I recall an incident in my late teens when I had to catch a coach out of Manchester. It was rather full, and so had to take a seat next to an elderly gentleman, who, strangely enough for the North, didn't engage in a conversation, apart from an initial smile. Unable to see out of the window, I was looking around me, and soon became fascinated by the fact that, throughout the journey, he was holding beads and slowly and methodically, working his way through them.
It was only in later years, with a deeper introduction to the Catholic Church and its practices that I began to appreciate the importance and purpose of the Prayer Beads (or 'Rosary') in traditional prayer and meditation and that the gentleman was taking the opportunity, while travelling, to commune with God, a most worthwhile occupation!
It seems that the practice has its origins in other religious traditions that go back way before the birth of Christ, but came into vogue in the Church through the Desert Fathers of the 3rd - 5th Centuries who used pebbles or knotted ropes to count prayers, typically the Jesus Prayer ('Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'), and was then adopted by various traditions and is widely used today.
Even as a non-conformist, I can still understand the importance of Prayer Beads in that they encourage a structure and focus to prayer life, with each bead representing a different faith confession, prayer or bidding, and allowing time for ones' own intercession. The fact that they are often carried with a person, and used at any time or opportunity - even when travelling on a coach out of Manchester Bus Station - demonstrates their value. A dear friend suggested only recently that when there was a family concern, they immediately reached for their Prayer Beads as they gave comfort, assurance as well as guiding them through prayer!
I'm not suggesting that every reader should go out and buy Prayer Beads, but I am commending the practice of taking time each day in quiet prayer or contemplation. You see, in our worship material this month we are being encouraged to take every opportunity and 'spend time becoming still in God's presence and open ourselves to being guided by the Holy Spirit'. Whether with or without Prayer Beads, it can take place anywhere and at any time, and preferably includes engaging with the things around and about us, as a means of recognising God's presence in the midst of creation and revealed in the midst of ordinary lives and living.
Michel Quoist, a French Pastor promoted this kind of prayer time which meditates on everyday life, suggesting that all those who embrace soon discover that 'all of life would become prayer'. In his wonderful and popular book of prayers, first translated in 1963, he writes: 'If we knew how to listen to God, if we knew how to look around us, our whole life would become prayer. For it unfolds under God's eyes and no part of it must be lived without being freely offered to Him... silent prayer which has moved beyond words must always spring from everyday life, for everyday life is the raw material of prayer' ('Prayers of Life' page 10). Thus, he writes prayers about a Five Pound Note; A Tractor; The Love of an Adolescent; a Face that Haunts; the Hospital; the Bald Head - to mention but a few. Prayers offered to God that are rooted in the ordinary things of life.
He then maintains that if we spend time meditating on the world around us, and offering each situation to God in prayer, we must also find time to be still and, in the silence where no words are spoken, open ourselves to listening to what God might be saying to us, with a warning that such prayer is often a prerequisite to the active service of others. He thus concludes that his hope is for one thing only: 'to open the way for the amazing dialogue between ourselves and God'.
I thoroughly commend the idea of finding time whatever we are doing to reflect on the things around us, so that all our days might be undergirded in prayer to the greater glory of God. The Apostle Paul for instance writes: 'I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be offered for everyone... (as) such prayer is right, and approved by God our Saviour' (1 Timothy 2: 1- 3).