October 25, 2004
Mantles of Love
Janet Bristow, Co-Founder, Shawl Ministry
Seven years ago, Vicky Galo and I began knitting shawls of comfort for people we knew. We had just graduated from the Women's Leadership Institute at The Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. This certificate program explores women's spirituality, leadership, and feminist perspective in religion and society. The shawls seemed to be the perfect metaphor for what we had experienced and symbolic of the comforting, mothering, unconditionally loving God that we had come to know. They were also the answer to the challenge of finding a way to reach out to the people in our lives with our own gifts and talents, go forward with what we had learned, and pass on a blessing. Quite honestly, it's the way women intuitively minister to others. We've heard from many women that they've always prayed for the people receiving the work of their hands.
We met a woman at the Institute who prayed with a shawl through a very difficult time in her life and saw the comfort and solace that it gave to her. That Mexican-style shawl was one of the sources of our inspiration. So, after Vicky created the symbolic pattern for us to follow, we quite innocently began to knit. We had no idea that our little ministry would go any further. What happened after that was pure grace!
As the shawls were passed person-to-person, hand-to-hand, and heart-to-heart, a grassroots movement began. Others saw that this was something they could do. In times of sorrow and pain, little can be said or done that adequately expresses one's sorrow or concern. No words can make it all better. Suffering is lonely and people disconnect into their pain. But with the giving of a shawl, few words are necessary. Placing a beautiful, warm wrap around someone's shoulders in a hug of empathy and support is transcendent. For the receiver, God's presence is felt, as she or he realizes that they are not alone but enfolded in the prayers and good intentions of the giver. This can be a blessed moment of release and joy. The shawl becomes a private place into which a person can escape to just be! Muscles relax when the weight of the yarn is felt across the shoulders; the senses are heightened through sight and touch and, when the shawl is scented with a lavender sachet, calm and relaxation begin. One woman said that the shawl she received after the death of her daughter was something tangible she could hold onto....she literally put her fingers through the spaces in the yarn and held on!For the shawl maker, the process becomes a spiritual practice centered in prayer, as prayer, for prayer. It begins with selecting the color of the yarn, keeping in mind the circumstances of the receiver. Before one starts, a blessing is asked for the yarn, needles, and hands; and as the stitches are cast on, the prayers continue. Throughout the work are sprinkled the meditations and good intentions of the knitter for the receiver; and when the shawl is completed, a final blessing is offered and sent it's on its way. Sometimes the shawl is prayerfully presented; sometimes it arrives in the mail; and sometimes difficult to part with! It's easy to become attached to a shawl as it has accompanied the knitter/crocheter through many life experiences. When the final blessing is said and the shawl is passed onto the receiver, it's a grace-filled moment for the giver because she's giving away a part of herself. We like to stress that the shawls are given in good times, as well as difficult ones. Many have been gifts to brides and new mothers, the newly ordained and those who are graduating. They have been given as birthday, wedding, anniversary, rites of passage, and Christmas presents. Some churches are making small ones for christenings. Women, children, and men are being wrapped in loving care. There's a church in Massachusetts that has a sign out front that reads A Knitting Church. The pastor, his wife, a pastor as well, their children, and many others in both of their congregations knit or crochet shawls. Another minister in Connecticut told me that the ministry is knitting their church family together.
Soon, people wanted to form shawl ministries, and Vicky and I started traveling to them to present our workshop. Everyone knows someone who can use a shawl, and all are eager to begin. We encourage groups to sponsor an ecumenical workshop by inviting others in their community. This is a great way for people from different faith traditions to gather together to share a common love of knitting or crocheting, an interest in reaching out to others, and a desire to connect across the barriers of various religious beliefs. Not only does everyone bond and have a good time, but this kind of event opens the door to other ways of connecting. We've heard from a church in Maine that had a tragic event where parishioners died. They received a shawl from a church in California as a gesture of comfort and concern and were profoundly touched to know that others from so far away felt their pain.
The shawls have been vehicles to open lines of communication between people who need to talk but haven't been able to. They've been folded as pillows for sensitive arms following mastectomies, and wrapped the shoulders of the chemotherapy patient; they have cradled urns holding the ashes of the dead; been buried with the departed; left behind in loving testament to a life gone on....one family calls it the Love Shawl and take turns wrapping themselves into it to be close to grandma. They are the hug waiting for the widow or divorcee when she comes home to a dark house; the safe haven for the victim of domestic violence; the cocoon into which mother and baby nestle; the stole worn during homily and ritual; the mantle of comfort and recuperation; and the tent drawn shut when solitude is needed. They are wings to fly above one's troubles to be worn when happy, sad, confused, tired, ill, cold, needing answers or comfort, content, worried, at peace, thinking, writing, meditating, praying.
When I reflect on how and why this ministry has grown so fast and been embraced by so many, I can only conclude that God's Spirit is the guiding force. Vicky and I just happened to be open to the inspiration. It came at a time when it was needed as evidenced by the thousands of people across the country and around the world who have embraced it. It's simple; the concept is based in love; the method is ancient; the principle is basic with no strings attached. Knitted into this ministry is a joy that weaves its way around, over, under, and through the gamut of human experience from the giver to receiver and back again. Guided by the Spirit, it spreads like ripples on the water, touching and expanding, going where it will, embracing everyone, like shawls have been doing for centuries.
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