Nativity unravelled

Nativity unravelled

I took a chance on the colours of my latest project, not sure how it would turn out. Stephen West’s patterns fascinate me. I love the way he rewrites the rules, stretches the imagination and revels in colour. Good for using leftovers too. This is his: ‘Mohairino Medley’ – minus mohair which I find scratchy.

The original was knitted in burgundies, pinks and neutrals. It has four distinct wavy stitch bands with a colour sequence of five – so each of my 17 broad colour stripes is different. Clever!

A friend described the finished article as ‘spicy and reminiscent of the Middle East,’  which chimes with the Christian calendar for December.

My Christmas starts with liberation of the knitted nativity set from the shoe box where it has lain dormant since January.  Made by hand some two decades ago, each piece speaks to me of the mystery and wonder of that ancient event.  

There is no hierarchy of preciousness: the local shepherds share the stage with the wealthy foreign travellers; the sheep and the manger essential props for that insignificant newborn.

I wonder if God’s spirit was strong in supporting Mary and Joseph through the agony of producing that special God child in such wretched circumstances.  No running water, sterile delivery pack, pethidine, gas and air or epidural for the mother of the Messiah.  

Then no family visits or congratulations. Instead, gossip and disapproval back home from those who believed the young couple to be guilty of something for which they could not prove their innocence.

The religious establishment missed it, as did the politicians.  No help there.  Soon after, the young family became migrants.  The not-so-wise men had messed up by looking for the new King at Herod’s palace.  Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter of their fragile baby boy.

And through it all, did Mary see the cross?  Whatever agony she endured in producing the Saviour of the World, there was far worse to come.  Later, it would be her fate to watch him suffer the most barbaric death possible at the hands of Roman occupiers. 

It all looks so peaceful and innocent and amazing on my sideboard – and it is!  The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.  But the darkness is still there.  I  remind myself that following the guiding star may lead from comfort into conflict.

Mary, blessed among women.  Really ….?  Do I wish to be that blessed?  Can I not follow the star from the safer shadows?  Compromising with the darkness is not so bad – is it?

Saint Ignatius of Loyola talks of only two directions of travel in relation to God: towards the Light of the World in a state of ‘consolation’ or away from Him in ‘desolation’.  My task as a child of God is to discern which way I choose to face through the events and circumstances of each day.  It is not possible to travel in both directions at the same time.

My All Saints’ Shawl

My All Saints’ Shawl

 When I posted this on social media in blocked-out form, a friend likened it to an ariel view of river and farmland. That set me thinking about what it represented for me. I completed it on All Hallow’s Eve – any significance there? Never very clear about Halloween and all that, and vaguely perturbed by the dark sinister side that we increasingly delve into now, I did some research.

Halloween, originally All Hallows’ Eve (or All Saints’ Eve) marks the beginning of a three day period of Christian reflection continuing into All Saints’ Day followed by All Souls’ Day. It is a time for remembering that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1) the saints who have gone before us and the ‘dear departed’.

We had a superb homily yesterday at mass that offered further clarification. Together with a notice about the new lockdown ban on church services for 28 days, we were told there was no need to despair. We were to think of the multitude of saints that have gone before – from Augustine, Benedict, Ignatius of Loyola to more recent ones like Mother Theresa etc. I thought of Saint Tabitha ,whose name I adopted at confirmation, and who ‘made things’ for people. These were the shining ones who realised that life on earth was about turning away from the darkness and looking towards the light. 

This was hugely helpful to me. I have been getting so fed up with lockdown. With an introvert’s glass half empty default position my focus had been on the darker side. I needed to return to Ignatian style ‘consolation’ mode (face turned to the light) rather than ‘desolation’ (back turned to the light). There is nothing in between.

This shawl reminds me of the lives of the saints who left self-interest behind and turned faces towards the light of God’s kingdom. The slate grey, background colour represents our fallen world where we all mess up. Against this dark background there are flashes of bright colours all over – some gaudy, in your face – others much more subtle, almost hidden. These represent the ‘communion of saints’ who have gone before us and are cheering us on. No need to despair! What a wonderful message for our times.

Seasonal reflection: Seeing your life through the gospel lens –

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-12

The blessings of the Beatitudes are mostly future blessings, but we can anticipate them in the present. At first, some seem to describe circumstances you wish to avoid. Read them slowly. Stay with each for a while. Allow yourself to feel the sense of paradox contained in each. 

