December 11, 2017

The World of the Wheel

Sit with the Prayer Wheel for a few moments, and a few basic questions begin to emerge. Who created this, and what sort of Christianity did they practice? Why was it drawn this way, as a circle with spokes? Is this unique, or part of a collection? Why are there seven sections–is something important about that number?

We’ve written brief introductions to some of the most basic things you’ll want to know about the Wheel. Click on the titles below to be carried to each section.

The Wonder of Wheels: Why Circles Matter


Divine Infographics: The Story of Design


Magnificent Sevens: Why Numbers Matter


Benedictine Mojo: The Community Behind the Wheel


On the Road: The Power of Journeys


Making Memories: How Memory Is Linked to Prayer


Other Medieval Prayer Practices


The Wonder of Wheel: Why Circles Matters

Perfection. Completion. Infinitude. We think of God in all these terms, so it’s no wonder that wheels, which manifest those characteristics physically, have always been associated with the divine.

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An earlier, simpler wheel.

Geometrically, a wheel is perfect: every point on one is exactly the same distance from its center. There is no simpler way to express the ideas of wholeness and completion.  A circle has no beginning or end—it is infinite. It suggests a great stillness; but if it spins, it evokes the passage of time and the seasons of life. (It is what goes around and comes around.)

These characteristics captivated humans long before recorded history. Circular objects have been found in the ritual kits of Paleolithic shamans. By the Neolithic period, huge monuments like Stonehenge expressed another intriguing characteristic of the circle: it was the same shape as the sun, which itself seemed to travel in an arc across the horizon. Wheels attracted the early attention of mathematicians—an Egyptian papyrus from around 1650 BC includes a formula for the area of a circular field—and of mystics: a biblical proverb presents God in the act of creation: “. . . when He drew a circle on the face of the deep . . . when he assigned the sea its limit (Proverbs 8:27). The prophet Ezekiel describes the chariot in his divine vision as having “wheels within wheels” (Ezekiel 1:16).

Early Christianity featured many more crosses than wheels, both for obvious reasons, and because at the time circles may have had negative associations with sun-worship and with magic. (One of Jesus’ competitors in the first-century spiritual marketplace was called Onias the Circle-Drawer.) In addition, there was probably some vague consciousness that wheels were central in Eastern religions like Hinduism, where the mandala, a circle-within-a-square design, remains a spiritual map and meditative aid.

But it is very hard to keep a potent image separate from God. A thirteenth-century philosophy text reported that Augustine had written 900 years earlier: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The image beautifully captures both the idea that God is intensely present wherever we may be, but also beyond our attempts at description or definition. In fact, Augustine didn’t say it, but the idea was so attractive by the Middle Ages that scholars placed it in the old bishop’s mouth.

So how did wheels reconnect with medieval Christianity?

One path may have been through art. Since the third century, painters of holy icons in the Greek-speaking part of Christendom had struggled with how to portray Christ during his transfiguration—that moment in the Gospels when he appears on a mountain in all his glory. They settled on a set of almond-shaped layers surrounding his body like a rainbow force-field, called a mandorla. By the time Western Christian artists adopted the imagery in the 500s, some of these were circular. Western artists, notably those working for the great twelfth-century Benedictine abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen painted striking images of Christ at the center of nested circles.

Another path could have been astronomy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle theorized that the planets and stars orbited the earth in concentric circles. The orbital idea survived the Dark Ages in the writing of a first-century Greek Egyptian scientist named Ptolemy. According to C. S. Lewis, who was a medievalist long before he wrote the Narnia books and Mere Christianity, Ptolemy’s system was a pillar of the medieval world view, or what Lewis called “the Model.” Although Ptolemy’s orbits weren’t religious, Lewis notes that medieval scholars were happy to add that dimension, declaring that “the real heaven” lay just beyond Ptolemy’s outermost ring. The idea of working outward through circles toward God, found its fullest expression in the poetry of Dante.

