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About Prayer Beads

Use of Beads at Prayers

Prayer Beads: an Aid to Prayer

Healing Power of Prayer


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Use of Beads at Prayers

Beads variously strung together, according to the kind, order, and number of prayers in certain forms of devotion, are in common use among Catholics as an expedient to ensure a right count of the parts occurring in more or less frequent repetition. Made of materials ranging from common wood or natural berries to costly metals a precious stones, they may be blessed, as they are in most cases, with prayer and holy water, thereby becoming sacramentals. In this character they are prescribed by the rules of most religious orders, both of men and women, to be kept for personal use or to be worn as part of the religious garb. 

They are now mostly found in the form of the Dominican Rosary, or Marian Psalter; but Catholics are also familiar with the Brigittine beads, the Dolour beads, the Immaculate Conception beads, the Crown of Our Saviour, the Chaplet of the Five Wounds, the Crosier beads, and others. In all these devotions, due to individual zeal or fostered by particular religious bodies, the beads serve one and the same purpose of distinguishing and numbering the constituent prayers.

Rationalistic criticism generally ascribes an Oriental origin to prayer beads; but man's natural tendency to iteration, especially of prayers, and the spirit and training of the early Christians may still safely be assumed to have spontaneously suggested fingers, pebbles, knotted cords, and strings of beads or berries as a means of counting, when it was desired to say a specific number of prayers. 

The earliest historical indications of the use of beads at prayer by Christians show, in this as in other things, a natural growth and development. Beads strung together or ranged on chains are an obvious improvement over the well-known primitive method instanced, for example, in the life of the Egyptian Abbot Paul (d. A. D. 341), who used to take three hundred pebbles into his lap as counters and to drop one as he finished each of the corresponding number of prayers it was his wont to say daily. 

In the eighth century the penitentials, or rule books pertaining to penitents, prescribed various penances of twenty, fifty, or more, paters. The strings of beads, with the aid of which such penances were accurately said, gradually came to be known as paternosters. Archaeological records mention fragments of prayer beads found in the tomb of the holy abbess Gertrude of Nivelles (d. 659); also similar devices discovered in the tombs of St. Norbert and of St. Rosalia, both of the twelfth century. The Bollandists quote William of Malmesbury (De Gest. Pont. Angl., IV, 4) as stating that the Countess Godiva, who founded a religious house at Coventry in 1040, donated, when she was about to die, a circlet or string of costly precious stones on which she used to say her prayers, to be placed on a statue of the Blessed Virgin. 

In the course of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, such paternosters came into extensive use especially in the religious orders. At certain times corresponding to the canonical hours, lay brothers and lay sisters were obliged to say a certain number of Our Fathers as an equivalent of the clerical obligation of the Divine Office. The military orders, likewise, notably the Knights of St. John, adopted the paternoster beads as a part of the equipment of lay members. 

In the fifteenth century, wearing the beads at one's girdle was a distinctive sign of membership in a religious confraternity or third order. If a certain worldliness in the use of beads as ornaments in those days had to be checked, as it was by various capitulary ordinances prohibiting monks and friars, for instance, from having beads of coral, crystal, amber, etc., and nuns from wearing beads around the neck, evidence is not wanting that paternosters were also openly carried as a sign of penance, especially by bands of pilgrims processionally visiting the shrines, churches, and other holy places at Rome. From their purpose, too, it is natural that prayer beads were prized as gifts of friendship. They were especially valued if they had been worn by a person of known sanctity or if they had touched the relics of any saint, in which cases they were often piously believed to be the instruments of miraculous power and healing virtue.

Beads were generally strung either on a straight thread, or cord, or so as to form a circlet, or loop. At the present time chained beads have almost entirely taken the place of the corded ones. To facilitate the counting or to mark off certain divisions of a devotion, sets of beads, usually decades, are separated from each other by a larger bead or sometimes by a medal or metal cross. The number of beads on a chaplet, or Rosary, depends on the number of prayers making up each particular form of devotion. 

