A costly jar of perfume

A costly jar of perfume

I had a battle with myself when I saw ‘Sophie’s Dream,’ by Debri Uys, at the Knitting and Stitching show last November.  It would take my crochet skills to a whole new level but should I indulge?  Temptation won.

The first square gave me massive grief.  I can usually memorise patterns quickly but this was something else.  Eyes glued to page, mental acrobatics took over as I translated from USA stitch terminology whilst struggling to master new and advanced crochet techniques.

The inner conflict over buying the pricey yarn spooked again.  I had allowed myself to become hooked (literally) by this painful self indulgence.  I do love a challenge but could I justify the time and effort required? After the first piece it became easier, even addictive, as the beautiful randomly dyed yarn transformed each square into a stunning original.

Half way through I gave it up for Lent to make a basket of prayer shapes for the Hospice, and to break the addiction.  By the time I resumed, we were in COVID19 lockdown which meant that 97 year old Mum had become inaccessible.  A pity, because the throw was just the thing to brighten up her room in the Care Home.  I would take it to her the minute restrictions were lifted.

But then Mum passed away, suddenly.  A strong family matriarch and woman of great faith and prayer, she is doubtless revelling in her fabulously furbished new home, but sorely missed down here.  So many loose threads ……… including the dilemma of who should have the blanket in her place.  As I reflected and prayed I believe she ‘told’ me it was to go to her lovely grand daughter, so faithful in visiting and caring for her.

I finished the last square, blocked it, deliberated on how to arrange the twelve (not easy), joined them then tackled the border.  Wow! It felt like an epic achievement.  There was a tiny tug of temptation to keep it – but I knew it was destined elsewhere

And this is how it was received:

‘Thank you for sending me the throw you made for Granny.  It’s beautiful – amazing!  I will so treasure it!  Such a lovely surprise.  I had admired it when I saw you post the first square on Facebook and to receive the finished piece was overwhelming.  It brought a tear to my eye.  Now I have a special piece of art to cherish forever and to leave to my own children.’

Like in the Bible story about the woman who poured expensive ointment over Jesus’ feet – you could say (and they did) – that the money would have been better spent to benefit the poor.  A valid point.  But can you put a price on an object (or act) that commemorates a very special person; a mother who has been such a strong role model to her large extended family?  Her influence lives on.

Tangled yarn

Tangled yarn

There is nothing more annoying than tangled thread. I like to pull it from the centre so that the ball of yarn stays put without tumbling head over heels to an inaccessible place under a chair, or worse – wound around the back leg of the dog.

Sometimes the thread comes at first try, but more often it is hidden in the middle of a large clump that has to be sorted laboriously and wound around the outside.

Is it just me? Am I missing something here?

Or else you motor along with speedy fingers creating a soporific rhythm and mind in happy detachment from the emerging pattern – when you’re suddenly brought back with a jolt to find the yarn in a hopeless tangle.

I’m an expert with this scenario for several reasons:      

  • Practise
  • Yarn is too expensive to waste
  • I dislike darning in extra ends
  • I won’t be beaten

So with patience, persistence and gentle teasing out of threads the problem is usually resolved.

The same thing can happen with relationships. Suddenly, without warning we find ourselves hurt by another, or discover we have hurt them.  Sometimes both.  And as with the tangled yarn, things come to a halt.

This can be tricky. It is even possible to ignore the problem and pretend things are OK.  But sooner or later cracks will break through the whitewash.

St Benedict understood that wherever people come together there will be crossed wires. Always pragmatic, experience had taught him that peace between brothers (and sisters) is unlikely to be the default position. Relations have to be worked at, often needing painful perseverance, forgiveness and reconciliation.  And the starting point must be to create peace in our own hearts.

‘Do not give a false peace’.  The Rule of St Benedict 4:25

Blessing a bloke

Blessing a bloke

Whilst I was making my first few shawls in the early days, my sister Pauline raced ahead with designing and crafting her own prayer shapes for church. Meanwhile, her husband, Phil was caught floundering in the wake of all this scaled up single minded activity and was feeling a tad sidelined.
So Pauline decided to make him a masculine style prayer shawl, although she had no idea how it would be received.

Blessing a blokeBut to her surprise he loved it! Phil was ‘blown away’ by the gift and Pauline observed that it ‘completely changed him.’ It made him feel valued and included in the new ministry that had rather taken her over with the delight of being able to use her considerable skills in service.

Phil said it gave him new strength, comfort and a feeling of self worth. Perhaps the fact that he has suffered from a heart condition most of his life had something to do with the comfort factor.

Phil wore the shawl non stop for several days. Now he and my lovely sister wear it wrapped around them each day when they pray together. Pauline had followed the Benedictine wisdom of ‘listening with the ears of the heart.’

But not only did she listen, she also heard (different from listen) and responded. St Benedict calls this obedience.

Unexpected feedback

Unexpected feedback

Since the start, I have fallen over backwards to insist there is nothing ‘magic’ about prayer shawls or shapes. And I still say that, but I want to tell you about some strange feedback from a few years ago.

There was a casual conversation at a pastoral care conference with a spiritual director who led Ignatian retreats. She had been trying to find an object to represent ‘the hem of His garment’ for a gospel contemplation on the story of the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9:10).

The request was brought back to the prayer craft group I led. We deliberated, prayed, considered our options and I agreed to make a traditional Jewish Tallit type of shawl. On completion it was passed around the group for prayer and blessing then parcelled up and posted.