We are not quite as wheel-oriented as medievals. The universe has turned out to more than just a set of orbits—we play with messier ideas, like string theory. At the same time, we are believers in progress, whose symbol is not the circle but the arrow. (Even “disruption” is really a way of to re-set the arrow.) And yet wheels still speak to us, often of comfort and joy: the merry-go-round; the wheels on the bus; the circles not unbroken.

Divine Infographics: The Story of Design

In the Tiberius Psalter, a book of Psalms produced in England in the eleventh century, there is a wonderful image of God in the act of Creation. In it the Lord peers, Kilroy-like, over the sphere of undifferentiated matter he is about to organize. Below him a dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, helping out. In God’s right hand is a drafting compass.

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God the Geometer, circa 1220-1230.

There’s a phrase for that: “God the geometer.” And just as medieval Christians imagined God using geometry to create us, they eagerly used geometric figures as visual frameworks for displaying information about God, and everything else. Geometric diagrams, says Jeffrey Hamburger, a medievalist at Harvard, were “the most defining features of the religious art” of the period. Another expert calls geometric figures the “spirit of the medieval system.”

This was not to say that medieval people were doing actual geometry: much of that knowledge was lost for centuries after Rome fell. But ordering information was a favorite medieval activity—C.S. Lewis joked that “[o]f all our modern inventions I suspect that they would have most admired the card index.” To satisfy this drive, they drew rectangles, triangles, circles and more fanciful shapes as armatures for crazily efficient diagrams.

Until recently our own culture has used diagrams mostly to supplement or illustrate text. Only in the last decade or so have “infographics “ become freestanding statements. Medieval scholars, imitating the Greeks and Romans, were there long before us.

Some popular forms were trees, ladders, buildings, and wheels. One use of the tree format was to assign a category  (“dog”) to the trunk and place a sub-category on each of its branches (“Chihuahua” and “Great Dane”). A verse from Proverbs reads, “Wisdom has set up her house; she has hewn it out of seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1) This inspired countless charts with seven supporting ideas holding up a desired conclusion.

The most frequently used figure, as the earlier essay suggests, was the wheel. Most trees, buildings, and rectangles present directionally. But if you arrange information on a circle in horizontal stripes, the flow and ranking within each stripe is indeterminate—your thought is free to move in either direction. You can present a second set of ideas in the form of spokes converging in the middle like a wagon wheel. And if you do both at once (think of a dart board) you get what one scholar calls a “continuous columnar table” allowing the two sets of information to interact . . . our Wheel.

The man who introduced infographic wheels to medieval thinkers was a seventh-century archbishop, Isidore of Seville. Isidore is best known for his encyclopedia, the last big general compendium of knowledge before the European Dark Ages rolled in. He also produced a text called “On the Nature of Things” focused more specifically on science and the physical universe.  It included so many circle diagrams that it was nicknamed “The Book of Wheels.”

A later wheel, packed with information and complexity.

Those wheels became a standard feature of the texts at monastery- and cathedral schools, which were the age’s only sources of education. Perhaps because “On the Nature of Things” was not concerned with theology, however, no one seems to have applied the dartboard design to religion until our theoretical abbot or abbess came along with a brainstorm.

Once introduced, however, prayer wheels multiplied. As we’ve mentioned, people added ever more bands and the wheels became significantly more complex. With the recovery of Aristotelian thought in the twelfth century they got more ambitious still. Scientists, theologians, and fortune-tellers began constructing wheels to do something that absolutely everyone exposed to our wheel has asked about: create free-spinning bands, allowing dozens of new combinations of ideas. We don’t recommend this as the first thing you should do with our wheel—it’s in our chapter for the “spiritually adventurous.” But from the twelfth century on, innovators did create spinnable bands called volvelles, attached to the base with a thread made out of animal gut.

