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“What is a lestovka?,” many people will be thinking. It is
essentially a loop of braided leather that is used for counting prayers,
similar to the more well-known Eastern Orthodox prayer rope (komvoschini, or vervitsa),
and more distantly similar to the Roman Catholic rosary. The lestovka
is most often associated with the Old Believer Russian Orthodox
community, though it is also sometimes used by Russian Orthodox in
general, though not as commonly as the vervitsa. They were much more
common among Russians more than a century ago, I understand.
A more detailed description is in order. There is a fine description,
with several pictures of beautiful, older lestovki, The lestovka is
composed of several strips of leather which are
intricately looped through slits, the loops also enclosing small
cylindrical pieces of wood or other material, such that the loops all
create “steps” or “rungs” (babochki) which call to mind the heavenly laddder seen by the Holy Patriarch Jacob, and the Ladder of Divine Ascent
of St John Climacus. Here is a picture of the “rungs” (on the left) and
the back (on the right) of the lestovka, showing the interleaved layers
of leather. It’s along the rungs, of course, that one counts prayers. I
have to say, the lestovka is most compelling. It’s almost hypnotic in
its ability to draw and keep the attention, and that’s before even
picking it up and using it for prayer. Things of handmade beauty often
have that effect on me. And when they’re made for the greater glory of
God, I find them irresistable.
At the end of the loop are four triangular pieces of leather, called lapostki,
which create the immediately recognizable, traditional form of the
lestovka, though some other shapes have been known to be used here. The
lapostki are generally decorated in some manner, sometimes even
including patches from worn vestments, altar cloths, and such. They are
often embroidered, and are usually sewn together, though (as in the
case with my own) are sometimes glued.
The symbolism of the various elements of the lestovka is elaborate.
The four lapostki represent the Four Evangelists. The stitching around
them represents the teaching of the Gospel. Bound inside the lapostki,
up near the attachment to the rest of the lestovka, are seven small
“movable pieces” which represent the seven Mysteries of the Church.
There are then three large rungs at either end of the lestovka, just
above the lapostki, which, counting the other three large rungs,
represent the nine Orders of Angels described by St Dionysius the
Areopagite in The Celestial Hierarchy. Returning to the
beginning of the rungs, immediately after the initial three large rungs
there is a space (representing the earth) and then twelve small rungs,
representing the Twelve Apostles. There is then a large rung. Then
follow 38 small rungs, representing the 36 weeks and two days in which
our Lord gestated in the womb of the Theotokos, followed by another
large rung. Then there are 33 small rungs, representing the number of
years that our Lord lived on earth, followed by another large rung.
Then come 17 small rungs, indicating the seventeen prophets who
prophesied the coming of our Lord. Then comes another space,
representing heaven, and one comes to the ending three large rungs, and
thence to the lapostki again. There are a total of 100 small rungs.
The prayer most often used with the lestovka, as with the prayer rope, is The Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Any prayer may be used, of course. There are different traditions
regarding which prayers to use at which points along the lestovka, for
the large rungs at the beginning and end, and for the three large rungs
in the midst of the small rungs.