Knitting together to love and heal

11 Sep 2008, Written by: Marguerite Theophil

A sign outside a church in the US that says `Prayer Shawl Ministry' intrigues me.

As it adds details about Wednesday afternoon meetings, I decide to find out more, and meet up with a group of women in a prayer group with a difference. Its members gather each week to knit and crochet shawls they believe will provide not only physical warmth, but also spiritual comfort to those that receive them.

The atmosphere is warm and friendly. A poster on the wall reminds them: "Please knit or crochet when you are in a calm, pleasant, prayerful mood, so that your wishes and prayers for the receiver of God's ever-present love, comfort and healing, are lovingly woven into the shawl."

I notice that some women bend over their work silently, meditatively; some tell stories about people they are knitting for; now and then someone reaches over and gently, appreciatively touches another's work. There is a kind of healing happening here too, even as they create their gifts for others.

The origins of this ministry are traced to Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo, who were inspired by a course in Applied Feminist Spirituality taught by Professor Miriam Therese Winter. They believe that shawls are symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving, God.

Called prayer or comfort or peace shawls, they are made for someone suffering through a time of transition, crisis or need as a tangible example of God's love and care expressed through human gesture. Often made with a specific friend or loved one in mind, just as frequently, these groups knit shawls for complete strangers.

The key is that the work is done intentionally; with each stitch, the knitter incorporates thoughts or prayers for the receiver. Then, before the shawl is given away it is blessed. Either it is passed around to all women of the circle, with each adding her prayer, or it is blessed during a formal church worship service.

I am told that the prayer shawl is mindfully knit in a way to reflect God's Trinitarian nature. In the Christian faith tradition, the number three ^ symbolised by the Holy Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer ^ has come to mean wholeness. The number of stitches cast on is divisible by three, and if you look at a prayer shawl made by many groups, you will see that it is made up of many columns of three stitches each.

Those who receive these shawls feel they have been gifted something precious, filled with healing energy and connection. "Those nights i wake up alone and frightened, i wrap it tight around me," said one recipient. Another said, "When i am at my lowest, it reminds me of God's love expressed through the work of human hands." Many have told the knitters that when they wear the shawl, it feels like a loving hug.

The shawl is not only a gift to the receiver, but also of unimagined value to the giver. One woman said, "This helps me. I have trouble expressing my grief or sorrow or sympathy in words, but this way i can." Another felt, "Even though the world's problems can feel so overwhelming, the prayer shawl ministry gives me a tangible way to feel less helpless and to express my faith and my concern."

In `Mindful Knitting', Tara Jon Manning writes, "The smallest action can send out a breath of fresh air to everyone we encounter. The world lightens up a little. As each person feels that little bit of relief, that little encounter with basic goodness and compassion, the world begins to lighten up a lot."

The writer is a Mumbai-based organisational consultant, personal growth coach and workshop leader.


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