The most extravagant diagrams attempted feats we associate with a different age entirely. Ramon Llull, a thirteenth-century Majorcan polymath (the Dark Ages had ended) incorporated as many as 16 circles, or rotae, (not always concentric, sometimes spinnable) into vast gizmos. Lull’s goal, says scholar Michael Evans, was “a kind of a cipher machine . . . devised as an irrefutable logical system to convert the heathen.”

It would be centuries before Charles Babbage, using some of the same ideas, built his “difference engine,” the predecessor of the modern computer.

A question worth asking is why we choose to limit ourselves in this book to such a primitive version of mechanisms that were later taken much farther by some very smart people. We have two answers: one arbitrary and the other very serious. The Liesborn Wheel happened to be the version we encountered, and we danced with the Wheel that delighted us. But also, we want to present a mechanism that not only fascinates, but that works spiritually and scripturally. Yes, there are other geometrical figures, and more complicated wheels. We picked the one we thought someone could stake their faith on.

The Magnificent Sevens: Why Numbers Matter

Do you remember the children’s joke, “seven ate nine?” Well, sevens didn’t quite eat all the other integers, but by the time the Prayer Wheel was invented they had enjoyed around three thousand years of dominance.

Some really ancient sevens: During his reign over a Mesopotamian state in the 22nd century BC, a priest-king named Gudea began celebrating a seven-day festival at a seven-room temple. In the Rigveda, a set of Sanskrit hymns from India that dates as far back as 1700 BC, are seven stars, seven continents, and seven streams of soma, the drink of the gods. The Sumerians took seven as a sacred number and passed it on to the Assyrians, who listed their gods, their heavens, and their earths (!) by sevens. The Babylonians marked every seventh day as a kind of holiday. The Egyptians knew of seven paths to heaven, seven halls in the underworld, and seven heavenly cows.

There are two (non-exclusive) theories on how the number seven got so popular. Both are rooted in astronomy. The first is based on early cultures’ fascination with the seven “planets”: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Moving through the heavens unlike the fixed stars, they were objects of worship. The second theory is that people who keyed their calendars to the moon’s orbit around the earth (that is, measured time in months) came to see the seven days of the week—which corresponded to the moon’s major phases and divided a month into quarters—as sacred.

The most stunning illustration for the second theory is Scripture: the first 31 verses in Genesis, “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested . . . And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it . . .” This is the basis for the Jewish custom of keeping the Sabbath.

And it is the first of a deep run of sevens though Judeo-Christian literature. Noah’s dove returned after seven days; Pharaoh dreamed of the seven fat cows and seven lean. Seven priests marched, blowing on seven ram’s horns, seven times around Jericho before the walls tumbled, and so on.

Sevens play tag throughout the New Testament. Just a few examples from the gospel of Matthew are the seven generations of Jesus’ genealogy, Jesus pronouncing seven woes upon the Pharisees, but counseled Peter to forgive a sinner not just seven times but seventy times seven.  The book of Revelation is Sevens heaven, boasting seven golden lampshades, seven angels, seven plagues, seven apocalyptic seals, and many more. One scholar counted “not less” than 388 uses of the number in both Old and New Testaments, observing that the sixes and eights together totaled fewer than half that.

How big were sevens in Jesus’ day? Philo of Alexandria, a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived from 25 BC to 50 AD, wrote a treatise called On the Number Seven in which he called it “the most brave and valiant number, well-adapted by nature for government and authority.”

We don’t know what Jesus himself made of the number, beyond keeping the seventh day holy (if not always in the way some religious leaders wished he would). But the interpretation of his Prayer within the first centuries of Christianity is seven’s link to our Wheel. As we’ve said, his followers divided the Lord’s Prayer into “petitions,” or prayer requests. They counted seven, even though six might have made equal sense, since “Our father who art in heaven” can be read as a greeting and a title instead of a request.

