In the five years I’ve been writing and teaching about prayer beads, this is, by far, the number one question I hear.
The subtext of the question seems to be, “Are we going to get struck by lightning if we use beads in prayer?” There is fear, or at least, concern.
Granted, not everyone is tentative about using beads. Many people take up the beads without hesitation, thrilled to have another tool for prayer. But there are enough that it warrants addressing the question, particularly in my (southern) neck of the woods.
I always begin my response with the Old Testament story of the Israelites, newly-freed from slavery. They were headed to The Promised Land, this wonderful place that God had set aside for them. But in between them and TPL was a massive desert with no planes, trains, or automobiles in sight. In faith, they set out on their journey, not realizing how long it would take. As the years passed and they got more and more tired of being hot and sticky and thirsty, they began to rebel. They even argued with God, saying they would be better off as slaves back in Egypt. They were beginning to think God had abandoned them.
In response, God told them to take up the fringe on their garments. Bet they didn’t see that coming! How could fringe help them in this situation? But God understood the Israelites were physical beings. Even though God had promised to be faithful and always be with them, God knew the Israelites would get so focused on being hot and miserable and forget God’s promises. God knew they needed something tangible – physical – to hold onto and remind them that God was with them. So God told them to take up fringe – a common, ordinary, everyday object – and hold onto it when they needed comfort, guidance, assurance, love.
So if the question is whether it’s okay for Protestants to use beads – a common, ordinary, everyday object – in prayer, we have only to look at the book of Numbers (chapter 15) and read how God offered fringe: the first prayer tool. That’s how we know we’re safe from lightning strikes (aside from the fact that God is not in the business of lightning strikes).
At this point most people are able to relax and consider incorporating beads into their prayer time. Others, however, have more questions:
• When people use prayer beads, isn’t the focus on the beads rather than God? No. The focus is on developing and going deeper into one’s relationship with God. That’s what prayer is about. The beads are just a tool to facilitate that.
• Why are beads even necessary in prayer? After all, we Protestants have been praying just fine without them all these years. Indeed. And certainly, not everyone will want or need to use beads in prayer. But many people struggle with prayer; they don’t know what to say or how to go about it. Prayer beads can offer structure, a path, a safe place even, for prayer.
• How can they help? For starters, how many of us have begun a prayer, only to realize a minute later that we’re making the grocery list instead? Feeling the beads can help you maintain your focus in prayer. How many of us have rushed through the day and forgotten to pray? Seeing the prayer beads lying on a table, we are reminded to take time to sit with God. And how about those times when we, like the Israelites, feel lost and abandoned in the wilderness places of life? We can hold onto the beads and know that God is as close as the beads in our hands.
That fringe? It really was a gift – a gift from God that enabled the Israelites to feel more connected to God through the good, the bad, and the hot and sticky. That’s what prayer beads are.
Even for Protestants.
Kristen E. Vincent is the author of the award-winning book, A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads. She is the owner and principal artisan of Prayerworks Studio, which specializes in making handcrafted prayer beads and other prayer tools. She speaks widely on prayer and prayer beads and enjoys leading retreats.