A few years ago, the Artist made me a string of prayer beads. Near the end of the string, she included a single vertebra from the skeleton of a rattlesnake.

At the time, I was about to head out into the wilderness of New Mexico alone for awhile, and one of the fears that surfaced, as fears do at such times, was a fear of snakes. As the trip grew closer, I had vivid dreams, and when one night when I dreamed about a mongoose, the fear of snakes began to fade away.

In the last year, I’ve encountered more snakes than probably in my entire life prior to this point. One showed up in the parking lot outside my office building. Last month I encountered four on a three mile hike to the bottom of a small canyon and back. Another appeared in a dream and bit me, directly over the heart.

It’s said that working with snakes in the way that snake handlers do is about developing the ability to transform or neutralize poison. There’s a powerful magnetism in that idea for a would be healer/therapist, cultivating the ability to handle virulent stuff that would otherwise paralyze, inflame or kill a person, the way trauma and abuse tend to do. The catch is, to develop or discover this ability, one must at some point be bitten, and some don’t survive. It’s a mistake to brazenly tempt the snake, to ask for the bite out of egotism or  bravado. Best to cultivate a relationship, to handle the snake with respect and let the snake choose what it’s going to do.

There are many types of prayer, and many ways of praying. The rattlesnake prayer beads are for times when I know I’m going to be picking up a snake. They’re for prayers about wisdom and courage, and the ability to survive a poisonous bite. They’re for handling the old stuff, the dangerous, poisonous stuff that has caused wounds before, the stuff I can’t help but go back to, again and again, until I learn how to change its poison into something meaningful.

Photo by Timo Balk
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