two end pieces representing Buddha, doctrine, and community. Attached to the main string of beads are two smaller strings which act as a counter enabling the devotee to count 10 800 prayers.

It is thought that Muslim explorers brought the use of prayer beads into the Islamic faith, however, the point at which this occurred is not known. The Islamic ‘Subha’ contains 99 beads with three dividers plus a leader bead, totaling 100. Each of the 99 beads represent one of the names and attributes of Allah. The 100th bead represents a marker for both the start and the completion of the cycle of prayers, as well as the name of Allah known only to camels. Recitation of prayers, for example Tahmid (God be praised) and Tahlit (There is no deity but Allah) morning and night grants the Muslim forgiveness.

The worry beads used in Greece, Turkey and Armenia are said to be inspired by the Islamic Subha. They contain either 33 or 99 beads, representing the age of Christ at his death.

As with Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims the use of prayer beads in Christianity developed out of ancient traditions of counting prayers offered to God. It is said that a 2nd century Egyptian hermit, Abbot Paul, would ‘pray in the manner old and beyond memory’ by praying 300 Paternosters, Our Father, while moving pebbles from one pile to another. During this century in Turkey Constantine converts to Christianity and Constantinople becomes the seat of the Roman Empire, and the wearing of jewelry is discouraged by the Church, limited to prayer beads only.

The 5th century saw St. Augustine incorporate prayer counters into the Church, by declaring that the praying of the Paternoster pardons one from their ‘venial sins’.

In Ireland during the 7th century monks were using a knotted cord to keep track of the Psalter, and the laity recited 150 Paternosters. In Russia the Byzantine Church introduced the Chokti, or knotted prayer cord of 33-300 knots on which they recited the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner. Whilst in Europe a similar knotted prayer cord was used reciting the Angelic Salutation (Ave), Hail Mary full of Grace.

In the 8th century recitation of the Paternoster by penitents became a means of receiving pardon for sins, they would count the required number of Paternosters on prayer beads, and wear them as a sign of penitence. The monks of St. Apollinaris would recite 300 Kyrie Eleisons, Lord have Mercy, twice a day in gratitude to the Pope’s benefactors.

The 11th century saw the replacement of the 150 Paternosters with the Angelic Salutation, and the division of the 150 knots into groups of 10, or decades. Clay and wood began to replace the knots on cords.

The 150 knots or beads on prayer beads were reduced to 50 around the 12th century, and is repeated three times. As well the Ave was extended and became Hail Mary full of grace, Blessed art though among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Later Bishop Ordo of Siliac required the recitation of the Creed, the Paternoster and the Ave which became popular in other countries.

The term Rosary is used to refer to the prayer cord or prayer beads for the first time in the 12th century, and becomes the Psalter of the people. At the same time Craft Guilds specialising in making Rosaries become prolific in Europe.

Perhaps the most significant impact on the future propagation of Rosary devotions occurred in 1208, Mary, mother of God, is said to have appeared to St. Dominic in answer to his prayers for help during the Albigensian heresy which was destroying the Church. Mary is said to have taught St. Dominic how to pray the Rosary. He then established the ‘Militia of Jesus Christ, whose aim was to pray the Rosary for the conversion of sinners and those who had left the faith. It is said that a great battle was won in favour of the Christian army after St. Dominic had taught the soldiers to pray the Rosary. The followers of St. Dominic grew into the 30 000s after his death and today the Dominican Order continue his work.

The 15th century saw mass production of Rosaries and they became commonly used amongst the devout. In 1460 in a sermon by Blessed Alanus de Rupe saw the first reference to the mysteries of the Rosary, Incarnation, passion and resurrection. 1495 Pope Alexander VI encouraged all the faithful to recite the Rosary and in 1547 the word Rosary first appeared in the Webster Dictionary. Pope Pius V established the fifteen mysteries as they are used today in 1569. The remaining centuries, to this date have shown growing popularity of the recitation of the Rosary and many miracles have been attributed to the devotion to the Rosary.

In 2002 Pope John Paul II declared October 2002—October 2003 as the year of the Rosary, reaffirming the place of the Rosary in the contemplative prayer life of the Church. He also established the ‘Mysteries of the Light’ which was added to those previously established by Pius V.

This brief history is not meant to be a detailed survey of the development of the Rosary, however, it is hoped that one can appreciate the historical basis of using prayer beads in devotions to God. And also that one sees how a common practice today has developed out of centuries of prayer in all faith traditions.

The use of prayer beads, or Rosaries, has not been common to Anglican prayer life. Many objections have been raised on the apparent ‘Marian’ nature of the Catholic Rosary. Protestant reformers also objected to the use of Rosaries as they saw this as ‘vain repetition’ (c.f. Matt 6:7).

However, today there is a growing interest in the tradition of using prayer beads as an aid to contemplative prayer. Anglican Prayer Beads (Rosary) arose out of a contemplative prayer group lead by Rev. Lynn Bauman from the Episcopal church in the United States. Since its inception in the 1980’s it has grown in popularity among those seeking to enrich their prayer life.

As there is no set ‘formulae’ for the Anglican Rosary people can develop prayers for use with the Rosary that reflect their own spiritual journey. The Rosary then becomes simply a tool to aid in prayer life. It becomes a way to deepen one’s prayer life by encouraging not only the mind but the body to participate in prayer. The prayers keep the mind focused and the passing of beads through the fingers keeps the body engaged in prayer also.

Whether we use the Anglican Rosary, the Dominican Rosary, the Franciscan Crown (the Franciscan Rosary of the Seven Joys of Mary), the Orthodox prayer Rope, or a pile of pebbles, the aim is the same. To develop what St. Paul reminds us to do, that is to pray continually. With regular recitation of prayers, we move toward that call and it is not such a quantum leap then to have prayer on our minds and in our hearts continuously.

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