Meditation on Knitting a Prayer Shawl

by Ruth Lapp Guengerich, MW USA co-director

I have been crocheting for many years, but have not knitted anything since participating in Wayfarers’ Girls’ Club many years ago at Plains Mennonite Church. Our Wayfarers’ leaders taught us to knit bandages, intended for leprosy patients in India. As I recall, my mother usually finished up my knitting projects; before she took over, the partially finished bandage was riddled with holes from dropped stitches and crazily irregular in width.

In the last few years I have been inspired by the healing power and comfort of prayer shawls. My family of three sisters, five brothers and eight spouses prayed over a shawl that my sister Mary had knitted, which I then delivered to my friend Gwen Rich who was dying from pancreatic cancer. During a Constituency Leaders’ Council (CLC) meeting we draped a prayer shawl over the shoulders of Herm Weaver, Mountain States Conference Minister, on the anniversary of the death of his daughter Chloe. During the early Sister Care seminars we invited the participants to identify someone whose story convinced them that their sister needed a prayer shawl. These recipients always expressed deep appreciation to be blessed by this gift that warmed the heart and the soul.

In all these situations, and in many others I have heard about, women, men and children have been blessed by the gift of a prayer shawl. The shawl is usually prayed over while it is being knitted, and perhaps blessed, or dedicated, before it is then chosen to bless someone in emotional, spiritual and/or physical need. This prayer is sometimes attached to the prayer shawl, for the recipient:

You, whoever you are, are very special to God.
      This Prayer Shawl was made with you in mind.
Our prayer for you is that God may guide you,
      keep you, and instruct you into all truth.
May this shawl, as you fold it over you,
      keep you warm in God’s love,
            close to God’s heart,
                  and at peace with yourself and others.

As I knitted this shawl I was reminded of the need to be resourceful, from figuring out how to cast on stitches (thank you, Google and YouTube) to casting off stitches to complete this project.

finished prayer shawl

finished prayer shawl

Having accomplished the first feat of casting on the stitches, I began knitting. I have crocheted many items over the past many years, but my knitting skills are cumbersome at best. If I tried to talk to someone while knitting, and looked away for a few seconds, I was likely to transfer a stitch to the right hand needle without completing the stitch. Perish the thought if I discovered my mistake several stitches later, or after completing one or more rows! I painstakingly pulled out good stitches to get to the bad one in order to fix it. My knitting needles felt like additional thumbs in my awkwardness and frustration.

At one point I tried flexing the needle, for some reason that I have already forgotten, and the needle broke into three pieces! This “irritation of my spirit,” (to quote a three-year old whom I just met) created near despair. I went to bed fearful that I would have to rip out the entire project; in my annoyance it did not occur to me that I could simply go buy another set of needles!

That fear was allayed when I searched through my stash of knitting needles (from whence they have come is another story in itself, but suffice it to say, I have been carting around these knitting needles for years, confident that someday I would use them) and happily found a metal set of knitting needles the same size. Now I could also enjoy the proverbial “clicking” sound of knitting as I finished this prayer shawl.

Despite these potholes on the road to completing this prayer shawl, I also experienced great satisfaction in the process of knitting. “Praying without ceasing” is not something I have ever accomplished, but I tried to be prayerful as I knitted. I confess to having watched TV at times while knitting, but despite the distractions of the world around me, I fell into the rhythm of knitting, which calmed my restless and tired spirit. My body 004relaxed into the rhythm as I prayed for the unknown recipient of this shawl, that she (or he) would be warmed by the prayers and the love that went into the creation of this shawl. As the shawl lengthened, it warmed me as I knitted for someone else.

Coming to the last row of the shawl, a YouTube tutorial guided me as I “cast off” the stitches to finish this project. As I surveyed my work with contentment, I was also keenly aware that it is not perfect (just as I am not perfect),but am hopeful that the recipient will focus more on the benefits of the prayer shawl than on the imperfections of my work. A few days later, chilled in my 68 degree home, I wrapped myself in the completed shawl, testing its warmth, to guarantee that it would provide a “warm spirit” to the recipient of this finished prayer shawl.

May this shawl keep another warm in God’s love,
      close to God’s heart,
            and at peace with self and others.

MW USA Prayer Shawl Instructions 2014.01.29

6 thoughts on “Meditation on Knitting a Prayer Shawl

  1. Marjorie Neufeld on said:

    It almost makes me want to try knitting someday. Maybe it would be difficult for someone with essential tremor. ??? Well written as usual, Ruth.

  2. Thanks, Marge. I do not know how your tremors would affect knitting; perhaps crocheting would be easier, since there is only one hook, instead of two needles to manage? I’d be happy to talk more in person about that. I want to start a prayer shawl group at church, knitting or crocheting.

  3. Rhoda Charles on said:

    Thanks for sharing this Ruth! I am glad you endured until your beautiful shawl was finished. Now the next amazing thing will be when God shows you who will receive it. It is often a wonderful mystery of God.

    • Yes, Rhoda, it feels like a mystery. And control. Part of me wants the freedom to decide to whom to give it, and part of me wants to turn it over to the pastors for their discretion. I intend to do the latter, but I confess I do it just a tiny bit reluctantly!

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