This morning I made my first Franciscan knot. I am inordinately proud of this knot of mine. I only was able to make this knot because Marge, who has been making these knots for—pardon the pun—decades, guided my hands with her hands, which are knotted with arthritis. Marge, a daily communicant, retired nurse, and mother of five, offered to teach the teens in our youth group how to make rosaries. Loading plastic beads on a piece of nylon rope is not hard. Knowing how to make the knots between them is key. I learned this morning if you want to make a rosary out of cord, you have to know how to make the knot.
The Franciscan knots separate the Hail Mary beads and everything else on a rosary, whether it’s the Our Father beads or the Crucifix or the Mary medal. Marge let us cheat and use clear plastic spacers everywhere except before the Crucifix and the Virgin Mary medallion.
To make the Franciscan knot, we used a grooved cord tool, through which we threaded the cord to form the knots. We did a triple overhand with the cord, which represents each of the friars’ Gospel vows. Since the middle ages, Franciscan friars have worn three of these knots on their cords. They stand for poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Poor Clares, who are cloistered Franciscan nuns, wear four knots, the fourth symbolizing their vow of enclosure. Third Order of Secular Franciscans wear five knots for the five wounds of Christ.
The teens spent nearly an hour working on their practice knots, and then chattered away and ate bagels. But I was determined to make a whole rosary. As I tried and tried to make that knot, I started reflecting on knots. The rosary’s origins are the rope cords knotted by desert monks so they could track their daily recitations of the psalms. Now, our rosaries have knots between the smooth prayer beads. What could this tell me? A knot is rough. A bead is smooth. A knot is a difficult place, a place we want to leave. A prayer bead takes us to a soothing place. But when we pray the rosary, we need the knots to hold the beads.
My first Franciscan knot became part of my first rosary. Marge took a break in teaching us rosary making to drive her 88-year-old husband to a physical therapy appointment. She returned to quickly tie the other three knots—perfect ones—for me because we were running out of time. She invited us to her house to practice knot making. She offered to meet with the teens again and keep working on mission rosaries. I left the finished rosary on the table where Marge had gathered her supplies. We were supposed to be sending the rosaries to the missions. Marge told me to take my rosary home. I think she realized I don’t own a rosary. She told me to keep it in my pocket, so that I could show other parishioners we could make rosaries for missions. In her kindness, perhaps she was looking at me as a mission, too.
To some, my plastic rosary might look simple or tacky. When I pull my rosary out of my pocket, however, I think about all the care that goes into handmade rosaries, no matter their appearance. I think of Marge and her hands and her missions. I feel the cord tying her to the Desert Fathers, who thousands of years ago, were tying their knots.