One of the things nearly all religions and spiritual traditions hold in common is the use of prayer beads. The names for these beads varies but they appear over and over again across time and culture. Human beings, physical and embodied creatures, feel both the pull toward the Divine or sacred, and the need to meet that sacred in our own bodies. And praying with beads, the rosary is the most familiar version, bridges that gap perfectly. But the rosary has done something else, something far more subversive and delightful: it has passed on the tradition of the Divine Feminine right under the nose of patriarchy, and despite all efforts to extinguish her.
And patriarchy has tried, over and over again. But you don’t mess with old women and their rosary, they won’t have it, thank the Divine. I wasn’t raised with the rosary, far from it. I was raised in a strongly Protestant Christian tradition that had no use for rosaries, and definitely had no use for Mary. We had the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (who was also most firmly he). And while we heard all the time that God wasn’t male, well, the language we used said differently.
The images in this article are all roses from my first beloved rose garden. The rose has long been associated with both the Divine Feminine, women, Mary, and the rosary. The rose’s beauty, sharp thorns, and tenacious toughness (of old garden roses, not modern hybrids) is a perfect symbol for Our Mother, however you meet her.Jo
Part of my required preparation for ordination was to spend a semester working as a (trainee) hospital chaplain. I ended up at a Roman Catholic hospital in San Antonio Texas that was founded by Irish nuns (the story is wild). And let’s just say this Protestant girl went in a little wary. There was a statue of Mary in the lobby, there were rosaries for sale in the gift shop and my first few prayers with patients fell utterly flat. One of my mentors, an elderly nun (who barely came to my chin and had the presence of a drill instructor) sat me down and told me: your prayers are lovely my dear, but when people are sick they want their mother, not their brother or their father. She gave me a booklet on the rosary and suggested I begin to include Mary in my prayers.
To make a long story short I gradually got comfortable with this strange new idea and the moment Mary (or Queen of Heaven, or Holy Mother) left my lips the room relaxed, the matriarchs nodded as they clicked their beads, the men let out a breath, the whole space softened, and some of the desperation went out of it. But as if to drive the point home, just before the end of my summer of work I brought home a very nasty stomach bug from a shift in the ER (something I’d been told to expect). And as I lay on my bathroom floor wondering if I needed to call an ambulance myself I finally understood my patients. The last thing I wanted in those moments was Jesus, or God (the Father). But wow did I need my Mother, and She is who I got.
In the guise of Mary the Divine Feminine has been handed from mother to daughter down through generations. Goddess/Mother has survived repeated attempts over thousands of years to stamp her out, and to wipe out her memory; because stubborn catholic women have nodded at their priest and then gone back to their beads and their Mother the moment his back was turned.
Why Use Prayer Beads
Prayer beads come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. While the Roman rosary is the most familiar the Anglican church also has a rosary, and a great many of the world’s religions use prayer beads of some form. The reason is simple: they work. Beads give us a physical focus for our prayers, they make repeating our counting out mantras/prayers easy and efficient, just keep your fingers moving on the beads and they do the counting for you.
In the rosary different sizes or shapes of beads can also indicate it is time to use different prayers or mantras. Traditionally the Hail Mary and the Our Father. But this is where prayer beads really shine, because there are no rules. You can use any mantra (repeated phrase) or prayer you can imagine for each bead. You can write your own, or chose your favorites. You could even use your beads to count your breathes during meditation practice or as a centering tool for walking meditation. You can simply worry at them with your fingers in the midst of anxiety or fear.
Prayer beads or rosaries are physical tools that get our whole selves, body and spirit, involved in our prayer. That is their gift and purpose. They are tools, worn into sacred objects by the prayers flowing through them, by their closeness to our hearts. They become anchors, as precious as any sanctuary. In themselves, sanctified by our prayer, they become physical connections to the Divine, and comforts when there are no words. Pray with prayer beads and some day when the prayers won’t come they will pray for you as you move them through your fingers.
Mary Tramples the Patriarchy
I love Mary. I love her subversive Magnificat (it played a large part in me being who I am today). I love her quiet, forceful presence, her courage, her stubbornness. I love the way the Divine Feminine has shown through her many appearances (almost always to women, or other marginalized groups) with a wink and a loving smile for thousands of years. I love that she has been mother for those without, comfort, connection, and fierce advocate for the poor and the supposedly powerless.
By its very nature the rosary thumbs its crone’s nose at the Patriarchy with its hierarchy and rules. There are no rules you see, oh there are traditions about what prayer you use on each bead. But that isn’t a rule and never has been. And better yet, the rosary is a reminder that no hierarchy is needed to connect with the One who loves us. She/They/He is available within any time, anywhere. And the rosary gives us a familiar path back home to Her whenever we want.
Making the Rosary Yours
You can of course buy a rosary if you like. There are many available, even those dedicated to any number of feminine faces of the Divine (Etsy has a huge and varied stock.) You can buy generic prayer beads, no need to stick to the rosary. You can buy antique rosaries that have already been worn smooth by generations of loving fingers, or go brand new in everything from semi-precious gems to glow in the dark plastic.
