By Selma Khenissi
I like prayer beads – they look pretty and nicely crafted. Their dainty looks, however, conceal a powerful spiritual practice.
I had the chance to try out prayer beads after I attended a study break at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. I spoke about my recent baptism, which took place last May, and the rector presented me with a bunch of prayer beads to choose from. She offered me instructions on how to pray with them and asked if I was a former Catholic, which I’m not. It turns out that prayer beads can provoke negative feelings for former Catholics. Having selected two sets of prayer beads, I felt like I received an early Christmas gift during the middle of Advent.
Prayer beads are a useful spiritual practice, as long as one knows what to pray while fingering the beads. A good friend of mine sent me a set of prayer beads a few years ago, but because I was stressed, the cord holding the pieces together broke and my inexperience with spiritual practices made the experience a fruitless endeavor.
Seven years after that first encounter with prayer beads, I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to try again. I know that I need to handle the beads carefully. The Episcopal chaplain at Georgetown University oohed and aahed over my selection of one set of prayer beads, which has aqua blue beads and clear beads. She said that blue is an Advent color, which I didn’t realize until I remembered the replacement of green with blue cloth during Advent services. So I prayed with that set of prayer beads throughout the Advent season.
Praying with prayer beads is a special way to pray during Advent, I found out. I tried using quotes from Scripture to pray to God, but I found that opening myself to the Holy Spirit helped me gain clarity over my life. On one occasion, I revealed to God my insecurities and then, as I fingered the beads, I felt called to change the wording of my prayer so that I stated that I am sufficiently adequate as a human being.
The prayer beads invite the user to enter a world of quiet, where the user is, during a precious window of time, at peace and detached from the immediate world. For a few moments, the practitioner is connected to God.
Advent is a great time to use prayer beads. In the midst of the silence and the stillness, practitioners can welcome the arrival of baby Jesus in the world. The church services may change their tune, ever so slightly, but the spiritual work of Advent takes place in the privacy of one’s home. Getting ready for Christmas is intense work, where we are not only thinking of what gifts to buy, but how to make our hearts and homes welcoming to God.
Of course, I haven’t forgotten about the church preparations for the season. The liturgy, whether it is during a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, an Advent Sunday service or a Christmas Eve service, is overwhelming. Reading Richard Rohr’s Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, some of the passages from Scripture are presented to me more than once. For a recent church member such as myself, I feel like I’ve just completed a long and exhausting excursion on a bicycle. However, I appreciate the moments of quiet that came from using prayer beads during the Advent season. Practicing the prayer beads helped me get ready for the onslaught of biblical passages, songs and other liturgy that I’m still rather new to. With all of this new information in my head, however, I am already looking forward to the next Advent season, where I am eager to glean more insights.
Even after Christmas Day, I will still continue my spiritual practice of using prayer beads. They’re an unexpected gift for me because I feel like the beads are intermediaries for deep conversations with God – they connect me to a higher power, but also keep me grounded. In the months that I have conversations with other church members, prayer beads aren’t a frequent topic. Being devoted to God can take many forms, but using prayer beads is an effective spiritual practice that requires practice, devotion and careful hands.