Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Thirteen-Year-Old Seminary Paper About Prayer Beads

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a paper in seminary about Prayer Beads. It is FAR from my best work, and it's not the most compelling read (I hope my writing has improved since then) but it has a lot of interesting information about the history of prayer beads as used in spiritual practices. Since our Lenten theme this year is about being still and knowing that God is God, and since we created prayer beads in worship tonight, I thought I'd make this paper available as a resource for anyone who might be curious and want to develop their own practice.

(Also, from tonight's worship service, to prove that my writing has gotten better:)



DECEMBER 3, 2010

Prayer is the most basic religious act.[1] It makes sense, then, that human beings would develop a way to keep track of their prayers and to deepen their prayer experience. Hence, prayer beads. Although the most familiar use of prayer beads is to count repetitions of prayers, the meditative practices that have developed out of this utilitarian purpose reveal a much deeper level of spirituality that may be initially apparent in the practice itself. As Unitarian Universalist Pastor Erik Walker Wikstrom notes, “Contemplative prayer is the opening of mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.”[2] Prayer beads, then, particularly the Roman Catholic rosary, are a human effort to welcome the divine into our lives within the confines of the human capacity for understanding and thought.

It is important to note that this desire is in no way restricted to a single religious tradition. Indeed, in a discussion of prayer bead use, it is essentially impossible to proceed without an examination of the historical and worldwide context. Religions of the world have always tended to borrow from one another;[3] very few religious ideas develop in isolation. As a result, the history of prayer beads is a long and intricate one that must be examined in its entirety in order to arrive at a more complete understanding of the practice itself in any one tradition.

The first beads were used over 40,000 years ago, made from pebbles, bones, or teeth,[4] predating cave drawings.[5] They had secular symbolic meaning from the beginning, indicating status or special skills,[6] but their religious significance developed quickly. The spiritual connotations of beads began to arise around 3200 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt,[7] where beads were called “sha sha”—sha being the Egyptian word for “luck”.[8] Even the English term “bead” has religious origins: it comes from the Anglo-Saxon words “bidden” and “bede”, which mean “to pray” and “prayer,” respectively.[9] Clearly, beads have been associated with spirituality in general and prayer in particular for quite a long time.

The use of beads as a tool for prayer most likely began in ancient India in the Hindu tradition.[10] The Arthava Veda, a Hindu text written around 800 B.C.E., provides specific instructions for the use of prayer beads, specifying that they must not be shaken, swung, or dropped, and that the entire left hand must never touch them.[11] It is clear that not only were these beads a tool for spiritual practice, but that the beads themselves were considered sacred.

This idea of using beads for prayer may have stemmed from, and later replaced, an earlier use of knots to count prayer repetitions.[12] The Jewish tradition still uses specific numbers of knots or tassels on their prayer shawls[13] in following the Torah’s instructions to do so, so that “you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them…”[14] It is reasonable that knots, which can fray or break, would eventually be replaced in many traditions by more permanent beads.[15] It is still common today to use a knot as a reminder,[16] but usually a temporary one—a quality not suitable to the important practice of prayer.

Christian-specific prayer bead practices are rooted in the “desert mother/father” traditions of the third century C.E., although they did not become fully developed until much later.[17] There is archaeological evidence that Christians were using strings of beads in their prayer practices by the late seventh century.[18] According to tradition, the use of prayer beads began when St. Benedict of Nursia wanted his disciples to pray all 150 Psalms each week. Since memorization of the Psalms was a difficult task for many, the disciples were allowed to substitute 150 repetitions of the “Our Father” prayer instead.[19] Prayer beads were used in order to keep track of the repetitions,[20] and a tradition was born. By the late Middle Ages, prayer beads were commonplace throughout Christianity.[21]

Over time, the Christian prayer bead practice, most commonly observed in the Catholic rosary, has evolved from a simple repetition of prayers to a complex combination of personal meditation and prescribed prayer. The modern use of the Catholic rosary is credited to St. Dominic in the 12th century.[22] It is said that the Virgin Mary visited him in a vision, showing him the image of the rosary in its present form.[23] A Dominican teacher, Alan de La Roche, popularized St. Dominic’s version in the 15th century,[24] and Pope Leo X officially approved of its use in 1520.[25] Even today, the rosary is still evolving to meet the current needs of Catholics: in 2002, the Catholic Church officially added an extra section of prayers to the rosary.[26]

It is evident that beads have been used as instruments of prayer for hundreds of years. The different historical and contextual forms that prayer beads have taken, then, should come as no surprise. Nearly two-thirds of the world prays with beads,[27] and variations among them are inevitable. In Hinduism, where the use of prayer beads began, they are called “japamala”—japa referring to the practice of repeating a mantra, and mala meaning “garland” or “necklace” in Sanskrit.[28] The japamala, which is made of different materials depending on the branch of Hinduism,[29] consists of 108 beads.[30] These beads represent the cosmos (the number of the astrological signs multiplied by the number of planets)[31] as well as the 108 names of the holy Ganges River, the 108 Upanishads, and 108 forms of meditation.[32] Number is clearly quite significant in the Hindu prayer bead practice.

