nilesite writes


New York, New York, USA
January 08
The Backpack Press
Pilgrim, writer, photographer, mom, singer - author of "A Marshmallow on the Bus: A Collection of Stories Written on the MTA."


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JANUARY 27, 2013 7:44PM

Prayer Beads and God Music

Rate: 8 Flag



I thought I’d catch up on my book on my way into Manhattan this morning.  I got a seat on the train and started to read my book.  It’s a wonderful story about an Indian researcher working in a Muslim community where everyone questions his faith.  The train was a local and I’d have about 20 minutes before my stop. 

The people on the train were not a distraction, but the long string of beads being turned over and over in the hands of a man opposite me pulled me away from my book in a way I could not have anticipated. Dozens of beads were strung in a loop like a long necklace, warm, medium brown wood, varnished so they would slip easily over his fingers.  There were small silver beads that marked them into thirds and short red tassels.  His hands were moving while his thoughts were fixed on the beads. 

This would not have been an event today if it hadn’t been for the group of friends sitting on my return train home later in the day.  There was, in my one subway car, a group of people fingering their beads, identical to the ones from this morning; two middle-aged women, sitting in two different sections of the car, accompanied by one young man, and two young women.  They were speaking to each other over the noise of the train and I got the impression they were visiting New York as a group.  And they were all holding nearly identical prayer beads.

What struck me was how easily they all displayed their prayers in public.  These beads were significantly larger than the typical worry beads I have seen before, the ones that resemble a bracelet.  You know, I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone using a rosary on public transportation.  Rosaries are so traditional, so old fashioned, you rarely see them in use even in churches in New York, much less on the street.  Yet, these subway riders were all using their beads on the train. 

One woman held them between her two hands, moving the beads slowly from one hand to the other.  The young man was talking the whole time, holding the beads in one hand, then absent-mindedly passing them to the other hand.  The woman sitting directly opposite me held them on her lap, behind her bag, only pulling them out to move them from one section to the other, and the woman sitting just a couple of seats from me sat with her eyes closed, the beads barely moving, her prayers wrapped in her silence.

At the end of our ride, my daughter and I got off the train where we were met with the sound of a youth choir.  It was Sunday, after all, and the most appropriate time for this sort of God-fearing behavior.  It was a group of young adults singing in harmony in a subway station in the Bronx.  The girls wore skirts that fell demurely below the knee and small white caps that kept their hair in place and the boys all had their shirts tucked into their pants.  There is a Mennonite congregation that places this choir in this subway stop on Sundays in an earnest attempt at evangelization.  They were passing out a CD of their hymns.

What do these two groups have in common?  They share an ability to own up to their faith in a secular world.  They pray and they sing their belief in their God and they do it out loud.  There was no attempt to conceal the prayer beads in their pockets or to give thought to their prayers without them.  The subway riders were not trying to make disciples.  They were just displaying their faith and even though the choir wanted us all to know what a friend we have in Jesus, they were not at all afraid or self-conscious.

When I got home, all I could think about was my mother’s wake last year.  The priest came to say the rosary at the funeral home and I didn’t have beads.  I felt inadequate, like I’d missed the memo to bring rosary beads to the funeral home.  I should have had beads with me, but when my mother died and I had to catch a plane in just a few hours to go home, I never thought to bring them.  I could have used them in the airport, on the plane, when all I could think about was how unprepared I was for all the events to come, the funeral home, the funeral Mass, the cemetery, the family.  I could have used them to focus my thoughts and to pull myself together, but I’ve never been a rosary out-in-the-open kind of Catholic.  I’ve sung Christmas carols outdoors, but that’s a far cry from passing out hymn CDs in a train station.

I listened to a couple of tracks on the Mennonite CD.  It’s a sweet, naïve, high school sound and the texts are sincere and clear.  I thought about the prayer beads too, the way they all could carry them onto the train and use them in the open.  So, I’m going to try carrying a rosary in my bag.  I might not be ready to pull them out on the bus, my beads, but it might be good to have them.


Photo by me, 2013

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I don't feel anyone would judge you for not remembering rosary beads at such a difficult time in your life and I love where this all lead you...I was asked once in an elevator why I wore a Celtic cross by a minister, I explained I wore it until my son came home safe from the Navy and more than likely after that and he mentioned that some people were embaressed when asked and I found that strange. I am so happy you noticed all this around you.
Powerful reflection. Beautifully shared.

I enjoyed reading this, Anne. You have a gift.
Lovely reflections on what you see around you. I like traveling with you. The Tibetians are big on counting beads too. I tried but I got distracted.
My friend carries a little piece of blanket with her at all times and rubs it between her thumb and fingers. Same purpose, I think, but without the religion.
nilesite, I am so glad to be travelling alongside you in your sojourns. Besides being a good writer, you're really observant, open to everything, and relentless in your pursuit of wisdom. I am glad you post here.
LL2 - Thanks for your story about the cross. That's really lovely.

LK - Thanks, LK! I'm glad you liked it. (You have a very special gift too!)

zanelle - You know, I get distracted too. That's part of what fascinated me on this train. They were doing beads and having a conversation at the same time and I can only do one or the other.

jls - I don't know. There is a lot of religion in one's wooby.

emily - It's always nice to have you along for the ride with me!
@ nilesite: Awww ...not so much but thank you!
I think faith is such an individual thing. I have rosary beads and do say the rosary from time to time, even though I don't consider myself Catholic, but non-denominational Christian. But for me, saying the rosary is something to be done in a quiet place, where I can meditate and reflect. I can't imagine doing it out in the open. I don't think anyone should judge anyone else for not having beads and such - you shouldn't feel ashamed, in my humble opinion. I do agree that it is admirable to see people so comfortable with expressing and practicing their faith out in the open - and in a non-violent, non-invasive way. I hope carrying rosary beads with you brings you comfort.