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 (Greek komvoschini, or Russian 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 traditionally reflect the heavenly laddder seen by the Patriarch Jacob, as well as 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 both a lovely piece of folk art, and a fascinating piece of tradition, with its various rungs/ridges being useful for keeping count of repetitions of prayers in various liturgical services. Having something to keep track of which “Lord, have mercy” out of forty one is on at the moment is certainly helpful.

(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 traditional 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 Jesus gestated in the womb of Mary, followed by another large rung. Then there are 33 small rungs, representing the number of years that Jesus lived on earth, followed by another large rung. Then come 17 small rungs, indicating the seventeen prophets who prophesied the coming of Jesus. 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. As noted above, however, the way the 100 rungs are divided is particularly useful in a liturgical context for counting the repetition of prayers, and likely the origin of the divisions, with the above traditional explanations being secondary.

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 (similar to Roman Catholic rosary usage), 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. The lestovka is 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. In this case, like the prayer ropes, the practice is one shared with monastics, with the number of rungs on the lestovka being designed for use in those services originating with monasteries. Traditional and practical!


  1. Ooo, that looks cool! I’ve read about lestovki before, but I’ve never got around to getting one. Maybe after I get that Dictionary of Early Christian Literature

    Do you have the Old Rite Prayer Book as well?

  2. Nope, not me. I figure it would be half-incomprehensible.

    There’s also a rather sensible part of me that says: Use your own prayer book well before piling up those of others. Not that I listen, mind you. I sigh.

  3. Kevin,

    The Old Orthodox Prayer Book is hardly incomprehensible. The differences between the Old and New Rites (in the Russian Church) are slight. Arguably, it’s much easier “updating” the Old Rite to contemporary practice than vice versa. This is mainly due to the fact that there is “more” in the Old Rite–more prostrations, more prayers, and considerably more attention given to form and order over personal displays of piety. It’s not that difficult to know to say three Alleluias instead of two, etc.

    One of the great virtues of the Old Rite Prayer Book is that it doesn’t presuppose a priest in all instances. One can use it to faithfully recite Morning and Evening Prayers, all of the Hours (including Typika), and say a Moleben (the book includes a number of canons, including ones for the sick and the departed). The “secondary material” in the back on the Old Rite and its variance of practice (a lot of it being prostrations during Great Lent) is also enlightening. Even if one doesn’t use it as their primary prayer book, the instructive material is worth owning. There is also information on the various rules where a lestovka is used and how they can be substituted for the individual services. Again, it’s helpful information for people trying to form a habit of prayer when they are either traveling or can’t make it to one of the services.

    That’s enough out of me. But again, as someone who owns everything the Church of the Nativity has produced, I can’t say enough good things.

    Oh, on a final note, perhaps the best lestovki I have seen (and own) are made by the Old Ritualists in Romania. The problem is getting them. If they were produced here, they’d probably go for $100-200. But based on my past experience, ordering them is tricky since they may not arrive (I don’t fault the Old Ritualists; just the mail system). The only other alternative I know of are the Alaskan Old Ritualists, but they tend to squeeze “outsiders” for every penny, whether you want a liturgical book or even a padrushniki.

    1. I totally agree about the Old Ritualist prayer book. It’s been my default for home use for several years. I can’t imagine anyone familiar with Orthodox liturgy having any trouble using it–it is at least as clear as the more commonly used books. Same with the Horologion.

  4. Your sentiments are generally well-received regarding the accumulation of prayer-books, but I thought I might point something out (as far as I know) unique to the Old Rite prayer book. I gather from a Priest-monk from a primarily ROCOR background that this book includes indications for substituting the Jesus Prayer for Church Services, apparently a practice that was adopted by the Old Believers, and I would hazard to guess, probably practiced also under the Communists. I don’t know of anywhere else (on the net, perhaps, though I haven’t looked around much) where one can find this sort of info. As for me, I suppose I’ll struggle with my meager rule according to the Greek Prayer Book for a while yet before investing in this, but I’ll bet it might come in handy for some of us.

  5. Thank you, gentlemen! I didn’t intend any slight on the part of the Old Rite Prayer Book. I should have elaborated. I’m only very familiar with the Greek tradition, so the Slavic tradition and its differences are puzzling to me. That the Old Rite would be even more distant (however slightly so) from the Greek is what I had in mind in my comments. It’s my own comprehension that is at fault, not the Old Rite or its prayer book, obviously. It does sound very interesting. Overall, my point was that I myself really need simply to pray, rather than collect any more prayer books.

    By the way, I did see something about the Old Rite substitution of prayers in the case of one missed liturgies here.