Buddhists developed their prayer bead practice from the pre-existing Hindu practice around 500 B.C.E.[33] Like the Hindus, Buddhist prayer beads also consist of 108 beads,[34] but for a very different reason. The 108 beads stand for the number of desires or passions that must be overcome before a Buddhist can attain nirvana.[35] Although traditionally made from the seeds or wood of the Bodhi tree, the spread of Buddhism to other cultures has led to the use of other materials in their prayer beads.[36]

Muslims, too, use prayer beads, although no one knows their exact origins. Scholars reasonably speculate that Islamic prayer beads may have grown out of the Buddhist tradition.[37] Called subha (“blessing”)[38] or tasbih (“praising”),[39] Islamic prayer beads usually consist of 99 smaller beads and a single larger beads, which represent the 99 names or attributes of Allah and Allah’s “true,” personal name.[40] They are sometimes made from date pits that come from Islam’s holy city of Mecca,[41] but the material of the beads it not as important in Islam as it is in Hinduism or Buddhism[42]—the focus is on the practice.

The most familiar form of Christian prayer bead practices is the Catholic rosary, although it is certainly not the only one.[43] The Eastern Orthodox tradition sometimes uses knots in a similar way, with ropes of 33, 50, 100, or 500 knots used to count prayers,[44] and in recent years, a Protestant rosary has gained popularity as a way to structure prayer.[45] However, the Catholic rosary still remains the most widely recognizable form of prayer beads in the West. They are usually made of glass or plastic, but are sometimes carved from wood or even made from crushed rose petals.[46] The beads on the Catholic rosary are arranged in groups of ten, called “decades,” with larger beads separating each group. There is also a small string of three beads with a crucifix attached at the end, which is used to prepare oneself for prayer.[47] The Catholic rosary is traditionally performed three times a day, using familiar prayers such as the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary,” and the Apostles’ Creed, so that the practitioner is able to perform all of the prayers and meditations prescribed.[48]

Whatever the practice or specific form of the beads, a prayer bead practice usually involves an element of reflection as well as repetition.[49] Prayer in general serves to, in the words of authors Denise and John Carmody,“…draw [humans] out of their mortality, redeem their suffering, enlighten their ignorance, and heal their pain.”[50] In light of the profound impact that prayer can have on the human experience, does it not make sense to utilize a tool that will allow humankind to more effectively blend the dual practices of prayer and meditation and explore the depths of their relationship with God? The specific meanings and functions of prayer beads, while all seeking this general end, are remarkably varied. Prayer beads are, in their most basic form, simple physical reminders to pray and communicate with God, whether with pre-defined prayers or with improvised prayers.[51] Their meaning, however, does not stop there.

Prayer beads’ original purpose was to keep track of the number of prayers recited; to serve as a sort of “mnemonic device.”[52] This is common to nearly every tradition, as scholar M. Gaster explains: “Whether the devotee is to recite so many Paters, or so many names of Allah, or so many verses of the Psalms, or other mystical names and formulas…does not alter the fundamental character of the rosary and of the primary use to which it is put; it is to keep the number and to aid the memory.”[53] This basic purpose led to other functions, since the mere repetition of prayers was not an end in itself. The repetitive nature of a prayer bead practice helps facilitate a meticulous focus on the act of prayer,[54] and allows the individual to become lost in his or her meditation without losing track of the words or names that he or she is reciting.[55]

Prayer beads can also help individuals in practical ways that go beyond spirituality, such as battling addiction, celebrating achievements, or beginning and ending the day.[56] They represent an individual’s commitment to their spirituality,[57] and so can connect the struggles of everyday life to the transcendent realities of the divine. In this way, prayer beads function to draw the holy into the realm of the human and to bring personal meaning to spiritual practice. Indeed, a prayer bead practice can have deep personal significance and evoke responses far beyond simple feelings of piety. The poem “Rosary in Bed” by Ernest Sandeen portrays the remarkable effect that prayer beads can have on the individual. He describes the movement of the beads through his fingers as, “falling like a graceful chain of unleashed dreams,” the prayers as, “beautiful unrevealing cycles around my breath in a clot of meaning,” and remarks that “the purity of their changing forms amazes me.”[58] He experiences the mysterious nature of the rosary and the divine within the context of his everyday life—in this particular case, bedtime. His is a personal transformative experience that demonstrates how the structured repetitions of the rosary can easily give way to a dream-like state of contemplation and meditation.

