Ancient spiritual tool popular in modern U.S. military

December 5, 2008

"I wanted to extend my sincere thanks to your organization for your gracious bead donation to those of us deployed to Balad, Iraq. I was having a very hard time while there and found great comfort using your beads and having them close to me. I also asked for beads for some of my fellow soldiers, to help spread the comfort you brought through the beautiful beads and their meaning. All of us thank you for your kindness and generosity."


It's messages like this one from a soldier that energized Didi and Bob Smith of McLean, Virginia, and their cadre of volunteers, who have sent 3,500 prayer beads free of charge to U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan since September, 2006.

Prayer beads are ancient spiritual tools to help worshippers keep track of contemplative prayer, and are used in several religious traditions, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. In recent years, Anglican prayer beads have increased in popularity. Suggested prayers for use with Anglican prayer beads range from those from the Roman Catholic rosary or the Book of Common Prayer to those based on hymns or the writings of Julian of Norwich.

A current chaplain who witnesses the appeal of prayer beads among his troops emailed the Smiths: "Please know that those beads are a hit! I believe it's a 'sacred mystery.' Call it tactile, call it the need to hold on to something, call it what you will: my soldiers, sailors and marines are using the beads. The only thing more popular than the camouflaged Bibles and Purpose Driven Life books is the Anglican prayer beads!"

Retired chaplain Jeffrey Neuberger of Spokane, Washington recalled of his service in Iraq, "Our compound was rather large, and I walked an average of six-seven miles a day, all the while knowing there could be incoming rocket and mortar attacks. As I walked, I would carry the beads in my hand to remind me to pray as I walked and as a testimony to God's presence in my life, especially in a dangerous place. They were a constant companion throughout my deployment. To all of the items I needed to carry, I added prayer beads.

"Much of my ministry was at the area combat hospital at Balad. It was there I found willing recipients for the beads: patients, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and more. I would enter a particular ward and find a place to lay the beads out and then invite those interested to receive a set."

Didi Smith is convinced that the work of the church -- justice, reconciliation, alleviating suffering --"must begin and end in prayer" and considers creating and distributing prayer beads her calling.

The Smiths have developed an efficient process beginning with the creation of prayer beads and ending with them in soldiers' hands that rivals Santa's workshop. First, the Rev. Gerry Blackburn, director of federal chaplaincies and executive officer to the bishop suffragan, offers the beads to Episcopal chaplains through his office at the Episcopal Church Center. Then the Smiths, who founded the ministry On Beads of Prayer in 2005, buy glass and stone beads, pewter crosses, beading wire and small pouches at wholesale prices. Various parishes and other organizations from across the country fund the expense of the prayer beads, which cost $11.00 each.

Next, the Smiths distribute materials and a flyer explaining the history of prayer beads as a spiritual discipline and suggesting ways to pray with them to the "beaders" who assemble the prayer beads. Finally, the Smiths -- or sometimes the beaders -- ship the completed prayer beads.

Currently, there are a dozen beader groups across the country of between five and 20 people each, and Didi Smith is quick to add that she hopes for more. Participants range from book club members to teenagers in youth groups to senior citizens, the youngest age 78, who meet every Tuesday morning for Bible study and beading at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. The 15 St. Luke's beaders have produced 1200 prayer beads for use by soldiers.

"These women remember World War II and they know what sacrifice is," Smith said in an interview. Regardless of their age, Smith said, "our volunteers have in common the desire to feel they're helping support our soldiers."

Smith was "delighted" when "last December, we heard that a few of the troops had received the beads and, lacking anything else to send home for Christmas, sent them to their families as Christmas gifts." So this Christmas, the prayer beads will include mailers for those who want to send beads home to loved ones.

-- The Rev. Lisa B. Hamilton is correspondent for Provinces I, II, III and IV. She is based in Venice, Florida and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.