While my calling to make prayer beads came more than two years ago, it’s taken me some time to explore it. It’s not that I was questioning God or running away or anything (much as I love whales, I have no desire to ride around in the belly of one), but when a call from God comes so unexpectedly and in such an odd setting—like the foyer of a cheesy, small-town seafood restaurant, just as you’re walking past the grinning shark statue—it seems like a good idea to ponder things for a while and try to make sure you’re clear on what’s being asked of you. And that’s what the past two plus years have been about: pondering, though I can’t say that I’ve been sitting still in meditative silence for all that time. Indeed, I’ve been busy learning how to make prayer beads, studying their history, setting up a business, and, more recently, speaking and writing about prayer and prayer beads, all of which have been invaluable in helping me to flesh out and explore this calling.
But I have to say that the watershed moment—the one in which I really understood the purpose of this calling—occurred this past July while my family and I were at The Upper Room’s SOULfeast conference. As most of you know, I was there to lead three workshops on prayer beads (two for adults and one for children). While this was not the first time I’d spoken about prayer beads it was the first time my workshop was one of many offerings that participants could choose to attend. Previously, I’d done other smaller retreats where my workshop was the only one, or one of only two or three workshops, making it somewhat inevitable that people would show up. But at SOULfeast participants had many wonderful workshop choices like the life of Henri Nouwen, designing worship spaces, spirituality and photography, praying with children, and many others. In fact, there were so many that interested me that I seriously considered ditching my workshop (as it was, I’ve heard myself speak many times before) for one of the others. I didn’t however, and arrived in my room ready to receive whoever wanted to learn about prayer beads.
When the first ten people showed up I was happy. “This is a respectable size group,” I thought to myself, and continued to busy myself with workshop preparations. The next time I looked up there were twenty-five or so people in the room. “Wow!” I thought. “This is great!” But then they kept coming, and coming, and coming, until, eventually, there were no more seats. I couldn’t believe it. Since the workshop was going to be offered twice we turned people away from the first workshop, thinking they’d have another opportunity to attend later in the week. But when it was time for the second workshop and the same thing happened, we decided to just let people sit on the floors and the piano bench, lean on the door posts or stand in the hallway. And they did! And that’s when I started to feel really overwhelmed by this prayer bead calling.
But it didn’t stop there. After the workshop, people came up to me clutching the prayer beads and speaking with great enthusiasm about how excited they were to learn of this new tool. They stopped me in the bookstore and on the sidewalk, wanting to tell me about how much the beads meant to them. They showed up in droves to the after-worship event late one Wednesday night to make prayer bead strands for people in other countries, and as they sat happily designing their mission offerings they talked about how they were going to take the good news about prayer beads to their own churches and families. One woman even tearfully shared how the prayer beads had already enhanced her time with God in the two short days she’d had them. Though I’d heard these types of testimonies from people prior to SOULfeast, hearing so many stories all at once was pretty humbling. By the time I arrived at the closing worship service I must say I was a bit of a mess. I was excited and humbled and overwhelmed and terrified, all in one fell swoop. As such, I sat amongst my fellow SOULfeasters and just wept, a blithering, soppy, joyful mess.
While I wanted to go home immediately and blog about this experience, it was probably best that I had to return home to unpacked boxes and an unfinished book draft that needed my immediate attention. I needed some time really to process the experience and figure out what it meant. And so here I am, three months later, finally able to talk and blog about it.
There are several things that I’ve figured out at this juncture of the journey. First, God can and does speak to us when we least expect it—at the oddest of times and in the strangest of places. Thus, we not only have to be listening but also open for whatever may come our way. Second, this whole prayer bead thing is very real. Clearly, there is a great yearning for ways to connect more deeply with God, and prayer beads are one way of doing that. And third, there seems to be a particular need for Protestants to hear about prayer beads. We weren’t as lucky as our Catholic brethren who have retained the use of the rosary throughout the centuries, and in some areas of our country and world there is almost a sense of taboo when it comes to prayer beads among Protestants. Yet prayer beads are part of our heritage as well, and my experience over the past two years proves that once you explain the rich history and symbolism of this ancient prayer tool, Protestants are willing to joyfully reclaim it in practice, even if it means sitting on the floor for more than an hour.
Having said all that I want to add that I’m deeply touched, profoundly changed, and extremely thankful for this opportunity to make and teach and write about prayer beads. My prayer is that I can continue faithfully to follow this calling, even one with such quirky beginnings.