Augustine of Hippo also had a soft spot for sevens, which he considered a perfect number. Inspired by Psalm 12’s image of God’s promises as like silver “refined seven times,” he made a study of Scriptures with seven parts: the Lord’s Prayer, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Beatitudes. Most people count eight Beatitudes, but Augustine dropped one blessing (on the persecuted), claiming it restated another (on the poor in spirit), partly because both were slated  for the same reward, the “kingdom of heaven”.

No trimming was necessary for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, always interpreted by Christians as a seven-item list.

In the centuries between Augustine and the creation of the Wheel, enthusiasm for sevens only grew. Islam, founded in the 600s, actually introduced the term “seventh heaven.” The seven liberal arts were part of an eighth-century educational reform in Europe. Theologians recommended Seven Penitential Psalms for repetition by sinners. Alchemists said they had isolated seven metals and practitioners of magic doted on the seven-part works of Hermes Trismegistus.

In the midst of this, the inventor of our Wheel took Augustine’s three seven-part texts, added a fourth (the seven Events in the life of Christ), and pulled them around to form the seven-spoked circle you’ve been getting to know. Later circles added to the diagram would include the  Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Virtues, the Seven Ways of the Holy Scripture, the Seven Steps of Ascension, the Seven Weapons of Spiritual Justice, and the Seven Stages of World History. Thus the wheels got fatter as the number of texts increased, but in most the number of paths remained at… seven.

We are heirs to the tradition of sevens. The Magnificent Seven. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Or, plucked from hundreds of similar phrases on the Web: “The Seven Decisions that Matter in a Digital Transformation.”

The seven paths of the Prayer Wheel take us back to the day when the greatest honor you could bestow on any numeral was to associate it with the divine.

The Mojo of the Benedictines: The Community Behind the Wheel

It was no accident that the Prayer Wheel, whose concepts and parts had been floating around the Christian world for centuries, took shape among medieval monks. Not until a community became sufficiently desperate for God’s presence, with enough intellectual firepower to create prayer devices, and enough time to explore and use them, could something like our Wheel have emerged. Driven, smart, sleepless: a Silicon Valley for the faith. That community was the Benedictines.

The Benedictine movement was a spiritual detonation at the end of a very long fuse. In the 500s AD, Benedict of Nursia founded several monasteries in what is now Italy. His greatest achievement was to establish a set of sensible and dependable religious and social routines, now known as the Rule of St. Benedict, to manage what could be called barracks filled with extreme athletes of faith.

The Rule gained popularity in the century after Benedict’s death, but got its biggest boost during church reforms led by Charlemagne, who then ruled over most of Europe. By the time the Prayer Wheel was invented in the 11th century, Charlemagne’s empire had devolved into feuding monarchies—but almost every European monastery was Benedictine.

Monks abandoned normal life for communities of piety out of a desire for close union with God, described by chroniclers as an urge as powerful as hunger or lust. The great monastic reformer Bernard of Clairvaux summarized a monk’s progress as moving  “from faith to faith,” through a conversion to monastic life, “until one’s entrance into the life of the blessed.” Constant prayer, vigilant combat against sin and demons, and the aid of the Holy Spirit led to an ascent into the presence of the Lord and his angels. Such triumphs were inevitably temporary in this lifetime, but the monks pursued them with increasing joy, anticipating ongoing bliss in the next. Meanwhile, ideally, they did the Lord’s work on earth with glad hearts.

A monk’s schedule was split into “Ora et Labora”—prayer and work, the physical labor necessary to the abbey’s upkeep. Actually, “Ora” was subdivided: The cloister’s beating heart was the communal recital of the Divine Office, a schedule of prayers built around the 150 Psalms in the Bible. The Office was assigned to seven “Hours” throughout the day—and night. (In fact, with Hours at 3 AM and again at dawn, most monks were in constant sleep debt.) The monks also prayed more privately through practices like meditative reading and mindful memorization.

