What’s A Prayer Shawl? (And Do You Have to Literally Pray Over Each Stitch to Make One?)

One of my favorite spiritual practices is to knit prayer shawls.  I love to sit quietly and not think, letting my mind rest while I simply make loop after loop with my hands and two bamboo sticks.  When I donate my work to my local church, I feel something like a sense of relief.  The thoughts and concerns that worked themselves out during the knitting of a large project come to an end, given over to a higher purpose. 

I have been known to sit and knit during church services.  I knit in the early morning silence of my meditation and prayer time.  But I also knit while watching TV with my family, in the school pick-up line, and while waiting for doctor appointments.  So I’ve wondered, what exactly makes a knitting project a “prayer shawl”?

For me, it’s all about intent.  Some knitting projects are for specific people for specific purposes – a hat for my husband, a winter scarf for my son, a tote bag for my daughter, a sweater for myself.  But for me, prayer shawls are for someone I likely will never know or meet.

In donating a prayer shawl, I’m giving up to God an investment of my time – usually several weeks’ worth of knitting on a daily basis.  I use soft yarns I hope will provide comfort to someone going through a hard time.  Sometimes I choose peaceful, calming colors for my prayer shawls.  Other times, I choose cheerful, peppy colors I hope will provide a cheerful, upbeat presence in someone’s life.  Sometimes I have in mind a female recipient and knit in pinks and reds and pastels.  Other times, I have a male recipient in mind and knit a prayer shawl a guy wouldn’t mind draped over a favorite chair.  I’ve knitted prayer shawls large enough to serve as a blanket on a nursing home bed.  Others are triangular and meant to wrap around someone’s shoulders.

In any case, the purpose of the project is to share love, comfort, and peace with someone in need.  Occasionally, I know someone who has had surgery, has cancer, or is at the end of life.  When I knit these shawls, I very intentionally think about the person for whom I’m knitting and for their struggles.  But usually, I don’t know where my prayer shawl will end up.  And that’s part of the spirituality of the task – putting forth your best efforts, sharing a gift of love, and trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to get your work where it needs to go. 

So while knitting a prayer shawl is a form of meditation at many points in the making of it, it’s more about the general intention of the whole project.  It’s about a gift of my own peacefulness, sending the finished project out into the world to serve as a visible, tangible reminder of the peace, love, and comfort that can be found in Christian fellowship – even if I never meet the person I find myself connected to with my gift. 

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us.”  She is currently at work on a series of short stories about prayer shawls and those who knit or receive them. 

Recommended Reading:

Peggy Rosenthal, Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting (An excellent, succinct little book that covers lots of topics related to knitting-as-prayer)

Clara Parkes, The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting (Great light reading, a nice memoir that pleasantly meanders along at a calm pace)

 

Good Friday in the Garden

This is an excerpt from my book, “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us,” now available in paperback and Kindle at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.   

The Garden is where Jesus was buried and resurrected to new life.  This is what happens in a garden.  The dry, seemingly lifeless seeds from the harvest of the past are buried in the earth.  We wait for something mysterious to happen under the earth, out of sight, and fueled by water and air.  Then we rejoice in the new life that springs up in front of us, growing into a beautiful flower or nutritious fruits or vegetables that will give us joy and sustain our very lives.

What happens in the Garden IS the story of the Christianity.  Death becomes new life, despite a seemingly hopeless state of affairs at the beginning of the process.  We proceed in faith that something will happen despite our inability to see anything hopeful happening at all.  How this all happens is mostly a mystery.  But eventually, a tiny sprout of new life pokes through the soil.  This new life is fragile and might wither.  But with careful tending and protection of this new life, the plant will grow tall and strong and give us the life-sustaining nutrition we need so much.

By resurrecting in a Garden, perhaps Jesus shared with us his best teachable moment.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to draw our attention to the garden, once and forever, urging us to look – really look – at what happens in the garden.  In his resurrected form, Jesus was first thought to be the gardener.  Perhaps the role of the gardener – the cultivator of God’s creation, an expert on the process of gardening, someone who pays attention to what is going on in the natural world – is a  role we might explore as we seek to cultivate and grow our own spiritual lives. 

We often feel most at peace in the garden. Perhaps it is this peace that Jesus sought in the Garden of Gethsemane before his death on the Cross.  Perhaps it was the awareness of all life – ending, beginning, and continuing on, through all our human births and deaths – that consoled Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or helped him confront worldly temptations in the wilderness, immediately after his Baptism and in preparation for his public ministry.

This peace in the garden and in the wilderness is something we can have in our own world today.  This peace is often right outside the door, a place of solace and quiet available at all times.  The natural world can also be a place of spiritual growth and development of wisdom, if we only step outdoors and pay attention in quiet and solitude, listening to God with our hearts. 

