In my first post about the Jesus Prayer, I focused on the “bodily” dimensions of my practice of the Prayer. This second post will touch on the choices I’ve made regarding the physical items I use. The reason for this post is simple: I had to reach my conclusions largely through trial and error and extensive research. I am hoping that those starting out with the Prayer but lacking guidance on how to begin will find these posts helpful. As always, check my advice against what your spiritual director and the saints say, and listen to them if our opinions are in conflict.
A quick note: Absolutely none of these items are essential. This is important. We can’t buy our way to holiness— in fact, it’s WAY easier to spend our way into Hell than into Heaven. That said, I have found these items helpful. But I can– and have– done without all of them at times.
The Chotki, or prayer rope: I’ve owned several types. I tend to fall back on the 100-knot wool prayer rope as it seems to be the most practical and the one requiring the least thought and calculation. If you are praying the Prayer in multiples of 100, you won’t have to remember how many times you’ve gone around a 33 knot chotki.
One can spend a lot of money on chotkis. This seems silly to me. I have also purchased one that was made of lovely beads, only to have it fall completely apart in my pocket after a few uses. The prayer rope is a tool for prayer, not a piece of jewelry. Find one that is simple, sturdy, traditional, and well-made and then stop worrying about it. The important thing is the encounter with Jesus.
For a time. I wore my chotki on my wrist when I wasn’t using it. There are photos of Pope Francis where it appears he is wearing one, and this seems to be a somewhat common practice. While there are advantages to having one constantly on your person in case you have time to pray or need a reminder to pray, a rope worn on the wrist can quickly become an object of spiritual pride. I generally don’t wear one anymore, though I might do so if I ever take a long hike again.
The tassel at the end of most Russian chotkis is to be used to wipe the tears of the one who is praying. I used to think that was a silly affectation (even going so far as to cut the tassel off my main chotki), but now I have learned that there are all kinds of reasons one might find oneself needing to wipe away tears during prayer. Who knows what kind of failure or loss you will bring to Jesus in prayer? It’s best to be ready. If you pray enough, you will eventually use it and you’ll be glad it’s there.
Clothing: Nothing special is required. Be comfortable, and dress in such a way that your clothes are not a distraction to you while you pray. In the last few months I’ve grown to love cotton-soled canvas martial arts shoes because I feel more grounded when wearing them while standing to pray. I often wear a cotton hoodie as well, but that’s because I pretty much always wear a cotton hoodie. I am not trying to impersonate a monk. You shouldn’t, either.
Icons: This topic is a complicated one, and there are many opinions. First things first: You are not, as a rule, to be looking at the icon while you pray the Jesus Prayer. You are not praying to the icon– you are praying to Jesus. The icon is more than a pious decoration, of course, but it is also not an idol. Think of it as a window that lets the light of heaven into your prayer space.
For several decades my prayer space had one main icon– a beautiful Bulgarian-styled Theotokos (Mary, Mother of God, holding her son, Jesus). I am presently having an iconographer make me a Pantocrator (Christ in Glory) based on a 14th Century Greek icon of Jesus. This will be the new center of my prayer space. I already have a large digital print of the original icon on my wall which occupies the space as a place-holder. There are many wonderful sources for printed copies of icons, and these are perfectly acceptable if this is what your budget allows. I am particularly impressed with the reproductions at Legacy Icons. Although I’m not much of a stickler on these matters, I prefer their “Classic” icons to the “Masterpiece” icons; although the depth of color on the Masterpiece icons is impressive, the texture of cotton canvas is not at all like traditional, hand-painted icons.
The Catholic Church seems to have a pretty pragmatic approach to sacred art in personal prayer spaces– if it helps to lead you into prayer, it’s fine. While allowing for a considerable amount of variation, Orthodox writers seem to have more specific recommendations about images in a home prayer space, and their recommendations and preferences emerge from a particular theology of icons and of prayer. But that is the topic of another, much longer blog post. My decision to have a single main icon of Jesus at the center of my prayer space emerged from my desire to grow closer to Jesus and to know him as friend, savior, Lord, and judge. When you are making this decision, it’s probably worth discussing this choice with friends or with a trusted spiritual advisor.
Choose something that draws you more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s love for you. Take some time with the decision. Don’t get anything too season-specific. I have been very drawn to the icon known as “The Bridegroom” for several reasons– it is the icon that sits above the stone of Golgotha at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it is a powerful image for my ordination, as Christ is portrayed as a suffering servant. However, a friend of mine who is an Orthodox priest advised me against getting a Bridegroom icon as my main icon because the image dwells on Jesus’ humiliation and death– a worthy topic during Holy Week, but certainly not the end of the story.
