“The Name pronounced even once is a benefit, whether one is aware of it or not. Prayer is not verbal, it is from the heart. To merge into the heart is prayer.” – Ramana Maharshi
This new book Beads of Faith, which comes with a DVD of the documentary film, (See a clip in the video below) that was previously released under the same title, examines both the “outer and “inner” meanings of the use and function of prayer beads that have been instrumental in prayer, recitation, invocation and meditation found throughout all of the world religions. The book begins by confirming that prayer beads have their origin in the divine and simultaneously acknowledges the uses of prayer beads across spiritual traditions: “THE USE OF PRAYER BEADS IS NOT A practice recently invented or introduced, but is archetypal in nature, and common to every great faith tradition.” (p. 9) It will interest readers to learn that the etymology of the word “bead” reinforces the transcendent function of prayer beads, taken from the Sanskrit buddh, which means “to awaken” referring to the Buddha or ‘The Awakened One’ (an epithet for Siddhārtha Gautama and not his birth name as is often mistaken), is simultaneously connected to the Saxon verb bidden—“to pray.”
This work acknowledges the universal and perennial uses of prayer beads and guides the seeker into the sacred dimensions of these faiths by introducing the spiritual methods employed with prayer beads. The allegory of terrestrial existence is likened to “a rope thrown by God to a drowning man” much like this “rope” prayer beads come from the spiritual domain and offer a spiritual method acting as a sacred funiculus umbilicalis or umbilical cord connecting the practitioner to the divine via revelation—“from Himself to Himself”—that is from the Divine to the Divine. The myriad practitioners are said to be as diverse as the paths leading up a mountain or points around the circumference of a circle traveling like radii to the center, yet they all converge at the summit or the center confirming the true purpose of sapiential existence—union with the Self or the Divine. This “summit”, which is transcendent, is analogous to the “center” that is immanent described in the text as it pertains to prayer beads “…the very act of pausing on a bead brings you back to the centre of where you are and who you are.” (p. 10) Both the book and the DVD are filled with beautiful and contemplative imagery depicting the diverse ways that prayer beads are employed by spiritual practitioners of all traditions. The comparative approach of both mediums assists the reader in understanding each tradition via the wisdom found in the other.
The book begins with: ‘The Universal Rosary’ and then continues to explore the different uses of prayer beads through the world religions: ‘Catholic Rosaries’, ‘Orthodox Rosaries’, ‘The Jewish Tefillin’, ‘Hindu Malas’, ‘Buddhist Malas’, ‘The Muslim Tasbih’, ‘Native American Beads’ and ‘Amulets and Meditation’.
Prayer beads known as rosaries have been integral to the act of prayer within the Christian West or the Roman Catholic Church since the Middle Ages. Some possible origins of the Catholic rosary, from the Latin rosarium “rose garden”, date back to the 12th century during the Holy Crusades or in Moorish Spain and stem from Islamic uses of prayer beads. Another origin is thought to be connected to St. Dominic who received the Holy Rosary from the Blessed Virgin Mary affirmed by Pope Leo XIII. It was during the 16th century that rosaries took their current form which they are known today by. The rosary allows the practitioner to pray throughout the day no matter what activity is being engaged in, thus creating a divine precinct within the heart. St. Augustine writes, “Do thou all within. And if perchance thou seekest some high place, some holy place, make thee a temple for God within.” (p. 20.) The text also explains the recitation of Hail Mary (Latin: Ave Maria), meditating on the Mysteries of the Rosary and other key prayers.
The rosary within the Christian East known as the Eastern Orthodox Church is a woolen rope of knots which is used to recite the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart. Quintessential to the Prayer of the Heart is the command of St. Paul, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). The text also describes how to enact the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”—which is continuously repeated while integrating the breath and can also incorporate prostrations that resemble yogic postures or asanas. In the film one can observe a monk of Mount Athos performing this practice of the Prayer of the Heart.
The Jewish tradition uses prayer straps known as the tefillin, rather than prayer beads, which are worn on the head and the arm. The tefillin contain passages from the Torah that when worn on the forehead and the arm closest to the heart sublimate the desires of the heart, body and mind as mandated by King Solomon, “Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 7:3). The text also explains the methods of praying with the tefillin in order to bind the words of God to man.
In Hinduism (sanātana dharma) prayer beads are known as malas, and are used to repeat a mantra or Divine names, which is a devotional practice known as japa mala. The purpose of repeating the Divine names is articulated by Swami Ramdas, “Om tunes the entire human being with the eternal music of the Divine, bringing the soul in direct contact with the in-dwelling and all-pervading Reality.” (p. 64) The book elucidates the spiritual method of japa mala as used by three spiritual masters of the Vedānta: Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Swami Ramdas (1884-1963), and Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). The DVD takes one into the presence of some of the great spiritual masters and sannyasin of India including the sounds of that world.
The book describes how prayer beads or malas and chanting are utilized by the different schools of Buddhism known as the three “vehicles” or yānas—Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. The text provides details on how one of the most widely used invocations is practiced: Om Mani Padme Hum—“O, thou Jewel in the Lotus, Hail”—and how constant repetition of this invocation offered to the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara or Chenrezig can release the practitioner from the clenches of samsara—the cycles of birth and death leading to liberation. There is also an introduction to Jain Malas at the end of the section. Some of the exquisite footage in the DVD takes us on a visit to Burma—to Pagan a city of temples, to the great stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and also invites the viewer to enter the world of a Burmese Buddhist master, among other sacred sites.
The Islamic tradition as well as Sufism, its mystical expression, refers to prayer beads as the tasbih, which is reaffirmed in the prophetic traditions, “Repeat the Tasbih a hundred times, and a thousand virtues shall be recorded by God for you, 10 virtuous deeds for each repetition.” (p. 90) In Sufism this process of remembrance or dhikr allows the seeker of truth to reside with God whenever and wherever God is remembered. A common recitation is: lā ilāha ill-Allāh, “There is no divinity but the Divinity.” illuminating the quintessential Sufi doctrine of the “Unity of Being” (wahdat al-wujūd). Found at the end of the section are useful pointers for praying with the tasbih. The DVD takes us into the world of remembrance (dhikr), sound and imagery of some of the great Sufi saints as well.
The uses of beads have a primordial origin for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Huichol Indians of Mexico, the Ojibwin of Canada and the Iroquois of North America (Turtle Island) utilize beads as a spiritual vocation, which is similar to the use of the rosary. Beading allows the artist to experience the “heartbeat of creation” while simultaneously participating in the craft or sacred art that connects the individual with the spiritual realm. The various forms of traditional prayer are described such as: the sweat lodge (Inipi), the vision quest (Hanblecheyapi) and praying with the sacred pipe (Chanupa).
The last section devoted to amulets and meditation draws attention to the ancient uses of beads not only as a form of religious devotion, but as a way of centering and quieting the mind to assist with worldly concerns and dispel fear.
The film concludes with a demonstration showing step by step how to make a rosary from rose petals by Brother Paul Quenon, a monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, who was a novice under Thomas Merton (1915-1968).
We welcome Beads of Faith as an addition to other works dedicated to inter-religious dialogue in order to better understand the world’s religions in an age where diverse traditions are asked to peacefully coexist. It is through the ‘transcendent unity of religions’ that an authentic understanding and mutual respect for different spiritual traditions can take place which this book acknowledges.
Reviewed by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos