What are Prayer Beads?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?, What is the Liturgical Calendar?

When most people think of prayer beads, the most common image that comes to mind with those familiar with the general concept might be the Catholic rosary. To be sure, this is the most popular rendering of this prayer aide, but far from the only rendering or possibility. But before we get to that, we should examine the use of prayer beads in general.

When we talk about prayer beads, we mean a series of beads strung together in a particular and intentional way, with smaller beads alternating with larger ones to make a pattern. In many arrangements of beads, there may be one smaller line of beads diverging from the circle while remaining connected and featuring a crucifix or empty cross at the end. This usually serves as the beginning and end point of one's time of prayer.

This practice involves running one's fingers slowly around the pattern, stopping at each bead to say the prayer associated with it. Any particular bead may serve as an invitation to say popular memorized prayers such as the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, or Jesus Prayer, or offer one's own petitions for people or situations for which one is concerned. The type of arrangement one uses and the Christian tradition one is most familiar with will influence the specific prayers the beads represent.

Since I think my reading audience is more non-Catholic in nature and because bead patterns other than the rosary might be less familiar, I'm choosing to give a Protestant pattern of prayer beads as an example.

These arrangements have a large cross with 33 beads total. Next to the cross is a large bead called the "invitatory bead" which, as the name implies, serves as our invitation to this time of prayer. Aside from this invitatory bead, there are four other large beads that in the overall pattern serve as the points of the cross; for this reason they are called "cruciform beads." In between the cruciform beads are sets of seven smaller beads, called "week beads."

Here's an image via Pinterest to help illustrate:

The possibilities for how you move around this arrangement are infinite. As an easy example, you may use the invitatory bead as a simple address to God such as "O God" or "Heavenly Father" or "Gracious Creator" or "Divine Mother" or whatever your preferred title for God is while praying. Each cruciform bead could serve as a time to say The Lord's Prayer or Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."). Each set of smaller beads could represent statements about God or Jesus from scripture, people you want to remember in prayer, or verses from the Psalms.

Different seasons of the church year might present opportunities for beads to take on other representations. During Lent a set of week beads could serve as a time to speak or remember Jesus' seven statements from the cross. During Eastertide, the four cruciform beads could be moments to prayerfully proclaim, "Christ is risen!" Advent could inspire use of beads to be traditional proclamations from Isaiah associated with Jesus, or during Christmas the cruciform beads could be a time to sing a verse of "Silent Night." While prayer beads provide a structure for prayer, they also invite creativity.

Here's one of many patterns of prayer that could be used with Protestant prayer beads.

Cross: In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Invitatory Bead: O God, guide me during this time of prayer.

1st Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

1st Set of Week Beads: Remember 7 ways God has been with you this past week.

2nd Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

2nd Set of Week Beads: Offer up 7 concerns you have for yourself or others.

3rd Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

3rd Set of Week Beads: Remember 7 people going through a hard time.

4th Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

4th Set of Week Beads: Think of 7 ways you may need guidance or help this coming week.

Invitatory Bead: O Spirit, thank you for your presence.

Cross: In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Work consulted: A Bead and a Prayer by Kristen E. Vincent

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