Easter Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of “Earth our Garden Home: Creation Care Lessons for Children” and “Wild Faith: A Creation Care Curriculum for Youth,” both available in paperback and Kindle editions. Considering Birds & Lilies is now available at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU. All of my books are included in Kindle Unlimited.

 

Considering Birds & Lilies – An Excerpt from my new book

My new book, Considering Birds & Lilies, is now available in paperback and Kindle editions at this link: http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.”

From “God’s Garden,” Dorothy Frances Gurney

How many of us have found peace, serenity, hope, and a sense of God’s presence in a garden or in a place of beauty in the wilderness?  This sense of spirituality while spending time in nature is nearly universal among humans, both in times past and in our own time.  We often hear friends and neighbors say that the mountains, a beautiful canyon, a vegetable garden, or a forest filled with trees and wildlife is their “church.”  Even those attending church regularly may express a need to go on a hike, work in the garden, or just relax in their backyard as a spiritual need which the walled-in church building cannot meet.

The spiritual need for time in nature is real. Humans feel better, think better, and are emotionally and physically healthier after spending time outdoors.  Time in nature is good for us.

As Christians, our stories are deeply intertwined with nature.  The Bible begins in a peaceful garden where all is right with the world (for a time), then follows Moses into the wilderness as he encounters a burning bush, then on to the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness and encountering God’s grace for survival.  They arrive in a fertile land of milk and honey and seek to establish a home.  After a time of exile, a time in a valley of dry bones, John the Baptist arrives out of the wilderness to announce a new era of good news.

Jesus quickly retreats to the wilderness of the desert as he begins his public ministry and often retreats to a quiet place in nature for reflection, prayer, and time with God.  His final evening as a free man is in a garden, and his resurrection takes place in a garden as well.

Despite these deep links with nature, modern churches have all but lost their connections with the natural world.  Look inside most churches, and the only greenery you will likely find are flowers placed near the altar.  There might be a little-used outdoor chapel on the property.  A couple of flower beds may be part of the typical mowed and artificially fertilized landscaping.  Otherwise, the church property may show no sign of connecting – much less embracing – the natural world that feeds us spiritually and physically.

Time in nature is for everyone.  No matter how athletic, outdoorsy, or comfortable with dirt and insects you may be, you can find a sense of peace while spending time in just a part of the natural world.  You might find this sense of peace while hiking the Appalachian Trial, but you can also find a sense of peace and spiritual comfort in your backyard garden or city park.   Nature speaks to everyone, wherever they are.

Copyright 2017 Cynthia Coe.  All Rights Reserved.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming new book, Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us.  Follow this blog or follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sycamorecove/  for news of promotions and upcoming releases. 

Blessings, Cindy

Wild Faith – About This Book

Making a direct connection between spirituality and the natural world is new for some of us.  And sometimes, we need a field guide when discovering or exploring a new feature of the natural world.

In my book Wild Faith, I’ve tried to provide a practical, “hands-on” field guide to exploring the deep connection between spirituality and nature.  For some people, this connection is obvious.  For others, you might have suspected that going outdoors and finding spiritual peace must be connected somehow, but you might have not quite put your finger on how nature and spirituality is connected.  For yet others, you might have previously thought of “spirituality” as something you only did in church buildings or via other more “traditional” routes.

While working on this book, I discovered that the connection between nature and spirituality is actually quite ancient and well established.  Moses found his calling while out in the wilderness by himself.  Jesus went out for a wilderness experience in the desert immediately after his Baptism.  Early Christians, the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” found deep spirituality by leaving the cities, leaving their church communities, and going to live in the wilderness by themselves or in small communities of like-minded spiritual seekers.

I’m currently working on a book about this deep connection between nature and faith – and how it is more relevant today than ever.  But in the meantime, I invite you to take a look at Wild Faith, a collection of prayers, liturgies, meditations, and activities to help you lead young people in discovering the link between faith and nature for themselves. 

To download the Kindle edition of Wild Faith, please go to: http://amzn.to/2fyTiy5 .  (If you don’t have a Kindle e-reader or tablet, you can download the Kindle to your laptop or other device; it’s free as well, easy, and quick.)  A print edition of Wild Faith is also available of this book and available through Amazon, B&N, and other distributors. 

Please visit my website, www.sycamorecove.org and “like” my Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/sycamorecove/ . 

Blessings, Cindy

Spirituality in the Wilderness – A Practice of Early Christianity, More Relevant Now Than Ever Before

In my book Wild Faith, I encourage people to get out in the woods to work on their spiritual lives.  Seemingly, this is a rather new idea.  In my years of teaching Christian formation, most programs I encountered involved “programs” set up inside church buildings.  With the exception of church camp programs, the idea of simply going outdoors by yourself is not one of the spiritual disciplines the church has encouraged in recent times.