Perhaps you have had an experience of a deeper, more authentic life, a blessing, when:

  • you were poor – you knew your need of God
  • you mourned – could feel for others
  • you were meek – neither spineless nor emotionally out of control 
  • you hungered and thirsted for some cause
  • you were merciful rather than vengeful
  • you were pure in heart – a person of integrity, whose actions & intentions corresponded
  • you were a peacemaker
  • you were persecuted when you stood up for something.

NB:  Adapted from the weekly service sheet of the Parish of St John Henry Newman, Leeds.

Lockdown losses

Lockdown losses

 As we went deeper into lockdown, I became aware that my sister, Pauline, was missing her grandkids desperately.  She had always loved children, qualifying as a sick children’s nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the 70s. After that she married and produced three boys of her own, but it seemed to take forever before the longed for grandchildren appeared.

Pauline was a huge encouragement to me years ago during a black period of my life. I’m not sure I’d have got back on my feet without her undemanding, dogged support. Time for me to help perhaps. It was simple enough. I merely encouraged her to begin a challenging crochet project to distract her and boost self esteem. This is Pauline’s version:

‘I needed a project during lockdown to occupy and challenge me, and my sister suggested Sophie’s Dream. One look at the design was enough. ‘No way!’ I’d never had much success with crochet. 

However with her encouragement I sent for the book and some gorgeous yarn. The first square was a nightmare!  With my nose stuck to the page and fingers contorted around tricky stitches I persevered, leaving a few mistakes behind. But by the time I got to the twelfth square I was racing along and only needed the pattern to remind me at the start of each row. I loved the therapy of watching the beautiful design form against subtle changes of colour. 

I was missing my regular slots of minding my gorgeous grandchildren terribly, but then my own mother died in the fourth week of lockdown. We had not been able to visit her in the care home during this time and none of us was allowed to be with her as she was dying. 

It was heartbreaking. She had given so much to her family and we weren’t there to offer comfort in her final days. Her God and her family were the most important things in her life. She prayed for each one of her seven children, fourteen grandchildren and nineteen great grandchildren every day right up to the end. Her life was spent unselfishly serving  God and others. As she grew into her 90’s her main worry was that she could no longer be of use to anyone. But many people in her sheltered housing complex had visited her for comfort, advice and prayer. We miss her so much.

As I worked on my project it became a “bereavement blanket”, a memorial to my mum, with so many memories stitched into it. Now, every time I look at it or wrap it round me, it brings comfort.  

Its good to think that this family-heirloom-type work of art can be enjoyed now and into the future by generations to come.’


I’m very conscious that it started with simple encouragement.  St Benedict would point us to 1 Thessalonians 5:11 where it says: ‘Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing’.

A coat of many colours

A coat of many colours

Some ten years ago I knitted this ‘coat of many colours’ for my mother. It was a huge hit! She loved it, wore it whenever the weather was cold enough and took many complements. I can guarantee there is not another the same anywhere! 

Now that she has left us, it has returned to my care – in remarkably good condition considering its mileage; except for an unexplained large hole in the back yoke. What a pity! Mum’s darning skills were top league. So sad I didn’t learn from her. I can hear her tut-tutting over my cobbled up repair – but at least the scar is nearly lost among those vibrant colours. 

It set me thinking about the spiritual holes in our lives – caused by sin. To talk about evil is culturally unfashionable now. In his searching book, People of the Lie, the American psychiatrist Scott Peck tells how his young son defined evil as ‘live’ spelled backwards. So true. Evil is anti-life and can decimate relationships.

Christianity teaches that we live in a fallen world and all mess up. St Benedict quickly discovered this truth as he and his followers attempted to live in community. His Rule had to start from people as they were rather than from any sort of fake idealism. He found among the obedient and patient also the careless, stubborn, slothful, disdainful and those with a tendency to get in the way (chapter 2). Like the average church congregation?

Recently, in preparation for my first confession before confirmation into the catholic church, I had to think soberly about the mistakes, flaws, holes – oh lets call them by their name – sins in my life.

The need to engage with the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time became massive in my mind.  I discussed my anxieties with my sponsor, who reassured by saying it was like when her husband got worked up about towing their first caravan from Huddersfield to Leeds. As time went by it grew in his imagination to the size of the QE 2!  Come collection day, there before him was their Sprite Alpine caravan, the size of a ‘matchbox’!                              

In a letter to Mary Van Deusen in 1953, CS Lewis said ‘most of us have never faced the facts about ourselves until we uttered them aloud in plain words.’ I can only say that first confession was a similar experience for me. I have felt guilty about the spiritual holes in my life for years. Saying them out loud to a priest has helped me to take responsibility for them and gain a new sense of forgiveness.

