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Byzantine Prayer Rope

January 5, 2008

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Byzantine Prayer Rope

The Byzantine prayer rope, also known as the chotki in Russian and komboskini in Greek, is a very ancient aid in meditative Christian prayer, which, unfortunately, is virtually unknown in West. It dates back to at least to the seventh century, and possible as far back as the fourth century as St. Basil the Great is said to have used one very similar to the one describe in this article.

There are many different variations of the prayer rope. Traditionally, they are made out of wool with a set number of special knots marking the recitation of the Jesus Prayer; although, it is quite common for beads to be used instead of knots (the English word bead comes from the Old Saxon word for prayer, bede). These knots may be divided by beads, on which other prayers may be recited. The two ends of the rope are joined together to make a loop. After the joint, follows a cross, which may be preceded by a knot and a bead. The Cross is also traditionally made out of knots.

The most common number of knots in a prayer rope is 100. A 100 knot rope may simply consist of 100 knots and a cross. Typically, however, the knots are divided into three groups of 33, representing the Trinity and the 33 years of Our Lord’s life on earth. To complete the number 100, between the joint and the cross is a bead and a knot. A smaller version that can be worn on the wrist can be made with only 33 knots. When a 33 knot rope is used, one goes around the loop three times, and then to the bead and the knot after the joint.

A 100 knot rope can also be divided into two groups of 50 or four groups of 25. Like wise, 50 and 25 knot ropes can be made, of which the 50 knot version can be divided into two groups of 25. If an additional knot comes after the joint, the number of knots becomes 101.

The 33 knot version can be divided into three groups of 11. As well, there is a 300 knot version, and even 600 and 1000 knot versions.

How to Pray With a Prayer Rope

The central prayer prayed with a prayer rope is the Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart, which is based on the words of the tax collector Luke 18:13, and the words of the blind beggar Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47. This prayer is repeated as one moves from one knot to the next, totalling 100 or 101 repetitions. No other prayer is necessary; just the Jesus Prayer (if you are only praying the Jesus Prayer, you can ignore the dividing beads).

This repetition should not be a monotonous attempt to gain God’s attention (cf. Matthew 6:7), but an attempt to change oneself by clearing one’s mind of everything except God. Each repetition should be slow and deliberate: praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” as you inhale; and, “have mercy on me a sinner,” as you exhale. The goal is to make this prayer so connected with one’s breathing that one can truly pray without ceasing (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17).

This style of prayer is very personal, being physically connected to one’s breathing; therefore, this prayer must be done individually, not in a group.

In addition to the Jesus Prayer, other prayers may be prayed at the beginning, at the end, and on the beads dividing the knots. A suggested formula is given below; however, this is only a suggestion.

A common alternative is Psalm 50 (Miserere) instead of Psalm 129 (De Profundis). There are also alternate variations on the Jesus Prayer

Psalm 50 (Miserere)

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleans me from my sin. My offenses truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, I have sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done. That you may be justified when you give sentence and be without reproach when you judge. O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived. Indeed you love truth in the heart; then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom. O purify me, then I shall be clean; O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear rejoicing and gladness, that the bones you have crushed may revive. From my sin turn away your face and blot out all my guilt. A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away form your presence, nor deprive me of your holy spirit. Give me again the joy of your help; with a spirit of fervor sustain me, that I may teach transgressors your ways and sinners may return to you. O rescue me, God, my helper, and my tongue shall ring out your goodness. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise. For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn. In your goodness, show favor to Zion: rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice, holocausts offered on your altar.

Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on name of person.

As one makes a prayer rope, he prays the Jesus Prayer, particularly for the intentions of the one that will use it. In return, on the last knot before the cross, one prays for the intentions of the person that made it.

The tassel at the end is to dry one’s tears.

Suggested Formula

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O God, cleanse me, a sinner. (three times)

O heavenly King, Paraclete, Spirit of Truth, who art present everywhere and dost permeate all things, Treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and take up thy dwelling within us. Purify us from every stain and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us. (three times)

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.

O Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, forgive us our sins.

