Last summer, sitting on a rocky beach with family all around, I noticed a small white shell among the scramble of stones and shards of driftwood. Soon I had collected a handful, all pure white and perfectly whorled, the former dwelling place for some diminutive, absentee mollusk. For a few days, I carried them around in my pocket, reaching in to finger their smooth contours, already wondering what practical use I could devise for them, and their story would have ended in a dark kitchen cupboard if Paraclete Press had not sent me a copy of Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New.
I am Protestant to the bone, and it would never have occurred to me that ten small white shells in my hand could represent ten members of my family and serve as a tactile reminder to pray for each, one by one. Author and jewelry designer Suzanne Henley reminds readers that ancient practices of prayer were very tactile. Bead by bead, fingers remembered what the heart cherished, and words would spring to mind.
As a glass artist, Henley has the unique privilege of crafting customized prayer beads, and her creative view of the world lends a gritty practicality to the business of prayer that so many of us talk about — but so few of us practice in the way we want to.
“Praying is not just an arcane, dusty practice that a group of humorless, self-righteous old men sat down and made up a long time ago. It is not just words in a prayer book. It’s not a milquetoast, rehearsed exhortation delivered in a faux-devout voice to begin a citywide prayer breakfast with cold scrambled eggs. We carry this need for connection in our guts . . .” (xi)
The History of Prayer Beads
So, as Suzanne scoops handfuls of Mongolian sand beads from the Gobi Desert and beads crafted from ancient Roman glass fragments, she invites us to look with new eyes at a tradition that, by the time of the Reformation, had deteriorated into an empty piling of slippery words upon which the praying saint hoped to ascend to heaven. Fast forward to 1987, however, and to the statisticians’s great surprise, as church affiliation begins a decline, the use of Protestant prayer beads is in an upswing.
Madeleine L’Engle described prayer beads as a tool to “enflesh the words, make thought tangible.” Maybe our distracted, squirrel-chasing, social-media-saturated brains are seeking an analog anchor. Apparently, the earliest known example of tactile prayer reminders were used by the Desert Fathers who committed to praying the 150 Psalms twice a day. In order to keep track of the number, they carried 300 pebbles in their cloaks, tossing one out after each prayer. Because I am unfamiliar with the historic prayers associated with the rosary, I appreciated a charming child-drawn diagram, as well as the road map for Protestant prayer beads which proscribes no set words or prayers.
Prayer and Work
Suzanne and I are kindred spirits in our numbering of the tedious steps of grocery shopping: “Into the basket, out of the basket onto the checkout stand, into the bags, into the car, into the house, and into the fridge and cabinets . . .” (43) However, instead of an occasion for grumpiness, Suzanne sees grocery shopping as a “weekly prayer-bead adventure” in which she meditates on the fruit of the Spirit in the produce section, wordlessly blesses fellow shoppers, and quiets her heart while pushing her cart.
Cracking 360 eggs to make breakfast for a gathering of homeless people, Suzanne also practices a ministry of prayer with each thwack against the rim of the bowl, reminding me of prayers I lifted while pinning small socks to a clothesline (Thank you for the gift of this small life . . .), or, more recently, over sports uniforms and tattered work pants (Bless this boy with safety and success . . . ).
Whether we use beads or seashells, the events of our life, or the fingers of both hands to mark the practice of our prayers, the prayers are offered, word-by-word, thought-by-thought. This is also the nature of a life poured out, not in a great gush, once and for all, but drop-by-drop as we pay attention to the voice of the Spirit and open our hands as well as our hearts in gratitude, thanksgiving, and love.
Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
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Joining you in thanksgiving for a God who hears and answers prayer,
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