The prayer rope (Greek: κομποσκοίνι, “komboskini”; Russian: чётки, “chotki”) is part of the habit of Eastern Orthodox monks and nuns and is employed by monastics and by others, clergy and laity alike, to count the number of times one has prayed the Jesus Prayer or, occasionally, other prayers. The prayer rope is traditionally made out of wool, symbolizing the flock of Christ. The traditional color of the rope is black (symbolizing mourning for one’s sins), with either black or colored beads. The beads (if they are colored) are traditionally red, symbolizing the blood of Christ and the blood of the martyrs. Prayer ropes are tied in a loop, terminating in a cross. The original prayer rope had 33 knots to symbolize the age of Jesus Christ when he died. Prayer ropes may come in different lengths in addition to the 33 knot standard to include 50 knot, 100 knot, and even 300 knot lengths.
Though prayer ropes are often tied by monastics, lay persons are permitted to tie them also. In proper practice, the person tying a prayer rope should be of true faith and pious life and should be praying the Jesus Prayer the whole time.
The invention of the prayer rope is attributed to Saint Pachomius in the fourth century as an aid for illiterate monks to accomplish a consistent number of prayers and prostrations in their cells. Previously, monks would count their prayers by casting pebbles into a bowl, but this was cumbersome, and could not be easily carried about when outside the cell. The use of the rope made it possible to pray the Jesus Prayer unceasingly, whether inside the cell or out, in accordance with Saint Paul’s injunction to “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).
The Seven-Cross Knot
It is said that the method of tying the prayer rope had its origins from the Father of Orthodox Monasticism, Saint Anthony the Great. He started by tying a leather rope with a simple knot for every time he prayed Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have Mercy”), but the Devil would come and untie the knots to throw off his count. He then devised a way—inspired by a vision he had of the Theotokos—of tying the knots so that the knots themselves would constantly make the sign of the cross. This is why prayer ropes today are still tied using knots that each contain seven little crosses being tied over and over. The Devil could not untie it because the Devil is vanquished by the Sign of the Cross.
Using the Prayer Rope
When praying, the user normally holds the prayer rope in the left hand, leaving the right hand free to make the Sign of the Cross. When not in use, the prayer rope is traditionally wrapped around the left wrist so that it continues to remind one to pray without ceasing. If this is impractical, it may be placed in the (left) pocket, but should not be hung around the neck or suspended from the belt. The reason for this is humility: one should not be ostentatious or conspicuous in displaying the prayer rope for others to see.