A full Rosary consists of one hundred and fifty Hail Marys, fifteen Our Fathers, and three or four beads corresponding to introductory versicles and the "Glory be to the Father", etc. Such a "pair of beads" is generally worn by religious. Lay people commonly have beads representing a third part of the Rosary. 

The Brigittine beads number seven paters in honour of the sorrows and joys of the Blessed Virgin, and sixty-three aves to commemorate the years of her life. 

Another Crown of Our Lady, in use among the Franciscans, has seventy-two aves, based on another tradition of the Blessed Virgin's age. 

The devotion of the Crown of Our Lord consists of thirty-three paters in honour of the years of Our Lord on earth and five aves in honour of His sacred wounds. 

In the church Latin of the Middle Ages, many names were applied to prayer beads as: devotions, signacula, oracula, precaria, patriloquium, serta, preculae, numeralia, computum, calculi, and others. An Old English form, bedes, or bedys, meant primarily prayers. From the end of the fifteenth century and in the beginning of the sixteenth, the name paternoster beads fell into disuse and was replaced by the name ave beads and Rosary, chaplet, or crown.

The use of beads among pagans is undoubtedly of greater antiquity than their Christian use; but there is no evidence to show that the latter is derived from the former, any more than there is to establish a relation between Christian devotions and pagan forms of prayer. 

One sect in India used a chaplet consisting generally of one hundred and eight beads made of the wood of the sacred Tulsi shrub, to tell the names of Vishnu; and another accomplished its invocations of Siva by means of a string of thirty-two or sixty-four berries of the Rudraksha tree. These or other species of seeds or berries were chosen as the material for these chaplets on account of some traditional association with the deities, as recorded in sacred legends. Some of the ascetics had their beads made of the teeth of dead bodies. Among some sects, especially the votaries of Vishnu, a string of beads is placed on the neck of children when, at the age of six or seven, they are about to be initiated and to be instructed in the use of the sacred formularies. Most Hindus continue to wear the beads both for ornament and for use at prayers. 

Among the Buddhists, whose religion is of Brahminic origin, various prayer-formulas are said or repeated with the aid of beads made of wood, berries, coral, amber, or precious metals and stones. A string of beads cut from the bones of some holy lama is especially valued. The number of beads is usually one hundred and eight; but strings of thirty or forty are in use among the poorer classes. Buddhism in Burma, Tibet, China, and Japan alike employs a number of more or less complicated forms of devotion, but the frequently recurring conclusion, a form of salutation, is mostly the same, and contains the mystic word OM, supposed to have reference to the Buddhistic trinity. It is not uncommon to find keys and trinkets attached to a Buddhist's prayer beads, and generally each string is provided with two little cords of special counters, ten in number, in the form of beads or metal disks. At the end of one of these cords is found a miniature thunderbolt; the other terminates in a tiny bell. With the aid of this device the devotee can count a hundred repetitions of his beads or 108x10x10 formulas in all. 

Among the Japanese, especially elaborate systems of counting exist. One apparatus is described as capable of registering 36,736 prayers or repetitions.

The Moslems use a string of ninety-nine (or one hundred) beads called the subha or tasbih, on which they recite the "beautiful" names or attributes of Allah. It is divided into three equal parts either by a bead or special shape or size, or by a tassel of gold or silk thread. The use of these Islamic beads appears to have been established as early as the ninth century independently of Buddhistic influences. Some critics have thought the Mohammedan chaplet is kindred to a Jewish form of one hundred blessings. The beads in general use are said to be often made of the sacred clay of Mecca or Medina. Among travelers; records of prayer beads is the famous instance, by Marco Polo, of the King of Malabar, who wore a fine silk thread strung with one hundred and four large pearls and rubies, on which he was wont to pray to his idols. Alexander Von Humboldt is also quoted as finding prayer beads, called Quipos, among the native Peruvians.

