The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

Last summer, sitting on a rocky beach with family all around, I noticed a small white shell among the scramble of stones and shards of driftwood. Soon I had collected a handful, all pure white and perfectly whorled, the former dwelling place for some diminutive, absentee mollusk. For a few days, I carried them around in my pocket, reaching in to finger their smooth contours, already wondering what practical use I could devise for them, and their story would have ended in a dark kitchen cupboard if Paraclete Press had not sent me a copy of Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New.

I am Protestant to the bone, and it would never have occurred to me that ten small white shells in my hand could represent ten members of my family and serve as a tactile reminder to pray for each, one by one. Author and jewelry designer Suzanne Henley reminds readers that ancient practices of prayer were very tactile. Bead by bead, fingers remembered what the heart cherished, and words would spring to mind.

As a glass artist, Henley has the unique privilege of crafting customized prayer beads, and her creative view of the world lends a gritty practicality to the business of prayer that so many of us talk about — but so few of us practice in the way we want to.

“Praying is not just an arcane, dusty practice that a group of humorless, self-righteous old men sat down and made up a long time ago. It is not just words in a prayer book. It’s not a milquetoast, rehearsed exhortation delivered in a faux-devout voice to begin a citywide prayer breakfast with cold scrambled eggs. We carry this need for connection in our guts . . .”  (xi)

The History of Prayer Beads

So, as Suzanne scoops handfuls of Mongolian sand beads from the Gobi Desert and beads crafted from ancient Roman glass fragments, she invites us to look with new eyes at a tradition that, by the time of the Reformation, had deteriorated into an empty piling of slippery words upon which the praying saint hoped to ascend to heaven. Fast forward to 1987, however, and to the statisticians’s great surprise, as church affiliation begins a decline, the use of Protestant prayer beads is in an upswing.

Madeleine L’Engle described prayer beads as a tool to “enflesh the words, make thought tangible.” Maybe our distracted, squirrel-chasing, social-media-saturated brains are seeking an analog anchor. Apparently, the earliest known example of tactile prayer reminders were used by the Desert Fathers who committed to praying the 150 Psalms twice a day. In order to keep track of the number, they carried 300 pebbles in their cloaks, tossing one out after each prayer. Because I am unfamiliar with the historic prayers associated with the rosary, I appreciated a charming child-drawn diagram, as well as the road map for Protestant prayer beads which proscribes no set words or prayers.

Prayer and Work

Suzanne and I are kindred spirits in our numbering of the tedious steps of grocery shopping:  “Into the basket, out of the basket onto the checkout stand, into the bags, into the car, into the house, and into the fridge and cabinets . . .” (43) However, instead of an occasion for grumpiness, Suzanne sees grocery shopping as a “weekly prayer-bead adventure” in which she meditates on the fruit of the Spirit in the produce section, wordlessly blesses fellow shoppers, and quiets her heart while pushing her cart.

Cracking 360 eggs to make breakfast for a gathering of homeless people, Suzanne also practices a ministry of prayer with each thwack against the rim of the bowl, reminding me of prayers I lifted while pinning small socks to a clothesline (Thank you for the gift of this small life . . .), or, more recently, over sports uniforms and tattered work pants (Bless this boy with safety and success . . . ).

Whether we use beads or seashells, the events of our life, or the fingers of both hands to mark the practice of our prayers, the prayers are offered, word-by-word, thought-by-thought. This is also the nature of a life poured out, not in a great gush, once and for all, but drop-by-drop as we pay attention to the voice of the Spirit and open our hands as well as our hearts in gratitude, thanksgiving, and love.


Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

67 thoughts on “The Ancient Way of Praying Made New”

  1. Like you, Michele, I am Protestant through and through. I keep photos around the house to remind me to pray, and I LOVE the idea of using beads as reminders. My 10-year-old daughter and I will turn this into a project, using beads of different colors or shapes to represent our loved ones, and make our own bracelets. Thank you for sharing this wonderful book and the great ideas!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m protestant and evangelical, and yet there are so many sacred practices that other denominations do that are helpful and sweet like prayer beads, Michele. I didn’t know the purposes behind prayer beads but this makes total sense. I’m a practical-minded person in both my everyday life and spiritual practices, so this gives me something new to consider and perhaps begin to do! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. I really love this idea, Michele! My perspective might be a little different. I was raised Catholic and eventually decided God was leading me into a Protestant church in my early twenties. I experienced a few years of really shying away from some of the more ritualistic aspect of my upbringing early on, but as I’ve grown and studied over time, I’ve found some spiritual disciplines that have been passed down from the Catholic church are very useful tools as I draw near to God. I love the idea of beads as reminders to pray! I’m all in!

