(Commissioned by the good men at a maximum security prison, for an inter-faith journal they publish.)
I write this for men who find themselves imprisoned, behind walls of cement and razor wire, and for me, who is also imprisoned in sin and within an imperfect human form. I write not out of sanctity from success, but from the bowels of process: struggling to find the skillful means, through humility and hard knocks, on my part, and through Grace from beyond my means, in spite of my part.
To write about these beads: two paths: the first, an objective enterprise, tackling the external facts of such a religious item, as appears, in various faith traditions, at various historical times, in various cultural contexts; or the second, a subjective confession from a user, from an imperfect personal perspective, incomplete, but candid and concrete. In writing on prayer beads, I have chosen the latter path, for it is the only one I intimately know.
I am Catholic, and therefore use chaplets (garlands of beads of various lengths) to pray various devotions, including but not limited to the Holy Rosary. I am not going to explore the particulars of the various devotions, nor am I planning on comparing the specifics of Catholic usage with usage in other faiths. Furthermore, I will not pursue an examination of the different construction and arrangements of prayer beads, as they pertain to the different faiths and the cultural histories of these faiths. There are ready references to satisfy such curiosity.
I pick up beads, and employ them in my prayer, for three basic reasons: to focus, to construct, and to transcend. I know as many Catholics as there are there are different motivators and different agendas for the use of Catholic beads. And through friends and associates, I infer the same to be so in the other faiths. But if I put any catechism and doctrine aside, and if I sit quietly in my simple self, I know that these three reasons hold constant in my daily use of my beads, despite variances of space, of specific devotion, of external forces.
I pick up my beads, and I instinctively draw myself into a time-honored ritual. My hands, my eyes, my thoughts are grounded. I close my eyes, partially or completely, and I begin to see with the tips of my fingers: shaping the Crucifix, drawing it out, touching the corpus of Christ, bringing the corpus to my lips to kiss it, then using the Crucifix to draw out over my corpus the Sign of the Cross: to initiate the ritualistic prayers, and to begin, the counting…
As this patterning begins, mudras are used that restrict the possibilities of corporal expression, and focus the body to the task at hand. Concurrent with this gestural restriction are restrictions of breath, of speech, of ego-thought-construction. This focus binds the possibility of the individual into the shared collectiveness of the historical and the social, in the service of communing with the extra-historical and the extra-social: with the Divine. This focus challenges the individual: to submit or to resist. In the submission, there is willingness to “self-empty” (kenōsis) and open the interior in a vulnerable fashion, without presumptions or limitations, and to wait in this focus with patience that springs up from this servile participation to the ritualistic process. In the resistance, the ego challenges the formulaic. The ego asserts its wants and its needs. The ego, as such, cannot become the servant; it cannot wear the yoke however sweet; it cannot pick up its cross, with joy and with any emotion; it stands what it perceives to be its ground: Je refuse! This refusal is a choice, but a choice that stops the process. To submit, as strange as it may seem, is to progress. It is the focus that opens the door.
To focus is to begin. And beginning, to initiate a spirit. And once initiated, construction of a process can be begun.
Pope John Paul II, in his Rosarium Virginis Marie, states: “At the most superficial level, the beads often become a simple counting mechanism to mark the succession of Hail Marys. Yet they can also take on a symbolism which can give added depth to contemplation.” In all tradition, sets of beads are used to “count” sets of prayers or mantras. But the counting need not be seen as simply an equivalent to an abacus. The tallying is not, mystically speaking, an end figure to arrive at, but a loosening of such an agenda, a bending of mind and heart into a process that, as perfected, becomes less and less about destination, and more about a condition in which the process can flourish, as process unto itself. The process becomes a path becomes a pilgrimage.
When I pray a lengthy devotion: time and space bend. If I submit: if process positions itself correctly: then becoming can finally become being. The tips of my fingers do not simply count out beads: they become my eyes to witness the mysteries that are encountered along the path; they become my feet to carry me further, deeper, into this prayerful territory. My fingers align themselves with my lungs and breathing and movement are coordinated through ritual into a healthy pacing. I begin to construct a journey: away from the tribulations of my day into a sacred interior space: through repetition of prayers and mudras: through a slowed shifting from one focused mystery/mystical aspect to another: through a pacing and a process extra-ordinary as experienced: I move deeper into the distance towards a horizon of unknowing, hopeful and waiting, patient and attentive.
Bernardo Olivera, O.S.C.O, writes: “To know Christ crucified, we must be crucified to the world.” In nailing my fingers and my speech and my human form to this path of prayer, “in the framework of tradition and magisterium,” I can begin to transcend the human language of the prayers; I can begin to transcend to limits of human gesture in the mudra, and move, freed, beyond… in order for “communion through encounter.”
This freedom is essential to the being able to move along the path towards transcendence.
It is not a freedom as we modern individuals might strive to assert; rather, almost standing in contrast, it is a freedom from our own individuated egos. It is a freedom pouring from a humility that focus and construct together produce. It is a freedom through submission. As Saint Dorotheos of Gaza taught to his brethren in the 6th Century: “Before anything else we need humility: a being ready to listen whenever a word is spoken to us, and to say, ‘I submit,’ because through humility every device of the enemy, every obstacle, is destroyed.” And in the “counting,” in the long slow pacing along the path, my ego is stripped; my whole being is made vulnerable, as vulnerable as a man nailed naked to a tree.
“The literal meaning of the text is always the point of departure… The Spirit takes us beyond the letter,” writes Olivera lovingly, encouragingly. The creativity of mystical prayer blossoms as the pilgrim looses himself in his way. The “counting” adds up to a null set, the end blends into the ending into the moving into the becoming… into breathing. “If it breathes in, it breathes out.”
In this moment-less moment, the distinctions of the world and of the self are lost in a radical communion. “To contemplate is to encounter the Word, beyond words.” Beyond literalisms and realpolitik and personal agendas and fears, beyond poetics and allegories and human attempts at knowing that which cannot in the end be known, but which with Grace may be believed.
And so, for these reasons, during my day, each day, I find time to pick up my beads, and begin my path towards attentiveness. And with this I wish one and all: Pax – Salaam – Shalom – Shanti.