Transcribed by Janet Grayson

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II
Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York  

Another terrific resource is the book
Beads and Prayers: The Rosary in History and Devotion
© John Desmond Miller June 2002

Prayer Beads: an Aid to Prayer

What's helpful about using prayer beads?

  • Prayer beads can offer a focus point, a way of keeping the mind still while praying.
  • Prayer beads can provide an "anchor," something solid to hold onto.
  • Prayer beads are a way of allowing prayer to be physical, or kinesthetic, as well as mental and vocal.
  • Prayer beads have been used in many religions and for hundreds of years. In using prayer beads we touch the traditions and heritage of the ages.
  • Prayers with prayer beads can be ancient or modern, prepared or spontaneous, individual or communal; prayer beads do not limit our praying.

Although many of the prayers of prayer beads are repetitive, others are not. You can use prepared prayers if you like, but you can also compose your own spontaneous prayers for use along with prayer beads.

The Tradition of Prayer Beads

| Moslem | Buddhist | Hindu | Christian (RC, Orthodox, Anglican)|

Prayer beads are part of many religious traditions: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Moslem believers use them as aids to prayer. To me, there is something intriguing about a tradition which spans different faiths. If Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Moslems all find prayer beads helpful, there must be something of deep truth there.

Originally, a form of repetitive prayer was devised, enabling one to pray while doing routine jobs and between activities. In early times, the prayers were marked by dropping little pebbles one by one. About 500 years before Christ, it became customary to tie knots in strings. Primitive prayer beads were made of fruit pits, dried berries, pieces of bone and hardened clay. The wealthy used precious stones and jewels, and even gold nuggets.

One of our words for prayer, "bidding," comes from the Anglo-Saxon word bede, spelled b-e-d-e, which meant "to beg." Saint Augustine said that "humans are beggars before God." So prayer beads might well be called "beggar beads."

Moslem Prayer Beads

Moslem prayer beads are strung in 33- or 99-bead strands. Prayer of the Tasbih: 33 times: "Subhana-llah" (Glory be to Allah), 33 times: "Alhamdu-li-llah" (Praise be to Allah) 33 times: "Allahu akhbar" (Allah is great). Or pray the 99 names of Allah. Another source says: "What one should do is very simple. That person will use the biggest tranquilizer of Allah on this universe: He will say take his prayer beads and first will say the name of Allah who is All-Compassionate and All-Merciful and then he will do zikir through saying Allah, Allah, Allah.... repeating the word of Allah with each bead. 

A five minutes of his zikir will certainly cause him to relieve, to relax, does not matter how big his pain is. Because Allah says in the 186th Verse of Bakara Surah that: 'When it is prayed to me I certainly to reply the invitation.' The word Allah in Arabic letters is seen very clearly on the heart of every human being. So, what Allah wants from us is connected to the beating of our heart as Allah. It is the subject [sic] that we repeat the word of Allah by each beat of our heart. We repeat it within ourselves i.e. as a type of inner speech. And this repetition does not prevent us from our works. Allahu Teala says in the 39th Verse of Necm Surah that: 'There is nothing else more valuable for the human being than his working.' "

Buddhist Prayer Beads

"Prayer bead strings are used for counting mantras. The usual mantra is 'om mani padme hum' which is one of the names of the Buddha. (The literal translation is "Jewel in the heart of the lotus".) For each mantra uttered, the fingers advance one bead. There are a total of 108 beads on each Buddhist prayer bead string. Repeating the name of the Buddha gains a person merit on the path to enlightenment. Visualize the six syllables of the mantra as a luminous wheel of light. It turns and radiates rainbow rays of light which drive away evil, filling you and all other beings with peace and bliss."