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    1. It’s good to hear from you, Stacey, and I am thankful, too, for the books that have opened up a rich and previously unknown collection of spiritual practices. Our prone-to-wander hearts need drawing in.

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  4. This is very interesting. I think we are all different whatever denomination we belong to, and different methods will be helpful to different people. Some people may not need any “helps” in their prayer time. I find it very helpful to write out my prayers – those I specifically pray on a daily basis – to keep me focused and keep my mind from wandering. The prayer beads could have the same effect for others. Of course, I do pray other prayers that are not pre-written, actually many of them, but the written ones help me to remember those people and situations I particularly do not want to miss, and help me to get into a prayer focus so I can continue to pray by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. God bless you.

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    1. I have had seasons in which I wrote out my prayers, and I wish I had kept them. It’s a good way to slow down our thinking and to focus on the words we say to God. I think it also helps us to get beyond the surface in our requests for loved ones.
      Thanks for sharing your own prayer practice here. We all have so much to learn from each other.

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      1. A few of my written prayers are meant for starting my morning, and I have memorized those. That way I can be praying as I get up and ready for more concentrated prayer. I have tried to do this every morning, not so much to create a rut type of routine, but more of a booster shot to get me going in the right direction. I believe most of us need some kind of encouragement to develop a good prayer life, and we are inspired by many different things depending on our needs, our personality and our schedule. Whatever works to draw us closer to the Lord must be good.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I think using craft projects as prayer reminders is awesome! You have the creativity of craft as well as your ever-present prayer list! Very cool. I like how anything can be used as a reminder to pray. Like the fruit in the supermarket reminding us of the fruit of the Spirit. I’m not religious myself, but reading about different religious practices is really nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was brought up Catholic but with my parents’ divorce & the fallout from that, I ended up pretty lost, shaky & bitter about the Church in general. I had an encounter with Jesus at 19 and on the night of my baptism, the church had an inter-church service & a group of nuns turned up. Today I’m thankful for the foundation that was laid in my childhood – I think it kept me out of a lot of trouble in my wandering years – all this to say – I think there are rituals that draw us closer to God & as another commentator alluded to, it’s the legalism that kills. I think something like the beads is a helpful tool if used in the right way. Well considered review, thanks, Michele.

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    1. I’ve been so thankful to hear from friends who have history with the Catholic church and related practices, and I completely agree with your thoughts on legalism killing so many things. Add to that the fact that any practice can become dead and empty if it’s misused, and I think the warning is for us to stay close to the Truth and not to let ANY method become more than it’s intended to be.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for sharing! I was actually thinking of a similar thing today. I hope to incorporate praying the Hail Mary or Glory Be again and again as I wash the dishes or fold clothes—to better remind myself of the blessings instead of complaining about chores.

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    1. I try to train my brain to go to some memorized psalms or the Lord’s prayer for the same reason. And when our hands are busy and our minds are free, what a great time to “set our minds on things above!”

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  8. I am also Protestant and have never given prayer beads much thought. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the book. What could be wrong with using beads or shells to remind us about the importance of praying specifically for those we love and for so many other needs. Thanks Michele!

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    1. Whatever it takes to give us focus would seem (to me) to be a good thing. It has occurred to me that there are likely those for whom the connection to a sad or troublesome past might make the use of certain objects problematic, but I think Paul’s teaching on meat sacrificed to idols applies here. We all need to do what works for us–while also being sensitive to others.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I need all the reminders to pray I can get, Michele, so here is another tangible tool. I set out to remember to pray during my everyday tasks and before I know it I’m putting myself in charge of my day. I have some unworn beads in my jewelry case. Time to get them out as yet another way to keep prayer in the forefront.

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  10. What a beautiful story! I love the idea of prayer beads. My hubby’s family is Catholic, and my MIL used her Rosary all the time. I never thought of using prayer beads, but now I will be looking for something to use as a tactile reminder to pray.

    Grocery shopping is not my favorite chore either. This is a wonderful way to make it easier. Maybe I will even begin to look forward to it.

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    1. That was my thought exactly, Donna. I’ve always viewed prayer beads, the rosary, etc. as sort of “out there” and certainly not something that would be of interest to me. What a good push back against that attitude this book has been for me, because there’s a rich history behind the practice, and so much that deserves to be emulated.

