Comboschini (The Prayer Rope)
Meditations of a Monk of the Holy Mountain Athos
A few years ago, with the blessings of the very reverend Father Joseph, Abbot
of the Xiropotamos Monastery of the Holy Mountain Athos, we reprinted, in a
booklet, the most didactic article about the prayer rope, which had been
published in "Agioritiki Martiria," a magazine issued by the
Due to the fact that the booklet proved very helpful and because of the
pastoral needs of all the English speaking Orthodox brothers around the world,
it was suggested that we should proceed and publish this booklet in English.
We have to thank the very reverend Father Joseph, Abbot of the Xiropotamos
Monastery, for his offer and his love.
The prayer rope is not intended to be used only by monks,
but it can also be used by laymen and, generally, by anyone who wants to pray
to God. The prayer rope is not some kind of amulet with magic or exorcising
powers, like those given to simple-minded people by magicians or mediums, worn
on the wrist or round the neck. On the contrary, it is a purely Orthodox holy
object used only for praying and nothing else. We use the prayer rope in order
to pray secretly.
At this point we have to note something very important: there are many books
that refer to the prayer. However, before we start following any rule or
prayer, we must necessarily ask for the advice, the blessing and the spiritual
guidance of our spiritual father, i.e. the Priest to whom we confess our sins.
That is what the Holy Fathers have taught us for centuries, in order to avoid
delusion and, thus, not to lose the right Orthodox path.
There are two ways we can pray using the prayer rope:
- At any time of the day when we have free time, without
being seen by anyone, secretly, we hold the prayer rope with our left or
right hand and move from knot to knot with our thumb whispering
simultaneously or meditating upon the prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ have
mercy on me" or "Most Holy Theotokos save us".
- At the time of our regular prayer, when we pray following
the rule of prayer that our spiritual father has told us to follow, we
hold the prayer rope with our left hand between the thumb and the index
finger and move from knot to knot. At each knot we simultaneously do two
things: i) with our right hand we make the sign of the cross over
ourselves and ii) we say the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me". When we finish with
all the knots of the prayer rope, we continue following the same procedure,
for as many times as our spiritual father has told us to.
We hope that all our brothers and sisters in Christ will be
helped by this little book, which is the result of the experience of an
anonymous Monk of the Holy Mountain Athos. We also hope that everyone will use
the prayer rope in the way our Holy Fathers have taught us, even if one lives
in a society and not in a monastery.
Thessaloniki, Greece Archimandrite Joseph
+ + +
Let us pause for a moment just to look at a little prayer
rope, like this one made of black wool on Mountain Athos. It is a blessing from
a holy place. Like so much that we have in the Church, it is a blessing
prepared and given to us by a brother or father in Christ, a living witness to
living tradition. It is black, the color of mourning and sorrow, and this
reminds us to be sober and serious in our lives. We are taught that repentant
prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, can bring us what the Holy Fathers call
joy-creating sorrowin Greek "Harmolipi". We are sorry for our sins and our weakness and
failings before God, our fellow men and ourselves; but in Christ, Who pours out
His mercy and forgiveness on all who call upon His Name, this sorrow becomes a
source of joy and comfort. This prayer rope is knotted from wool, that is, it
has been sheared from a sheep, a reminder that we are rational sheep of the
Good Shepherd, Christ the Lord, and also a reminder of the Lamb of God Who takes
away the sins of the world (see: John 1:29). And the cross likewise speaks to
us of the sacrifice and victory of life over death, of humility over pride, of
self-sacrifice over selfishness, of light over darkness. And the tassel? Well,
you can use it to wipe the tears away from your eyes, or, if you have no tears,
to remind you to weep because you cannot weep.
Besides, from the Old Testament times, little tassels have
been a decoration for sacred vestments, a reminder of the sacred tradition in
which we participate when we use the prayer rope.