And you can make your own, the simplest homemade rosaries are just knotted cord. But you can also string your own favorite beads on cord or wire, and hang your own charms from them. The rules, remember, don’t exist. I like the Roman rosary for its size and weight, it is longer by design than an Anglican rosary and I find it drapes better in my hands. I like the sets of 10 beads in each prayer set, 10 is a pleasing round number; perhaps because some part of us remembers being a baby and discovering our own fingers and toes. This is all entirely a preference, and you should chose what works for you.
Just before writing this article I strung a new rosary from my bead supply. I used pearls for my love of the sea and the sea’s connection to God/Goddess as Mother (the waters of the womb, the generative matrix of life), lapis lazuli for its color of the sea and sky and its soothing coolness. And a geode instead of a crucifix because in the midst of pandemic (it is April of 2020 as I write this) I have had enough of death. The moment I held up the finished rosary I realized I had a symbol for a womb, for new life and hope in the place of that cross and it felt right.
I share this story because you can make your rosary however you please. If you love the traditional rosary you saw your Grandmother use then use hers (if you are so lucky), or one like it. If you find that the cross gets in your way, take it off and replace it with something else. I can assure you that God will not mind in the slightest. The rosary is a tool for you, nothing about its components is magic until you make it so by use and love.
Prayers that Speak for You
The second important thing to know is that you can use any prayer you like with the rosary (or prayer beads). Traditionally among Roman Catholics and Anglicans the Our Father (or Lord’s Prayer) and the Hail Mary have been used. But you can use whatever short mantras or prayers you like.
The traditional rosary prayers go something like this. On the small beads (pearls in the rosary above) you pray the Hail Mary:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee– Traditional “Hail Mary”
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of they womb.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us,
Now and at the hour of our death.
On the large beads (the blue squares in the photo above) the Lord’s prayer or Our Father is traditionally used:
Our Father, who art in heaven,– Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
But both these prayers can be modified. My own preferred versions of them (which you are free to use and modify) go something like this:
For the small beads:
Hail Holy Mother, thou art with us– Prayer to the Holy Mother
Blessed are thou, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
Holy Mother, be with us;
now and at the hour of our death.
For the large beads:
Our Mother, in heaven,Our Mother, an adaptation of the Lord’s prayer
honored be your name.
Your fellowship come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who
sin against us.
Strengthen us in trials
and save us from evil.
For we are yours,
now and forever. Amen.
Another of my favorite prayers, one I use in times of deep distress is to repeat on every bead:
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One; have mercy upon us.Mantra example
But the truth is you don’t have to use any of these examples. When you have no words you can just use the beads to count your breathes (most beginning meditation techniques tell you to count ten breathes, the same number of beads in each decade of the rosary.) You could use any simple mantra as well. I often find myself using “I am here, God is here” when I need to calm and center myself in the presence of the Divine.
Prayer after all is a conversation, and your Mother/Beloved/Friend really wants to hear from you. You and you alone know the words that need to pass between you two. Perhaps the prayer you need right now is her words for you. Perhaps it is a reminder that you are loved (“I am loved” is a perfectly acceptable prayer for the rosary!), or some other gentle phrase that keeps coming to you. Listen to these repeating messages, test them (our subconscious doesn’t always send us good things, depression and anxiety are liars), and if they are true incorporate them into your rosary practice.
Whatever prayers you chose to use know that the rosary (or any prayer beads) are meant to be repeated many times, they are meant to wear deep groves into the paths of your soul. Until the prayers become automatic, until the beads don’t even need to be in your hands for the words to be in your heart and mind, and their meaning to have taken deep root in the dark mysterious places that are most you.
These prayer practices (and all prayer practices truly) are planting seeds that will grow in us over time. They are the trellis up which fragrant roses can be trained and give us their surprising gifts when we least expect (but most need) it. Repeated prayer changes who we are, it helps shape us into who we will become, so chose your prayers wisely and with intention.
My greatest caution here is that you should not pray a prayer you don’t want to come to believe. My tradition has a saying: lex orandi lex credendi, or praying shapes believing. And basically it holds that the things we say, over and over, will shape what we believe and who we are. If you repeat round and round your rosary that you are loved, and that God made you in God’s own image; that will be what you come to believe, even if you don’t believe it now.
This is a powerful and dangerous part of being human. What we are immersed in becomes our reality. If you spend your time immersed in images and prayers/words that paint a picture of a hateful and angry God, a cruel world, and your neighbors as your enemies that will become your reality, even if evidence is presented to you to the contrary. So chose your words wisely, listen deeply, and build a world you would want to give to someone you love.
Reclaim, Renew, Refresh
No one owns the rosary, or prayer beads. Like so many spiritual practices you are free to reclaim, change, and adapt this spiritual practice as seems right to you. But know that you aren’t inventing something new, and that is a good thing. As you pray, discover, and create your spiritual ancestors stand behind you, their own prayers still echoing to the clack of their beads.
Prayer beads and rosaries have been loved for millenia, and we can pick up the thread of that tradition from wise Grandmothers, Abuelas, and Ammas. We can feel the subversive prayers of women who refused to be silenced or controlled as we add our own voices of a chorus that echoes down through centuries, and around the world; a rising choir of change.
I for one am very excited to see what you can do with the seeds our ancestresses have given us.