Rhythm of beads help to focus act of prayer

Published September 1, 2002

"…eagerly, patiently, continually, for ever…"

This is an embarrassing column to write. I want to write about prayer, but I run the risk that I will sound as if I am writing with no experience at all about it. However, I am emboldened by remarks of a friend and colleague, Rowan Williams, Primate of Wales, who spoke quite naturally of his experience of not praying in the mornings because he has to get a child to school. If he can be that candid, why not I? For more than 10 years I have been going on retreat at a monastery, normally for six days, twice a year, and I wonder why I waited so long before I developed this pattern. Two things are constant joys – first, the rest and the silence, second, the daily pattern of community prayer. Other aspects of the retreat vary depending on what is pressing, splendid, tiresome or urgent in my life at the moment. But one problem always surfaces towards the end of a retreat. I know that each good event in life is what it is, and doesn’t have to be more than that. But (I think wistfully) it would be great if there were some carry-over from the retreat, something that would affect the rest of life. And especially if it could help with prayer. And this time I just may have found something. It’s something so simple, so low-tech, that I blush to name it. Beads. People of many faiths have prayed with beads since time immemorial. Orthodox monks and nuns carry them on their wrists. Muslims use them in their daily prayers. Western Christianity developed the very structured prayer called the rosary. But the way my director spoke of using beads was rather simpler and more engaging. He suggested that I use the beads on the long daily walks I customarily take on retreat. Find a simple prayer and repeat it over and over, counting a bead each time. So, my first prayer was of course to God, and of course about myself – “Show me your way; show me my way.”  Next day I rediscovered the classic tradition that begins with the adoration of God, rather than with myself, and I prayed, “Father, glory; Jesus, praise.” Another day I took the adverbs from two psalms to which I had been pointed (63 and 40), and repeated the four words at the head of this column, a meditation on faithfulness, God’s and (I pray) mine. What did I learn?That the rhythm of the beads together with my footsteps could support these lengthy periods of prayer on walks not only by the riverside but also on a busy shopping street. (When I tried just using the rhythm of my steps without the beads, I got lost.) That this particular form of what St. Paul calls “praying without ceasing” is not at all the burden which that phrase sometimes conjures up. But how to answer the inevitable question, “Does this sort of prayer work?” If the question, “does it work” means “do I emerge from a prayer walk, having asked to be shown my way, with a road map to make me a better Christian or archbishop or husband” then the short answer is “no.” But where it does “work” is in gently inculcating an attitude of prayerfulness to everything and everyone around, making me more aware of God’s continual presence in my life and context, God’s continual care for me and those around me, and my responsibility to respond to that care. And I’ve discovered it “works” just as well walking to the streetcar on my way to work. And maybe I’ll get brave enough to try it sitting still. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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