Prayer ropes are made in keeping with a tradition whose origin is lost in
antiquity. Perhaps one of the earliest forms was simply gathering small pebbles
or seeds and moving them from one spot or container to another as one said his
prayer rule or did his rule of bows or prostrations. The story is told of a
monk who decided to make knots in a rope, which he could use in carrying out
his daily rule of prayer. But the devil kept untying the knots he made in the rope,
frustrating the poor monk's efforts. Then an angel appeared and taught the monk
a special kind of knot that consists of ties of interlocked crosses, and these
knots the devil was unable to unravel.
Prayer ropes come in a great variety of forms and sizes. Most prayer ropes have
a cross woven into them or attached to mark the "end", and also have some kind
of marker after each 10, 25, or 50 knots or beads. There are many forms of
prayer ropes, some knotted of wool or silk, or other more elegant or simpler
materials. Others are made of beads or the dried flower of a plant called
"Tears of the Mother of God".
The prayer rope is one of the items given to an Orthodox Christian monk at the
time of tonsure: it is given to him as his spiritual sword with which he, as a
soldier of Christ, must make war against our spiritual enemy, the devil. This
sword is wielded by calling on the name of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus
Christ in a plea for mercy on me a sinner. This prayer can be said in a shorter
form, such as: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me"; or in a longer form, as: "By
the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints, Lord Jesus Christ
have mercy on me".
Other short prayers: the prayer of the publican: "God be
merciful to me a sinner" (see: Luke 18:13), the prayer to the Mother of God: "Most
Holy Theotokos save us", or other short prayers to the Guardian Angel, to
individual saints or to all the saints can also be offered with the assistance
of the prayer rope. A common form of such a prayer is: Holy Guardian Angelor Saint
(name)pray to God for me. By
changing the words of these short prayers and saying: "have mercy on us", or
"pray for us", or by including the name or names of persons we want to pray for,
we can also use the prayer rope for intercessory prayers. This also applies to
those already departed this life: "Give rest O Lord to the soul of Thy servant."
When monks carry the prayer rope in their hands, it serves
as a reminder of their obligation to pray unceasingly. In keeping with the
commandment of the Holy Apostle Paul to "pray without ceasing".
Anyone can keep a prayer rope in a pocket or some other discreet place where it
can be easily used unnoticed when in situations where it is better to pray or
remember prayer in secret, without attracting the attention of others. The
prayer rope can also be placed over the head of our bed, in an automobile, with
a small cross or icon, or in other appropriate places as a reminder of prayer
and a kind of blessing and a holy and godly presence in our lives.
But now, let us discuss briefly the primary use for which
this prayer rope was made. The whole purpose of the prayer rope is to assist us
in offering our prayers before God and His Saints. In addition to serving as an
external reminder and a blessing present with us, how can this little rope help
us to pray? We can pray without a prayer rope, of course, and there are times
when using the prayer rope may become a distraction for us in our attempts to
concentrate in prayer. With that in mind, let us consider some ways in which
the prayer rope can be of assistance.
There are times when our prayer is fervent and it is easy for us to pray. There
are times when our thoughts are so distracted that we find it virtually
impossible to concentrate on prayer. This is especially true when we try to
keep a rule of prayer each day. Some days it goes very well, but other timesif
not most of the time?our efforts seem almost to be in vain. But because we are
"creatures of habit", as the saying goes, it is very profitable for us to set
apart a special and regular time (or times) during the day for prayer. The time
in the evening before going to bed is a good time, as it is important to end
the day with prayer. The morning, upon awakening from sleep, is also good, so
as to begin the new day with prayer. Or a person may find other times during
the day when he is able to be quiet and concentrate.
We are trying to establish a rule of prayer in our lives,
not an exception, so we want to find a time when each day we can find some
quiet in order to concentrate and turn the eyes of our soul towards God.
