Excerpted from "The Way We Pray" by Maggie Oman Shannon and published by Conari Press.

Picture these: a pewter angel, a copper medal depicting the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, a blue glass anti-evil eye charm, a clay scarab, a rose-quartz pendant, a walnut carved with 108 likenesses of Buddha. Though the wearing or carrying of amulets may seem to be a material flourish of this generation's New Age movement, the practice is as old as human history itself. Every culture and every major world religion has a particular way of enfolding amulets into its spiritual practice, though there are differing interpretations on why or when to use them.

Though we're not always aware of it, we use amulets throughout our lives, ascribing sentimental or symbolic significance to inanimate objects: a wedding ring that reminds the wearer of loving vows made to another, or a "lucky" pen given at graduation with blessings for future success.

The Roman naturalist Pliny first described differing types of amulets, drawing a distinction between those that offered ameliorative or healing effects to the wearer and those that served a protective function. As George Frederick Kunz wrote in his 1915 work, "The Magic of Jewels and Charms," "It is sometimes difficult to establish a hard and fast dividing line between the two classes, as everything that conduces to the happiness and well-being of man also affects his bodily health." Others have used the term talisman to refer to a charm that wards off negative influences and amulet for a charm that serves as a magnet for good--though, interestingly, the word amulet is derived from the Latin amuletum or amoletum, meaning "means of defense."

Using amulets can become a prayer practice when the object connotes a communication to the Divine or is carried as a reminder of that which is most sacred to the wearer--although it could be argued that any intention behind the amulet is itself a prayer. The ancient Egyptians were great employers of amulets, many of which depicted Egyptian deities; ancient pagans also wore figurines of their gods. Pieces of paper holding quotations from sacred religious texts--including the Torah, New Testament, and Koran--have been carried in containers that served as amulets; today, mezuzahs containing inscribed verses from the Old Testament are fixed near the door of Jewish homes as a sign and reminder of their faith. The carved fetishes of indigenous cultures pay homage to the sacred qualities embodied by the subject; tiny Buddhist prayer stones represent a range of spiritual figures. Islamic amulets are carved in calligraphy with scriptural verses or a list of the attributes of God; medals depicting various patron saints are worn by Catholics for comfort. The contemporary "WWJD" jewelry--and the subsequent "WWBD" rejoinders--reminds the wearer to ask, "What would Jesus (or Buddha) do?" in challenging circumstances.

For Celeste Smeland, an artist and nonprofit art administrator, wearing an amulet has brought forth spiritual fruit for a decade. For more than ten years, she has worn a pendant of watermelon tourmaline--it derives its name from its gradation of color from green to red--around her neck. For her, it is a reminder and a prayer to keep her heart open.

Celeste shares her story: "In 1990, my longtime partner/husband/soulmate and I were feeling the beginnings of the end of our relationship. At the same time this was happening, a number of my friends had died or were dying from AIDS. Additionally, a few of my female friends were suffering from cancer--one died. So it was a time of heartfelt loss.

"There was this little shop close to our house--kind of a 'New Age' place--with crystals, tarot cards, and books. I went in there often, as I found it a welcoming place of repose.

"So, as I could feel the crumbling of our relationship and our partnership was growing ever more difficult, I found myself drawn to this little watermelon tourmaline at this shop. I would come back and visit it often before I finally decided to buy it. I simply felt compelled.

"After I bought it and put it on and it dropped down around my neck and came to rest just above my heart, I felt a warmth and a heart opening. I asked the woman who owned the shop what it was and if it had a 'purpose.' She told me it was watermelon tourmaline and that it was a 'heart opener.'

"Well, you can imagine my surprise. But, I must say it felt like my guardian angel as I went through all the changes and pains of that breakup. Whenever the pain got really tough, I would hold the crystal in my hands or roll it around in my fingers, and it always made me feel better--helped to center me. And yet, I am pleased to say, even though I have worn it nearly every day since, it has never felt superstitious or intense--just soft, gentle, warm--and a trigger for helping to open my heart to possibilities of life and personal connection."

Taoists in China use amulets for general healing and protection; while users of amulets in Japan often have more specific intentions for them, such as scholastic success or safety while driving. Whatever your prayer, you might discover--as Celeste did--that wearing or carrying an amulet opens your heart to a world of possibilities.

Suggestions for Beginning the Exploration

  • Look around your living space. Do you notice anything that you already consider to be an amulet? Are you drawn to collecting hearts or sun-catchers or bowls? Do you have a piece of jewelry you always wear? Spend some time with your journal investigating what spiritual significance these may have for you.
  • If you don't have anything that represents your spiritual life, pay attention to what you're drawn to--what makes your heart (or soul) sing. Is it roses or sunflowers? Are there images in your spiritual readings that compel you? Try looking for a small representation of that image and wear it or carry it with you. Notice if having something you can look at and touch helps you to pray more often.
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