The Mystery of the Prayer Wheel

Christian scholars continue to be baffled by a circular diagram etched upon the cover page of an 11th century manuscript of the New Testament Gospels. Who designed it? How was it used? Could it be useful for Christians today?

For those who have never heard of it, the prayer wheel was recently found inside a book known as the Liesborn Gospel Book which was written sometime around the end of the 10th Century AD.

Liesborn, which is located in North Rhine-Wesphalia, Germany, is best known for its former Benedictine Abbey, Liesborn Abbey. Tradition says the abbey was founded in 785 AD by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. Initially founded as a convent, the nuns who lived there were said to have become very worldly and were eventually replaced by a community of monks, but not not before they abbey produced the now famous Liesborn Gospels.

Scholars believe the prayer wheel, which is drawn on the cover page, was added later, probably sometime in the 12th century.

As an article appearing on Ancient Origins describes, “This prayer wheel was written in Latin, and arranged in concentric circles. The outermost circle contains the following instruction, ‘The order of the diagram written here teaches the return home’. The next circle contains the words ‘Seven Petitions’, and quotations from the Lord’s Prayer can be found on its spokes. The third circle has the words ‘Gifts of the Holy Spirit’. These gifts are written in red on the spokes and seven events from the life of Jesus are also written in this circle in black. Seven groups blessed in the Beatitudes occupy the next circle. On the opposite of each group is their reward. At the centre of the wheel is the word ‘Deus’ or ‘God’.”

One would read a phrase from the Lord’s prayer, then move down to the next circle which contains a gift of the Holy Spirit that pertains to that phrase, such as “Holy is Your Name” and the gift of “Wisdom.” The next circle down invites the prayer to reflect on the Incarnation, then the Beatitude, “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” The prayer then moves to the next phrase of the Our Father and does the same.

No one knows exactly how the prayer wheel was used in the past although there is some speculation that during a pre-literate age, it was used as a memorization devices.

Patton Dodd is the co-author of a new book on this rare find, entitled, The Prayer Wheel.  After reviewing its contents, I found nothing amiss except for some of the folks who endorsed it such as the controversial priests Father James Martin, S.J., and Richard Rohr. Ian Morgan Cron, author of a book in favor of the Enneagram, is also included on the endorsement page. But the way the wheel is being recommended for use in the book is not New Age.

Instead, Dodd believes the Prayer Wheel takes major Christian spiritual tools, breaks them down into individual pieces, and uses the pieces to form new paths of prayer and meditation.

“The result is inspired associations between these disparate elements of scripture,” he says, “associations that leave us asking new questions, exploring new possibilities and praying new prayers.”

He concludes: “By returning us to prayers that have gotten old and gone cold, The Prayer Wheel helps us to encounter them as a fresh new conversation with God.”

People often mistake the Christian prayer wheel for the Tibetan variety, but the two are not associated.

The Tibetan prayer wheel is a hollow metal cylinder containing a scroll printed with a mantra. Tibetan Buddhists believe that spinning the prayer wheel is just as effective as reciting the words aloud.

According to Religion Facts, “this belief derives from the Buddhist belief in the power of sound and the formulas to which deities are subject. For many Buddhists, the prayer wheel also represents the Wheel of the Law (or Dharma) set in motion by the Buddha.”

Although some folks might try to put a New Age or Buddhist “spin” on the Christian prayer wheel, it thus far appears to be staying true to its Christian roots.

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