You can often see a prayer rope in the hands of a priest or a monk, and also of laymen occasionally. But is it okay for a lay person to pray using a prayer rope?
The prayer rope in monasticism is called the spiritual sword and is handed to a monk during tonsure as a tool of continuous prayer and one of the main weapons against the devil, so that by invoking God’s name the monk would climb the ladder of spiritual growth and acquire the Holy Spirit.
St. Paisius the Athonite used to say, “There are engines that use a rope with a handle at the end to start; when you want to start the engine, you take the rope and pull it several times with force until the frozen oil is dispersed. The prayer rope is also a rope that we pull one, two, five, ten times; the oil is dispersed and the spiritual engine of continuous prayer kicks in, so that the heart works in prayer all by itself.
The saint advised young monks not to let the prayer ropes out of their hands. “Keep the prayer rope in your hands so you don’t forget about the prayer you need to carry inside your heart. When you go out of your cell, remember that the enemy is ready to attack. Therefore, remember that a good soldier always carries a machine gun in his hands when getting out of his trench. The prayer rope is very powerful, it’s a monk’s weapon, and its knots are bullets that kill demons.”
The word “chotki” (a prayer rope) comes from the Russian word for counting the score. It is a loop of thread that symbolizes endlessness and continuity of prayer. There are wood or stone beads on it; in some cases there are woven beads made of wool. These are often divided into groups of ten, separated by larger or smaller beads. The prayer rope is usually crowned with a cross with a tassel called a “fringe”. The clothes of the ancient Jews were finished with four such tassels, and these tassels reminded them that they were to follow the commandments. Orthodox prayer ropes first appeared in the 4th century. They were introduced by St. Pachomius the Great (or Anthony the Great according to other sources), and they had some practical value – not all monks could count, while the monastic rule envisaged a certain number of prayers and prostrations. Each bead corresponds to one prayer, most often it is the Jesus Prayer but it can also be used to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Guardian Angel, or the saints.
For each ten such prayers, we usually read a special prayer: the Creed, Our Father or Psalm 51. Rhythmic scrolling not only frees the mind from counting, but also helps to keep the rhythm of prayer. It is well known from experience that if your hands are busy, it is easier to calm the body and concentrate on prayer. A fascination with quantitative assessments – whether using the prayer rope or something else – is not encouraged. Also, do not seek exalted spiritual experiences during prayer: a prayer with a prayer rope requires attention and focus, and the point of repeated prayer is to reflect on its meaning and to come into contact with the Lord Himself.
The fact that the prayer rope is not just a mechanical device is further illustrated by a very interesting episode in the life of one of Glinsky Pustyn ascetics, Hierodeacon Serapion. This ascetic was a devout and zealous man, who had avoided even being ordained a hieromonk throughout his life, despite the fact that he was worthy of it, and he also willed not to be buried for three days after his death. So when he passed away, the brothers saw an extraordinary miracle: right after his death, when his body was lying on his deathbed, his hands spent three hours continuously flipping the beads, and it indicated his innermost sublime state of mind – everything that was in his heart.
There are no strict rules and canons for lay people praying with a prayer rope in the Church tradition. Of course, you may pray using the prayer rope, but first you must ask for the blessing of your spiritual advisor. Ideally, the priest should have the experience of praying with a prayer rope himself. Remember that the prayer rope is not a trendy accessory, not a beauty object, and not a reason for self-aggrandizement. The prayer rope should be treated with respect. Do not wear it around your neck or hang it on your rear view mirror: the prayer rope is intended for prayer, nearly always for a secret prayer, rather than for aesthetic purposes. That is why some priests recommend that their spiritual children use the prayer rope more or less covertly.