Prayer Ropes and How They Help Us Pray

I would like to share with you a conversation between myself and Rich Lewis. Rich is a contemplative practitioner and teacher of Centering Prayer based out of Pennsylvania. We have often written on each other’s blogs.

I did an interview on his site Silence Teaches which you can find here and he wrote one on In Search of a New Eden about how Silence is not Empty, it is Filled with God. Today, we are both going to talk about our prayer ropes and how they help us navigate our inner landscapes. This is what Rich has to say:

Rich’s Prayer Rope

Amos Smith knew I often prayed the Jesus Prayer, so he sent me a prayer rope. It was hand knotted by Orthodox monks in Greece and shipped from there (each knot on the rope forms a cross).

  1. What is the Jesus Prayer?

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart, the Prayer of a Single Thought, or simply The Prayer, is a short simple prayer. This prayer has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. The exact words of the prayer have varied, from a simple form such as “Lord, have mercy” to an extended form: β€œLord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” I say, “Jesus, son of God have mercy on me.”

2. What is a prayer rope?

In the Orthodox tradition the Jesus prayer is recited with the aid of a prayer rope. It typically has 100 knots, although prayer ropes vary. 300, 200, 50, or 33 knots are common.
There is typically a knotted cross at one end, and a few beads at certain intervals between the knots. The purpose is to help us concentrate, not necessarily to count. Its invention is attributed to Pachomius in the fourth century, who was a desert father in Egypt.

3. How do I use the prayer rope?

I use it after centering prayer or whenever I want to. I often carry it in my pocket or leave it in my car. I wear it while I write. I hold it between my index finger and thumb of my right hand. I say, “Jesus, Son of God have mercy on _____ .”
In the blank I will say me, a person’s name, or a situation. After each Jesus Prayer, I move to the next knot, then repeat the prayer until I no longer have a name or situation in mind.
It is life-giving to combine prayer and action. This helps me focus on God. The purpose is not to finish the knots. The purpose is to pray. I like the combination of prayer and physical action. I believe when I say this prayer Jesus is present and guides me, walks with me or with the other person or situation. Jesus is always present. Even when we forget or don’t feel like he is, Jesus is always with us.

Justin’s Prayer Rope

A couple years ago, after Lent and Easter, I took a retreat from my duties as the minister of a small country church to have a sort of second Lent that was focused on my own growth and not on the people in my congregation.

I had never used a rosary before, it’s not really a Quaker sort of thing. But I tried one out at the Jesuit retreat center where I was staying. I chanted for about an hour. It brought me to tears at the end. I thought about the people I had lived with on the streets when I was young. I felt a deep inner warmness and love for them and for all people who struggle. It felt like I was home.

I decided to make one for myself.

I took a rough piece of sisal rope, tied a favourite rock to it, and tied 40 knots in it. I wanted something that would reflect the time of Lent this new piece of my spiritual practice had been born from. This is what it looks like:


It has 40 knots to represent the 40 days of fasting done by Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. It is rough to the touch like the sands of the desert. It is simple and humble like Jesus.

I usually use my prayer rope when I am preparing for a longer time of prayer – like a retreat. I still use it during Lent. I will also use it when I set aside a period of time to go out into the forest and pray.

I find the repetitive chanting helps me access a deeper layer of emotion and thought which I keep hidden from myself in daily life. Accessing this deep stream of my own consciousness allows me to clear it out. Chanting often brings me to tears and those tears help to loosen parts of my false self which are blocking the way to the spark of eternity within.

I find it is also a good way to create a sacred space. If I am wanting to really settle into a particular place or activity, chanting seems to connect me to the world around me and open my soul to the music of the heavens, trees, and waters. The Bible often speaks of the song which the Earth sings in praise of God. When we chant we can join that song and be one with the landscape around us.

I will use a variety of chants with my prayer rope, though this piece from Taize is usually my favourite:

I will sometimes take scriptures and use them with a familiar tune. For instance, I will use the tune from the chant above with these words during Advent:

A voice of one calling
In the wilderness
Prepare the way for your God
A voice of one calling
The valleys will be raised
Mountains and hills made low

This can be a creative way to integrate our mind, body, and spirit. We are a trinity, like God is. It is when we integrate the various aspects our being that we are made whole.

Chanting does a wonderful job of placing us in our bodies, especially when we use a prayer rope. Having some theological reflection interwoven in the practice (like using a relevant scripture) can bring our minds along for the ride too. Our spirit is waiting at the end of the rope (or perhaps in the middle).

There are many ways to pray and this is a good one. Play with it. See where it will lead you. Let each knot or bead open your heart. Join the song of creation being sung all around you. Become a prayer and live a Holy Life.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

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19 thoughts on “Prayer Ropes and How They Help Us Pray

  1. I read this a few months ago- and sought the Lord on it. Then I walked room and spotted a Tongan necklace. It is.made from seed pods and each pod has a pink hibiscus on it. There is a knot between each seed pod.I took the necklace and attached a small wooden hand cross to it. It has become my prayer rope and for retreatants to use also.May God guide you to that He would have you use.

  2. I am an educator working with kids of all ages in a church setting. I will use this with my 4-6th grade class and will also copy the article to share with a peer-group of fellow church educators when we meet next month.

  3. I have a question about your prayers ropes as an icon of faith practice and a way of being present during prayer. How can this ritual of faith be adapted to include people who do not have the dexterity or ability to tie their own knots? What do you suggest or encourage in cases such as this?

  4. Justin, previously I read Richard’s piece on his prayer rope. Today as I begin my day and prepare to serve in music ministry this morning at mass, I find yours. As a cradle Catholic I am very familiar with the rosary. My mother and father prayed the rosary every day. I will say I do not have a strong attachment to praying the rosary but I am increasingly becoming more appreciative of it, how it brings me into a calm, meditative state. As for the Taize, I learned “Oh Lord Hear My Prayer” many years ago. Easy to play on guitar and piano, soothing, meditative, calming, peaceful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences today. It is good to be with you on this journey.

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