Prayer with Beads

Practice of the Week
Prayer with Beads

Category: MIGHT BE YOUR THING: These practices are not for everyone -- but one of them may be just the thing for you! Any of these might also be, for you, in the "Occasional" category, but are listed here because they are good candidates for being a central practice.

from Erik Walker Wikstrom, "Prayer," in Everyday Spiritual Practice, abridged and adapted.

Several years ago, I began developing my own prayer practice, tied neither to a specific religious worldview nor to any one set of religious symbols. It’s a framework that can support a variety of religious beliefs without depending on any.

The practice I developed uses prayer beads, bringing a tactile involvement to prayer and providing focus and direction. I use a loop of twenty-eight beads: a large centering bead, four medium-sized beads, and twenty-three smaller beads.

Whatever else it might be – a conversation with the Divine, an internal dialog, a practice of calming and centering -- I think of prayer as a journey into and through the Mystery. The beads are strung in a circle, reminding us that our journey is neither linear nor a one-time-only event.

Any good bead or craft can provide the beads and teach you how to string them together. I encourage even the "craft challenged" to string their own. Make it yours. String the beads in this order:
  • large bead (Centering),
  • four small beads (warm-up),
  • first medium bead (Naming),
  • five small beads (breath prayer),
  • second medium bead (Knowing),
  • five small beads (breath prayer),
  • third medium bead (Listening),
  • five small beads (breath prayer),
  • fourth medium bead (Loving), and
  • four small beads (cool-down).
Connect the cord back to the original large bead, completing the circle.

Once you have assembled your bead circle, here is the process for practicing with them.

CENTERING: Start with the large bead, centering yourself for the journey. Breathe in and out several times, calming the body and quieting the mind. You might sit quietly with your breath, recite a "breathing gatha" or chant, or sing a favorite hymn ("Spirit of Life," "Voice Still and Small," and "Find a Stillness" all work well). When you feel ready, move on.

NAMING (Prayers of Praise and Thanksgiving): The first medium-sized bead is for Naming the Holy. Give voice to what you consider Holy or where you have felt the Divine in your life. You might use the names of gods and goddesses from the world's religions and you might make up your own. (For example: "Ancient and Ageless Spirit: known in many ways, by many names and by no name at all – Holy Sanctamataba, Mother and Father of All; Gods and Goddesses of old; all Buddhas throughout space and time; Spirits, Saints, and Sages; Wise Women and Men".) Alternatively, call up the attributes that you ascribe to the Sacred or name whatever feeds your soul. This is also the place for you to lift up all for which you are thankful at this moment, all the blessings and miracles in your life, all the joy in your living. Take your time.

KNOWING (Prayer of Confession): The second medium-sized bead is for Knowing yourself. Reflect on your life as it is today, identifying places that call for reconciliation, atonement, or self-correction. We are all a mixture of saint and sinner, and this stop on our journey is an opportunity to see and know yourself in all your subtle shadings.

LISTENING (Contemplative Prayer): The third medium­sized bead is for Listening, opening ourselves to what nondiscursive revelation may come. Be still and listen to the Divine spark, the Buddha-nature, that is inherent in us all. Gaze on an icon, statue, or mandala, or lower your eyes and follow your breath.

LOVING (Intercessory Prayer): The final medium-sized bead is for lifting up those we know (and those we don't) whose lives have pain and need. Hold them in your consciousness, bring them to your awareness. We don’t do this so that God will know about people's needs; we do it to make sure we know.

Four small beads separate the Centering and Naming beads. At this entry to the prayer journey, you can honor the four directions (one per bead), take the four Boddhisattva vows, or recite a four­line poem which moves you. At the end, four more small beads separate the Loving and Centering beads, mirroring the first four, as you open the circle, thank the directions, repeat your vows, and bring yourself gently back to the everyday world.

Five small beads separate the medium-sized beads. With each of these beads you may use a "breath prayer," a two-line phrase that is said in rhythm with the in- and out-breaths: for example,
"Breathing in I develop calm and equanimity;
Breathing out I find peace and joy"
"Lord Jesus Christ
have mercy on me"
"Great Mystery
I seek to know."
Many traditions extol the virtues of repetitive, set prayers over which the practitioner has no control; this kind of praying removes ego-involvement from the composition process, preventing you from getting caught up in eloquent or flowery phrases. Repetitive prayer has great power; try it and see.

Centering, Naming, Knowing, Listening, and Loving. This is a journey of taking the time to find a quiet place in your life, setting in the front of your awareness the Holy and Sacred miracle of life, seeing your self within that reality as full and whole, tuning your sense to hear inner wisdom, and then turning your loving attention to the needs within and around you.

This entire prayer bead practice can take anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes. Shorten or lengthen it depending on available time and your own sense of need. I carry my beads with me wherever I go and often find myself fingering them in meetings or in line.

Sometimes I spread out the practice through the day, using the medium-sized beads as break points, picking up later where I'd left off. At least once a week I journey the full circuit in one sitting. The discipline of regularity over a long period serves us well when times of grief and loss come -- as they inevitably do.

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