Most Holy God, pardon our transgressions. Do Thou Who are holy visit us and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy on us. (three times)

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Come let us bow down to Our Lord God. Come let us bow down and adore Our Lord God. Come let us bow down and adore Christ Himself, Our Lord and God.

Psalm 129 (De Profundis)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness: for this we revere you. My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak. Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord. Because with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption, Israel indeed He will redeem from all its iniquity.

Profession of Faith

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. And I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. (33 times)
Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. (33 times)
Remember me, O Master, when You come into Your Kingdom!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. (33 times)
Remember me, O Holy One, when You come into Your Kingdom!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.

Lord, have mercy (three times)

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Where to Find Prayer Ropes

If you do a Google search on “chotki”, you will find a number of sites from which you can order a prayer rope; however, these are mostly ropes of beads and not knots. I’ve not seen a knotted prayer rope for sale, but then again, I’m from the Roman Rite, and I haven’t spent much time in Byzantine churches and stores. I would suggest that you ask around and find someone that makes them, or better yet, make one yourself.

How to Make a Prayer Rope

The process of making a prayer rope is itself a form of meditative prayer. Each knot takes at least three and a half minutes to tie once you know what you’re doing, making the total time spent on a 100 knot rope over six hours. As I stated above, while one makes a prayer rope, he prays the Jesus Prayer, particularly for the intentions of the one that will use it.

The hardest part in making a prayer rope is learning to make the special knot. There is a 120 minute video that teaches how to tie the knot, and everything else you need know about making a prayer rope, available from FIREBIRD Videos, Audios & Books and Light and Life Publishing. Martin D. Watt also has a really good webpage describing how to tie the prayer rope knot titled How to tie an Orthodox Prayer Rope knot. It’s from this webpage that I learned how to tie the knot.

Traditionally, prayer ropes are made out of wool. Mr. Watt likes to use rattail because it is easier to work with, but I like to use wool yarn. I used acrylic yarn for the first prayer rope I made because it was available around the house. My second prayer rope was made out of wool yarn, and was much easier to work with than acrylic.

I don’t really know much about yarn, but the yarn that I’m using is labelled as “4.5 MM – 18 STS / 24 ROWS To 10 CM.” I find that yarn this size is best tripled instead of doubled; although it depends on the size of the beads as to whether you should double or triple the yarn. If you double the yarn, the knot made from four strands must not slip through the hole in the beads. If you triple the yarn, you must be able to thread twelve strands through the hole in the bead after the joint.

I find that it is very easy to thread the yarn through a bead with the aid of a small crochet needle. A crochet needle is also useful when “pulling through the loops.”

When the yarn is tripled, I find that each strand needs to be seven yards long for a 100 knot rope, and three and a half yards for a 33 knot rope. I’m six feet tall, so my yard may be bigger than most.

To the right is an innovation of mine; although I’m sure I’m not the only one to have thought of it. Half of the strands between the horizontal knots of the cross are looped so that they can double the strands that make up the tassel without having to sewing on other strands. If you’re tripling the yarn, you’re left with 24 strands for the tassel. If you double the yarn, you’re left with 16 strands. The bottom knot of the cross has the looped strands of the horizontal knots passing through it. Don’t cut the loop until the bottom knot has been tied so that you can distinguish between the strands of the knot and the strands that are passing through the knot.

I like to use all of the strands (12 or 8) for the cross, and only half of the strands (6 or 4) for the knot between the cross and the bead after the joint. The knot between the cross and the bead after the joint has half of the strands passing through it. So as to distinguish between the strands of this knot and the strands that are passing through it, tie the strands that are passing through into a slip knot.

I don’t make a joining knot. I thread all of the strands (12 or 8) through a bead, and then tie the knot before the cross. When tying this knot, I use half of the strands from one side of the circle, and half from the other side. This makes the knot a little more stable.

I like the symbolism of tripling the yarn. The three strands symbolise the Trinity, the twelve strands after the joint symbolise the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the twelve strands that join the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the cross symbolise the Twelve Apostles.

 

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