Prayer ropes and the Jesus Prayer

Orthodox prayer rope (33 knots)In her book, The Jesus Prayer (see previous post), Frederica Mathewes-Green discusses the use of a “prayer rope” – used by Orthodox Christians to keep count while repeating the Jesus Prayer.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Ms Mathewes-Green’s book has encouraged me to try the “fixed use” of the Prayer as well as the “free use”, and so I went onto eBay to see if I could find a cheap prayer rope. Turns out there are lots of them available; the one I ended up with is shown in the picture above. Prayer ropes come in various sizes: starting at 33 knots (like mine), but with hundred or three hundred knot ropes also being common.

Mathewes-Green tells the following story of how the prayer rope came to be invented:

A traditional story tells of a monk who made a knot in a cord for every repetition of the Prayer, but while he slept, the devil would come and untie all the knots. An angel appeared and showed the monk a special sort of knot, one formed of seven intricate overlapping crosses, and this one the devil was unable to untie.

If you think that sounds quaint, check out this video of how to tie the knots in a prayer rope: I’d take a lot of convincing that any merely human agency came up with this… 😉

In case that’s not enough to put you off from trying to make one yourself, note that:

you have to say the Prayer continually while making the knots (it takes about ninety minutes to make a thirty-three-knot rope); if your mind wanders, you must undo all the knots and start again. When my prayer is shallow and cold, I am comforted to think of the prayers of the person who first held this prayer rope as he or she made these knots, and filled them up with prayers.

How is a prayer rope used? Mathewes-Green describes this briefly:

While you’re praying, hold the prayer rope in your left hand, moving your fingers along the knots in turn. Keep your right hand free for making the sign of the cross.

One writer quoted by Mathewes-Green recommends making the sign of the cross every ten repetitions, and prostrating oneself three times after every thirty three. These are not compulsory, though.

Typically the number of repetitions is a multiple of a hundred: Mathewes-Green recommends no more than a hundred at a time, at least for beginners (and in the absence of a spiritual guide). However, it’s not about saying exact numbers: as much as anything, the prayer rope is just an aid to concentration. As Mathewes-Green observes, “some people find it easier to concentrate … if they have something to do with their hands.”


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