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!