We may want to read some prayers form a prayer book as part
of this rule, or offer prayers and find quiet for our souls in other ways, such
as reading religious literature, reflecting over the events of the past day"Anaskopisis"
and so on. But
one of the most effective ways to find benefit from a rule of prayer is to say
a set number of the Jesus Prayer regularly each day. This does not have to be a
large number, and it may take only fifteen minutes or so, but that will be the
portion of our day that belongs to God, the little grains of salt that will add
savor to our Christian life. This practice is now recommended by many
physicians for the sake of a person's physical health, especially in overcoming
stress. Better still, find such little pocket of time at various points
throughout the day and regularly fill them with the precious treasures of
prayer, a treasure no one can steal from you, that is laid up for you in heaven
(see: Mat. 6:20).
In maintaining a consistent number of prayers as part of such a daily rule, a
prayer rope can be quite helpful. With the prayer rope, you can offer a set
number of prayers and concentrate on the words of the prayer as you offer them.
After collecting your thoughts, take the cross on the prayer rope in your left
hand, holding it lightly between the thumb and the index finger. Then, making
the sign of the cross over yourself quietly, whisper the Jesus Prayer. As your
thoughts become more concentrated, you may not need to continue crossing
yourself or saying the prayer audibly. Other times, when concentration is
difficult, use the sign of the cross and whispering as means to help keep your
mind on prayer.
It is good to stand, with head bowed, in a humble position; some people like to
raise their hands from time to time in their petitions for mercy. But others
find it more helpful to sit or kneel, with head bowed, in order to concentrate.
A lot depends on the individual and also on his health and upbringing. The
important thing is to be able to keep still and concentrate on the words of the
prayer as you repeat it.
Of course, a person has to fight off the temptation to "rush". For this reason,
some people use a clock instead of a prayer rope as an external measure for
their prayer rule. By using a clock, a person can devote a set amount of time
to prayer, although he may not keep track of the exact number of prayer he
says. But, then again, clocks with electronic beeps are quite a recent
development, and keeping a loudly ticking clock that jangles the nerves with a
loud alarm bell seldom proves to be a great boon to prayer. So much for traditional
use of digital alarm clocks!
The prayer rope is also a convenient way to keep track of
the number of bows or prostrations a person makes during his prayer rule.
Making the sign of the cross over oneself and then bowing from the waist and
touching the ground with one's fingertips, or bowing down on one's knees and
touching the forehead to the ground are very ancient ways of offering prayers
to God and His Saints. One can combine these bows or prostrations with the
Jesus Prayer or any of the short prayers we have mentioned above. The physical action
of bowing or kneeling can contribute to the fervor of the prayer and give
expression to our supplication, as we humble ourselves before God. This is one
way in, which we can carry out the apostolic command to praise God both in our
souls and in our bodies.  Many people use the prayer rope when they lie down
to sleep. After signing their bed with the cross, they take their prayer rope,
bless themselves with the sign of the cross as they lie in bed, and quietly
pray with the prayer rope until they fall asleep.
And waking up with the prayer rope still in your fingers or
next to you on the pillow helps begin the new day with prayer. But ending the
previous day with quiet prayer is an even better way to prepare for a prayerful
beginning of the new day, not to mention preparing for the Eternal Day should
we fall asleep that night in death. And others take their prayer rope in hand
during idle moments, such as while commuting or traveling. At any time of the
day, whenever you remember to do so, you can take a little prayer rope in your fingers, and the association
of that action with the prayer you offer at other times will help you concentrate
and offer some prayers during the course of the day whenever you may be,
whatever you may be doing. And this is an important step towards fulfilling the
commandment to pray without ceasing.
The holy bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov mentions that the lengthy services held in
the Orthodox Church are also a good opportunity for praying with the prayer
rope. Often there are times when it is difficult to concentrate on the words
being read or chanted, and it is easier to concentrate quietly on one's own
private prayers, be they extemporaneous prayers for some special need,
repeating prayers or psalms that we know by heart, or repeating some short
prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, with the assistance of the prayer rope. In
fact, this often helps a person concentrate better on the service itself,
something mentioned by St. Seraphim of Sarov. Of course, when we are praying at
the services, our prayer is joined to that of the entire Church.