Prayer beads, particularly the Catholic rosary, have proven their worth as a tool for supporting a full-bodied, holistic faith. When one takes a practice and makes it their own by personalizing and internalizing it, prayer beads can incorporate four different types of prayer—naming, knowing, listening, and loving—into a single ritual,[59] giving it a depth that cannot be achieved by words alone. Prayer beads also bring a physical aspect to prayer, creating a “tactile communication” between our senses and our spirituality.[60] Wikstrom asks, “…how can we ‘love God with all our mind, and all our heart, and all our soul,’ as the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches, if we must do so without our bodies?”[61] Indeed, people in western culture tend to separate their spiritual being from their physical being, creating a deep divide, and prayer beads help reunite all of our senses in the act of prayer.[62]

Prayer beads can also facilitate the building of religious community. The string that connects each of the beads can be seen as representing the “interconnectedness of all who pray,”[63] and the practice itself helps regulate prayer and worship in a way that gives all who practice a common point of reference.[64] In addition to the private practice of rosary prayer, the Catholic Church has a practice of praying the rosary aloud in a group, incorporating additional Mary-related prayers on such an occasion.[65] Prayer should not be an isolating event; prayer beads can aid a sense of community and unity through consistency.

Additionally, prayer beads can provide perspective in the confusing material world of which we are a part. They bring a meaningful presence to any moment because they can be taken along anywhere—prayer beads can be thought of as “mobile altars.”[66] In the space of an instant, they can transform our sense of existence from one of chaos and confusion to one of peaceful clarity. Authors Maggie Shannon and Eleanor Wiley explain this phenomenon by saying, “[prayer beads] are a means in a material world to remember one’s place in the spiritual world.”[67] Through the physical action of touching the beads, the verbal prayers, and the intentional meditation, practitioners can gain a fuller and deeper understanding of the one to whom they pray and, consequently, of themselves and their place in the world.[68]

However, this does not mean that prayer beads are without limitations. There are several dangers in using a prayer bead practice without the appropriate mindset. It does not work if one merely goes through the motions. The extensive repetition that is characteristic of prayer bead practices can inadvertently cause one to focus on the words, which in turn draws attention away from meditation and silent prayer.[69] The four types of prayer (naming, knowing, listening, and loving) are forgotten. Furthermore, in a repetitive prayer bead practice, we run the risk of focusing more on the correct performance of the ritual than on fostering our relationship with God. John Calvin discouraged prayer beads among his followers for exactly this reason—he devalued the memorization of set prayers next to a direct and personal relationship with God.[70] The use of prayer beads does not provide practice for speaking to God from our own hearts, which Calvin would argue we desperately need.

Beyond these theological issues, prayer bead practices may be limiting in other ways as well. Some people, even within traditions that have a fully-developed prayer bead practice, find them inaccessible or unfulfilling.[71] As meaningful an experience as prayer bead practice has the potential to be, it simply does not work for everyone. Furthermore, while a prayer bead practice can be unifying for a community, it is not necessarily an inclusive practice. People from outside a particular tradition can feel excluded by the detailed nature of the ritual.[72] The basic use of prayer beads may be simple and somewhat universal, but as soon as a religion develops a complex system of prayers to go with them, the practice becomes exclusivist. Religions that encounter limitations such as these must exercise caution to ensure that the use of prayer beads is an inspiring, useful, and meaningful experience.

While each religion has their own prayer bead tradition that serves its own purpose in the context of its community, the use of prayer beads is so widely practiced with a history that is so deeply intertwined with world cultures that we must not ignore other traditions for the sake of our own. The Catholic rosary is really not so far removed from Protestant values; the Buddhist japamala is not independent from Islamic beads. As Denise and John Carmody explain, “If one takes to heart a prayer formula or ritual of another religious tradition, bracketing for the moment the theological objections that might come to mind and trusting simply that because others have found this practice sanctifying it is worth trying, most likely the alien character of the tradition in question will be halved immediately.”[73] Indeed, if communities thousands of years ago had not been willing to do this, we would not have the Catholic rosary as we know it today.

