In the face of so much dire news in the world—threats to the environment, proliferation of nuclear weapons, gun violence, terrorism, disturbances of democracy and public order, the crumbling of traditional loyalties and more—it may seem highly rarified and extremely trivial to comment on a little-known Swedish Lutheran prayer devotion involving a wristlet of beads.
But I’m going to do it. And here’s why. When everything else is going to pieces, it’s good to have something to hold in one’s hands – something which reminds us of things that ground us.
Catholics have rosaries with which to meditate on the life of Christ through the life of Mary. Muslims have beads on which to recount the many names of God. Eastern Christians have beads with which to pray the Jesus Prayer. And since 1995 the Swedish Lutherans have had something called “the garland (or wreath) of Christ.” Invented by retired bishop, Martin Lönnebo, it also goes by the name “the pearls of life.” In Norway and Denmark the devotion is called Kristuskransen.
“Pearls of Life” sounded corny to me at first (maybe something is lost in translation), but the name actually gives a clue as to why it has gained a devoted following: The mysteries of life on which it would have us reflect take shape within us as something beautiful and lustrous, a thing of value.
Here is how it works. Each bead is a designated step in a meditation upon certain “essential things”: God, resurrection, suffering, mystery, love, sacrifice, serenity, baptism, the desert, etc. These are punctuated by beads devoted to silence.
The meditations are very simple. For example, the first of the pearls is a shining golden bead called the “pearl of God.” Here is the meditation:
There is Someone who holds everything in his hand, someone who seeks me out and watches over me – the origin of everything, and the ultimate goal of everything.
God is not an impersonal power, nor is he a logical necessity or a devout escape. God is the friend who knows me from the inside and out, outside and in, who never betrays and whose power is love. He is the God Dag Hammarskjold refers to: Thou, Whom I do not know, but Whose I am. Thou.
Touch the golden Pearl of God and pray:
You are infinite
You are near me
You are light
and I am yours.
[Johan Dalman, Thomas Lerner, Anne Lagerström and Verbum AB, Frälsarklansen/The Pearls of Life, translated by Rachel Stenback, Stockholm: Verbum AB, 2014, 2015, p. 10]
The meditations are so simple one might be tempted to rush right through them—except for the fact that the beads of silence induce one to stop and allow the meaning to settle in.
Once one has made the devotional pilgrimage through the whole series of beads, they become reminders of these points of reflection in one’s life. Thus the small circlet of beads, worn on the wrist or carried in a pocket, becomes a memento to the wearer or bearer of each of these sacred mysteries of life which he or she has considered in a personal and prayerful way. One might finger the bead that represents whichever aspect of life currently absorbs one’s attention, but they are all there regardless, reminding the person of the totality and interrelatedness of the whole of life. One cannot leave God out. One cannot do without silence. One cannot have love without suffering, and so on.
If this somehow suggests “confirmation retreat” to you, it’s not an unreasonable thought. It has been used as a tool for reflecting on faith with youth who are preparing for confirmation. But evidently it is also treasured by adults at various times in life. It was brought to my attention by a neighbor whose wife was devoted to it. She was a physician. The book Pearls of Life includes a number of stories from people who say this devotion has deepened their spiritual lives. They are from all over the map. One observed that in Sweden one might notice another person in a public space wearing the wristlet and exchange a gesture of recognition. Apparently the object itself has served as a quiet witness to faith in a secular world.
I could find no dealers in the United States who sell the “wreath of Christ” string of beads (though the book is available on Amazon, and this website provides a guide to the devotion on line). Outside of Sweden, the Iona community sells them, but they seem not to be widely available. Perhaps it was never promoted here, or is known mostly among Swedish Lutherans and this is a relatively small group. The originators of the devotion also have held the copyright close to be sure it is limited to “fair trade” for the workers who produce them (all the proceeds from sale of both the beads and the book go to a specific charity named for Martin Lönnebo’s son, which benefits children and youth with intellectual disabilities). Whatever the case, this devotion appeared in 1995, but I had never heard of it until now.
Yet it’s a beautiful one. In this season of Lent, as we seek to pray more often and more earnestly, it is good to consider how many ways there are to do this.