A couple of years ago I wrote about singing at Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, La. There is a small Jewish congregation here, and I have been blessed and honored to sing for their rabbi-led services for some time. Fall is the season of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur.
This is a Reform congregation, who uses the New Union Prayerbook. There are many beautiful prayers within the covers of the regular book as well as Gates of Repentance, used during HHD.
Monday, during the morning service for Rosh Hashanah, these words leapt off the page at me:
“Be among those who cherish truth above ease, and whose prayers are shafts of light in the darkness….Aspire to be loving, compassionate, humane, and hopeful. Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.” *
Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.
Sounds deceptively simple. It’s certainly challenging. I know I am often overwhelmed with day-to-day minutiae, and tend to get onto the “just get-it-done” track. I’m not rude, cruel, dishonest or treating anyone badly, I’m just…getting things done. Work. Errands. Housekeeping. Paying bills. Doing laundry. Autopilot.
The apostle Paul wrote:
Rejoice always, pray continually. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17
What if we were to become the prayer? I cannot bring peace to the world, but I can be peaceful. I may not be able to cure someone, but I can be a healing presence. Kindness towards others – even a smile – can be prayerful.
Intention is the difference.
Now, more than ever, our country and our world are torn by voices of division. We hear so much about what’s wrong, about oppression, aggression, unfairness, shaming, blaming, hatred. Individual pain is exploited for political gain, and groups and individuals become game tokens in power plays. Individuals wonder what can I do?
Do what you can. Be open and aware. Set an intention for kindness. Show gratitude. Smile. Pray continually.
Then, become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.
~~~~~~~~ * 1984, Central Conference of American Rabbis: Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe. P. 187. (New York)
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.
I sing at our local Jewish temple, which is Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, Louisiana. This is a small congregation, deep in the primarily Christian area of south Louisiana. The temple, over a hundred years old, is within walking distance of churches that are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Church of Christ and Methodist Episcopal, with other denominations in the area (just not within walking distance). I have sung there for over 10 years, and feel very blessed to do so.
When people learn this, they want to know how this Christian musician wound up singing at a Jewish church. Just lucky, I say. I was in the right place at the right time when their previous vocalist retired, and I was willing (and excited) to tackle something new.
And so it was that I encountered a whole new world of music and of worship. I learned the Sh’ma and the Bar’chu. I learned that while vowels weren’t exactly an afterthought in Hebrew, they probably weren’t on the tablets that God gave Moses. I also learned that different rabbis write transliterations (phonetic spellings) of the same word in many different ways!
I write this in the middle of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashana (the new year), Yom Kippur (Day of Attonement) and Shabbat Shuvah, which is the Shabbat that falls in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. For Gates of Prayer, this time also marks the arrival of their new student rabbi. As a small congregation, they are served by rabbinical students. This year is extremely unusual as they have the same student as last year, Alex Kress. (Most of the time there is a new student rabbi every year.)
This personnel change is unusual; most churchgoers, regardless of denomination, are used to having a spiritual leader for longer than 9 months at a time. The rabbis may change, but the congregation must stand on its own as a community. They do so, and embrace each new rabbi with open arms and open hearts. (This being south Louisiana, I must add “open kitchens” as well!) The rabbis become a part of the community, and I think they leave a part of themselves here.
Over the years, I’ve been asked questions members of my “Jewish church family” and my “regular church family” (and other curious souls). I’ve often heard comments / questions about my level of participation in the service at Gates of Prayer.
“You read along with the prayers?” Yes, of course. Prayers all go to God, regardless of where I’m standing when I pray. The prayerbook I use doesn’t matter. Prayer comes from the heart.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of the many I’ve learned from my years with Congregation Gates of Prayer is simply this: There is much more that draws us together than that which separates us. We pray for peace, for compassion, for redemption and forgiveness. We pray for those we love, and we pray for help in loving those who may be hard to love. We pray that we may be better people.. Being Christlike is doing (following) mitzvah. Love God, do good, follow the commandments.
It’s all good. It’s all God.