Praying with Intention and Attention

"Prayer beads are a contemplative prayer tool. The word 'contemplation' has its roots in Latin and Greek meaning 'to look at things' and 'in the temple.' Contemplation as a spiritual practice dates back at least to the Middle Ages to a book called The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous English monk who advises his student to seek God not through knowledge, but through love. Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, two Christian mystics, later defined contemplative prayer as kind of supernatural state in which the intellect and the will are suspended. Instead, the mind enters a state of knowing ('looking' in the roots of the word) instead of a state of doing. These two saints, experts at contemplative prayer, described intense feelings of love for God and an almost physical sense of God's presence in their lives. In the mid-1950s, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, helped revive contemplation for modern Christians by describing his own practice in many books and articles. Thomas Keating, another Trappist monk, gave a spark to contemplative prayer, which he calls centering prayer, in his 1986 book, Open Mind, Open Heart. 'Contemplative prayer is the opening of mind and heart — our whole being — to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words and emotions,' Keating writes. 'We open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than choosing — closer than consciousness itself.'

"Learning to pray contemplatively takes practice, but there are a few simple things that can help. First, sit in a quiet place: a church sanctuary, your backyard, a secluded corner of a park or beach, a bedroom. Even a bathtub will do if that's the only place you can be alone and undisturbed in your home. You may want to sit before a visual aid — an icon or a picture or painting that induces in you a peaceful state. Sit still for a few minutes in silence. Try to narrow the circle of your attention only to your breath. Breathe in and out slowly a few times, lowering your heart rate and calming your body. Spend a few minutes in quiet reflection, and when you feel calm and still, pick up your prayer beads and begin praying.

"Don't think about what you're praying for — it's better not to think at all when you pray — but focus on what you are praying for. If your prayer is for peace, keep the idea of peace before you. Keep the feeling of peace within you as you pray. Contemplate it, using your heart, not your head. Thinking will take you out of the mysterious realm of prayer and back into the all-too concrete world of daily obligations and demands.

"That's easy to say and hard to do. This is where intention and attention come into play. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to beware of vain repetitions of prayer. He's not warning against the repetition of prayer — if he were, we would need to say the Lord's Prayer only once, like a pledge. The keyword is vain. Jesus is warning against becoming disconnected from our prayers to the point that we are just repeating a series of words without meaning, like a mantra intended to induce a meditative state. Rather, our prayers said on beads should be deeply felt statements of faith, of praise, of joy that we keep emotionally attached to at all times during the praying. This is to pray with intention.

"What about attention? This is where the tactile nature of the beads comes in. The physical act of grasping a bead, of rotating it gently between the fingers, of feeling it, will anchor you to the words of the prayer attached to the beads. As you pray, really feel each bead. How hard is it? Is it round or oval? Faceted or smooth? Cool or warm to the touch? Let the feel of the beads ground you in the prayer. If you feel your mind wandering, squeeze or hold the bead tighter. Your attention will come back to the presence of God.

"Directing your breathing will also help; this is a well-known and widely practiced method for contemplative prayer. As you begin each prayer, breathe in on the first half and out on the second half. This is a technique tailor-made for prayer beads because the prayers assigned each bead are usually fairly short. For example, if you are praying the Jesus Prayer ('Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.'), inhale on 'Lord Jesus Christ' and exhale on 'have mercy on me.'

"Remember that contemplative prayer takes practice. Be patient with yourself. It is hard to turn off the buzz of everyday life, with all its demands, and with the increasing connectedness modern technology forces on us. Your time with your prayer beads is a time to put aside these distractions — cell phones, e-mail, schedules, and so on — and be with the simplest essence faith can be reduced to: a reaching outward and upward toward the divine."

Memorizing or Reading Prayers?

"Some people find it preferable to memorize prayer, but it's a matter of taste and convenience. You may like repeating the prayers without having to refer to a book or a printed card, but it may not always be possible for you to do so. When I walk my dog, for instance, I can't carry along a book or piece of paper to consult. But I do have one hand free for my beads, which I carry in my pocket. This is when I recite the Jesus Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, long ago committed to memory, or some other simple prayer. At other times, I get out a journal in which I keep all the prayers I like to use with my beads. Keeping a journal like this enables me to take my gathered prayers with me when I travel. My journal is also where I remind myself of the prayers I love and where I keep track of insights that come to me in the midst of my prayer bead sessions. It is part journal, part diary, part notebook, and I keep it by the side of my bed at all times.

Some Things to Remember

"Although there are no hard and fast rules for praying with prayer beads, a few guidelines are helpful and may enrich your experience.

"First, prayer beads are a tool for prayer and not an object of devotion. The prayers said with the aid of any prayer beads are always more important than the beads with which they are numbered. You don't need beads to pray. They are not there to be the focus of your prayers, but to help you focus your prayers. So if you find yourself more concerned with the color of your prayer beads than the content of your prayers, you may want to think about why you are using prayer beads.

"Second, don't spend too much time and energy worrying about getting the words of the prayers right — the words are secondary to their intention, which is to draw close to God. Because of this, the words do not have to be articulated in a way that would make a Shakespearean actor jealous. Nor do they have to be recited with 100 percent accuracy. They are stepping-stones to God, and if you forget one or two or leap over a couple here and there, it will not matter — as long as you keep your attention and intention in sight."