How To Use A Prayer Rope

Orthodox prayer rope

You may find many Orthodox Christians wearing what look like bracelets made of wool or wooden beads. What they are wearing is not a piece of jewelry, but a prayer rope. Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians wear the prayer rope without truly understanding its origins and its purpose; it is not a decoration or outward sign to show the world our Orthodoxy. Rather, the prayer rope is designed to help us remain focused in prayer.

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

What is a prayer rope?

A prayer rope (Gr. Κομποσκοίνι, komposkini; Russian: вервица, vervitsa, “small rope”) is a cord of looped knots designed to aid Orthodox Christians in prayer. The knots forming a prayer rope are quite complex to make, consisting of seven or nine interlocked crosses. Prayer ropes come in various shapes and sizes, always with a fixed number of knots or beads (e.g. 33, 40, 50, 100, 200, 300, etc.) The most common is the 100-knot rope.

It is important that we not misconstrue the use of prayer ropes. They are for use in prayer alone, meant to aid in our concentration and to help us keep count of the number of prayers recited. They are not calming devices or another creative way to pass the time. Perhaps more importantly, they are not some kind of amulets with magic or exorcising powers.

What do prayer ropes look like?

Prayer ropes come in a great variety of forms, sizes, and colors. Most prayer ropes have a cross woven into them or attached to mark the “end”. Many prayer ropes have a tassel at the end of this cross. Moreover, they have some kind of marker after each 10, 25, or 50 knots or beads. There are many forms of prayer ropes, some knotted of wool or silk, or other more elegant or simpler materials. Others consist of beads or the dried flower of a plant called “Tears of the Mother of God”.

Orthodox prayer ropes made of synthetic wool
These prayer ropes are made of synthetic wool. While they do not have a cross made of knots, notice the cross bead at the “end” of the 33 knots.

The prayer rope is traditionally made out of wool, a reminder that we are rational sheep of the Good Shepherd, Christ the Lord, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world (cf. John 1:29). The most prevalent (but not only) color of a prayer rope is black, symbolizing mourning for one’s sins and repentance. The tassel is for drying the tears shed due to sorrow for your sins (or, if you have no tears, to remind you to weep); it can also be said to represent the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom, which one can only enter through the Cross.

The beads (if colored) are traditionally red, symbolizing the blood of Christ and the martyrs. And of course the cross itself speaks of the sacrifice and victory of life over death, humility over pride, self-sacrifice over selfishness, light over darkness. Finally, the manner of tying the knots may produce either seven or nine crosses in each separate knot, symbolizing the seven heavens or the nine ranks of angels.

Lestovke

There is also a leather form of the prayer rope, the lestovka (“ladder”). This version, introduced in Russia ca. the 14th century, remains in use primarily among the Old Believers there. Lestovke are asymmetrical, containing 100 loops divided into four uneven sections: 12, 40 (38 + 2 dividers), 33, and 17. Twelve for the Apostles; 38 plus the dividers on each side for the 40 weeks of the Theotokos’ pregnancy; 33 for the years of Christ’s life on earth, and 17 for the number of prophets. To complete the lestovka, four triangular leaves (representing the Gospels) attach to the point where the ends join, two and two, the upper pair overlapping the lower.

Lestovka prayer rope

Where did prayer ropes originate from?

The details of the origin of the prayer rope have been lost over time. However, historically the Orthodox prayer rope appears along with the rise of monasticism in Egypt in the third/fourth centuries. The prayer rope’s connection to monasticism has led many to believe only monks can or should use prayer ropes. However, they are important in the prayer lives of all Orthodox Christians, not just those called to be monks or nuns.

Perhaps one of the earliest forms was simply gathering small pebbles or seeds and moving them from one spot or container to another as a monk completed his prayer rule. However, we can see how this would be impractical for monks who had other tasks to complete during the course of their day in the monastery. The use of knotted rope made it possible for monks to cultivate unceasing prayer while outside of their cells.

