Thoughts at the beginning of a Shawl Ministry at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, La.
“Shawls … made for centuries universal and embracing, symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving, God. They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify. Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly above their troubles…”
Written in 1998 by: Janet Severi Bristow From the home page at: http://www.shawlministry.com
I had a Zen teacher in college, Fr. Benjamin Wren, SJ, who taught – among other things – liturgical dance, ikebana and Tai Chi. He called these “3 dimensional prayer.” I thought of Fr. Wren when I started exploring the interest level for a shawl ministry at our church, because I also think of prayer shawls as “3 dimensional prayer.”
Shawls are practical, beautiful, nurturing. Even though the idea of a prayer shawl ministry didn’t really burst into modern consciousness until 1998, shawls have been present in spiritual practice for a long time. I think of the Jewish Talit, or fringed prayer shawl, worn at various times by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews. Our priests, deacons and bishops wear stoles when leading a service. Mantillas may still be worn by Spanish Roman Catholic women for worship (and were extremely common in French/Spanish south Louisiana in pre-Vatican II days). Pentecostal Churches may have “prayer cloths” – cloths that have been prayed over and in some cases, anointed. All of these practices may serve to set the wearer apart, or to help the wearer indicate, even if only to oneself, that this time is now for prayer.
I can appreciate the concept of a prayer cloth. Here’s something tangible that has been prayed over, given to someone to hold, to touch, a tactile reminder that someone else has been praying for them. It’s a powerful thing to know that someone is praying for you, and having something in hand that underscores that can serve as a strong reminder: You are loved. You are remembered and cared for by this community. You are a child of God, our sister or brother in Christ, and this is a symbol of our ongoing prayer.
A shawl is this symbol, that wraps one in a comforting embrace. So where did our 21st century concept of a prayer shawl ministry come from?
Do an online search for “prayer shawl ministry” and you will learn of two women who had attended and graduated from a Leadership Institude in Hartford, Connecticut in 1998. They’d been in a program of applied Feminist Spirituality with Professor Miriam Therese Winter. Professor Winter is a Roman Catholic nun (Medical Mission Sister) and an author and songwriter whose works are well worth exploring. These women, Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo, combined compassion, prayer, and a love of fiber arts into a prayer ministry and spiritual practice. Their journey and ministry is described on the website, www.shawlministry.com.
Since then, prayer shawl patterns have been becoming more and more common. Sure, it’s marketing, but I’m very glad to see this concept blossom in spite of the “secularization of America.” Yarn manufacturers are designing simple patterns and actually calling them prayer shawl patterns. Lion Brand Yarn(www.lionbrand.com) has a great assortment of knitted and crocheted prayer shawls. Several books are available for crochet and knitted prayer shawls, and a “prayer shawl” search on the fiber lovers’ website www.ravelry.com yields (as of this writing) over 20,000 member projects tagged with the term “prayer shawl” or “prayershawl.”
What makes a prayer shawl a prayer shawl? Intention. Compassion. Blessings, and of course, prayer.
The shawlmaker only needs basic crochet or knitting skills to do the work. A shawl is begun with intention, with prayer and blessings for the recipient, and the shawlmaker may or may not know the recipient. Shawls may be made with the intention that they will find the person who needs it most. In other words, the Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting. When the shawl is completed, the group (and anyone else who wants to join their prayers) may say a prayer for the recipient before sending it on its way.
Prayer shawls may be made for anyone – woman, man, girl or boy and they may be adapted according to the comfort of the recipient – a “prayer square” with a Cross (or Magen David) motif, or a small blanket may be more appropriate for some than a shawl. They may be made for someone going through medical treatment, for someone experiencing a loss, bereavement; a life-changing event (which can be joyous as well!), ordination…whatever! A small cross or charm may be attached to the shawl, this is entirely optional. Most ministries include a prayer with the shawl – and care instructions help, too!
No matter where you are with your craft, making a prayer shawl is a beautiful thing. Your stitches don’t have to be perfect, just made with compassion and intention. Remember that when you make a shawl (or blanket), you are, in a sense, joining the recipient on their journey one stitch at a time, one step at a time, one prayer at a time.