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Orthodox Spirituality The Jesus Prayer

The Prayer Rope

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner."

     Question: Many Orthodox lay people pray with the aid of a prayer rope. Who introduced the custom of praying by prayer rope and when?

     Answer: The origin of the prayer rope is attributed to the time of the founder of coenobitic monasticism, St. Pachomius the Great (4th century), who introduced it as a means to help illiterate monastics say their daily prayer rule by accomplishing a definite quantity of prayers and prostrations. Since then the prayer rope has gained wide popularity in Eastern monasticism and is in common use among laymen zealous for godliness. In accordance with his rule, each monastic is obliged to fulfill daily a set number of prostrations in conjunction with the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner") and the prayer rope by its very nature is the most convenient and simplest means of keeping track of the number.

     By carrying the prayer rope in his hand, the monk is continually reminded of his main task: to pray unceasingly, something which the Apostle Paul required not only of monastics, but of all Christians in general (cf. I Thess. 5:17). This is why a newly-tonsured monastic is immediately entrusted by the abbot with "the cord" (the prayer rope) with the words: Accept, O brother ......., the spiritual sword which is the word of God in the everlasting Jesus prayer by which you should have the name of the Lord in your soul, your thoughts, and your heart, saying always: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."

     All those who are zealous for their salvation are invited to this unceasing remembrance of the saving name of Jesus, both laymen and monastics, for the spirit of life in Christ is one and the same for both. This explains why in old Russia the prayer rope, under a special name and with a somewhat unique form (the so-called "mini-ladder" which resembles a long strap of leather with rolls that form small steps), gained widespread usage among laymen and is now preserved in this form among the Old Ritualists. With the subsequent decline of the spirit of prayer and reverence in Russia, the use of the prayer rope disappeared among the majority of the laity.

     There is no need to fear (as some erroneously believe) that prayer by this means need take on a mechanical character. Any prayer, even without the rope, can be said mechanically if those praying do not force themselves to struggle to pray with profound attentiveness and reverence in order to overcome their wandering minds.

     The use of the Jesus prayer with prostrations is sanctioned by our Church, which directs at the end of certain service books (the Service Psalter, for example) that one can in cases of need replace all the common worship services with a definite number of prostrations and the Jesus Prayer (which would be difficult to carry out without the rope):

Instead of the entire Psalter: 6000 Jesus Prayers
One kathisma: 300 prayers; for each stasis: 100
Midnight Service: 600
Matins: 1500
The Hours without the Inter-Hours: 1000; with the Inter-Hours: 1500
Vespers: 600
Great Compline: 700
Small Compline: 400
A canon to the Theotokos with the Akathist: 300 prostrations.
     Many of our spiritual elders, men of prayer, ascetics and directors in faith and piety, down to the most recent time have recommended the use of the prayer rope to laymen zealous for their salvation and at times have even given them their own prayer ropes as a blessing.

     Here, for example, is what the great spiritual director of the last century, Bishop Theophan, the Recluse of Vyshna, wrote on the significance of the prayer rope:

     "When we stand in prayer, doesn't it seem that long hours have already gone by, when really it has been only a few minutes? This feeling is harmless when one prays according to a set rule, but when someone prays only with prostrations and using a short prayer of one phrase, there is a great temptation to break off prayer after having barely started, with the illusory belief that the prayer was just as it should have been! Thus, those who excelled in prayer, in order to avoid being subject to this self-deception, invented the prayer rope, which they proposed for the use of those who seek to pray not with written prayers, but on their own. They used it as follows: they said, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner," and moved one knot with their fingers; then they said this again and moved another, and so on; between each short prayer they made a bow from the waist or a prostration, as desired, or between small knots they made a bow from the waist and at the larger knots or beads a complete prostration. The rule consisted in a set number of prayers and prostrations, interspersed with prayers in one's own words.... The number of prayers and prostrations for each prayer service is indicated in the back of our Service Psalter, in different proportions for those who are zealous and those who are lazy or too busy. Our elders, who exist even now [the end of the 19th century], living in sketes or special kellions -- for example, in Valaam or Solovki -- perform all the services with this method. If you like, or at times prefer, you may fulfill your rule in this manner. But beforehand strive to become used to doing it as it is written. In any event, I am sending you a prayer rope.When reading this, don't think I'm trying to drive you into a convent. I myself first heard of praying by rope from a layman and not from a monk. Many laymen and laywomen pray like this. This will be of use to you as well." (From What is Spiritual Life and How Does One Become Disposed toward It? Letter XLVII of Bishop Theophan, pp. 173-175).

Source: Orthodox Life, Volume 34, Number 4 (Jul.-Aug. 1984), pages 45-47. Translated from the Russian by Timothy Fisher from Questions and Answers in Eplanation of Church Piety and Care for Souls. Reprinted from "Orthodox Russia," Jordanville, N.Y., 1958.

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