Hindu Prayer Beads

Hindu prayer beads have 108 + 1 beads: 108 for the 108 names of God, and one to mark the beginning of the prayer cycle. Lutheran pastor Sam Schmitthenner writes: "Once, traveling on a train (in India), I was in a compartment with a Brahmin family. The daughter was a teenage movie star. Before going to bed her mother said, 'Remember to say Siva's names.'  So the daughter sat cross-legged, yogi-style, folded her hands and said his 108 names, touching a bead for each one. 'Nata Raj, dancing Siva who shows his grace, peace and creative power, and destroys and treads the evil dwarf. Blue Throated One, he drank the poison churned up on the cosmic sea, saving the world. Source of the Ganges. Bairagi, smeared with ashes he dances in the graveyards. (etc.)'   She knew them all. Her devotion was touching!"

Christian Prayer Beads

Another name for prayer beads is the Rosary; this name is generally associated with Roman Catholics . The word Rosary comes from the Latin rosarium, meaning a wreath or crown (chaplet) of roses which was used to denote a collection of sayings and prayers. Actually, in Catholic parlance, "rosary" refers to the standard 5 or 15 decade prayer beads, and if a strand has any other number of beads, it is called a chaplet. One of the most common chaplets is the 10-bead ring or strand. By shifting the 10-bead chaplet from finger to finger on one's hand, one can easily count the 50-bead cycle. "Rosary" also refers to the prayer prayed with the prayer beads; one "prays" the "Rosary."  Episcopalians know the prayer which begins "Hail Mary, full of grace..." Actually, that is only one of many rosary prayers.

Greek and Russian/Eastern Orthodox also use prayer counters, usually a knotted rope, called a prayer rope. Greek Orthodox prayer ropes are of 33, 50 or 100 knots. "The Rosary prayed by the Eastern Orthodox (the Chotki) is a string of 33, 100, or 300 beads on a string or knots made of wool; they are not divided into decades. On each bead or knot is prayed the following mantra: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' The modern Chotki calls for a slightly different mantra: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,' derived from the Gospel story of the Pharisee and the tax collector." The Chotki has been used as a silent "breath prayer," with "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God" prayed on inhalation and " have mercy on me, a sinner" prayed on exhalation.

Some Episcopalians, either fond of the Catholic heritage or not bothered by it, enjoy using prayer beads. The "Anglican Prayer Beads" have 33 beads, grouped in 7s rather than 10s as in the Catholic Rosary.  The most usual prayers used with Anglican Prayer Beads are based on Anglican incarnational theology. The prayer sequence begins with the cross, Then there is a large bead following the cross on the pendant, which is the Invitatory bead -- the invitation to praise and worship (as in the Daily Office). The circle itself comprises four sets of seven beads called 'Weeks' to represent the 7 days of creation /  7 days of the temporal week /  7 seasons of Church year, which are divided by four large beads called 'Cruciform' beads representing the centrality of the cross in our lives and faith. The total number of beads is 33-- the number of years of Jesus' life on this earth.

Anglican prayers used for the rosary vary. Praying Anglican Prayer Beads is relatively recent, having been developed in the 1980s. The  tradition is not of sufficient age to have an "official" set of prayers for the beads. One can use prayers such as the Triasgion, the Jesus Prayer, a set of thoughts from Julian of Norwich, or excerpts from the Book of Common Prayer , but others can be used as well.

Healing Power of Prayer

February 20, 2002

Many Roman Catholics say the rosary for their spiritual well-being. Now a group of European researchers has found that repeating the centuries-old "Ave Maria" is also good for one's body.

A study in a recent publication of the British Medical Journal suggests that reciting the Latin "Hail Mary" prayer - or an Eastern mantra - slows breathing and improves heart health.

Dr. Luciano Bernardi, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Pavia in Italy and lead author of the study, has found that slow, rhythmic breathing -about six breaths per minute seems optimal -synchronizes internal heart-lung rhythms. It is linked to improved blood oxygen levels and cardiovascular responsiveness. Better mobilization of heart muscles can also result, Bernardi said, and this might help people with heart failure. He said that heart patients in a previous study who learned slow-breathing techniques were able to exercise more.

