The Anglican rosary (like the Roman Catholic rosary and the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope) is intended to be used as a tactile aid for contemplative prayer: the person praying repeats a short, traditional prayer while holding each bead of the rosary in turn. Far from being the mindless repetition that Jesus condemned, repeated prayers such as these are an attempt to take seriously Scripture’s call to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Over the past few years, I’ve been amazed at how the repetition of a simple prayer helps settle my distracted thoughts and center them on God. When I’m stuck in traffic, or in an argument, or just anxious and stressed over my work or personal life, I often can’t articulate a specific prayer, but I can turn to the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or more briefly, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” I have also found that repeating “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy” is a powerful way to invite God’s presence into my life when I need Him most.
That said, why use beads? It’s certainly not necessary to have beads in hand to say the Jesus prayer. Might it not be more “spiritual” to pray mentally without using a devotional object like a string of rosary beads?
Are beads necessary – absolutely not. Are they helpful? Often they are, especially depending on your personality.
The modern English word “bead” actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “bede,” meaning “prayer.” Beads offer a tactile link to God's creation. We seem to have a modern resurgence of the Gnostic idea of “spirituality” as something other-worldly, divorced from the grubby here-and-now of our bodies. But God made us as embodied spirits, and Paul quite firmly reminds us that we will be embodied in His new creation. The resurrected Jesus wasn’t a disembodied spirit (nor a mere sense of comfort in the lives of His disciples): He was a real, physical human being who ate and drank and could be touched.
Holding a physical object as we pray can be a reminder that we pray with our whole beings, “our selves, our souls and bodies” (from the Book of Common Prayer). I have found that having a physical cross to hold in my hand is incredibly helpful in reminding me to call on Jesus for help. So, too, with a rosary.
One of the strengths of the Anglican rosary for Evangelicals is that it balances tradition with personal choices about prayer. The Anglican rosary itself is not associated with a specific prayer; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to pray the Anglican rosary. On the other hand, the short prayers often suggested for use in the Anglican rosary provide a link to the countless saints of centuries past who have prayed the same prayers – many of which are drawn directly from the language of Holy Scripture. For instance, I might choose to pray the Trisagion (“Holy God, holy and mighty, holy Immortal One”); the Jesus prayer; the Gloria (“Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...”); or the Agnus Dei (“O Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on me... grant me Your peace”). One might also pray reflectively on a selected passage of Scripture, holding the rosary as a way to keep one’s hands occupied and mind focused.
There are always ways to go wrong with rosary prayer – for instance, seeing it as an end in itself, which it’s emphatically not – but that's the case for any spiritual discipline. When used in the spirit in which it is intended, the rosary encourages a habit of contemplative prayer. The key is to remember the purpose of the discipline: to help us pray, to develop our relationship with Him, to become more able to hear His voice and respond to Him.
I haven’t used my rosary much this past year, but my experiments with rosary prayers helped me develop a habit of using short, ancient prayers throughout the day, a habit that has deepened my relationship with Christ. Often I don’t even know exactly what I need to pray about, but by calling on the sacred name of Jesus, I know I am inviting God to do His work in me and through me.
Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God!