Experiments in prayer

“Having a physical item to count and move through one’s fingers focuses the mind” when praying, says Sr. Sarah Jean Thompson, a sister in the monastic community of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine, Toronto. Photo: Tolikoff Photography
Published March 29, 2018

Famously, when asked by his disciples to “teach us to pray” in the gospels, Jesus responded with the Lord’s Prayer. For centuries, Christians have used this passage as a guide and road map for how to talk to God. But throughout the ages, how one prays has been interpreted in many ways.

Most Anglicans likely have one or more preferred ways to pray, whether a physical position—kneeling, perhaps, folding hands or closing eyes—or “tools” like lighting a candle, or using prayer beads.

“Using tools in prayer helps us engage our entire beings into prayer,” says the Rev. Kara Mandryk. “A lot of times, at least the way I grew up, prayer is either in your head or in your mouth. But once prayer is in your body, you engage with God in a different way.”

Mandryk is the transitional co-ordinator of Henry Budd College for Ministry in The Pas, Man., diocese of Brandon. Formerly, she was an associate professor for worship and Christian spirituality at Providence University College in Otterburne, Man., where she taught a class on the rituals of prayer to students from across different Christian traditions.

The Rev. Kara Mandryk, transitional co-ordinator of Henry Budd College for Ministry, diocese of Brandon. Photo: George Cribbs

“The way we hold our bodies is very reflective of what’s going on inside of us,” says Mandryk. In Scripture, she says, there are many examples of different physical positions of prayer—standing, kneeling, prostrate, arms upraised. In her class, Mandryk remembers, she encouraged her students to repeat a simple prayer—like the ancient Orthodox Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—while moving through different positions, making note of how they connected differently with the words in each physical position.

Other types of “embodied prayer” use small tools that help people to engage physically with prayer, like rosaries or finger labyrinths, says Mandryk. “For those of us who are very kinesthetic and fidgety, it just helps us focus,” she says. Different people have different approaches to learning and understanding, she notes, and “there’s no reason why that shouldn’t translate into how we meet and commune with God.”

‘A tool to enter into silence’ 

Sr. Sarah Jean Thompson, a sister in the monastic community of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine (SSJD), in Toronto, regularly teaches workshops on how to make and use Anglican rosaries. She also sees it as a way to aid focus while praying. “People often find that their minds wander during prayer,” says Sarah Jean. “Sort of like popcorn. Like: ‘I wonder what I’m going to have for dinner?’ or ‘I need to make that phone call’ or ‘Is my kid OK at school?’ ” Having a physical item to count and move through one’s fingers focuses the mind, she says.

The Anglican rosary features 33 beads, representing the age of Christ. Photo: Contributed

Sarah Jean has long been interested in prayer beads. “When I was seven years old, my six-year-old neighbour had her first communion,” she remembers. “She was Roman Catholic and I was Protestant. She got gifts, got to dress up pretty and have a big party, and I was so jealous! And the thing that most interested me was her rosary.”

When she entered SSJD more than 40 years ago, Sarah Jean asked for a rosary and began to read up on using prayer beads. She began by using the Marian (Roman Catholic) rosary, with an adapted set of prayers and meditations based on English theologian Austin Farrer’s book, Lord, I Believe.

Over time, she discovered and learned to make different types of rosaries, including the Orthodox prayer rope—which is made with 33, 50 or 100 knots—and the Anglican rosary developed by a parish prayer group in Texas.

The design, which was developed in the 1980s, features 33 beads, representing the age of Christ. It begins with a cross, then a large “invitatory” bead, followed by sets of seven small beads interspersed with four larger beads. The larger beads are called “cruciform” (if you draw lines between the two sets, it forms a cross), while the smaller are “weekly,” representing the seven days in a week. Prayers can be assigned to each bead, as the one who prays moves around the rosary to the right.

The practice of counting something physical while praying goes back into antiquity, and is not only a Christian practice, Sarah Jean is quick to note. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all have a version of prayer beads.

Sr. Sarah Jean Thompson, the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine, in Toronto. Photo: Contributed

Sarah Jean says she does not pray with a rosary these days, but she has seen interest continue to grow in the Anglican church. “They are really popular here,” she says, adding that she once brought 100 to sell at General Synod and found herself making even more as they sold out.

The rosaries can be made with different colourful beads or even crystals—though she prefers knotted rosaries or simple wooden beads. “If it looks like jewellery, I get distracted.”

In the notes for the workshops that she runs on using prayer beads, Sarah Jean notes that “the beauty of the Anglican rosary is its flexibility.” Many prayers have been written for the purpose of the rosary, but people should feel free to assign or write their own, she says. One common use for the Anglican rosary is praying the offices, or daily prayers of the church.

“Over time, you will find the form of the prayer will be less significant,” and the experience of entering into a silent moment after prayer becomes more profound, she writes in her workshop notes. “The rosary is only a tool to enter into that silence.”

Look around you

Among the many rituals and types of prayer Mandryk has taught over the years are rosaries, centering prayer and even praying through drawing. In an exercise based on the book Praying in Color by Sybil MacBeth, Mandryk had her students write someone’s name and, as they prayed, add “different shapes and patterns and colours—almost like prayer doodles.”

One can pray through drawing. Image: Olga Gold/Shutterstock

Similarly, Mandryk finds walking while praying a good tool for intercessory prayer, or praying for others. “Walk around the community and use the physical world around you as your intentions for prayer: what you see, what God opens your eyes to.”

Aids to prayer, Mandryk says, don’t have to be physical objects that can be made or bought. “The tools can be the world around you, the natural world.”

Mandryk suggests, for those who want to explore different ways to pray, to look into writing on the subject. “There are so many books written on ancient traditions or contemplative traditions, using language that might be more accessible to people” that can introduce new forms of prayer and lead to other material from within those traditions—though she cautions against co-opting a ritual from another tradition “without understanding it.”

Aids to prayer don’t have to be physical objects that can be made or bought. “The tools can be the world around you, the natural world,” says the Rev. Kara Mandryk. Photo: Dudarve Mikhail

She says people should also recognize that not every style of prayer will fit everyone’s personality or learning style. Spiritual disciplines require work and may not feel natural the first time. However, she says, don’t worry if something doesn’t work for you.

“I grew up with, ‘Read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow,’ which is absolutely true. But how do we read our Bible? How do we pray every day? How can we engage each other, our environment, our bodies?” asks Mandryk.

“Experimenting in prayer can be a lifelong pursuit. There’s just so much depth there.”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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