The researchers, working with a group of 23 adults and monitoring various cardiovascular functions, discovered that it takes about 10 seconds to recite either the Ave Maria or a mantra, which is a repeated phrase used in Eastern meditation. Thus, both recitations slow the breath to the healthful six-per-minute rate. The researchers compared prayer and mantra to periods of free talking, spontaneous breathing and controlled, slowed-down breathing.

In the study, half of the Ave Maria prayer was spoken by one participant and finished by another - in the style of a rosary, in which the priest says part of the prayer and the congregation completes it. The yoga mantra was one used by several Eastern traditions: "om mani padme om."

The practice of repetition in prayer and meditation - and the use of beads to count repetitions - is widespread in religious traditions. The authors of today's study note that the history of the Christian rosary can be traced to the Crusaders, who adopted the practice of using beads from the Arabs, who may have borrowed it from India.

The small Italian study adds to a body of research on the health benefits of meditation and prayer. A key figure in this field is Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Benson uses the term "relaxation response" to describe the physiological state induced by meditation and other practices in which breath rate, metabolism, blood pressure and heart rate all decrease. The state is marked by distinctive, slower brain waves.

Typically, these changes are induced by the repetition of a word, sound, phrase or muscle motion.

Most recently, Benson has written about what he calls the "faith factor." The relaxation response, he said, can be deepened when the meditative phrase used has some personal, religious significance.

Catholics who say the rosary regularly aren´t surprised by the finding that devotional prayer can induce a state of rhythmic calm. Mary Murphy, 92, of Hartford, leads a rosary group most mornings at St. Augustine Church in Hartford and often says the rosary on her own during the day.

"The rosary is very relaxing," she said. "To me, the rosary is my life."

The Rev. Joseph O´Neil, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Hartford´s Parkville section, called the rosary "a Catholic form of Transcendental Meditation," although he said it does not have the following among Catholics that it did 40 years ago.

The European researchers used an abridged form of the rosary in Latin - Ave Maria prayers only - for their study. In the rosary as it is traditionally said, beads are used to count off between 50 and 150 recitations of the "Hail Mary" and other prayers, while those praying meditate on episodes from the lives of Mary and Jesus.

Bernardi said he could not say whether the rosary would have the same calming effect in English or another language. But Benson said the language of the rosary did not matter, because all such prayers have evolved to fit the rhythm of the breath.

The Rev. Frank Carter, pastor of St. Brigid Church in West Hartford, said that in a high-speed world, most people need some slowing down - especially during the holidays. A rosary, slowly and carefully recited, calms not just the body, he said, but the mind and soul. For believers, the physiology of the rosary is only the beginning.

"If we make the time and open our heart, mind and soul to God, then God comes and we will know that God is with us," he said.

Used by permission of The Hartford Courant Company.


Reciting the Rosary benefits the heart
Reported by Susan Aldridge, PhD, medical journalist

The Rosary, yoga chants, and breathing exercises all slow down the respiration rate and calm the heart rhythm.  The Rosary is an important prayer ritual in the Catholic Church - and the benefits may be more than spiritual, according a new study. Researchers at the University of Pavia, Italy, recorded breathing rates during normal talking and recitation of the Rosary in 23 healthy adults. They also carried out the exercise with yoga mantras and a controlled breathing exercise.

All three practices slowed breathing and made it more regular than with normal conversation. At six breaths per minute, the respiration rate was linked to a healthier heart rhythm. The findings lead the researchers to speculate whether the practice of the Rosary and yoga mantras may have evolved, in part, as a calming practice, which both opens the mind and benefits the heart and lungs in the long-term.

British Medical Journal December 22 2001

Reciting Ave Maria Linked to a Healthy Heart
(Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study)

According to a new study in the most recent issue of the British Medical Journal, activities like these that promote slow and deep breathing can positively alter many of the body's vital signs.

