My fascination with beads goes back to my childhood. I specifically remember studying a tray of African trade beads that were sold at a small shop in my hometown. The fact that these little beads had traveled through many hands throughout the world, and survived the journey put me in a state of awe. There was also something about the fact they had not only been used for ornamental purposes but also for the practical purposes of monetary exchange that grasped my attention.
Now, decades later, I think of those beads when I am purchasing, designing, and stringing beads to make rosaries. As an artist and designer, I have often struggled with the purpose of what I create. Through the rosary, I have learned that art can be a tool for prayer and meditation.
Spiritual disciplines have always been something I admired but not always understood. The example my mother-in-law modeled of praying the rosary at set times throughout the day and the strength it seemed to give her was remarkable to me. Though I had turned Catholic when I married my husband, I had never adopted the rosary as a practice of prayer. I had always had a strong faith, but I had reservations about Marian devotions because of my Lutheran background. Little did I know that the process of creating Christian rosaries and prayer beads and their use in my own prayer life would become a tool for my own spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical healing.
In 1988 our oldest daughter, Maura, was diagnosed with cancer two months before her third birthday. For three years she endured numerous surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant. Days after she started kindergarten in the fall of 1990, we found out that the cancer was again active. Maura’s doctor told us that the hope of more treatment being successful was futile. Knowing that she would die, Maura chose not to undergo any more treatment. Five months later, Maura died at home in our arms three days after her youngest brother was born.
In 1999, our eleven-year old daughter, Mary, woke up for school in the morning complaining that her head hurt and within minutes she was unconscious. I dialed 911 and she was rushed to our local hospital where physicians immediately transferred her to the intensive care unit at St. Paul Children’s Hospital. Tests showed that malformed blood vessels in her brain, which we were not aware of, had burst. She underwent surgery, but never regained consciousness. Ten days after she was rushed to the hospital, she died after emergency resuscitation attempts failed.
I had been working as an interior designer, a vocation that felt useless in light of the life and death struggles I had experienced. I was plagued with the question “Can beauty serve any necessary function?” I would ask myself, “What difference does it really make what color the walls are?” I no longer thought my artistic design skills served a real purpose. This led me to go back to school. Wanting to do something that helped people, I even considered the nursing field.
Then, one day I was searching the internet for a gift and found an Anglican rosary. I was familiar with the Catholic rosary, but I had never heard of a Protestant rosary. Upon further reading I discovered that rosaries are actually considered a form of Christian meditation. As I had been working on mindfulness meditation with my therapist to help me cope with recurrent panic attacks, the thought that this practice could also be found in Christian traditions made me want to know more. This led me to research the use of beads in Christian prayer and also make the practice a part of my own daily prayer life.
My hope and prayer is that, in some small way, the beads that I have created will also help others on their journey. No, rosaries and prayer beads are not a necessity for Christian prayer, but they can serve a practical purpose. They can be tools to help ground us in the biblical truths of our Christian faith and help us find the centering presence of God in our lives.