Ultimately, the specific practice or theology behind the beads is not what is most important, because their purpose is simply to bring us into a closer relationship with God.[74] We must remember that prayer beads are circularly shaped, reflecting not only the interconnectedness of all who pray, but the circularity of the spiritual path—says Wikstrom, “One is never finished with the spiritual journey. One never arrives.”[75] On whatever path our prayer beads lead us, with whatever words we choose to pray, we may gain comfort knowing that we are praying with an ancient tool that has been used for millennia by people of all races, cultures, and religions to better love their God.



Blythe, Teresa A. 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

Brown, Patricia D. Paths to Prayer: Finding Your Own Way to the Presence of God. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Tully Carmody. Prayer in World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990.

Davidson, Graeme J. Anyone Can Pray: A Guide to Methods of Christian Prayer. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1983.

Gaster, M. "Beads and Knots." Folklore 25, no. 2 (June 1914): 254-258.

Katch, Hillary, and Mary French. Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience. Winter 2004. (accessed November 26, 2010).

Sandeen, Ernest. "Rosary in Bed." Poetry, March 1968: 375.

Saying the Anglican Rosary. K & L Enterprises, Inc. 2006-2010. (accessed November 26, 2010).

Shannon, Maggie Oman, and Eleanor Wiley. "Praying Bead by Bead." Beliefnet. 2002. (accessed November 26, 2010).

—. "Spirituaity on a String." Beliefnet. 2002. (accessed November 26, 2010).

Wernik, Uri. "The Use of Prayer Beads in Psychotherapy." Mental Health, Religion & Culture 12, no. 4 (May 2009): 359-368.

Wikstrom, Erik Walker. Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 2005.


[1] Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody, Prayer in World Religion, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990, 149.

[2] Erik Walker Wikstrom, Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life, Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 2005, 71.

[3] Ibid., 61.

[4] Maggie Oman Shannon and Eleanor Wiley, "Spirituaity on a String," Beliefnet, 2002, (accessed November 26, 2010).

[5] Wikstrom, 57.

[6] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wikstrom, 57.

[9] Hillary Katch and Mary French, Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience, Winter 2004, (accessed November 26, 2010).

[10] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[11] Wikstrom, 58.

[12] M. Gaster, "Beads and Knots." Folklore 25, no. 2 (June 1914): 255.

[13] Gaster, 256.

[14] Numbers 15:39 (NIV).

[15] Gaster, 257.

[16] Ibid., 255.

[17] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[18] Wikstrom, 58.

[19] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Katch and French.

[22] Wikstrom, 58.

[23] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[24] Patricia D. Brown, Paths to Prayer: Finding Your Own Way to the Presence of God, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003, 272.

[25] Katch and French.

[26] Brown, 273.

[27] Katch and French.

[28] Uri Wernik, "The Use of Prayer Beads in Psychotherapy," Mental Health, Religion & Culture 12, no. 4 (May 2009): 362.

[29] Katch and French.

[30] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Wikstrom, 59.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[35] Wikstrom, 60.

[36] Katch and French.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Wernik, 362.

[39] Wikstrom, 57.

[40] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[41] Ibid.

[42] Katch and French.

[43] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006, 89.

[44] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[45] Graeme J. Davidson, Anyone Can Pray: A Guide to Methods of Christian Prayer, New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1983, 77.

[46] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[47] Davidson, 75.

[48] Katch and French.

[49] Saying the Anglican Rosary, K & L Enterprises, Inc., 2006-2010, (accessed November 26, 2010).

[50] Carmody and Carmody, 147.

[51] Blythe, 90.

[52] Gaster, 255.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[55] Wikstrom, 62.

[56] Maggie Oman Shannon and Eleanor Wiley, "Praying Bead by Bead," Beliefnet, 2002, (accessed November 26, 2010).

[57] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[58] Ernest Sandeen, "Rosary in Bed," Poetry, March 1968: 375.

[59] Wikstrom, 64.

[60] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[61] Wikstrom, 62.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[64] Gaster, 255.

[65] Davidson, 76.

[66] Wikstrom, 62.

[67] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[68] Wikstrom, 61.

[69] Ibid., 65.

[70] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[71] Wikstrom, 64.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Carmody and Carmody, 150.

[74] Shannon and Wiley, “Spirituality on a String.”

[75] Wikstrom, 65.

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