We are constantly occupied by all kinds of thoughts that appear in our heads,
and it seems we no sooner start to pray than we catch ourselves thinking about
something else. Here again, the physical presence of the prayer rope in our
fingers can help us catch ourselves and return to our task of prayer more
quickly. Or, meeting up with one of the markers or with the cross on the prayer
rope as we move it through our fingers remind us that we have been robbed of
the prayers we intended to offer. And immediately we can offer our prayers anew
without getting further entangled in our thoughts about how easily we get
distracted from prayer to God.
Here we have touched on the great science of prayer, what the holy fathers have
named the "art of the arts". There is a great and rich literature written by
the great men of prayer from all ages that can help guide us in learning, with
God's help, this greatest and most beneficial of all sciences. Regular reading
the Holy Gospel, the lives of the saints and other devotional and spiritual
literature can be
of great assistance. Such works as the Philokalia contain
important and inspiring instruction and direction in learning to pray as a
Christian, which is an essential aspect of being a Christian. Above all,
however, one needs the grace of God in the Church, especially in communing the
These are just a few introductory thoughts on how we can make good uses of a
prayer rope. But the important thing is to start to pray. The prayer rope does
not pray by itself, although some of them are so magnificent they may give that
impression. Here is
an important, traditional aid in offering prayers, and especially for a daily
rule of prayer. But the important thing is to concentrate on words of the
prayer, to offer heart-felt prayers to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.
If this little prayer rope helps you to say a prayer or
reminds you to pray or helps you in some way to become more prayerful, it will
have fulfilled its purpose, it will have tied you more closely and more
intimately with Christ our God, and also brought you closer to the Kingdom of
God, for "the Kingdom of God is within you." (See: Luke 17:21)
We have to note, once more, that regarding any prayer rule
about praying with the prayer rope or any other rule (fasting etc.), the first
and the last word has to be said by our spiritual father, in order to avoid
delusion, as the Holy Fathers have taught us.
+ + +
Some quotes on the Prayer "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me" from our Holy Fathers
In the First Epistle to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul says:
"Pray without ceasing".
St. John Chrysostom in his speech about sobriety and prayer, says the following:
"Brothers, be always occupied with the intellectual prayer and do not move far
away from God until you receive God's mercy and pity. Never ask for anything
but for His infinite mercy and this is enough for your salvation. When asking
for His mercy, cry aloud in entreaty with humble and contrite heart form
morning to night and, if possible, during the whole night, saying unceasingly:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us".
St John Climacus says the following: "Win the enemies in jour
mind with the name of God. You will not find any other weapon more effective
than this! Similarly you will manage both to appease your passions inside yourself
and to efface them with the aid of the prayer".
St. Seraphim of Sarov says: "When
mind and heart are united in prayer and the soul is wholly concentrated in a
single desire for God, then the heart grows warm and the light of Christ begins
to shine and fills the inward man with peace and joy. We should thank the Lord
for everything and give ourselves up to His will; we should also offer Him all
our thoughts and words, and strive to make everything serve only His good
St. Isichios writes about the prayer: "Through the constant remembrance
and invocation to Jesus Christ, a holy condition is created in our mind. This
happens, if we appeal
to Jesus Christ with fervor, crying aloud towards Him in entreaty day and night,
so that repetition leads to habit and habit becomes second nature!".
Saint Hieromartyr Cosmas Aetolos (+1779) says: "I advise you
to make a Comboschini, all of you, young and old, and hold it in your
left hand and cross yourselves with your right hand and say: 'Lord Jesus Christ
have mercy on me'".... "I advise all Christians to make Crosses and Comboschinis
and I pray to God to bless them, so they can keep them as amulets".
in the Fatherly sense of examination, of checking up on ourselves, in order to
feel remorse for our sins and become better but also recognize the beneficence
- I Corinth. 6:20: you must praise God with your bodies and
your souls, which belong to God".
This has been the complete text of the booklet Comboschini (The Prayer Rope): Meditations
of a Monk of the Holy Mountain Athos. Published with the blessing of Abbot Paisios,
St. Anthony's Monastery, Florence, AZ. Posted 8/21/2005.