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  11. I also am a protestant, being brought up in a Christian home was a true blessing. Falling by the wayside as a teenager and then coming back to Christ several years ago has given me a new a fuller understanding of Christ and our God and the Holy Spirit that is hear with us on earth. I think these prayer beads are a great idea. I have a dear friend that is Catholic and of course she and her sisters use the rosary beads. (I was gifted one by one of her sisters and it still sits in the box) I have recently purchased a tray of different colored beads to make bracelets with my great niece. I think I shall make a few prayer bead bracelets. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. It’s wonderful that you found your way back to the narrow path as a young adult, and I’m excited for you to be able to apply this concept to a craft project with your niece! Thanks for letting me know!

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  12. Michele, I LOVE the idea of using shells as the tangible object to use our tactile senses as we pray for individuals. It seems no two shells are exactly alike, just like snowflakes and fingerprints. What a wonderful way to engage our kinesthetic learning modalities in our daily prayer time. Many blessings to you!

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  13. Michele, oh how I love this post! I grew up in a Catholic family, but I asked Jesus into my heart as a young teen. I never quite understood the significance of praying the rosary, and I never really established a discipline in doing this.

    But what you’ve shared here from this book? Wow. I love all the ways we can choose to pray for loved ones, for our community, and for whoever else God leads us to pray for! You’ve got my creative juices flowing, friend.

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    1. That’s great. And I’ve been so thankful to hear from my friends who are closer to the traditional Catholic practice, because I did not want this post or my thoughts to offend readers on any end of the bandwidth.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for sharing this. I am always looking for tangible signs to remind me to pray for those closest to me. In fact, recently I wrote zillions of prayer requests on the walls of my bathroom that I can see daily in the mirror (the walls are tiled). I love this idea and I think I’ll incorporate it with the shells (write names, etc on the bottom side) I have displayed in containers.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yes, yes, Michele. Us ‘Protestant to the bone’ believers could learn something from what you’ve so beautifully woven. I find a ‘tactile reminder’ to be oh so helpful in focusing on prayer. Our minds so easily wander.

    And prayer in the supermarket. Yes, I can do that … thanks for these creative prompts.

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    1. What a treasure!
      I certainly learned a lot from reading Suzanne’s musings. She’s an interesting woman, and has had lots of rich experiences that make the book fascinating alongside the good, practical historical info and spiritual counsel.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. What a great book review and a wonderful way to be reminded to pray! I echo the comments of others here, I never thought about using prayer beads before. But anything that brings us closer to God is always a blessing. I also love the idea of praying during some household chores like laundry. Such a good way to spend time with God and take my mind off of the task too. God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. My mother has a rosary from her growing years since she was raised Catholic and I remember marveling at them because I was raised Lutheran and had never understood why she was allowed reminders and I had to ‘wing it’ while praying. #GlobalBlogging

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  18. Michele, my mom lives in a Catholic nursing home and I walk past a table with a Rosary on it every day when I visit her. I never knew anything about the practice of praying with beads, though, so what you’ve written is very interesting. I like structure and order, so the idea of associating certain items of activities with praying for specific people or subjects really appeals to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love books that enlarge my view of God. It’s not so much that I need different ways of reaching Him. For heaven’s sake, He’s right there all the time–but it does help me to know that He is not limited as I am. If I come to Him unscripted, He listens. If I use the words of a psalm, He listens. (I’m being reminded of Psalm 139 right now, because “even if I take wing and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea . . .”)
      The tucked in “every day” there has not gone unnoticed — blessings to you, Lois, as you make time for all the people who need you right now.

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  19. Like several other commenters here, I think this would make a fun craft project with the kids. I think what has made me shy away from prayer beads in the past is my interactions with people who felt they couldn’t pray without them. This is such a good reminder that we should use everything we can to point us toward real and true interaction with our Father. Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com!
    Tina

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thank you for sharing your journey, Michelle! I’m not Christian, but I have been workibg with what I call Sacred Strands (prayer beads) for nearly 20 years; written about them, fascilitated workshops teaching others about them, creating specific ones for particular groups etc.. I delight to hear how others have found them and created their own – walking on the beach is one of my favourite ways to unwind and I enjoyed your story of your first steps from there. The praying whilst pegging out the washing – yes!!! I do that! And when ironing, even when doing the dishes. 🙂

    Like

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