  6. It’s important to keep in mind that literacy and printing are relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Printing didn’t come to Russia (Kiev specifically) until the mid-16th C. and even at the time of the split in the Russian Church, a great deal of liturgical and spiritual books hadn’t been formally printed (and even then not in uniform editions). While my understanding of recent scholarship indicates that literacy was much more pervasive in 17th C. Russia than previously believed, the fact is that many people would have still had a poor comprehension of the written language and even less would have had ready access to books. Hence, praying the Jesus Prayer or reading the Psalter (arguably the most widespread liturgical text) in place of reciting the services was commonplace. Its historical antecedent is simply monastic practice where the Jesus Prayer and Psalmody were the standard (especially for hermits). It’s only after the 17th C. and the infusion of “Western” models that you start seeing liturgical texts like the Chasoslov (Horlologion) with a full run of services, including “generic” movable parts so, e.g., a monk could recite Vespers and Matins in his cell. Reciting these offices alone would have been fairly novel since, prior to this time, they would have only been served in communal settings (though perhaps not every day in some monasteries).

    All of this is to say that the order in the Old Rite book is perhaps very old and certainly not unique to the Old Rite Russians. It was likely transmitted from the Greeks and probably very early on. Laity who could read would, like monastics, have recited to the Midnight Office and Compline as their morning/evening prayer rule. Interestingly, despite the antiquity of the individual prayers in the Old Rite Prayer Book, their compilation into separate rules is a rarther “new” invention (late 19th C./early 20th C.) and probably meant as an immitation of the larger Russian Orthodox practice of developing similar rules (though with different prayers). I have heard “purists” scorn these as “mongrol services” which break with the Midnight Office/Compline practice. I still believe Greek practice (including that reflected in the HTM Prayer Book) is to recite Compline in the evening and a shorter version of the Midnight Office (sans Psalm 118) in the morning.

    Ok, enough out of me…again!

    1. Gabriel,

      Does the Old Rite Prayer Book retain the Midnight Office/Compline structure (and content) for Morning and Evening Prayer, or is it a “new” compilation similar to that found in the Jordanville Prayer Book? I couldn’t tell what you meant above and wanted to make sure I understood you correctly.

  7. Goodness! No need to stop now, Gabriel!

    You’ve brought up some really fascinating points. I’m particularly intrigued by the possibility that the Old Rite services comprise an older form of the services known in Russian and Greek usage. So many very interesting things, and so little time! It sounds as though it would be extremely challenging (and thus that much more attractive!) to track that development. I’ll just bet some industrious Russian cleric is at work on such a study. I would be surprised if one were not.

  8. Kevin,

    A great deal of work was done on this topic in the late 19th and early 20th C. in Russia. Not surprisingly, most of it has never made its way into English and once the revolution hit, a lot of the progress stopped. Interestingly, a lot of the initial motivation behind these studies was not to vindicate the practices of the Old Ritualists, but to find out at what point in Russian history did they “appear.” The then-surprising result is that they were probably always the practice in Russia and were transmitted from the Greeks. While this is by no means comprehensive, the “short story” summary appears to be that while the Greeks were codifying the diverse ritual practices which existed from Palestine through Byzantium, Russia was invaded by the Tatars and largely insulated from these changes. Sometime during this period, the Greeks universally adopted the three-finger Sign of the Cross (it seems some were using two as late as the 1500’s), triple Alleluias, etc. The Russians, on the other hand, kept to what they had received from the Greeks, though not always uniformly (small variance in practice was noticable from region to region). In the 16th C., the so-called “Council of One Hundred Chapters” was held to “codify” Russian practice, which ended up suppressing some of the Greek changes that had made it into Russia and also–though this is still debatable–some of the “Latinisms” which made it in as well (though, to be clear, some scholars argue that certain “Latin” elements in Russian Old Ritualist practice may have always been there and predate the Schism or, at least, awareness of the Schism). With the rise of Protestantism and Catholic apologetics in the 17th C., the Russians–especially in the West–experienced a crisis of having their theology and practices decried as heretical from both sides, though without the capacity to readily defend themselves. The corruptions in the liturgical books, mostly from copyists error or incomplete transmission, were the cause. So too was a general abscence of theological training for clerics. This compelled (St.) Peter Moghila to produce new liturgical texts with annotated explanations of the ritual derived–in spirit if not in substance–from paralell Catholic texts. This incursion of “Latinisms” into Russian practice, when coupled with the diversity and, in the extreme, disorganization of other liturgical practices in Russia, helped facilitate the decision to “correct” the books once and for all. Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexii Mikalovich pushed for changing the liturgical texts and ritual of the Russians to meet the “more ancient” Greek practices which, ironically, were actually “newer” than the Russian practices. Add into that the fact that the codified Greek practice of the 17th C. had been derived from the first Greek books printed in “Latin” Venice and what you had was a recipe for disaster.