And so prepared, wrote Benedict in his Rule, they were equipped to “follow in [Jesus’] paths guided by the Gospel.” Which may remind you of the Prayer Wheel.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Wheel was an inevitable, predictable product of the Benedictine way. But it is Benedictine enough to create a feeling, as you use it, of connecting, however tenuously, to a very old community of faith.

Unlike some earlier monastic groups, the Benedictines prized literacy as an essential tool for immersing themselves in the word of God, and a condition for memorization and meditation. (Actually, they used the term “rumination,” like cow chewing its cud.)  Although the Benedictines produced little original theology, they were extremely clever and determined in figuring out ways to deploy the wisdom of church fathers like Augustine. The Wheel’s basis in Biblical comparisons would have seemed natural to monks used to “glossing” scripture with short related thoughts from the Fathers.

Another Wheel- forerunner that the Benedictines are actually credited with creating is lectio divina (divine reading). This practice entails slowly reading a very small unit of scripture, meditating on it, praying, and, bringing any thoughts about it to God. Lectio treats phrases as bearers of their own deep truths. This understanding may have made it easier for the Wheelmaker to detach similar phrases from the Lord’s Prayer or the Beatitudes, confident that each had its own integrity, and that recombining them with one another would create new spiritual insights and not a jumble.

On the Road: The Power of Journeys

Journeys have been an integral part of religion as long as humans have wandered. A character in Babylon’s Epic of Gilgamesh asked the hero, “Wherefore hast thou traversed so long a road?” The answer: to learn the truth of life and death. In the Bible’s book of Genesis, Abraham left his father’s house in Ur to become the forefather of Judaism down in Canaan. Jesus did not voyage as far, but his path through Jerusalem became a potent metaphor for faith. Paul traveled like a frequent flier to spread the good news.

Early Medieval Christians also journeyed when they could: their two main destinations were the grave of Jesus in the Holy Land and those of Peter and Paul in Rome. Then in 1071, the Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem from its more tolerant previous rulers (also Muslim), and effectively barred Christian pilgrims from the city.

This was one of eventual causes of the First Crusade. But it may have had an additional consequence: at almost the exact moment that the pilgrim route became off limits, the Prayer Wheel appeared. It, too, offered a religious journey; one the Seljuks could not obstruct. One road closes and another, much smaller, opens up.

For centuries those who could not go pilgriming by horse or on foot had done so in their heads and hearts, monks especially. The monastic leader Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that all monks were “dwellers in Jerusalem.” But he clarified that “they imitate… the way of life of the Jerusalem above.” This was the true, heavenly Jerusalem prophesied by Ezekiel (8:3) and the Apostle Paul (Gal. 4:26) where all will be close to God.

How could Monks make the pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem? The main way was to keep doing what they were doing: reciting, praying and meditating. Yet they may also have visualized the journey using mappaemundi: maps of the physical world that nonetheless had spiritual aspects, including the placement of Jerusalem as the earth’s center and its closest point to heaven.

The diagram of the Prayer wheel, with its seven roads to God, recalls mappaemundi and the way real roads from all over Europe converged at pilgrimage sites. It’s hard to imagine that its users would not have likewise seen their fingers (and by extension their souls) as wayfaring strangers traveling, traveling to their real Home.

Thanks to a linguistic clue, another journey associated with the Wheel—and very much part of Benedictine culture—is easy to identify. Find your copy and look at that legend in the outermost circle: “THE ORDER OF THE DIAGRAM WRITTEN HERE TEACHES THE RETURN HOME.” In the Wheel’s original Latin, “return” was rendered redit.

That word resonated deeply with the Benedictines. One of the group’s favorite metaphors for the human condition was a particular kind of journey, an idea that was initially from Greece and then incorporated into Christian thought by Augustine. Every soul was seen as having come forth from God (exitus)—and as engaging in a pilgrimage back to him (reditus). The point of monasticism was to pursue reditus as consciously, intensely, and continuously as possible.

