The peace, insights and life-rescuing power of the rosary and other religious prayer beads

Writer Rafael Alvarez practices praying the rosary on a regular basis.

(CNN)I received my first rosary when my second grade class at a Catholic school in Baltimore received the sacrament of the first Holy Communion.

The boys were given black rosaries and a prayer book, the girls the same, but their rosaries were white. That was back in 1965.
My family was Catholic but we did not pray the rosary. I put the beads in a drawer, far more excited about the World Book Encyclopedia set I was given that same day. Never used, the rosary disappeared somewhere along the way.
It wasn't until 1994 when I acquired a second string of beads honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus, as I walked the frozen streets of East Baltimore with Sister Maria D. Jackson of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.
    Sister Maria of the Way of the Cross, as she was known within the Mission Helpers order, was delivering Holy Eucharist to shut-ins in my neighborhood the day after an ice storm. We'd never met before I called the convent volunteering to help with whatever might need doing. The day I called was the day Sister Maria was visiting the housebound faithful. On that cold January morning, I was trying to remove some guilt about a marriage I'd wrecked a few years earlier.
    Somewhere in the midst of my sadness, which I shared candidly, this kind and no-nonsense nun took a rosary from her black skirts, handed it to me and said, "Try this."
    She died in 2012 but her influence lives on. Since that frozen day, I have prayed the rosary -- using many strings of beads as they often break or get lost -- several times a week and, in the past few years, nearly daily. The discipline -- a slow, methodical meditation -- brings me comfort, peace and insights that would otherwise be beyond me.
    I long ago lost the rosary Sister Maria gave to me, and though I'd love to have it again, it's not about the specific beads. The loss doesn't keep me from entering the mystical realm of prayer.

    Ancient tradition, modern science

    Nearly every major religion in the world -- including Buddhism, Shintoism and Sikhism -- uses beads in prayer and meditation. Islam uses prayer beads called "misbaha," sometimes called "the Muslim rosary." Hinduism calls its beads "mala," or garland.
    The exception is Judaism, which frowns upon the practice. It is said that the practice veers too close to idol worship -- and thus paganism, although several of my Orthodox rabbi friends said they were not aware of any written prohibition, only long-held custom.
    Christian hermits and monks used pebbles to keep track of one's prayers in the third century, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Some 200 years later, Pope Gregory the Great popularized prayers to Mary using beads. Widespread devotion of the practice is attributed to Saint Dominic, the 12th-century Spaniard who founded the Dominican order.
    A rosary sits on a table in Rafael Alvarez's home. The room is now filled with donated rosaries.
    There is nothing magical about a string of beads, whether they are pearls, wood or plastic. A rosary is a tool, akin to a screwdriver or wrench, nothing until put in practice.
    Feeling the smooth beads pass through my fingers as repetitions of "Hail, Mary" and "Our Father" fall from my lips helps focus my roving mind. And while prayer is among the trickier subjects of scientific study, it has been shown to lower blood pressure, ease stress and otherwise give a feeling of well-being. No guarantees, of course.
    My experience has been that praying the rosary is like a key to an invisible door. I don't know when the portal will arrive as I sit at the window next to the sink where my Italian grandmother washed dishes for 40 years. It doesn't every time. But when some sort of opening does occur, thoughts come through it that ordinarily may not have.
    I dedicate a bead to a deceased friend or relative that had not been on my mind for a while, or jot down a reminder to call someone going through a rough time. Sometimes I'm reminded to make a modest donation to a charity, religious or not. The practice takes about 20 minutes each morning and I always feel better when finished than when I had started.

    Pilgrimage to Lourdes

    I had not yet met Sister Maria and did not know the power of prayer nor the science that seems to support it when I traveled to Lourdes, France, in 1990. Traveling with my 9-year-old daughter Amelia, the visit was a stop on the way to my namesake grandfather's village on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.
    Lourdes has been heralded as the site of miracles since the mid-19th century when believers hold that the Virgin Mary appeared more than a dozen times to a local, 14-year-old shepherd girl named Bernadette Soubirous.