A few weeks later – back came this astonishing response:

Dear Loose Threads,
What’s been happening is quite extraordinary   …  
A friend of mine who’s been going through a bad time in her life has been deeply touched through your prayer shawl.  She would not consider herself a Christian, but it seems quite clear to me that God is breaking through into her life through your gift.
On the first occasion when she touched the shawl, she was almost immediately overwhelmed by tears.  (I was not praying, or indeed anywhere near her when this happened). As she sobbed, I simply sat with her until the tears had run their course.  She then said that as she had handled the shawl she had felt huge power surging through her, which was then followed by the feeling of ‘being enveloped in a warm bubble of love’.  Subsequently, every time she has visited she sits close to the shawl (which usually rests over the back of one of my chairs) and continues to speak of the immense power and heat that she feels pouring into her.
There is little doubt in my mind that God is breaking through into her life, and these encounters have opened up questions and conversations about prayer.  And none of this is anything to do with me! 
Be encouraged   …   God is using your prayers in mighty ways!

Prayer ShawlI was startled and perturbed, feeling that this was a little over the top! But the others took me to task, reminding me of Acts 19:

11. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul,
12. So that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

When Benedict fled Rome to live in a cave, people became attracted to God through him and there are stories of miracles that took place.

I still don’t believe in magic – but the power of God to heal? Check it out for yourself.

St Benedict and the Coronavirus

St Benedict and the Coronavirus

St Benedict of NursiaSt Benedict of Nursia was no stranger to pestilence or plague, born into an age that lacked vaccines, sanitation or medicines. But as we have discovered – unusual conditions of contagion and virulence can still skew our more advanced world on its axis, tipping us into global havoc.

When Benedict arrived as a student in Rome at the end of the 5th century, he was acutely aware of another kind of sickness in the dominant culture of decadence and debauchery. Finding no help anywhere, with church and state in turmoil, he fled to a remote spot in search of God and took up residence in a cave.

We too find ourselves in a variety of ‘caves’ – faced with the climbing death toll from a new and scarily unfamiliar virus for which there is no cure. Benedict’s situation differs from ours. He fled from spiritual sickness to conditions of severe privation. Many of us flee from an infection that attacks the body – into ‘caves’ served by a host of distractions and home comforts like Netflix, home cinema, online shopping, heating, soft beds and plenty of essential (even luxury) food and drink.

So are there any gems of wisdom from Benedict that can help our predicament? I think there are.

  1. One of the foundation stones of his Rule is ‘Stability’. Benedictine monks and nuns vow to remain all their lives with one community. They give up the temptation to move on in search of an ideal situation. The notion that things would be better somewhere else is usually an illusion. There is no escape from oneself. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behaviour, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.
  2. Another foundation stone is obedience – but Benedict’s take is the opposite of our understanding. We are to listen with ‘the ears of our heart’ first to God made explicit in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Abbot is to listen to all – even the youngest and least experienced. This fosters a loving interdependence on each other and God.

Whilst tales of increased domestic violence filter through and we anticipate a rise in mental health issues, many are finding positive outcomes in the lockdown. Children enjoy more time with parents, cupboards and drawers reveal lost treasures: there is less travel, less pollution and less temptation to indulge in retail therapy. To our amazement, when the cultural pressures to mingle, shop, spend, party are removed – it can come as a huge relief.

The environment is also coming out of it well, although the massive hit taken by the economy is not so good.

What will happen when we are set free again? Have we learned valuable lessons about lifestyle, stability, listening to each other and to God? I hope so.

Meanwhile, I will continue to crochet my twelve square afghan project (Sophie’s Dream from Sophie’s Universe). It was intended for my elderly mother, but she’s left us for that fabulously furbished mansion above. I wonder whose name will be on it in her place?

I’ve come a long way

I’ve come a long way

Yes, I have – since my first knitted item aged seven, a teddy bear’s shawl. It was slow …. and carried annoying scars of mistakes. I remember how I would stand on one end and pull to make it grow faster!

More skilled and hopefully more patient now, I have even fulfilled the dream of making a Hebridean lace ring shawl. Almost impossible not to go wrong and equally impossible to correct mistakes. But I came up with a creditable result and felt very proud.

Last November at the Knitting and Stitching show in Harrogate I found myself gazing up at a stunning knitted shawl (Starflake by Stephen West) that I had to tackle! It was in 4 ply yarn, my favourite, so the four balls required didn’t trash my budget too far. I was told the pattern was free online (it took 2 hours to locate and download) and that there were YouTube clips to help with the difficult bits.

My smug response of ‘I’m an experienced knitter – I don’t need video clips’, came back to bite me big time. These talented new young (to me) designers are taking knitting and crochet to a whole new level. I found myself unravelling the middle section of ‘brioche’ stitch 5 times. OK – there was a garter stitch alternative (with good reason) – and each time I got the 300 plus stitches back on the needles I vowed just one more try. But something in me wouldn’t give up.

I made mistakes – there for all to see – but was surprised at how little they showed in the overall design. After blocking, this was the result:

Prayer shawl after blocking

I always give my shawls away, but was reluctant to let this one go. Anyway, it probably contained more curses than prayers, I reasoned.

What a lesson in humility it had been! I had rejected the thought that I might need to listen and learn – I knew it all. But then I had to become a beginner all over again. Wasn’t Benedict wise when he required the Abbot to listen to the lowest monk?

Over the period of time I was battling with this, our Christian community had been praying for a friend who was desperately ill with pneumonia in intensive care. She needed a tracheostomy – more for symptom relief than in expectation of saving her life. The medics were pessimistic and family prepared for the worst.

But our precious friend fought on and has come through. The hospital team are aware that something special took place and the word ‘miracle’ was used in the absence of another to describe events.

It was during our morning prayers that I suddenly knew where the shawl must go. The recovering miracle, nicknamed ‘smiler’ by the nurses, is now sitting up, eating and drinking – ’dead chuffed’ by her lovely new shawl and has even made it home.