Calling sin by its name is the first step. The second is to own the holes it makes in our lives, in the fabric of our families and in community. Some scars can be mended but others will remain. The third step is to accept the free and full forgiveness offered by God through the sacrifice of His Son.

Gaudy glitch

Gaudy glitch

One of the first to get a prayer shawl was my friend Hannah. Made in hand-dyed botany lace weight yarn, she received it with a sense of wonder. It went everywhere with her and marked a new freedom in her prayer life alongside a greater sense of worth. But after a few years I got a call asking, ‘Can you come’? Something was wrong but she wouldn’t say over the phone. I went. Her distress was palpable. ‘Please don’t be upset! You see, when I wrapped Sally in it to pray with her, I felt compelled to pass it on.’

Touched, challenged and aware of what a sacrifice this was, I thought of the luxury shawl I had knitted for myself.  It was special …. worn and loved …… but like Hannah I knew what I had to do. Prayer shawls talk if you will listen……… Hannah was overwhelmed and loves wearing it in spite of its second hand status.

During the Covid lockdown I decided to make another for me. It would be darker, with maybe a flash of muted colour here and there. This is how the yarn appeared online; subtle with hints of jewel-like shades peeping through seductively – like dusty stained glass windows at twilight

But no, taking shape under busy fingers was a jazz festival in full glare of the midday sun! Subtle it was not. How could I get it so wrong?

‘That’s one to cheer you up’, commented my ‘crafty’ sister. Hmm ….. I wonder who needs their life brightening up that much? Need to start listening again ……

No use asking Benedict. He was above such frivolity – or was he?  

According to Esther de Waal in her book, Seeking God – a pillar of the Benedictine Rule is Conservatio Morum. Difficult to translate now because of semantics and culture; it’s something like turning your face constantly to God, not knowing where it will lead, what you may be asked to do or what is likely to be the outcome. That is what Benedictine monks and nuns sign up to for life.  

Esther de Waal says : ’It is a recognition of God’s unpredictability, which confronts our own love of cosiness or safety. It means that we have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new, whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties. Rather we must expect to see our chosen idols successively broken. It means a constant letting go……..’

Wow! Not only does that speak to me about shawls and other personal stuff, it also has something to say about the state of the world post COVID. If only we were post COVID! It will be with us for some time, we are told, maybe forever. Scary. How much more social distancing can we take before the global economy collapses?  

But if every creature on this planet adopted the principle of Conservatio Morum – there would be so much more reason to hope.

Another angel

Another angel

There was encouraging feedback from the hospice again last week. A patient had a clear vision of an angel who came and interacted with her. ‘Do you think it was real?’ she asked the chaplain. ‘It felt so close and comforted me beyond words.’ Her reaction on being given an angel prayer shape ‘in just the right colours’ was overwhelming and the attached verse from the Bible delighted her.

Have you ever experienced an angel?  I have met human ones. Minus wings and halo, they can be difficult to recognise. Some have even been dressed in heavy disguise.

I believe I met one in the early days of my marriage when I was riddled with anxiety about what seemed like an intractable in-law problem.  An introvert, I agonised over where I’d gone wrong and felt caught in a maze without the key.

One day after a visit to the library on Grand Parade, Cork, I was reluctant to return home straight away. So I sat down on a bench to give myself some space.  A little later, an insignificant, universal grandmother type of fluffy, elderly lady slipped unobtrusively onto the same bench.  

At first I hardly noticed that she was trying to engage in conversation, then her gentle Irish brogue wittered across my consciousness.  She  was telling me about her daughter (or was it her son) who had recently married.  They kept inviting her around, but she thanked them kindly and said no.  They needed to get to know each other and bond together.  Distance was important to a new couple.

It was so relevant!  Perhaps I wasn’t entirely to blame for the tension after all!  We smiled goodbye and she disappeared. Such a distinctive message, surprising and so, so relevant! I went home to the large, rambling, cathedral property we shared with my grandparents-in-law,  perspective transformed. I had been ministered to, encouraged and released. It was years later that I realised that the insignificant old lady might have been a ‘real’ angel.

Shortly before he died, Saint Benedict saw the soul of his sister, Saint Scholastica, rising to heaven in the form of a dove.  This vision happened a few days after their last talk together at the foot of Montecassino. In another vision, Benedict saw the soul of Bishop Germanus of Capua taken by angels in a fire globe.

Has anyone else met an angel, human or celestial?  Do tell.