Yesterday I was pleased to attend a meeting of the newly formed Prayer Shawl Ministry at our parish. I missed the first one last month but had begun a prayer shawl on my own after much trial and tribulation, first in learning how to purl, then how to smoothly alternate between the purl stitch and the knit stitch. The description of the ministry was so appealing that I continued to persevere when I might otherwise have given up! Hunched over the task, my shoulders tight, I reminded myself to breathe, to be fully present to the activity, to savor the process without fixating on the outcome.
Two Connecticut women formed the first Prayer Shawl Ministry in 1998 after completing a program of studies at Hartford Seminary, and the practice has spread ever since. The shawls are given to people in need of comfort or support in times of illness or grief, at celebratory occasions like marriage and birth, or to mark transitions such as graduation, job change, or moving. The Web site includes a pattern and a few instructions. It’s not terribly complicated but a couple fine points are distinctive. First, the founders ask that the shawls only be given as unconditional gifts, never sold. And prayer is fundamental to the whole endeavor. Prayers are suggested for beginning, the act of knitting itself is engaged as prayer for the eventual recipient even if unknown, and most importantly, the completed shawl is blessed before being given. One of our members was motivated to finish a shawl quickly for a friend who will soon mark the anniversary of her teenage son’s death. This completed shawl was spread out on the table, and we all placed our hands on it as she prayed aloud. This very simple ritual by people who do not know each other that well still brought tears. Custom tags are being created that will be attached to each shawl given from our ministry.
I am grateful to be knitting again. My skills are only moderate, so the range of projects I consider is somewhat limited. Having now mastered purling, the prayer shawl is just right. Knitting provides a welcome respite from multi-tasking. When I sit down with my needles and yarn, the repetitive action of my hands quiets my mind, brings balance to the day. I am trying to cultivate this awareness with tasks that seem tedious, such as folding laundry, chopping vegetables, washing dishes, making the bed, pulling weeds. Attention to the activity is the prayer.