Candles: I like to use candles. I have settled on these beeswax tapers for several reasons.
- Each candle lasts more than an hour.
- They do not drip, which is a small miracle after using paraffin candles for years.
- They do not deform like pillar, votive, or tea candles do, so there’s rarely wasted wax.
- They are not that expensive when purchased in bulk.
- The smell is amazing.
Many Orthodox monasteries also make beeswax candles to order and sell them by the pound. Since I live so close to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, I will probably buy my candles from them henceforth.
I use a small, clay box filled with sand to place the candles. I made the box many years ago when I worked in a shelter for homeless families. A lovely volunteer hosted sculpting and pottery classes at the shelter while I was working, and I made a box. You know– because, of all the possible things I could make, it somehow seemed wise to my 22-year-old brain to make the most boring possible thing. It’s useful now, though. We used to store nail clippers in it. This is probably a better use for it.
Incense: Does one need incense for prayer? Certainly not. Should I use incense for prayer? Maybe? Do I like using incense for prayer? Most definitely. That’s why I use it. It helps me to settle my mind and to focus. Some studies actually laud the anti-depressant qualities of Frankincense, but I don’t know what to make of those.
Here’s a warning: Almost all stick incense out there is terrible stuff. Some is even apparently made of animal dung. Some of it is very smoky and unpleasant– especially the stuff you will find in places like record stores or flea markets. For some people, incense brings to mind efforts to cover up smells that would suggest illegal activity. If you’re one of those people, maybe it’s wise to skip the incense for now.
The only good stick incense I’ve found from a Christian supplier is from Legacy Icons. Their Frankincense sticks are very nice and largely smoke-free. That said, the claim on the web site that the sticks last an hour is false. They last approximately 40 minutes.
For immaculate quality stick incense, try Japan Incense. They make a number of different kinds of sticks and the burn times on the web site are accurate for the types I’ve tried. It’s not a Christian site, and some folks are weird about that. I am not. When I am through my stash of incense from Legacy Icons, I will buy a box of Frankincense sticks from Japan Incense. Their Reiryo Ko incense (which is a traditional incense used in Zen monasteries) is just great and I have found it to be a lovely aid to prayer. That said, some struggle with the idea of using items in prayer that are commonly used by other religions. My opinion about this is simple: Items that are essentially religiously neutral (e.g. candles, incense, and the like) are OK to use and not harmful if (1) they are being used within a Christian framework for prayer and if (2) the person using said items is growing in discipleship through their practice of prayer. If the items are a distraction or if they lead one away from Jesus and the Church, they become suspect and should be rejected. This is the sort of thing one needs to discern with oneself with the help of a spiritual director.
Of course, if you like your incense old-school, it’s hard to beat using loose incense over charcoals.
However, this type of incense tends to do two things: (1) fill the room very quickly with amazingly good-smelling smoke and (2) burn out pretty quickly. If your goal is to fill the room with a strong scent and keep it that way, loose incense is a good option. If, however, you want a more measured amount of scent dispersed evenly over a longer period of time, you may want to go with stick incense.
Timer: You need some sort of way to know that your prayer time is over. Many wise people just decide on a number of repetitions of the Prayer and use that as the end point– they pray 100, 200, or 300 repetitions and they grow accustomed to the amount of time that will usually take.
As for me, I use a timer. Specifically, I use an iPhone app called “Meditation Timer.” I am sure there are better apps, but I sort of don’t care. I can set it for up to an hour and I can add chimes at certain intervals. My standard practice is this: I will set it for one hour, with a chime at the 30-minute marker. The 30 minute chime is a sort of “check in” that gives me a sense of whether I’m distracted or going at an unusual pace. I add a 20 second preparation period at the beginning of my prayer time to still myself. Then, I pray and forget all about the timer.
As I pray, I focus on Jesus and on addressing the words of the prayer to him with a sincere heart and full attention. It is hard going at times, and distractions are still extremely common. In fact, you could say that distractions are the norm. That said, I have felt God quieting my spirit and leading me toward real prayer. And this is important to remember as we wrap up this discussion of “gear”: It’s really, really not that important, and the goal isn’t to create a magnificent prayer space but to create a useful one, where you can forget about stuff and focus on Jesus. Because this is what it’s about: God heals his children in their prayer time, in the time when we open a window to heaven and let in God’s rays.