Orthodox Prayer Ropes - Origin, Tradition, and Use (Part 1)

The Jesus Prayer — The Most Important Prayer in the Orthodox Tradition — "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"

The Orthodox Tradition, since time immemorial, has been permeated with beautiful prayers to the Saints, the Mother of God and Our Lord Jesus Christ, in addition to special prayers for the Feasts, for the Cross and other special occasions.

However, one of the simplest prayers in the Orthodox Tradition, a prayer of few words and as old as the Gospels, occupies a prominent place as the main prayer of the Christian East: the Jesus Prayer, also known as the Ceaseless Prayer of the Heart.

This prayer, so simple and so true that it sounds more like an outburst of a supplicant soul than a determined way of prayer, has spontaneously become a spiritual path in itself, a form of spiritual elevation to God and the main tool of one of the most important schools of the spiritual development of humanity: Hesychasm.

We find its origin in the Gospels, in passages such as that of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22), that of the blind in Jericho (Matthew 20:30) and the publican's prayer (Luke 18:13). In all these passages, we find the sincere request for mercy, addressed directly and confidently to God, both in the person of the Father and in the person of the Son.

The established form of the Prayer was given by Macarius of Egypt (300 - 390 AD), spiritual father of Evagrios (346 - 399 AD) in the desert. The established formula was based on the Name of Jesus and the publican's prayer, since the Name of Jesus is the prayer par excellence, an invocation of God, and “in no other [Name] is there salvation, because there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved", (Acts 4:12); and, in the publican's prayer, one finds the truth of the contrite, sinful and humiliated soul, who ardently seeks justification before God, “because whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. ”(Luke 18:14). In this way, the fulfillment of the Apostle's command “Pray without ceasing” was manifest (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

In the second half of the 13th century, on Mount Athos, with the rebirth of Hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer gained the status of a spiritual path, and this evolution was aided by the Venerable Nichephorus the Solitary, and by Gregory of Sinai, who connected a method of breathing to the Jesus Prayer, in order to unite the Prayer to one's heartbeat, thus making it incessant. However, this technical character of interior prayer is not achieved quickly or suddenly, requiring intense and constant training, and it is essential to have the guidance of a guide experienced in the technique and with spiritual maturity in prayer.

The Prayer of Jesus had as its main focus of practice the monastic and contemplative life, essential bases of hesychasm, which is the search for silence, the total detachment from worldly concerns, and perpetual worship in the presence of God. At this point, the Jesus Prayer, combined with the breathing technique of Nicephorus and Gregory of Sinai, became the ideal tool for the success of the hesychast ideal, already foreseen centuries before by St. John Climacus, abbot of the Monastery of Sinai in his Ladder of Divine Ascent: "let the memory of Jesus join with your breath and you will quickly realize the usefulness of hesychia". Thus, the formula of the Jesus Prayer, combined with the breathing technique, became the foundation of hesychasm. 

Nowadays, the Jesus Prayer has found its popularity through a collection of patristic texts on hesychasm entitled the Philokalia (a Greek word meaning “Love for what is beautiful, for what is good”). The Philokalia was translated into Slavonic by Paisius Velichkovsky under the name of Dobrotolubiye, which was used by the famous Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Its spiritual value is such that it was recognized as a Breviary of Hesicasm.

The great proof that the publication of Philocalia was responsible for the popularization of Jesus' Prayer was the appearance of a book in 1870 in Kazan, which enchants one by its extreme simplicity and high spirituality: The Way of the Pilgrim (or, in Brazil, The Reports of a Russian Pilgrim).

The book recounts the spiritual search of an Orthodox layman and his journey in the Jesus Prayer in the light of Philokalia. The pilgrim's hesychast vocation is clearly demonstrated by the pleasure he finds in his (rare) moments of solitude and by his constant search for the improvement of the Jesus Prayer. For this, he had the spiritual guidance of a staretz who, after a short period of instructions, dies and lets the Pilgrim continue his search for Prayer in the steppes of Russia, appearing to him sometimes in dreams. During training, the staretz presented him with a prayer rope, an inseparable instrument of the Pilgrim and the main character of one of the most beautiful accounts of the work (the encounter with the wolf). With the arrival of this work, the West became aware for the first time of the Orthodox prayer rope.

The Orthodox Prayer Rope: An Instrument From Heaven

As in everything in our life, our Father who is in heaven always provides ways for his children to remain firm in the path He has determined and to prevent us from falling into the pitfalls of the evil one. So that we could keep our prayer life productive and regular, God also didn't deny us help.

Tradition reveals to us the origins of the prayer rope at the hands of St. Pachomius, a disciple of St. Anthony the Great, in the middle of the third century B.C. Saint Pachomious was the founder of cenobitic monasticism and one of his main concerns was to help the illiterate monks to maintain an active prayer life, but without the need to read the Psalter, services and horologion.

He then decided to make use of the Jesus Prayer to supply the need for prayer for his monks and, as an aid to maintaining the equivalent prayer rule, he decided to make a rope with knots to count the prayers. However, how great was his disappointment when he noticed that, when he finished knotting the cord, the demon came and untied the entire cord, in order to frustrate Pachomius' intentions to help the monks and, with that, delay their spiritual development. Dejected by the onslaught of the devil, Pachomius cried out for God's help and in his prayers he asked for inspiration to overcome the devil and assist the monks in the practice of prayer.

In his infinite mercy, the heavenly Father sent the Angel Gabriel to Pachomios, who taught him a knot formed by seven intersecting crosses, which the devil would not be able to untie. At this time, the Orthodox prayer rope was given to the world, named in Greek Komboskini and in Russian Chotki.

This is the legendary and traditional origin of the prayer rope. What is known as a concrete fact is that the first prayer rope appeared in a monastery of the Thebaid in Egypt, established by Osios Pahoumios (the exact name of Saint Pachomius) in 320 e. C. It consisted of a wool cord with thirty-three knots, separated by a wooden bead every eleven knots, with its ends joined in the shape of a cross and was, as in the legendary origin, used by illiterate monks to serve as an aid to the spiritual prayer rule. It was considered the main instrument of hesychast monasticism, and even today the handing over of the prayer cord to the new monk is part of the tonsure ceremony.

Now, the prayer cord has left the interior of the monasteries and reached the hands of the laity who, inflamed by spiritual zeal and love for the way of the Jesus Prayer, help in the preservation and dissemination of this sacred instrument. Today, the vast majority of spiritual fathers give their children prayer cords and prescribe the Jesus Prayer as a spiritual rule.

Read also: Orthodox Prayer Ropes - Origin, Tradition, and Use (Part 2)

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