On Praying with Beads: A Q&A with Author Kristen Vincent

timthumb.php-3“In the early church Christians used pebbles and stones to help them “pray without ceasing.” That practice evolved into using knotted rope, and later, strings of beads, which is how the rosary came into being. That happened long before there were “Catholics” and “Protestants.” Had we lived back in the Middle Ages we would have all been using beads in prayer.” — Kristen Vincent, author, A Bead and a Prayer

This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring a lovely prayer book from The Upper Room called  A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner’s Guide to Prayer Beads for Protestants. Author Kristen Vincent, a lifelong Protestant with a Master of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, talks about her journey with prayer beads here, and in our Skype video interview below. She also addresses the question “Is it Ok for Protestants to pray with beads?” here.

How did you discover prayer beads?

Quite by accident! My path began with a gift from my mother in1990. She had just returned from a mission trip in the Dominican Republic and brought me a rosary. It was a bit of an odd gift because we were Presbyterian and had no experience using beads in prayer. But she knew I was interested in ministry and I’m sure she thought they were pretty. She could not have anticipated my response, however, for when she handed me the beads something deep within me responded with great awe. I didn’t understand what was happening. All I knew was that I loved these little beads! From then on I began to collect rosaries. Friends and family members would bring them back to me from their travels. I loved to display them and show them to visitors.

UR1217 Bead and Prayer1Yet while I was surrounded by prayer beads, I wasn’t using them to pray. In fact, I wasn’t praying much at all, even though I ended up going to seminary, marrying a Methodist minister, and staying heavily involved in the church. Prayer was difficult for me. I thought there was a “right” way to pray but I didn’t know what that was. I struggled to know what to say and how to go about it. It was easier not to pray than to pray and feel awkward.

That changed in 2009 when I had a quirky religious experience. I came away from the experience feeling like God was calling me to “make rosaries.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. I started researching “how to make a rosary” online in an effort to discern what this calling meant. One night I happened upon a website that talked about the Anglican rosary. I read with great interest about this new form of prayer beads, which really was a new format of prayer beads for Protestants. I learned how to make them and then, slowly, began to try to pray with them. From then on, I was hooked. Over time, I became really comfortable with prayer.

How do Protestant Prayer beads differ from Catholic rosary beads?

There are both differences and similarities. The differences are in the format and use. Rosaries are made of five (or fifteen) sets of ten beads, while Protestant prayer beads are made of four sets of seven beads. And while the rosary is used to pray a certain pattern of prayer – some beads are used to pray the “Hail Mary” prayer while others are used to pray the “Our Father” (Lord’s Prayer) – there is no particular formula for praying with Protestant prayer beads. They are much more free form. My book offers a variety of suggestions for how you can pray with them.

The primary similarities are in the benefits of using the beads. Whether you pray with a rosary or with Protestant prayer beads, the beads can help keep you focused during your prayer time (in other words, they help to keep your mind from wandering to the grocery list or the latest episode of “Modern Family”). The feel of the beads in your hand can remind you of God’s presence, particularly in times of darkness. By repeating a particular prayer or phrase with each bead – whether the “Hail Mary” prayer for the rosary or a short phrase or verse with Protestant beads – you can quiet your mind and begin to listen to what God has to say to you. That’s the real gift of prayer beads!

What is the purpose of praying with beads?

I think the real purpose is to help us connect with God, to go deeper in our prayer lives. There are endless ways in which you can do this; beads are just one of them.

Are prayer beads biblical? Where does this type of prayer tool originate in our Christian history?

Prayer beads are a prayer tool – an object that helps people connect with God – and while beads themselves are not mentioned in the Bible, there are references to other types of prayer tools such as fringe, rods and staffs, rocks, etc. There is a great story in Numbers 15 where the Israelites, who have been wandering in the desert for many years, feel as if God has abandoned them. God encourages them to take the fringe on their garments (at that time all clothing had fringe) and hold onto it. God commanded them to remember the commandments as they held that fringe. In doing so they would remember that “I AM the Lord your God.” In other words, they would be reminded that God had never abandoned them.

In the early church Christians used pebbles and stones to help them “pray without ceasing.” That practice evolved into using knotted rope, and later, strings of beads, which is how the rosary came into being. That happened long before there were “Catholics” and “Protestants.” Had we lived back in the Middle Ages we would have all been using beads in prayer. The Protestant prayer bead format that I talk about in my book was developed by a group of Episcopalians from Texas in the 1980’s as a way of reclaiming an ancient prayer practice.

What kind of response have you had to your book and your prayer bead ministry?

Incredible! We have received thousands of emails, letters, blog hits and comments, etc. The book has remained on The Upper Room’s top ten list almost every week since it came out in July 2013, and was recently named Book of the Year by the Christian Small Publisher Association. I am constantly traveling to lead retreats and prayer bead workshops. It has become a full-time job!

All of this tells me that people – Protestants in particular – are hungry for new ways to connect with God. They need tools to help them feel more comfortable with prayer, quiet their minds, and experience a deeper connection with God. The prayer beads are doing that. We receive the most amazing testimonies from people who are returning to church after being estranged from it for many years; who are experiencing God’s deep love for them in new ways; who are being comforted through times of darkness such as a terminal illness, a death in the family, job loss, etc. People are carrying their beads into doctor’s offices, delivery rooms, and even in their weddings! It is profound!

What do you hope people take away from your book most of all?

I want people to know that God loves each of us deeply. Yet in our crazy busy lives we often forget that, becoming disconnected from God. It’s easy then to feel as if we are alone. Prayer is one of our primary opportunities to reconnect with God. The prayers beads make that process accessible, leading us to a deeper, more profound experience of God’s grace and peace.

Visit the Patheos Book Club on A Bead and a Prayer here.

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