Thinking and Praying as a Barthian, with Beads

Quite a while back, I tweeted something about making a "Barthian rosary"—the proper generic term being chaplet, which is the class of which the nigh-ubiquitous Marian rosary is a member. My wife exercises an aspect of her devotional life using an Anglican chaplet, with four sets of seven beads instead of five sets of ten, and in our shared prayer life it was inevitable that I was going to see the usefulness of such a thing for concentrating the mind.

Beads are good. Giving the hands something to do, using a strand that helps track progress through an ordered series of exercises in prayer and thought, makes it easier to keep the mind in prayer. And having something tangible and directly associated with a pattern of prayer helps keep the mind anchored to that practice, settled into it instead of drifting randomly. And yeah, that drifting still happens anyways, and some mornings or evenings I can't settle down, and some days or weeks it just sits on the dresser, but the benefit of a practice embedded in an object is that I don't lose it. I can always find my way back into it again.

And so, if you're curious, I'm going to explain what I've done—idiosyncratic as it is. I made my own practice, worked out just on my hands in the beginning, and then worked out in beaded form twice now, adjusted to make the beads fit the timing that seemed more appropriate for my mind. And I'm explaining it not so much to propagate a pattern of devotion for others, as to suggest ways you might fit your own studies into a prayerful mode and get the rudiments more thoroughly "under your fingers," as we used to say in instrumental music. Because what I've done is encode the Church Dogmatics in a beaded form for meditation, as a form of thinker spirituality. I've made it so I can walk through the whole thing, and forced myself to grasp the whole of it and its individual parts in greater detail. It's not done yet, I'm not done yet, but being done isn't the point. Engagement is the point.

The Main Loop

You could do what I do on a Marian rosary, for the simple reason that Barth's mature dogmatics cycle has five notional volumes and it has five standard groupings. On the rosary, one contemplates each of a given set of five "mysteries" for each ten-bead "decade" of the strand, praying before and after. The decades are done as ten-point abstracts of the event being contemplated, ten mental images or quotations that in sequence walk us through the event, with each event being part of the life of Jesus or his mother Mary as related in the gospels. This is a useful structure, even as I'm not engaged in Marian devotion.

Five was the right number of groupings, since Barth's dogmatics has five divisions: the doctrine of the Word; the doctrine of God; the doctrine of creation; the doctrine of reconciliation; and the doctrine of redemption. Treating these as the "mysteries" to be contemplated, each locus could be explored in an arbitrary number of points. Five fives seemed neat in the first iteration, but I moved up to sixes because I had the extra beads and wanted a little extra contemplation time each.

Originally, I was going to elaborate a set of points for each locus, but the point of that codification in the use of the rosary is to teach a minimum comprehensive image; it's reductive for the sake of pedagogy, and I don't need that for myself. If I taught it to someone else, such a thing might be useful, but I'm not teaching people to pray the Church Dogmatics. (Yet.) I use the time in each set to explore the aspects that come to me as I attempt to recount the structure of the locus in question. As I do more detailed work, that figures into how I contemplate the structure and its shape. (Also, I'm not entirely clear—nobody is, really—what the structure of redemption is, because Barth didn't write a finished version of it. There are beads for it, just the same, and I contemplate what might be there from what I do know.)

Elaborating with Piety

So you pick out the beads that feel best under your fingers, beads you can imagine working through without having to look at them, something you can roll around between your fingers comfortably one at a time. And then you need some way to space them out, whether by knotting between them, or stringing them on too much cord and letting them slide freely, or by using a second kind of bead to space between them. On the rosary model, it helps to have a second kind of major bead, something shaped differently so that it signals you to do a different thing, and you know where you are between the sets. I picked some metal beads that matched the width of my fingers for contemplation, and we had square wooden beads that I chose to use for prayer between them. Those bumped up from one between each set to three between, because I was skipping the interstitial prayers too often—just jumping over that interrupting bead, which wasn't the idea. And as you can see in the pictures, I wound up with a third set of beads as spacers, little discs, just in order to make the strand work better between my fingers.

So much about this process is making the strand make sense to you as the user, fitting it to your prayer life—and, often as not, making meaning out of the technical necessities of stringing a set of beads in the first place. The standard-use Marian rosary is practically rococo in this sense. Everything about it has been given meaning, in multiple overlapping layers, and in different and often contrasting traditions of use. I don't mean that in any pejorative sense; this is just what happens to a devotional object that sees regular use, in much the same way as it's what happens to much-used and much-loved complexes of words in a language. Nuances develop around the structural differences, dialects of usage from differing sets of nuances, etc. And then we build structures off of those nuances, and on and on. And that's where the rest of the strand comes in, because the main contemplative loop isn't all of the process. There's frequently some gesture toward orthodox confessionality as a framing measure.

The Confessional Frame

The rosary has a tail of five beads and a crucifix, with the creed said on the crucifix, then the Lord's Prayer on the first bead, followed by three Ave Marias and then the lesser doxology of the Gloria Patri. Then you go into the mysteries and pray through each bead. That tail is kept out of the loop, which is long enough at fifty-odd beads already, and can be traversed in either direction because it's symmetrical. But it also necessitates some unique structures; there's often a three-point medallion at the join, connecting the tail to the two ends of the loop. More places for meaning.

Obviously, I could have just done a symmetrical loop, one I could begin and end anywhere, but you have to tie a loop of cord off at some point, regardless. That's why the rosary has an embellished tail, and many other prayer bead forms have their own embellishments at the same point, regardless of the structure of the main loop. And in any case, it helps to have a noticeable beginning/ending point to the loop, as one more thing you can shove into muscle memory and not have to think about. So I have a set of three beads at that point (which was a useful way of tensioning the strand), which are set into another set of three beads, and which end in a cross because of course they do.

Threes are obviously symbolic in a Trinitarian context, and because I didn't care about symmetry I stuck a further set of three contemplation beads in the main loop. Obviously, none of this is necessary, but it enables a kind of confessional frame that is in fact basic to Barth's (critical) contemplation of the loci. So I make the sign of the cross, walk the three beads down to the loop saying the Gloria Patri, one each for the Trinity and the fourth in the loop for the rest of it, and then proceed into a largely mnemonic version of the creed, one major article per contemplative bead. The creed leads me to pray on the subsequent three square beads, and then I start the prolegomena of CD I. The contemplation of that locus leads me to pray on the following three square beads, and so on until I come back around to the Trinitarian doxology beads and the cross.

I don't always get all the way through; we habitually pray with candles that mark a convenient time for prayer by the length of their burn, and often I just wind up somewhere in creation or reconciliation. I'm slow. And some mornings my fingers won't work from carpal tunnel syndrome, so I grip a locus at a time in my fist, or if it's really bad, place the strand around my neck—though as for that, one does not wear a strand of prayer beads as though they were jewelry. When the point of the thing is mindfulness, it's well not to use it in ways that tempt one to forget what it's for.

And if you've made it all the way through, thank you for your indulgence; I have no idea what you're going to do with this information—but hey, it's my blog and I'm just glad anyone gets anything out of it.