Saturday, May 30, 2015

Prayer Beads?

A couple of weeks ago I went to a garage sale where an older gentleman was selling the last of his wife's jewelry as she had passed away a year or so ago and they had no children to take it.  I picked up a little packet of unusual beads for $1.  When I got home and unpackaged them for a closer look, they were part of a necklace or possibly a crucifix since there is a copper cross attached to the one end.  The strand is broken but there's a good number of beads and I've been pondering what to do with them ever since.

My first thought was some kind of art display for these oh-so-bare walls.  But how to accomplish that?  Then a friend suggested stringing them for a bookmark in my Bible.  I'm still uncertain if I want to do that but I do like the idea of being able to touch them because they have such a unique feel when you hold them in your hands that's both pleasant and disturbing.  I like the elements of irony and contrast and surprise in jewelry and decor.

Besides the cross, there are 8 of these skulls.  Each is approximately the size of my small fingernail and they are VERY primitively carved.  No two are the same and some barely resemble a skull while others look very much like one.  The material feels like polished bone or possibly ivory.  There's probably a simple way to tell the difference and I'll feel silly for questioning it once I find out...  The other beads are a little smaller than pony beads and either dark brown or black glass.

When I came to the cross, I was stumped.  Why would skulls be part of a religious item?  Turns out I was again woefully undereducated.  Skulls have a long history of symbolism in religious art as a reminder of the transitory nature of our life here on earth and the certainty of our physical death.  Very old paintings of saints such as Mary Magdalene, Jerome and St. Francis of Assisi often included a depiction of them meditating over a skull.  Some pictures of Jesus' crucifixion show a skull over the cross presumably as a reminder that He could not rise again and offer us resurrection and salvation without first experiencing death.  And more than a few religions have been known to keep a human skull on the premises for their members to use as an aid to meditation.  It seems a little macabre to me considering the squeaky-clean image of a very nice father-figure God most of modern Christianity holds but a Google search shows that skull prayer beads are pretty widely available today and appeal to a variety of faiths.

This description for a set of Buddhist mala beads was interesting:  "...Buddhists integrated Tibetan skull images into malas to represent the brevity of life and the restrictions of human understanding.  Skull-shaped mala beads help chanters [consider] the inevitability of fatality and the requirement of accepting lives filled with empathy."  (Source:

I find it fascinating when looking at world religions just how much we all have in common.  And this is another example... that our earthly life is short and, while we don't understand everything we are here to do, we are to be compassionate and helpful to others on this journey.

While the idea of using the beads in meditation is appealing, a Rosary is not part of my faith's tradition and it's not something that feels comfortable to me to introduce into my personal spirituality.  (I really know very little about Rosaries beyond they are an aid to repetitive prayer.  My most simple explanation is that each bead is like a place marker to keep you focused on the part of the prayer you are reciting.)  And I'm not really sure what to do with the cross as, again, that's not part of my faith. Mormons choose to focus on the ministry of the risen Christ and the promises of eternal life and see the cross as an instrument of death... a common method of executing criminals in that part of human history.  It's not pretty and pleasant to consider, and it shouldn't be... but could it possibly be more painful to bear than what He experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane when taking our sins caused blood to pour from his body like sweat?

So... if you had these beads, what would you do with them?

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