Today, a lestovka arrived in the mail! “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, here. 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.
(click for a larger image)
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.
(click for a larger image)
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.
I purchased the lestovka pictured above from The Church of the Nativity, an Old Rite parish in Erie, Pennsylvania, from this page. They are a bit expensive (I got a leather one), but they are beautifully made, all by hand. The only change I would ask for is that the lapostki be sewn together rather than glued, but this is minor. The rungs themselves are very nicely done, and very comfortable in the hand. It’s not as compact as a 100 knot prayer rope, which is quite easily stuffed in a pocket, but it’s still quite compactible, as well.
The lestovka is a part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s history of pious practice among the laity. As such, we benefit from familiarity with the practices of our ancestors in the Faith. Just as the teachings and writings they’ve passed down to us have been kept alive, in our usage of things like the lestovka, we can also maintain continuity with the past, and keep ourselves from being too tied down to the present, to our own traditional practices. The lestovka belongs to the richness of Orthodoxy. Our love for God opens that treasury, as St Ephrem tells us. So let’s avail ourselves of such wondrous tools of piety at every turn.