The use of reditus in the Wheel’s instructions cannot be accidental. It does raise some interesting questions about how monks navigated the diagram. In Benedictine parlance, every reditus follows from an exitus. Where is the exitus in the Wheel? What brought us to its beginning?  Perhaps we should be thinking about about how we got to the periphery of the Wheel in the first place, and see what walking the paths away from God, as well as toward him, evokes.

We call the seven main sections of the Wheel “paths” for good reason. Almost anyone using the Wheel would have a sense of being on the spiritual road. But it is comforting to know that we are not the first to experience it that way.

Making Memories: How Memory Is Linked to Prayer

All cultures have their own way of understanding prayer and what goes into it. Today we would probably say that prayer is a kind of thought, or at the very least that prayer travels by thought while at the same time being something beyond thought.

Medieval monks, however, would not understand that. They would strike the word “thought” and replace it with the word “memory.”

It is hard to exaggerate the role of memory in the monastery or abbey. A monk’s or nun’s whole life, whatever else he or she was doing, was spent memorizing. The Psalms are a good example. Many monasteries would not allow a monk to take his final vows until he had memorized all 150 of the Old Testament’s sacred songs, on average a three-year process. Once a monk had internalized them, or “written them in his heart,” he moved on to studying their meaning. But he was also instructed to use the individual Psalm verses as hooks to memorize new bytes of non-Psalm data.

There were dozens such memory aids. Another was to divide a page of scripture into a grid of rectangles with at most a dozen words in them, and memorize one rectangle at a time. Monks were taught to identify all kinds of memory prompts: not just biblical illustrations (included for that purpose) but also physical or sensory experiences like the roughness or smoothness of a page’s parchment or even the time of day when something was memorized.

Over years the most accomplished monks became what scholars today have called “human concordances,” with instant mental access to any passage in scripture and the major interpretive works, and the ability to apply it to any other passage.

In retrospect, it’s easy to speculate that they went to all this trouble because books were hard to get and hard to copy. Yet memory had existed for thousands of years before books, and medieval people saw reading—and a surprising number of other activities—as serving memory, rather than the other way around. Mary Carruthers, the foremost expert on the topic, writes that the monastic idea of memory was “closer to our term ‘cognition,’” and “encompassed… Emotion, imagination, and cogitation.” Our modern expression “to learn by heart” captures some of the essence of the idea that to memorize something is to install it in the deepest part of ourselves. But for medieval monks, memorization was even more. To memorize was to muse, to feel, and to think.

Most importantly, it was a spiritual act.  Memorization was not neutral and it was not involuntary. The Bible’s great Latin translator, Jerome, wrote that it was the believer’s way to “construct a library for Christ.”  To use this library was to pray.

This brings us to the Prayer Wheel. Scholars think its structure indicates that at some point it must have been a memory device. It may have been used a bit the way the Psalms were. Of course, all monks would have already known its four texts by heart. But dividing each into seven elements provided an opportunity to attach a different secondary text to each element. The cross-referencing of the elements on the Paths of the Wheel could have suggested which new idea to memorize.

This kind of memorization would have been synonymous with what Carruthers calls “meditative recollection,” both a creative act and a prayer act.  Writing about a later diagram, she observes that its very plainness and sparseness “require one to stay and ponder, to fill in missing connections, to add to the material which they present,” adding new memories in God’s name.

Even though we come from a different culture, that’s exactly what we are doing too.

Other Medieval Prayer Practices

During the Middle Ages the discipline of intensive prayer passed gradually from monks to the population at large, with prayer devices and practices helping bridge the gap.  Several of these have been revived in the last few decades, by Christians both inside and outside their home traditions. You could say they constitute the Prayer Wheel’s family. It’s instructive to see what they do and don’t have in common with it.

Fixed-hour Prayer

Praying the Hours is actually older than Christianity itself: historians trace it to the first Jewish Temple (?-586 BC) through Psalm 119, which announces “Seven times a day do I praise you.”

