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Prayer beads an ancient devotion - Spirituality

Prayer beads originally were devised to help people to keep track of repetitive devotions. They enabled one to pray while doing routine jobs and between activities. In the very earliest times, prayers were marked by dropping little pebbles one by one on the ground.

About 500 years before Christ, people tied knots in strings. Primitive forms of prayer beads were made of fruit pits, dried berries, pieces of bone, and hardened clay. The wealthy used precious stones and jewels.

St. Dominic is a latecomer to the scene. The Western Church picked up on the idea in 1213 when parts of Europe were devastated by the crusade against the Albigensian heresy. According to tradition, Dominic sought the help of Mary, who instructed him in a dream to preach the rosary, as an antidote to sin. The word, rosary, comes from the Latin word rosarium, which means wreath or chaplet of roses.

By Dominic's time, other spiritual traditions were already well grounded in their own prayer bead practices. The Hindu religion has had prayer beads for a long time. Its rosary consists of 109 beads--108 to mark the 108 names of God and one to mark the beginning of the prayer cycle, "Dancing Shiva, who shows grace, peace and creative power, and destroys and treads on the evil dwarf."

Sakyamuni, the East Indian who was the founder of Buddhism, was well grounded in prayer beads. On one occasion, he gave a distraught king a spiritual practice based on his Hindu heritage. He directed Vaidunya to thread 108 seeds of the Bodhi tree on a string, and while passing them through his fingers to repeat, "Hail to the Buddha, the darhma (teaching) and the sangha (community).

Another interpretation of this Sanskrit prayer is translated as "Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus (compassion)." Repeating the mantra on each of the mala's 108 beads serves to drive away evil "filling you and all other beings with peace and bliss."

Islam also has its prayer beads, called tasbih or subhah. The 33-bead strand, repeated three times, honors the 99 "beautiful names of Allah" (the One Unity or God). Some of these names, or Wazifas, include Mercy, Compassion, Opener of the Way, Lover and Beloved.

The Anglican Church created its own rosary in the 1980s. It also has 33 beads, remembering the years Christ lived. The rosary is grouped in sevens and is based on Incarnational theology, starting with the cross. Four sets of beads represent the seven days of creation, seven days in a week, and seven seasons of the church year. They are divided by four large cruciform beads representing the centrality of the cross.

Sharon Abercrombie
Dec 13, 2002


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