But in reading up on the history of ancient spiritual practices, I find that going outdoors to be by yourself in relative silence is actually a very old and revered spiritual practice.  In fact, the early Christians who were most serious about their spiritual lives were the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” who left the city, went out into the wild, and lived very simply, quietly, and either alone or with a few other similarly-minded souls.

As I work on an upcoming book on Faith & Nature, I’m wondering if this practice of going outdoors by yourself for “alone time” will become more the norm than the exception of Christian spirituality.  With all the constant, unrelenting disruptions and interruptions of all our devices, I’m wondering if all of us need a little time in nature (if not the wilderness) to clear our minds, relax, and unplug.

Here are some of the books I’ve just finished reading as I write this new book:

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  This little book is an oldie but a goodie.  As always, Nouwen says a whole lot with only a few words.  Highly recommended.

Brett Webb-Mitchell, School of the Pilgrim: An Alternative Path to Christian Growth.  This book tells of the history and nature of pilgrimages in Christian spirituality, with vignettes of his own pilgrimage experiences.  Excellent.

Peter H. Gorg, The Desert Fathers: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism.  I read this for a nice history lesson on the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  It’s a good little paperback for church history nerds.  (Translated from the German, and no my computer doesn’t do umlauts.)

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  It took me a long time to get through this book.  It is excellent, but it is slow going.  The author combines his primary topic with a parallel story of his mother’s slow death in a nursing home, which I wasn’t expecting and (quite frankly) didn’t appreciate.  As a mountain girl, I did appreciate Lane’s inclusion of the forests and mountains in his discussion of “fierce landscapes.”  This book would be terrific for a seminary course on this subject, but for more casual readers, I really liked Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints quite a bit better.

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.  I read this for devotional purposes, but I found it had quite a bit of wisdom on spirituality in nature as well.  Isn’t it funny how we often stumble upon exactly what we need to read, without even trying?

Stay tuned for news of my new book!

Blessings, Cindy

The Spirituality of Writing – Favorite Books & Authors

Many of my spiritual friends are also writers, and that’s no coincidence.  Writing and spirituality – at least on good days – are both active practices of contemporary mysticism. Like meditation, centering prayer, or lectio divina, the process of writing in your journal, crafting a story, or drafting a nonfiction essay gets in touch with deep truths, essential facts of life, and brutal honesty.

Like many spiritual practices, writing takes place larger in silence and by yourself.  Like spirituality, writing often involves confronting your inner demons, bad past relationships, where you’ve been, and where you think or hope you’re going.  Though writing may sound like a breezy, romantic occupation, it’s actually a lot of soul-baring, emotionally draining work.

Many of my favorite authors have written on this wonderful and mysterious process of writing.  Here are some of my favorites, holding places on my bookshelves like old friends watching me work and get in that mystical state where the best writing happens.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

I’ve read many, many books on the process, craft, and spirituality of writing, but there are my all-time favorites.  What are yours?

Happy Writing, Cindy

Favorite Books on Faith

As I have struggled with my own hard questions about faith (and often finding myself on the fringe of the institutional church), I’ve found the following books most helpful in letting me know that others struggle and question and sometimes feel on the fringe, too.  These books might also be helpful by showing us how many of us feel, whether a part of a church or not.

All of these books are very accessible and easy, engaging reading.  All are in paperback and in the $10-$20 range, available online or in stock or available by ordering from the major bookstores.

Julia Cameron, Answered Prayers: Love Letters from the Divine (2004).  This is a book of short, one-page prayers – but from God to you (not the other way around).  This is one of the most affirming books I’ve ever read and good to digest in very short bites, perhaps as a daily meditation aid.  I also recommend Cameron’s many other prayer books.

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (2000), Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2006), and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (2007).  Anne Lamott is a trip, pure and simple.  For starters, she has blond dreadlocks and is anything but a typical “church lady.”  She chronicles her struggles with faith, everyday life as a single mom, and the life of her anything-but-conventional local church.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (2007) and An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (2010).  Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and rock star preacher who takes a break from institutional church life to explore faith in other settings.  An Altar in the World presents spirituality in simple, everyday acts of real life.

Sara Miles, Take This Bread (2007).  I can honestly say this book changed the way I think about things.  Sara Miles is a war correspondent and cook who had a conversion experience while taking Eucharist for the first time after stumbling into an Episcopal church in San Francisco.  She then went on to start a hunger ministry – serving the hungry food off the actual altar in her church. She now has several other books in print, also recommended.

Blessings on your own spiritual journey,

Cindy Coe