Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Orthodoxy - Mysteries


The Prayer Rope

(Thoughts by a Hagiorite Monk)

 “Hagiorite Testimony” of the Sacred Monastery of Xiropotamos of Mount Athos, v.12-13.

Source: https://www.impantokratoros.gr/F3112F03.en.aspx


Let's pause for a moment and observe a small prayer rope, like the ones made with black wool on the Holy Mountain Athos. It should be regarded as a blessing from a Holy site. Like so many other things of the Church, this is likewise a blessing which has been prepared and given to us by an in-Christ brother or father - those living witnesses of a living Tradition.

Its colour is black - the color of mourning and sorrow – which acts as a reminder for us to be sober and serious in our life. We have been taught that the prayer of repentance - especially the “Jesus Prayer” - can bring us to what the Fathers call “joyous sorrow”. While we sorrow for our sins and weaknesses and falls - before God, our fellow men and ourselves - this sorrow becomes a source of joy and repose in Christ, Who pours out His mercy and forgiveness to all who call upon His name.

This prayer rope is made with thread made of natural wool taken from sheep; it serves to remind us that we are sheep of the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. It also reminiscent of the “Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the World'[1]. Similarly, the Cross that is knotted into the prayer rope is a reminder of that sacrifice and the victory of life over death, of humiliation over pride, of self-sacrifice, of light over darkness.

And the tassel of threads hanging from the prayer rope? This is used for wiping away the tears from your eyes - or, if you don’t weep, it reminds you to mourn because you don’t mourn. Apart from this, small tassels were used to adorn the sacred vestments during the time of the Old Testament - which reminds us of the Sacred Tradition that we partake of when we use the prayer rope.

Prayer ropes are knotted according to a tradition that goes back to the depths of centuries. Perhaps one of the earliest forms of a praying aid was the gathering of small stones or seeds and moving them from one spot or container to another during the “rule” of one’s prayer time, or the “rule” for partial or full-body prostrations. There is also the story of a monk who had thought of making simple knots on a rope and using that during his daily “rule” of prayer. But the devil undid all the knots from that prayer rope and thwarted the efforts of the poor monk. An Angel then appeared and taught the monk how to make a special knot – the way it is applied in making all prayer ropes to this day, with each single knot formed by a number of intertwined Crosses. These knots proved impossible to be untied by the devil because of the presence of Crosses in them.

Prayer ropes come in a wide variety of forms and sizes (lengths). Most of them have a Cross woven between knots or at their edge, thus marking the end of the rope, as well as a kind of sign after every ten, twenty-five or fifty knots or beads. There are many types of prayer ropes. Some are woven from wool or silk or even from other, more luxurious or simpler material. Others have “knots” consisting of beads or the dried flower of a plant called “the Virgin’s tear”.


The prayer rope is one of the objects given to an Orthodox monk during his tonsure. It is given to him as his spiritual sword with which, as a soldier of Christ, he must fight against our noetic enemy, the devil. He uses this “sword” by invoking the name of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ and beseeching His mercy with the words of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”. This prayer can also be recited in an abbreviated form: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, or in an extended form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Logos of God, by the embassies of the most holy Theotokos and all the Saints, have mercy on me, the sinner”.

With the aid of the prayer rope, other, short prayers can also be recited, such as the publican's prayer in the Gospel: “May God have mercy on me the sinner [2]; the prayer to the Mother of God: “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”, or other, brief prayers: to our Guardian Angel, to individual Saints, or to All Saints. The usual form of such a prayer is: “Holy Angel - or Saint (......), intercede in favour of me”. By changing the words of these short prayers to “have mercy on us” or “intercede for us” or by including the name or names of people for whose sake we wish to pray, we can also use the prayer rope to pray for others. The same applies to a prayer for the reposed: “Repose, o Lord, the soul of your servant (.....)”..

When monks and laypersons hold the prayer rope in their hands, it is a reminder of their obligation to pray without interruption, according to the Apostle Paul's command: “Incessantly pray[3].

