I recently asked someone ‘how are you getting on?’ ‘I am hanging on to my prayer rope,’ was the reply. The Prayer Rope in the Orthodox tradition is a thin rope into which knots have been made, anything from twenty-five to a hundred plus. The rope is passed through the fingers and each knot marks the praying of the Jesus Prayer ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ The Prayer Rope and the Jesus Prayer have their own distinctive and highly developed theology and spirituality. In this respect it is similar to the Rosary in the Western Tradition. The praying with each decade of beads, the introductory and concluding prayers have been developed into a way of prayer of all of its own. Indeed there are libraries of books on both the Jesus prayer and the Rosary.
The most important similarity, in the context of this article, is that they are both something a person can ‘hang on to’. Whatever the state of mental or physical health, no matter how confused or distraught a person is emotionally or spiritually, they are both something to grasp hold of and to touch. This way of prayer, or communion with God, is most simply seen in the Holding Cross; this is a simple wooden cross, often carved prayerfully, that a person can take out of their pocket and bag and simply hold in their hand. No doubt readers can think of other examples; the Prayer Shawl is one, but I have seen medallions, and bracelets. These all provide a way of keeping in touch with the love of God.
Our faith is an incarnational faith, we believe that the Word became flesh, we believe we can touch the Lord in the sacrament of the altar, we believe that ‘all things were made through him and without him nothing was made’. We are, each of us, incarnate spirit, and in this life our senses are given us to us as a means of enriching and developing the life of the Spirit in us. These ways of holding on to God are a simple and personal expression of what we believe as Christians.
They are also an antidote to any overemphasis on ‘mental prayer’: the prayer of meditation or prayer that relies on the written word or is any way liturgical. They prune prayer down to the quick: a simple act of will to open the heart to God. This prayer of ‘holding on’ my friend described springs from the source of all true prayer, a hunger, a desire, a need to experience God’s love and mercy. In the case of the Payer Rope and the Rosary the repetition of short prayers accompany each knot or bead. The ‘holding on’ prayer is perhaps most helpful if the person praying has used these prayers and with accompanying touch and movement of the hand enough for it to become habitual. After a relatively short time the touch becomes associated with the prayer and due course the touch is the prayer: body and soul expressing the same prayer. I have no doubt that my friend, in ‘holding on,’ was engaged in a deep and active engagement with the Lord