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.
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.
I’ve made several Jewish Tallits using Annie Modesitt’s pattern from the New Prayer Shawl Companion. But I wanted to take the design further to include Christian symbolism – motivated by the urge to create something with ancient orthodox significance.
Numbers and planning are not a strength, but I had just acquired Hitomi Shida’s Japanese knitting Stitch Bible translated into English. What a find! No longer were those exotic online patterns locked in mysterious hieroglyphics. A quick trawl soon provided the border
Off I went, greedily translating the chart into stitches, then motored happily up the striped section to reach the tricky bit. Working the tree of life alongside the trinity ridge panels pushed my brain beyond limits, but I hung in there. About to start the back neck section, it dawned on me that plan A was horribly flawed. Why? Because both border and tree of life would only work from the bottom up! That’s why a wiser person plans in detail from the start!
I cast off, made another the same then (after more head strife with numbers) made a back section knitted towards the neck. To my surprise it joined perfectly: the atorah (sewn-on neck piece) brought it together and the tzitzits (tassels) gave a satisfying finish.
After being admired and prayed over by our Shalom prayer group, it was folded and placed in a drawer.
A few weeks ago it showed up again during a major turn out. Hmmm ……. time to find it a home, but nobody came to mind. Next day, a catholic friend asked if he could possibly commission a Jewish Tallit with Christian symbolism – to include the cross. Photos were sent and its destination sealed. This was his response:
‘Thank you so much for the wonderful prayer shawl that you have made with your own hand and given to me. It is a beautiful piece of work. It also has a very spiritual feeling about it. I love the Hebrew writing from the opening words of the Shema: ‘Hear O Israel’. I’m just amazed. This cannot be a coincidence! I will use it every time I pray at home.’
So we are doubly blessed: my friend by his deep appreciation of the covenant roots of our ancient faith, and me through affirmation of this ministry once again – overseen by St Benedict, who tells us to ‘listen with the ear of the heart’.
NB: Jesus referenced the Shema in response to a scribe who asked: ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12: 28-31
I started this work-intensive, family-heirloom-style crochet project as a self indulgence to inspire and help me through COVID19 lockdown. Mum had just died and although the family came together beautifully and all loose ends were dealt with in the best possible way, she was a great loss and I missed her acutely. With time on my hands, this was therapy. How could it fail – with fabulous yarn, intricate pattern and an emerging work of art?
The benefits of crochet and knitting have long been recognised by a variety of health professionals. Some schools in the US have even put knitting onto the curriculum for health benefits, as well as to build creativity and improve mathematics.
Much of this pattern was in my head from previous projects, which saved me from the intense concentration needed first time around. Fingers soon found soothing rhythms, allowing my heart to wander, to escape the mind – like praying the rosary.
As I stitched, a rich kaleidoscope of scattered memories flitted past. Many had deep feelings attached. The patchwork of colours in the blanket seemed to reflect my complex variety of moods. Some shaded gently into the next, others juxtaposed in unlikely contrasts, but all were joined by the background thread that formed a cross at the corners.
Mum and I had different personalities. She was an extrovert and I am a secret solitary. Sometimes we punished each other. Our high level of communication tended towards the forthright in agreement or dissent. She told me to lose weight and stop buying clothes. I delivered lectures on suitable footwear and insisted on a wheelchair for trips out.
As each unique square blossomed, I felt her unconditional love through the contrasts and inherent beauty of the blanket. She taught me how to knit that first teddy bear’s scarf, corrected my mistakes, insisted that neatness underneath was as important as on top. Had I ever said ‘thank you’? How I wish I could show her my latest creation. She would love it.
As it grew, I realised it would have to become my own special bereavement blanket. The laborious daily process was helping me start to work through my grief. Mum smiled on my busy fingers in total acceptance of those unspoken longings and regrets.
Now finished, it will continue to prompt new conversations, insights and prayers: its warmth, creativity and glowing colours a constant reminder of all that was precious to her and to me, all the lives that were joined to ours, all the silent mutual understandings.
Mum was a prayer warrior and never more so than in her last days. The care home chaplain told us that in those dreadful last three weeks of lockdown when we were not allowed to visit – she was up and dressed first thing, with Bible on her lap, praying. Maybe the challenge is for me to take up the baton. There has never been a greater need for prayer.
Some of my greatest challenges and traumas have been triggered by visiting the knitting and stitching show in Harrogate. I love to see new ideas, designs, yarns and accessories. But my worst knitting disaster came out of such a trip. I was captivated by Belinda Harris’s ‘Festival of Threads’ – a large, lace weight, circular shawl knitted in an alpaca silk mix: luxury all the way and no minor challenge.
it wasn’t as difficult as the Scottish crofter’s ring shawls made of knitted lace, where the omission of one simple wool over can precipitate a chain of disasters. I learned the hard way to use stitch markers for each pattern repeat and try to recognise the pattern progression.
Belinda’s pattern used lace knitting, with alternative plain and patterned rows. A doddle, I thought, so ignored the advice to thread a contrasting length of yarn around at intervals to act as a backstop in case of the need to unravel.
It was on the last section that disaster struck. With 700 plus stitches and my longest cable deployed, the screw-in wooden needle broke, allowing hundreds of stitches to escape before my eyes. I held my breath and attempted rescue. No chance! There were too many slippery stitches and the pattern far too intricate. The wool had a hooky, long staple. Unravelling was a nightmare and eventually defeated me.
I didn’t think of Benedict at the time. That came later. Cross and upset, I informed Belinda of my catastrophe. She was sympathetic and pointed me in the direction of some steel interchangeable needles that clicked securely in place. Great tip. They’ve never let me down.
Altogether, it was an expensive episode. I had to buy more yarn and start again from the very beginning, but managed to salvage enough of the knitting to make a small, circular neck warmer for Mum. She had longstanding arthritis with cervical scoliosis and loved it.
The advantage of going back to the beginning was that I made fewer and less obvious mistakes and the finished shawl was so worth it all.
Back to St Benedict who says: ‘always we begin again’. So I got that right! I could have bundled it into a cupboard for posterity. Benedict was pragmatic. Experience taught him that humans are messed up and will constantly fail. But God doesn’t give up on us. The Bible tells of a Creator who loves, forgives and encourages us to start over – again and again.
It can be hard to acknowledge failure and start again from the beginning. But the opportunity to have another go is always available on demand.