A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail from an unfamiliar address in Midtown Memphis. I opened the package to discover a set of prayer beads made by Suzanne Henley. I met Suzanne once via my wife’s writers group in Memphis. An enclosed card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert describe the beads from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more. I was blown away by both the beauty and the significance of the creation. Now, I carry the beads in my backpack and they go everywhere with me. They are a regular part of my centering prayer and other contemplative exercises.
Suzanne has now published a book Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018). The book is composed of three parts: an historical discussion of prayer beads followed by a set of prayer activities, and a final section where readers are “encouraged to draw their own set of prayer beads and, with discernment and prayer, label each bead. They then can keep and literally hold their life in their hands in prayer, gratitude, and awe.”
The book is all of that and much more.
In the introductory comments Suzanne notes “I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself.” As an artisan who creates prayer beads, the Prologue to the volume lays out the intent and perspective in her creation. The beads Suzanne uses in her creations include “handmade Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic prayer beads as well as rare Hebron beads of Dead Sea salt . . . replicas of third-century Ethiopian Coptic crosses and Stars of David, hand-carved Chinese jade pendants, or river rocks collected from my fishing sites.” The anthropologist in me delights in her noting that when handling the beads “I am the latest in a long line to add the imprint of my hands’ oils to the human and earth-marked patina of all those who have come before me. I feel the weight of their histories in my palm.”
The abundant illustrations in the volume attest to the 800 individualized sets of prayer beads she has created, some commissioned for the likes of The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, along with the holy, secular, and terminally ill across the globe. (Suzanne’s gift to me was prompted by my recent cancer diagnosis.) She observes that while formal worship in churches is on the decline, the increased popularity of prayer beads means people are “simply carrying their altars with them in their pockets” as they go through life.
After the introductory material there is a solid 20-page section of prayer bead history beginning with their several thousand year-old Hindu origins in Vietnam and continuing to the present day. The comprehensive summary highlights prayer bead development, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths. Suzanne highlights the 4th Century Desert Fathers who used pebbles to count the number of times they said a prayer, through to the familiar Roman Catholic Rosary and Islamic prayer beads that hold the 99 names of Allah, to the more recent evolution of Protestant or Episcopal prayer beads. The history section has many historical notes of interests, such as that the earliest recorded Roman Catholic rosary belonged to Lady Godiva of horse-riding fame.
The next section considers the range of prayer types both with and without beads, drawing on the works of modern contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr and the more ancient traditions such as the Celts. Suzanne also discusses prayer bead use with chants, hymns and in silence. Drawing on her personal practice, she broadens the tactile experience of prayer beads to include handling fruit in the grocery store.
The book could have ended at this point and been a worthwhile read. However, Suzanne’s final sections of the volume are of immense value for the novice and experienced user of prayer beads. With a good bit of autobiographical material she tells her story including recovery from extreme depression and a heart attack to a chance encounter exploring how the Holy Spirit is like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. These life changing experiences resonated with me as a recovering alcoholic.
As “homework” she invites the reader to construct a prayer bead activity based on their life experiences. Suzanne provides ample guidance in the form of writing exercises and meditations to achieve this goal. I found this invitation to be the punch line of the book. The earlier sections on the history, tradition, and contemporary contemplative use of beads were interesting, informative, and certainly directing in terms of practice. As well, reading Suzanne’s story provided grist for further considering personal use. However, the homework allows the reader to completely contextualize and apply prayer bead practice to their experience.
The 20 color illustrations of prayer beads created by Suzanne are a welcome addition to the volume. At under 100 pages of text, the volume is readily accessible to all. The 9 chapters can readily be adapted to a group study where participants create their own set of prayer beads. I look forward to working through the exercises included in Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New to enhance my use of Ms. Henley’s gift to me.