Prayer beads have been a part of various religious traditions for centuries, including Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, with the Anglo-Saxon words for "prayer" and "to pray" contributing the word "bead" to the English language. Use of Catholic rosaries, which began in medieval monasteries, helped illiterate worshippers count their prayers during the late Middle Ages, and the use of beads in Christianity remains most prevalent among Catholic believers.

Symbolism of the Rosary

For Catholics, the rosary is both a collection of prayers and the beads used to keep track of them. The prayers recited with the beads honor the Virgin Mary, and the person praying meditates on the life of Christ and His mother while saying the prayers. The word "rosary" derives from the idea that a rose symbolizes perfection, and reciting the rosary prayers creates a spiritual garden of perfected prayer.

Smaller beads form groups of 10, or decades, with a larger bead between the sets, for praying the prayers for the mysteries, or meditations, of Christ's life. Typically, a pendant of a crucifix with three small and one large bead completes the circle.

Crucifix and Pendant

When using a rosary, worshippers recite either the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed while holding the crucifix. The pendant beads count the first Pater Noster, three Ave Maria and one Doxology prayers, and some believers include the Oratio Fatimae, or Fatima Prayer.

Pater Noster and the Doxology

The large beads between the decades of the rosary count the recitations of the Pater Noster, or Our Father prayer, sometimes called the Lord's Prayer. The Catholic version of the prayer differs slightly from that used in Protestant churches, with the words, "Our Father who art in heaven; hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen."

At these large beads, the worshipper says Glory Be, or Doxology -- "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."

Ave Maria, or Hail Mary, Prayer

Decades, or groups of 10 smaller beads, complete the bulk of the rosary. As the believer touches each of these, he speaks the Ave Maria prayer, which honors the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation with the words, "Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

As the prayers are recited, symbolically presenting a rose of perfection to Jesus and his mother, the believer meditates on events from the life of Christ, known also as "mysteries." There are four sets of meditations -- the joyful mysteries, the sorrowful mysteries, the luminous mysteries and the glorious mysteries. Each set of meditations includes five events to consider while praying, and worshippers focus on each on specific days of the week, with the joyful meditations on Monday and on Advent and Lent Saturdays and Sundays, the luminous mysteries on Thursdays and the sorrowful meditations on Tuesdays and Fridays and on Lenten Saturdays. The glorious mysteries fall on Wednesdays and Sundays, except during Advent and Lent.