A few years ago, my wife Joan took up her ministry. She knits prayer shawls.
With the onset of chronic leukemia, Joan didn’t have the energy to continue some of her previous volunteer activities. She hadn’t done much knitting for years. But shortly after her diagnosis, her friend Bev Milton knitted Joan a blue prayer shawl.
I soon learned to recognize when Joan was feeling low—she wrapped herself into that blue shawl.
Joan set herself a goal, to knit one prayer shawl a month. Sometimes she gets ahead of herself—she’s currently knitting October’s shawl.
The skeptical side of me has doubts about the value of a prayer shawl. Granted, wool is warm and cuddly all by itself. But it is inanimate. It is nothing more than the hair cells of a sheep—or, sometimes, of their camel-cousin llamas and alpacas in the Andes—twisted together into a knit-able yarn. The cells have no more life than my fingernail clippings. They do not, they cannot, carry information with them.
And yet there is something warmer, more comforting, about a shawl that has been knit with love and compassion than there is in, say, a synthetic microfiber blanket.
In our congregation, the shawls that Joan and others knit receive a blessing before they’re given out. A dozen or more shawls are laid out, draped over the seat backs in the rows. Worshippers lay their hands on the nearest shawl while reciting words that speak of hope, consolation, caring. Those who can’t reach a shawl rest a hand on someone who has. Thus everyone is connected, a transmission line of goodwill.
Dead sheep cells don’t know that. But people who receive those shawls say that they can feel the caring when they drape the shawl around their shoulders.
I was given one myself, when I smashed my elbow a few years ago. It wasn’t one of Joan’s. But I know I felt something.
I have doubts—misgivings, perhaps—about intercessory prayer. You know, the kind where you ask an old man in the sky to do something you can’t do yourself. Cure that cancer. Heal that heart. Mend that mental illness. Send down that cloud with the silver lining…
I no longer believe in a fairy godmother with a magic wand that goes “Poof!” Nor do I believe in the power of the human mind to bend spoons or shrink tumours. I don’t deny occasional miracles; I simply deny that we humans can call up miracles on demand.
Yet increasingly I believe that there is more to us than chemical elements and DNA. When I open up my heart to let others into it, something sometimes happens. Something good.
So when a number of us raise the same thing to the top of our thoughts—even if only for the length of a liturgy—why shouldn’t something happen there too?
Maybe someday we’ll have the forensic skills to identify subtle changes in the chemistry of wool, of a warm drink, of a get-well note, that are brought about by being handled with love.
Until then, I have to accept that Joan’s prayer shawls consist of more than just wool.