Origin stories

There are a few different origin stories of the prayer rope in the Church’s Holy Tradition. The most notable concerns Saint Anthony the Great (ca. 251-356 AD), the “father of all monastics (monks)”. He started by tying a leather rope with a simple knot for every time he prayed Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have Mercy”), but the Devil would come and untie the knots to throw off his count. He then devised a way – inspired by a vision he had of the Theotokos – of tying the knots so that the knots themselves would constantly make the sign of the cross. This is why prayer ropes today are still tied using knots that each contain seven interlocking crosses. And the Devil could not untie it.

fresco of an angel delivering the monastic rule to St. Pachomius
An angel delivers the monastic rule to Saint Pachomius the Great. Fresco by Andrei Rublev ca. 1400 AD, in the Assumption Cathedral on the Gorodok, Zvenigorod, Russia

Another origin story centers on Saint Pachomius the Great [ca. 292-346]—a Desert Father from the Thebaid and the “founder of cenobitic monasticism”—who was visited by an angel. The angel instructed him to incorporate the use of prayer ropes to aid monks who could not read. Additionally, the angel delivered to him a prayer rule, one handed down through the Slavic tradition:

Begin with the Trisagion. After the Our Father: Lord, have mercy (12 times). Glory, Both now: O come, let us worship, thrice. Psalm L, Have mercy upon me, O God; I believe in one God; one hundred prayers, O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner. And then, It is truly meet , and the Dismissal. And this is one prayer. It is commanded to perform twelve of these in the day, and twelve at night.

David, Goliath, and the sling with five stones

Before all the origin stories surrounding prayer ropes, we see in the story of David and Goliath a Biblical type (prophetic symbol) of the prayer rope (see 1 Kings 17 LXX; 1 Samuel 17 KJV). When Saint David went out to slay the giant Goliath, he took with him a sling and five stones. As a type, the five stones represent the words of the Jesus Prayer, while the sling represents (and even resembles) a prayer rope. This typing becomes even stronger if we recall the words that David spoke to Goliath:

Thou comest to me with sword, and with spear, and with shield; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord God of hosts [emphasis added] … And all this assembly shall know that the Lord delivers not by sword or spear, for the battle is the Lord’s…

1 Kings 17:45-47

Carrying this to the spiritual level—perhaps beginning by imagining the prayer rope hanging at your side as casting a shadow not unlike a sword—it should not take too much to see the prayer rope “sling” loaded with Jesus Prayer “stones” as being part of our arsenal that will help in waging spiritual warfare.

Why do we need prayer ropes?

When we carry a prayer rope in our hands, it serves as a reminder. It reminds us of our obligation to persevere in prayer (Colossians 4:2) and to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Much like King David, we are to bless the Lord at all times and have His praise continually in our mouths (Psalm 33(34):1). Achieving this goal becomes possible only through the practice of stillness, or hesychasm. (See, for example, the Philokalia, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the collected works of St. Symeon the New Theologian, and the works of St. Isaac the Syrian.) However, one big problem that affects all of us is the tendency for our minds to wander and become distracted.

Saint Gregory of Sinai (ca. 1260s-1346 AD) once said, “If you pray with your lips but your mind wanders, how do you benefit? As you labor with your body, so you must labor with your intellect, lest you appear righteous in the body while your heart is filled with every form of injustice and impurity.” Prayer ropes help the mind stay focused on the task at hand and eliminate distractions. As our spiritual swords, they help us fight against the Devil and temptation (Ephesians 6:11-18). They are important tools in helping us achieve constant, undistracted, interior prayer as we are called to do by the Holy Scriptures and Church Fathers.

How to use a prayer rope

As part of the private prayer rule each of us establishes with the guidance of our spiritual father, we typically recite the Jesus Prayer a specific number of times. With a prayer rope, you can keep track of these prayers and concentrate on the words as you offer them. Just take care not to rush! There are two ways we can pray using the prayer rope:

  1. At any time of the day when we have free time, without being seen by anyone, secretly, we hold the prayer rope with our left hand and move from knot to knot with our thumb. For each knot, we whisper and meditate upon the Jesus Prayer or other short prayer (i.e. “Most Holy Theotokos, save us” or “Lord, have mercy”).
  2. At the time of our regular prayer, when we pray following the rule of prayer that our spiritual father has told us to follow, we hold the prayer rope with our left hand between the thumb and the index finger and move from knot to knot. At each knot we simultaneously make the sign of the cross with our right hand and say the Jesus Prayer or other short prayer in its place. When finished with all the knots of the prayer rope, we continue following the same procedure, for as many times as our spiritual father has advised.

Proper posture

It is good to stand, with head bowed, in a humble position during prayer. Others find it more helpful to sit or kneel, with head bowed, in order to concentrate. A lot depends on the individual and also on his health. The important thing is to be able to keep still and concentrate on the words of the prayer as you repeat it.

