Ram Dass, still here
This week's portion: plagued

A shawl of a different color

The wool is dazzlingly soft, like a caress to the fingers. The color is a kind of mellowed rose, like soft raspberry sorbet. The card which accompanied it reads:

May God's grace be on this shawl,
warming, comforting, and embracing.
May it be a safe haven...
a sacred place of security
and well being...
Sustaining you in good times
and difficult ones.
May this shawl cradle you in hope;
keep you in joy;
graced with peace and wrapped in love.

In my lexicon, the term "prayer shawl" is usually an Anglicized term for tallit, the prayer shawl in which I enfold myself for morning prayer. (The one I most often wear was given to me by my parents when I became bat mitzvah; woven by Phyllis Kantor, it's the leftmost one depicted in this photo.)

But this is something different: a shawl made by the Prayer Shawl Ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Topsfield, Mass. It's not an item of ritual garb per se, but rather a handcrafted shawl intended to be worn at any time, and to enfold its wearer in a sense of love and care.

This form of ministry officially dates back to 1998, when Janet Bristo and Victoria Galo -- graduates of the Women's Leadership Institute at the Hartford Seminary -- established a circle of women who knitted compassion and spiritual practice together into shawls, intended to be given to those "in need of comfort and solace, as well as in celebration and joy."

The process begins with prayers and blessings for the recipient. Blessings are prayed into each shawl, and each stitch is knitted with conscious and prayerful intent (what, in my tradition, we call kavvanah.) Once the shawl is completed, a final blessing is offered, and then the shawl is sent on its way. Though the phenomenon began in a specific church context, the practice has spread beyond that particular church, and indeed beyond Christianity. This is ecumenism at its sweetest.

Wrapping myself in this prayer shawl, I feel warmth, and comfort. I feel the enfolding compassion of the women whose work went into making this, each stitch a little prayer in looped yarn. And I feel gratitude toward the women who created this, most of whom don't know me at all.

In a sense, every handknitted item made with love -- be it a scarf or a sweater, a blanket or a hat -- is a kind of embodied blessing, a prayer for the warmth and comfort and wellbeing of the wearer for whom it was meant. That's part of the reason we cherish handknitted gifts: not only because they take time and skill to create, but also because they're gifts of the heart. Though I do know men who knit, this seems to me primarily a kind of women's ministry, a way of consciously sanctifying one of the ways women express our care for one another.

As this Beliefnet article  notes, the process of making the shawls is a contemplative practice for the women who do it. As Galo, one of the originators of the contemporary practice, says, "I was trying to get sacred with my hands." Or, in Bristow's words (here):

The process of making a shawl becomes a spiritual practice centered in prayer, as prayer, for prayer. Throughout the work are sprinkled the meditations and good intentions of the knitter for the recipient. When the shawl is passed onto the receiver, it’s a grace-filled moment for the giver, as well, because a part of herself goes with the shawl.

I like to think that knitting this rose-colored shawl was calming and contemplative for the women who did the work. (Perhaps they even said a prayer like the one reprinted at the end of this review of Knitting Into the Mystery.) Certainly as I wear it now, on the coldest day of the year so far, I feel not only warmed, but also multiply blessed.

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