Prayer Shawl Ministry
Eucharist, Theology, and Prayer
In appreciation Donna Bowman's
Prayer Shawl Ministries and Women's Theological Imagination
The Genre of the Book
“We professional theologians often talk about the importance of lay participation in theology and about the need for bottom-up theology to check top-down theology. But this generally remains just talk. Donna Bowman has heard a lot of Christian women into theological speech. If she had asked them to describe their “theology,” nothing of value would be likely, but they are fully articulate in reflecting about their Christian activities. May the genre thus pioneered by Bowman flourish!”
“With this book, Donna Bowman has created a handmade theology, or better, a "shawlology." The prayer shawls we read about here are not merely metaphorical, but hold values of protection, memory, communal identification and communication, woven with profound strands of meaning. Doing theology with needle and yarn, Bowman shows how some of the most vital origins of theological thinking begin in the experiences of living rooms. Readers will come to a renewed vision of the material experiences at the heart of faith.”
From the Book
This question has made me remember the night that my dad died. My mother always brought her knitting to the hospital, and it was always a shawl. And she took this almost completed prayer shawl—my father was six foot four and thin—with her knitting needles and all, and draped it over Daddy and the needles were up by his chest, and she said, “Now you’re covered in two shawls,” because we had his other one with him too. And I think that was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. What was sacred about that shawl is that it was her way of tangibly blanketing Daddy in love. And he was unconscious, and we knew it was just a matter of hours. It’s giving women a way of doing something that is almost speechless. Like, how do you tell your husband of fifty years that he can die?[i]
In one sense, prayer shawls are like other fabrics that women have made for religious purposes—kneelers, altar cloths, vestments. But there is one difference that seemed, as I began my theological investigation, to make all the difference. Prayer shawls escape the sanctuary. The hands that made them release them into the world, the uncaring and profane world, where you can’t count on people to treat the sanctified fabric with the honor it’s due. Inside the church, where the other fabrics live, they are cared for according to strict rules and traditions. Even in evangelical congregations that don’t have sacristies and Eucharistic linens, the notion of sacred fabric isn’t absent; the Southern Baptist church where I grew up revered its flags (American and Christian) and insisted on their proper treatment and placement. So what enabled prayer shawl makers to give up control of their creations? Did they see shawls differently from these other fabrics? How did they think of the sacredness of prayer shawls, if they thought of it at all? ...
Prayer shawl knitters have to cast off their work. Casting off (sometimes called binding off) is the opposite of casting on, which is how a knitted piece starts—the creation of new “live” stitches into which additional rows of stitches can be worked. When you cast off, you put those stitches to rest by folding them over each other so they won’t unravel. The term, though, never fails to remind me of its use in sailing, where casting off means releasing the line that connects a craft to an anchorage. Casting off is setting sail. It’s the end of the shawl’s making, but the beginning of the shawl’s journey—the end of becoming, and the beginning of being.
About the Book
Based on personal interviews, Handmade Religion uncovers the theological creativity of Christian lay women quietly stitching their own sacred fabric. From the origins of prayer shawl ministry in feminist and ecumenical thought, the movement has grown to hundreds of groups, composed mostly of women over 60, in denominations across the political and doctrinal spectrum. Through participation in handcrafting ministries, participants reflect on themes that sometimes complement and sometimes challenge the public stances of their communities. Women in prayer shawl ministries develop commitments to broad inclusion, reject the intrusion of market forces, and realize their productive power. Out of their traditional roles as caretakers, they craft compassion into a conscious, theologically-rich practice. Out of their historical subordination, they cultivate trust in divine providence and hope for the preservation of their legacy. Listening to their ideas, convictions, and concerns, and connecting them to findings from multiple scholarly fields, this book seeks to disclose the convergences and complexity of ordinary women’s theological thinking and behavior.
Prayer Shawl MInistry:
Eucharist, Theology, and Prayer
Take, hold, this is a prayer shawl given for you.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’
- Matthew 26:26
Imagine that you are very sick and in the hospital. You are not really a church person, but you wouldn't mind being visited by someone from a local church. A woman from a local church comes to see you and visits with you. You tell her about yourself and she listens. You feel healed by her listening. On leaving she gives you a prayer shawl: "This prayer shawl is my theology. I can't put it into words but I can put it into yarn and give it to you. Use it however you wish. Take, hold, this is a prayer shawl given for you."
Her giving of the shawl would be akin to an offering of Holy Communion, of the bread and wine of Christ's table, except the elements would be made of yarn not yeast. She would not be ordained but the "elements" would indeed have been consecrated, not only by the love she puts into the shawl but by your own gratitude for the gift.
So where would the theology be? There would be theology in her words, to be sure; but there would also be theology in her hands and in the shawl she places in my hands. At least this is how things seem to me as someone influenced by process theology. Most people think of process theology as a verbal reality, articulated in books by great theologians such as John Cobb, Marjorie Suchocki, Thomas Oord, Catherine Keller, and many others. Of course this is true. There is a good deal of process theology in books and articles. I think of Donna Bowman's own The Divine Decision: A Process Doctrine of Election. It's good and wordy, wordy and good.
But what is interesting to me is that the words of process theology so often point back to the world itself, including hands and bodies, relationships and feelings, as the place where God is found and felt. I'll call it process theology of felt relationships. We might also call it liturgical theology or sacramental theology or incarnational theology, because it finds something holy and sacred in the things of the world. God isn't just far away; God is near at hand -- and indeed in the hands that give and receive prayer shawls. In the giving and receiving God is present as what we process theologians call creative transformation.
So often creative transformation requires a letting go, a casting off. This is especially true of the one who creates the shawl and then gives it away. She can do this because she trusts in a spirit of goodness --- a Holy Spirit -- who operates in the lives of others apart from our mediation: Use it however you wish. Once she has created the shawl, it is no longer hers. It belongs to God and to whomever receives it. In the words of Donna Bowman: "Casting off is setting sail. It’s the end of the shawl’s making, but the beginning of the shawl’s journey—the end of becoming, and the beginning of being."
Yes, Donna Bowman's book -- Prayer Shawl Ministries and Women's Theological Imagination -- offers a theology of felt relationships. She shows how handmade objects can carry theological meaning as can the hands that make and receive them. Importantly, it also offers a theology of prayer. Not verbal prayer but body prayer.
How often in our lives we cannot pray with our minds but we can pray with our bodies: by baking something, lighting a candle, or taking a walk, or making a prayer shawl. If prayer is reaching out into the infinite with hope and trust, then knitting is prayer. And if prayer is releasing good intentions into the world, hoping that somehow they provide comfort in people's lives, then knitting is again prayer.
There is a deep wisdom in this kind of bodily theology. Once we get over the idea that intelligence consists only of words in texts or meanings in the mind; once we realize that there are many forms of intelligence, three of which are visual-spatial intelligence and bodily intelligence and emotional intellicence; then we realize that some of the best intelligence on earth is in objects themselves, in how we make them and receive them. Take, hold, this is my shawl given for you.
-- Jay McDaniel
You might also enjoy Stitch by Stitch: How Love and Beauty can begin with the Hands by Jay McDaniel and The Metaphysics of Cyberspace: Learning to Knit with Help from Social Media by Jay McDaniel and Donna Bowman.