Anyone can have a prayer rope in their pocket or in a certain discreet place, where they can easily use it unnoticed, in cases where it is preferable to pray in secret, without attracting the attention of others. The prayer rope can also be placed above the headboard of our bed, in the car, along with a small Cross or Icon or in other appropriate places as a reminder to pray, and as a kind of blessing and a holy and divine presence in our lives.

Now let's briefly examine the primary purpose for which the prayer rope was made. The main purpose of the prayer rope is to help us when we pray to God and His Saints. Besides serving us as a constant external reminder and blessing, how can this little prayer rope help us pray? Of course we can pray without it, and sometimes it can even distract us in our effort to concentrate on prayer. With that in mind, let's look at some of the ways the prayer rope can help us.

Sometimes our prayer is fervent and it is easy for us to pray. But sometimes our minds are so scattered, or we are so agitated, or so distracted, that it is practically impossible for us to concentrate on prayer. This happens mainly when we try to observe some daily prayer rule. Some days it goes well, but sometimes, perhaps most of the time, our efforts seem almost futile. But since - as we said - we are creatures of habit, it is very beneficial to fix a specific, regular time of the day for prayer. The evening hour (not too late) before going to bed is a good hour, because it is important to end the day with prayer. In the morning, waking up, it is also good to start the new day with prayer. One can still find other times of the day when one can be in quietude and concentrate.

Our effort is to establish prayer as a rule in our lives, not as an exception. In this we seek to find some time every day when we can have a little peace, so that we can concentrate and turn the eyes of our soul to God. As part of this rule we may want to read some prayers from a prayer book or pray and find peace of mind in other ways, such as reading religious texts or examining [4] the events of the day that passed, etc. . But the most effective way to benefit from the rule of prayer is to regularly say the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) a set number of times. This number need not be large and may only take fifteen minutes or so. But this will be the part of our day that belongs to God, the few grains of salt that will flavor our entire spiritual life. Many doctors today also recommend this practice for physical health, especially to overcome stress.  Better still, let us find several such small intervals throughout the day and regularly “fill” them with the precious treasures of prayer, which no one can steal and which are laid up for us in Heaven [5].

If you want to keep a fixed number of prayers as part of your daily routine, you will be greatly helped by the prayer rope. With it, you can say a set number of prayers and concentrate on the words of the prayer as you recite it. After gathering your thoughts, take the prayer rope in your left hand and hold it lightly between your thumb and forefinger. Then quietly making the sign of the Cross with your right hand, you can begin to whisper the Jesus Prayer. As your thoughts become more and more focused, you may not need to keep crossing yourself or saying the prayer out loud. But when you find it difficult to concentrate, make the sign of the Cross and whisper as a means to help keep your mind focused on the Prayer.

It is good to be standing with our head bowed in a posture of humility. Some like to raise their arms heavenward now and then, thus asking for God’s mercy. However others may find it more helpful to be seated or kneeling, with their head bowed, to help them  concentrate. A lot depends on the person - on their health and their upbringing. The most important thing is to remain still and concentrate on the words of the Prayer while it is being repeated.

Of course, one must rein in the temptation to hurry. This is the reason some people utilize a clock instead of a prayer rope - as an external counter of the duration of their prayer, by setting the alarm clock accordingly. By using the clock, one can dedicate a specific length of time to the Prayer, without counting the exact number of its repetitions.

The prayer rope is also a convenient way to measure the minor or larger prostrations (kneelings) that one makes during their “rule”. Crossing oneself and then bending and touching the ground with the fingers, or kneeling and touching the forehead on the ground is an ancient way of praying to God and His Saints. One can combine these minor or larger prostrations with the Jesus Prayer, or the brief prayers mentioned earlier on. The bodily moves of the minor or larger prostrations (that is, the “lighter” or “deeper” ones (that is, with kneeling, full-body prostrations on the ground) can contribute to the fervor of prayer and give an external expression to our supplication by physically humbling ourselves before God.  This is yet another way of applying the Apostolic command to glorify God, both with our souls and our bodies [6].

