Beads and blessings
When celebrities like soccer ace David Beckham and pop star Britney Spears start draping themselves in rosaries, you know that prayer beads have acquired a new cachet. But it is not just the fashion obsessed. Among the recently converted: Protestants who are reconfiguring the Catholic rosary and New Agers of all stripes who are stringing personalized prayer strands.
The practice of fingering beads while meditating or praying is ancient and widespread. It first came into general use in India in the eighth century B.C. among Hindus, who used malas to help them keep track of the mantras they recited. In the Buddhist tradition, each bead represents the earthly desires that must be overcome to reach nirvana. Muslims also use beads during worship for counting, in this case, the names or attributes of Allah.
Christian vision. The first Christians to encounter prayer beads may have been the Crusaders, although Catholic tradition says that the rosary was revealed to St. Dominic in the 13th century during a vision. The rosary emphasizes the "Hail, Mary, full of grace" prayer. It had become an important part of the devotional life of Catholics when it ran afoul of Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther, who said it verged on idolatry.
Today, however, even some Protestants are introducing prayer beads into their spiritual lives. Darel Paul, a Lutheran who is an assistant professor of political science at Williams College in Massachusetts, says that beads help structure one's daily devotions. He advocates a "Lutheran rosary" focused on Jesus rather than Mary. Dennis Di Mauro, a Lutheran from Northern Virginia, has devised an "ecumenical miracle rosary" designed to help Christians "spend more time with the Lord" in contemplation. Episcopalians, similarly, have created a 33-bead "Anglican rosary." Indeed, in England, "rosary chic" has the clerks in religious bookstores hopping this fall. -Betsy Carpenter
This story appears in the December 20, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.