“Bead by Bead,” by Suzanne Henley

Suzanne Henley

Reviewed by Susan Cushman

In 2013 I was in a life-threatening car wreck. I broke my neck, right leg, and ankle, and was stuck in my house for the first few months of my recovery. One day Suzanne Henley came to see me and brought me a beautiful necklace she had made from exotic beads from all over the world. They were prayer beads. And she had written a description and meditation to go with them. I held these beads as I lay in my hospital bed (at home) and prayed. Later I hung them on the wall near my computer as a reminder of her kindness and God’s grace and healing.

For several years I was in a writing group that Suzanne hosted in her home here in Memphis. I knew right away that she was a gifted writer, and when she submitted sections of her work-in-progress for us to critique, I knew it was something special. Part memoir, part spiritual meditation, her personal essays—which is what they seemed at the time—eventually joined with chapters about prayer beads, and Bead by Bead came together.

In 2017 Suzanne contributed a wonderful essay to a collection I edited that was published in 2018 by Mercer University Press: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. Her essay in that book, “Beyond This Point There Be Dragons,” is a gripping story of personal trauma and her eventual blooming into a stronger, more amazing woman. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to welcome her book, Bead by Bead, into the world that same year.

Bead by Bead isn’t just an instruction book on how to use Protestant prayer beads. It’s that and so much more. It’s about how the holy appears every day in the unexpected—in her psychiatric hospital stay, in her Gangster Disciple housekeeper, in the Holy Spirit on a Harley, in her heart attack, in the goats tap dancing on her roof in the Alps, in her commission to do a wall triptych for a residential hospice facility.

In what Suzanne calls a “cruciform experience,” the holy appears to her while fly-fishing, about which she says, “casting is itself a body prayer.” It appears again as she baptizes her grandchildren in a trout stream in Montana. And she says that a cruciform experience “can balance on that thin line that separates comedy and tragedy”—as she shows us in her hilarious story about the time her boyfriend announced in a crowded restaurant that she had a long, white chin hair, and did she want him to pull it for her.

Suzanne doesn’t claim to be an expert on prayer beads, or even on prayer itself. But I love what she says about prayer in a disclaimer in the beginning of her book, in the section called “Rebranding Prayer”:

I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have to come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself. I think it is the psychic glue between my conscious and shadow self where we all wrestle with Jacob’s angel and count our scars later.

She introduces the book by explaining that the stories she has included represent “a prayer bead in my life’s rosary. … The book is also an adult version of Show and Tell of some of the hundreds and hundreds of sets of prayer beads I’ve made—each unique, many commissioned to be carried to diverse people around the world. Many of the stories I tell are accounts of these real people for whom praying bead by bead has become an essential spiritual practice.”

In the Prologue, Suzanne tells the story of her employee, O.G. Pierre (“Original Gangster Pierre”), who asked her to make prayer bead necklaces for all the members of his gang, using a Star of David for each one, since it was the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. She had to decline that request.

In “Talking to God in Braille,” she traces the history of prayer beads in various pre-Christian religions, and then continues with the history of prayer beads being used by Christian faiths, including Orthodox prayer ropes and Catholic rosaries.

In “Clearing Your Cache and Beginning to Pray,” Suzanne explains how to use the beads—physically and spiritually—in your daily encounters with God.

In “Prayers, Poems, Lectio, Music, Silence,” she encourages the reader to write her own prayers, but she also offers some traditional prayers for use with prayer beads, and talks about the use of hymns, chanting, and even classical music and opera to assist in prayer.

In “Praying the Beads Without the Beads,” she offers opportunities for prayer while grocery shopping, waiting in traffic or a doctor’s office, doing laundry, and other everyday situations. In this and other chapters, she infuses her writing with humorous true stories from her life (see, e.g., “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon”).

The chapter “Homework: Life as a Set of Prayer Beads” contains the story of her experience having a panic attack and checking into a psychiatric facility, about which she wrote in her essay for A Second Blooming. She also writes about the business she started, renovating homes in a historic district here in Memphis, offering a strong parallel between her rehab in the psychiatric facility and rehabbing these houses:

And, as trite as it is to say, we are all, of course, rehabs. Every moment. Every day. Even when we seem to be stuck out in some endless, parched desert, our hearts and souls cracking and dying of thirst, we’re handed the gift of starting over. Failure simply means an opportunity to begin again. We get to wrench out those old, rusted nails we worked so hard to hammer in crookedly, pull out the warped boards, and try once more to hammer a straighter nail. Every day.

Bead by Bead is a treasure trove of spiritual wisdom, beautiful literary and comedic prose, and exquisite art. Filled with twenty color photographs and two hand-drawn illustrations, this is a book to keep at hand and return to again and again. It’s a book to give as a gift to anyone who loves good stories. As Richard Rohr, author of Falling Upward and Immortal Diamond, says, “With insight, passion, and wit, Henley shows us how to hold our prayers in our hands as well as our heart.”

Click here to watch Suzanne Henley talking about her book.

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