"There is a great deal of evidence built up over the last 30 years that breathing exercises are extraordinarily important in health and well being," said Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston.

The 23 test subjects were told to either recite the rosary in Latin or to repeat a typical yoga mantra that they were taught by an instructor unfamiliar with the study. At no time were the subjects told how long they should take to perform the tasks.

The results of the study found that the slow deep breathing associated with these practices synchronized the subject's cardiovascular rhythms, leading to favorable psychological as well as physiological effects.

Timing is Everything

It's the timing involved in reciting the rosary and yoga mantra, rather than the practice of prayer or meditation itself, that is responsible for the benefits shown in the study, believes Dr. Luciano Bernardi, the lead author of the study and associate professor of medicine at the University of Pavia in Italy.

Humans have rhythmic fluctuations in their circulatory system in what has been found to be a 10 second cycle, or six times per minute. This study found that both yoga and the rosary caused people to breathe in precisely the same rhythm — six breaths per minute as opposed to 14 for normal breathing.

"We know slow deep breathing indeed has some benefit," said Bernardi. "If you breathe slower and deeper then you can take more oxygen into your blood."

Bernardi adds that this practice has been used on patients with heart failure, and has been effective in improving irregular breathing as well as increasing calmness and wellbeing. Regular practice of these techniques can also reduce the normal breathing rate, suggesting more than just a short-term effect.

Relaxation Response

Benson explains that the body has both a stress response and a relaxation response. The stress response is the cause of many illnesses and often serves to exacerbate others, whereas, the relaxation response can alleviate the problems of stress.

In order to harness the beneficial effects of the relaxation response, Benson suggests a simple two-step process similar to the practice of prayer and meditation. First, is the repetition of a word, or phrase, or even a muscular activity. Second, is to ignore other thoughts that may come to mind and continue the repetition.

"Virtually all of these techniques throughout history have been related to breathing practices," said Benson.

Adds Bernardi: "So, as a matter of fact it looks like this is a type of health practice, just as people do jogging."

Spirituality and Healing in Medicine

Dec. 18, 2001 (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Twenty-six years after writing his book, "The Relaxation Response," Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Harvard-affiliated Mind / Body Institute, is pleased with the growth conferences in spirituality and medicine but still frustrated with the slowness of medical professionals across the country to embrace his findings on the power of spirituality on healing.
As the organizer of Spirituality and Healing in Medicine: Practical Usage in Contemporary Health in Boston, Dr. Benson reviewed the scientific findings on the relaxation response for the mixture of clergy and medical practitioners in attendance. He explained that studies establish that we can use our brains to cut off the tendency to worry, thus tapping into our own healing capacities. The method he and his researchers have used is the repetition of a word, phrase or sound. Regardless of whether that word, phrase or sound was secular or religious, in later studies both types of patients reported feeling increased spirituality. They are currently studying whether religion or spirituality in patients will enable doctors to decrease blood pressure medications.
Following Dr. Benson, Dr. Harold Koenig from Duke University spoke on the effects religious belief and practice has on health. Dr. Koenig announced that the Center for the Study of Religion / Spirituality and Health at Duke University is beginning two-year post-doctoral research fellowships on religion and health. They will begin in the July 2002 and will train eight scientists to conduct research on religion and health and to effectively compete for NIH and private foundation funding in this area.
Dr. Koenig believes that every doctor who treats a patient should take a "spiritual history" because spiritual beliefs play an important role in the decisions many patients and their families make. Without understanding this, the doctor cannot effectively treat them. Dr. Koenig also said doctors can and should pray with patients, but only after taking this spiritual history to find out that religion is important to them and then only if the patient requests it.
Source: Reported by Ivanhoe president Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at the Spirituality and Healing in Medicine: Practical Usage in Contemporary Health in Boston, Dec. 15 - 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc.


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