    The best English study (though it is incomplete in parts) is Paul Meyendorff’s Russia, Ritual, and Reform. There’s still a lot of grey areas, especially as it concerns West Russian practices. The old common knowledge was that West Russian practice was “corrupted” by the Uniates; any practice which seemed “Latin” or deviated from the “Greek” norms was deemed Unia-influenced. To this day, minor elements of Ruthenian (Ukranian) Catholic liturgical texts and practice paralell the Old Ritualists. Ironically, when the Catholic Church called for a “de-Latinization” of Eastern liturgical texts in the early 20th C., the editors looked to post-17th C. Russian practice to help make determinations about what was “spurious” and what wasn’t. That now seems to be an overstep, though given the dwindling number of Slavonic-using parishes in the Eastern Rite, I highly doubt that there will be a comparable effort to re-recorrect these books back to their “original” form (if there is such a thing).

    Yes, it’s a complicated problem and one that can keep liturgical scholars busy for another century (if not until the Second Coming). Speaking only for myself, what has become clear to me in my own readings is that “liturgical purity” is a myth, though that doesn’t mean one can’t develop reasonable and faithful means of judging manifest errors in liturgical practice. No amount of fanciful apologetics will ever cover over the “naked” silliness of the choir chanting “A mercy of peace; a sacrifice of praise” at the Liturgy, for example. One could argue, I suppose, that the Old Ritualist emphasis on ritual uniformity and more penitent approach to Great Lent should be restored as common practice simply because it makes more sense. Similarly, a restoration of monophonic chanting in the Slavic churches also makes a great deal of sense in light of the long tradition in the Greek Church and the adapted monophonic Slavic musical tradition which developed for 600+ years. To some degree, this is already happening. But I prefer these movements to be organic and not top-down impositions which, as history has shown, reap a great deal of strife.

  9. This is absolutely fascinating, Gabriel. Thank you so much for sharing it all. You must’ve been investigating this aspect of liturgics for some time, to be able to present it so well. I’m very thankful. I’ll put the Meyendorff book on my list. (And remind myself yet again to learn Russian properly.)

    I was aware of the 17th century as a kind of cutoff point before which the Greek and Russian liturgies were quite different, but I hadn’t heard of so much variety as you describe. The situation is perfectly analogous to the Latin one prior to the Tridentine standardization, with regional variations being wiped out. The Late Medieval Liturgical Offices project records a large number of such. It’s a pity we don’t have a similar thing for Eastern liturgical usage. Maybe someday!

  10. I purchased my lestovka from the same source as the author. I very much like the way it feels in the hand–in some ways easier than a rope, especially a rope with small knots. I use the lestovka in place of my old 100-knot chotki, which was falling apart. I use a 300-knot chotki with oversized knots for longer periods of prayer. As far as portability, I fold the lestovka three ways and put it in a little brocade bad like Buddhists use for their prayer beads. (Watch out for symbols…)

    I haven’t found the Old Orthodox Prayer Book at all difficult to use. I use the Horologion as well. My one criticism is the same one I have as with several other Orthodox prayer books–they use the Psalter from Holy Transfiguration. I much prefer the one published by Holy Myrrhbearers, both for the sense and for beauty of language. (Just thought I’d put in a plug!) One word about the prayer book, though: I do not read Slavonic easily, and the print on the Slavonic side of the page is not as clear as the English side. Perhaps it would be less troublesome if I were more fluent. Overall, though, it is a beautiful book and has become my standard prayer book.

    BTW–a similar “prayer ladder,” but without the lapostki (and divided into sections of 10, as in modern Russian practice) is available as a Russian import from Istok, in Canada. They call it an “Optina rosary,” and you can see them in various sizes here: http://www.istok.net/church-product/optina-hermitage-rosary.html I still prefer the lestovka. For one thing, I like the deeper symbolism, the feeling that every action that went into its creation over the centuries was prayerfully considered–and inspired.

    Too bad there aren’t more Old Ritualist parishes. The faithfulness of these families, struggling against huge odds for more than three centuries, is really inspiring, not to mention the beauty of their services.

    Thanks for letting me add my two kopeks!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Morton, and for the link to the “Optina rosary” site. I wonder if that’s designed as a help for the Optina Cell Rule? (The site isn’t responding right now, so I can’t check.)

  11. I tried to use the last link to see what a “prayer ladder” looked like but it doesn’t work. I tried going on the site to search for it & failed as well. Do you have any photos?

  12. I have a lestovka, but would like to know how to make them and how to get one from one of the Romanian Old Believers. I use the Old Prayer Book too. I am a Byzantine Catholic(Ruthenian) who converted from the Antiochians after visiting the Catacombs in Rome. The Catacombs would convert a Protestant if they were able to visit them and read the inscriptions. Nice Blog Kevin……

    1. Travis, I’m sorry I can help you with neither of your requests. The only online purchasing source I’ve found for a lestovka is the one I linked to in the post above. I don’t know of a source for how to make them or a Romaninan source. If you find such, please do let me know.

  13. Saludos,

    Por favor, agradecería indicarme sitios web a través de las cuales pueda comprar por internet Lestovka. Vivo en Ecuador.

    Gracias por su gentil atención.

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