Use outside of structured prayer

When not in use, wrap or wear your prayer rope around your left wrist. This way, it serves as a constant reminder to you throughout the day to pray without ceasing. If this is impractical, you can keep the prayer rope in your left pocket. Do not hang it around your neck or suspend it from your belt. Why? Humility: we should not be ostentatious or conspicuous in displaying the prayer rope for others to see.

Many people like to use the prayer rope when they lie down to sleep. After signing their bed with the cross, they take their prayer rope, bless themselves with the sign of the cross as they lie in bed, and quietly pray with the prayer rope until they fall asleep. They then wake up with the prayer rope still in their fingers or next to them on the pillow, which helps begin the new day with prayer.

Use during corporate worship

The holy bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov mentions that the divine services of the Church are also a good opportunity for praying with the prayer rope. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we often have trouble concentrating on the service. In these moments, it is easier to concentrate quietly on our own private prayers. These could be extemporaneous prayers for some special need, psalms we know by heart, or a short prayer, like the Jesus Prayer, with the assistance of the prayer rope. The physical presence of the prayer rope in our fingers can help us catch ourselves and return to our task of prayer more quickly. In fact, this often helps a person concentrate better on the service itself, according to Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

During corporate worship, we as members of Christ’s Body—the Church Militant—join together mystically with the rest of the Body, regardless of where we are physically located. Additionally, we join together with that part of the Body that is in Heaven—the Church Triumphant—in offering up praise and prayers to God. But how does all this relate to the prayer rope? If you live near a church where you can attend these services, one might guess nothing, other than as an aid to refocus your prayers after being distracted; our holy Fathers tell us otherwise.

Use in place of smaller Offices (divine services)

As passed down to us by the Church Fathers, the basic framework for saying these Offices is contained in the Horologion. To fill out the framework, it is also generally necessary to have a Psalter, Octoechos, Menaion, Triodion, Pentecostarion, Evangelistarion, Apostolos, and liturgical calendar, as well as rubrics from a Typicon. There have been a few Saints who had a God-given ability to memorize this vast amount of material. However, such feats of memory are beyond most of us, and we must rely on the texts.

But therein lies a problem. We could easily spend several thousand dollars building up such a library, to say nothing of carrying it with you! This, too, is clearly beyond what an average person can afford. What, then, is a person to do if one or more of these prayer services form part of their prayer rule as established by their spiritual father? The answer can be found in the church’s service books (e.g., the Russian Orthodox Service Psalter) where the Offices can be replaced by praying the Jesus Prayer with prostrations a specified number of times. One scheme for this is as follows:

  • Vespers: 600 prayers
  • Great Compline: 700
  • Small Compline: 400
  • Midnight Office (Nocturn): 600
  • Matins: 1500
  • The Hours without the Inter-Hours: 1000
  • The Hours with the Inter-Hours: 1500
  • Canon/Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos: 300
  • Reciting the entire Psalter: 6000
  • One kathisma of the Psalter: 300
  • One stasis of the Psalter: 100

Naturally, our prayer rope becomes an indispensable aid at times like this. It can help us more easily keep count of the number of prayers we have said, so that we do not lose our place and become frustrated or despondent.

Conclusion

The devil will be hard at work trying to cause distractions while we are at prayer, and if successful, he will then lure us to neglect and eventually supplant our prayer with other activities. If we let our prayer life wane, it won’t be long before spiritual things in their entirety begin to slip away. And if that happens, how will we prevent the devil from completely dominating our life and avoid alienating ourselves from God? The watchword: persevere in prayer. And prayer ropes are wonderful aids for us as Orthodox Christians in the spiritual warfare we wage against the Devil and his angels every day.

By keeping a prayer rope with you everywhere and at all times, it serves as an ever-present reminder to pray without ceasing. By holding a prayer rope during prayer, it serves as a means to help overcome distraction. If this little prayer rope helps you to say a prayer or reminds you to pray or helps you in some way to become more prayerful, it will have fulfilled its purpose. It will have tied you more closely and more intimately with Christ our God, and also brought you closer to the Kingdom of God, for “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

Keep Reading: How To Maintain A Consistent Prayer Life

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the clear explanation!

    As someone raised a protestant, looking to become Orthodox with no churches nearby. It is very difficult to find good information in one place.

    Now I can finally understand how and why to use it!

    1. Jerremia,

      Christ is in our midst! We will pray for you and hope that you can one day find a suitable parish home. Until then, we are grateful to God that this has helped you. God bless!

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