Many use the prayer rope when they retire to sleep. They make the sign of the Cross over their bed, take the prayer rope, Cross themselves, lie down and calmly recite the Prayer until they fall asleep. Waking up with the prayer rope between your fingers or next to your pillow helps you start the new day with prayer. However, to end the previous day with a quiet prayer is an even better way to prepare for a prayerful start to the new day – not forgetting to mention it is also a preparation for the Eternal Day, in case we fall permanently asleep that night - in death. Still others take the prayer rope in their hand during moments of inactivity – for example when they are on the way to work or during travel. Whatever time of day it comes to mind, hold a small prayer rope in your hand. A combination of this action with the prayers that you recite at other times will help you concentrate and pray several times throughout the day, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. This is an important step in fulfilling the command to “pray incessantly”.

The holy Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov mentions that the lengthy services of the Church are also a good opportunity to pray with the prayer rope. It is often difficult to focus on the words that are read or chanted in the sacred Temple, and far easier to concentrate quietly on one's own prayers, whether these are improvised, related to some special need, or prayers and hymns that one knows by heart, or short prayers - especially the “Jesus Prayer” repeated with the help of the prayer rope. In practice, this way helps one to concentrate better during the Divine Service itself - as Saint Seraphim of Sarov also says. Of course, when we pray during Divine Services, our prayer becomes joined to the prayer of the entire Church.

Our mind is constantly preoccupied with various thoughts. Not a moment passes after commencing our prayers, when we immediately catch our mind thinking about something else.  Even in this case, the presence of the prayer rope around our fingers can help us to control our minds and return to the labour of prayer much faster. Also, when we “encounter” an interim bead or Cross on the prayer rope as we move along its knots with our thumb and fingers, we can also realize whether our mind was wandering and not focusing on the prayers we intended to recite. This way, we can offer our prayers anew, without engaging in thoughts about how easily we become distracted from our prayer to God.

We just made a reference here to the great science of prayer - which the Holy Fathers named “the art of arts”. There is extensive literature with a wealth of writings by the great men of prayer throughout the ages, which can help and guide us in learning - with God's help - this greatest and most beneficial of all sciences.  Regular reading of the Holy Bible, the Lives of the Saints and other pious and spiritual texts can be of immense help. Books like the “Philokalia” contain deep and inspiring advice and instructions, also on learning to pray as a Christian, because prayer is an essential element of being a Christian. Above all, however, God's Grace is necesary in Church, especially through Holy Confession and the Reception of the Immaculate Mysteries.

These are just a few introductory thoughts on how to use the prayer rope beneficially. But what is most important is to begin to pray. The prayer rope does not pray by itself, although some are so beautiful that they may give that impression. It is certainly an important traditional aid for our praying and especially for a daily prayer “rule”. But the main thing is to concentrate on the words of the Prayer and to offer prayers from our hearts to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. If that tiny prayer rope helps you say a prayer or reminds you to pray or helps you in some way to become more prayerful, then it has served its purpose. It has tied you closer and closer to Christ, our God, and has brought you closer to the Kingdom of God, since the Kingdom of God is within you [7].


[1] cmp. 1 John

[2] Luke 18:13

[3] 1 Thess. 5:17

[4] Overview: in the patristic sense of 'questioning': one’s self-control to repent of sins and amendment, but also to acknowledge God's benefactions.

[5] cmp. Matth.9:20 and St. Cyril. Of Jerusalem, 'Catechisms', 15:23.: “Inscribed (written in Heaven) is your every prayer”.

[6] cmp. 1 Cor. 6:20:  “You must glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which both belong to God.'

[7] Luke 17:21

Link to video : https://youtu.be/_ymfkdfZ64A

Translation: E.N.

Article published in English on: 28-1-2024.

Last update:  28-1-2024.