To overcome the notion that the Divine Office might simply be a schedule of prayer rather than a way to enhance prayer, visit a monastery or read any contemporary adaptation of the Hours for a wider audience. In fixing certain prayers to certain times of day, and creating patterns of repetition within each hour and between them, the method builds body memory as well as a mind memory—the goal of many prayer devices.  (One example: I remember a particular prayer because I pray it every day as the first warm rays of the sun stream through my window.)

Finger Praying

It’s impossible to know how old this is, since it was never a required practice, but this method of tracking your prayer priorities during the onslaught of words in the Divine Office is an extension of every little kid’s habit of counting out verses on his or her fingers. A paper called “My Psalter, Myself: or How to Get a Grip on the Office,” by University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown describes the technique of a 15th-century priestly monk named Jan Mombaer. It starts out with Mombaer’s observation, “Good, that is straightforward enough: there are five species of prayer and five digits” and moves on to a finger-twisting– but undoubtedly incredibly useful –method for organizing and deepening the Hours using various parts of your hands as memory prompts.

Mombaer’s technique is the black-diamond slope of finger-praying, but simpler methods can help almost anyone to both remember prayers and recall what in the prayers you wanted to focus on.

Lectio Divina

Lectio is a meditative reading technique. Rooted in antiquity and scripture (“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” [Romans 10:8]). As we’ve noted, scholars believe that the Benedictines invented the modern version.

Lectio typically has four steps: read a passage of scripture (slowly, aloud, several times); meditate (to engage the heart and allow for the work of the Holy Spirit); pray (bring your own response to the scripture to God, with thanks) and contemplate (rest in God’s presence).

Even more than the Hours, Lectio insists that practice moves beyond texti-ness to engage body and spirit.


Cathedral labyrinths, which became really popular in the century after the Prayer Wheel was invented, are an example of a practice where the entry into prayer is entirely through the body. They differ from mazes in that labyrinths had no wrong turns, just very involved paths to the center. Not a lot is known about exactly how they were used, but modern revivals have emphasized the quieting of the mind that enables meditation. Like the Prayer Wheel, they involved a journey from the outside to the center, that medievals would have seen as representing the journey of the soul, or a pilgrim’s progress to Jerusalem, or both.

Stations of the Cross

The Stations, which can be found in most Catholic Churches, combine the walking prayer of a labyrinth with a deeply charged narrative of 14 images from the day of Christ’s crucifixion. As the believer walks from one station to the next, he or she says a set prayer at each, essentially recreating locally the pilgrim’s path along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Although the Stations were introduced only in the 15th century, they reflect the great 12th century shift from the style of Christianity expressed in our version of the prayer wheel toward profound engagement with Christ’s incarnation, His Passion and his mother  [ck: can I say this?] This remains the dominant outlook in Roman Catholicism.

The Rosary

One of the greatest expressions of the 12th-century shift, (along with the development of the Catholic Mass) fits into one hand, with space to spare. The most common form of the Rosary consists of 50 small beads, separated into groups of ten, called decades, by larger ones. For each small bead the believer prays the Hail Mary, invoking the Annunciation. At the larger beads he or she prays the Our Father (to begin a decade) and the Glory Be (to end it).  While telling the beads, the believer also meditates on one of a series of Mysteries corresponding to stages in the life of Christ.

Like the Prayer Wheel, the Rosary communicates through the fingers, the mind and the heart.  It is a more controlled journey: instead of seven shorter paths to a center it offers a set sequence of prayers. Whereas the Wheel leaves meditations to its user, the Rosary is explicit.

The two tools’ similarities and differences are fascinating. For instance, while the Prayer Wheel incorporated Christ’s story by adding a circular band, the Rosary accomplishes the same thing in its meditations.

But the most important thing they have in common, especially today, is the knack for renewing prayer by providing a people who are not contemplative masters or prodigies of memory with a way to deepen the experience, and approach a mystical bond with God in a way that can become everyday, in the best sense of that word.