A little Project that Grew
By Rita Maisel
There is a dim memory of a video on prayer shown at church a year or two ago where suggestions may have included something later called “prayer squares,” but I was not part of the planning or implementing of what they planned to do at some future date so forgot about it completely. In the spring another project surfaced called Lydia Project which involved making many purple scarves which have kept me more than occupied ever since.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving I was approached after church and asked to copy a sample item of crocheting and to hopefully make enough for an event being held later that afternoon. The sample was little and a sort of greenish, brown color yarn I don’t necessarily keep on hand. Also, it looked kind of ugly. It was not a project I could easily get enthused about, and there were a couple of important questions since I already had plans for that afternoon. First, are there any instructions? The answer was no with advice that “you could figure it out”. Second, how many do you need? The answer was about 30, but if you don’t get them all made today there was a two-week deadline for the rest. The person asking for this task obviously thought making them was a simple task taking only a few minutes and added that I could make them out of any color yarn I had on hand. By the way, she wanted to be sure I had one done for a member of the church who had an important doctor’s appointment on Friday so that person would know we were praying for her.
The project is generally known as making pocket prayer shawls – bits of knitting or crocheting with a raised cross motif although it would be a few days later before we learned the proper name. Anything connected with prayer for people who are sick or bereaved or even wanting prayer for guidance falls under the general rules for prayer shawls. First you start with prayer, naming the person in your prayer, if possible. I went home from church, prayed for the lady with the Friday appointment and found some bright samples of soft yarn – all much prettier than the sample. My afternoon plans were set aside, and three hours later I knew how many stitches per row, approximately how many rows were needed and had figured out the background. Twelve hours later (yes, after midnight) I still had no clue how to design the raised cross motif so I gave up and went to bed.
Realizing the next morning that there had been a lady in South Dakota who was at our church when the original group was planning an earlier project who had left me her e-mail, I wrote to ask for instructions. The instructions came the following day along with advice that it was a time-consuming project which turned out to be an understatement. To make a long story short, one actual miniature shawl with the cross motif was completed by Wednesday and given to the person going to the doctor on Friday. Since the final deadline for additional pocket shawls was looming closer, making those became a night and day process even though I did not know the names of the people in the church group which wanted to give them out. It is hard to pray anonymously.
While the first rule of prayer shawls of any size is to pray, there is additional information. The proverb that message comes from also says that God will show you the pattern, and He will send you the yarn. Since I already had plenty of yarn what happened is that uses for the prayer shawls seemed to miraculously multiply. They could be added to a get well or thinking of you card. They are appropriate for sympathy gifts and for Grief Share groups. The internet and the instructions sent to me had special adaptations for sending them to people in the military, to first responders, to support groups of many kinds. Another “first thing you learn” is that this is not a denominational project although many denominations do encourage making and exchanging them. It is simply a love and caring project which is used around the world and across all religious and ethnic lines- in other words, the kind of project that individuals can turn into fun! While making them I should have been addressing Christmas cards or making ornaments for the trees of friends and relatives. Instead, some of those people got pocket prayer shawls in their cards or will get them when I finish up the Christmas giving.
One of the first groups some of the early pocket shawls went to were the residents at the Osnabrock Care Center. Some of their residents had been part of the full-size prayer shawl groups begun by Linda Schauer years ago. Since the miniature ones can be made in many colors, we learned that people tend to cherish something made for them in a color they like. Before I had a chance to finish the number needed for a Grief Share group in Langdon, a request had come from a Grief Share group in Denver where a friend, since the early 1950s, lives. As it happened my friend’s husband died earlier this year, and she had been contacted by a Denver group who were interested in her experiences in dealing with the loss of a spouse of roughly 70 years. She told them that dealing with grief is helped by writing to old friends, and as it happened, she had just written to me. The leader of the group was very interested. Her grandmother grew up in Langdon, North Dakota, and had graduated from Langdon High School long ago. Her grandmother’s maiden name was Isabelle Baldwin.
Prayer shawls of any size cannot be purchased or sold. They are made with love and prayer. As we learned from the people at Osnabrock they can have mistakes because “everyone makes mistakes,” and they are always a gift. And they can be made with different motifs depending on the group you are making them for.
The original cross motif came into use for those in the military during the first Gulf War, known by many as Desert Storm in the early 1990s. I do remember the support group at Langdon adding metal or wooden crosses to the letters and packages sent overseas. Crosses were a theological message to Desert Storm Middle Eastern forces that was a carryover from as far back as the Crusades when Christians set out to wrest the Holy Land from Islamic forces. Banners with crosses were carried at the front of the groups intent on staking that claim. Similar items were carried prior to World War I when Great Britain participated in the downfall of some previously independent Middle East nations. Other groups picked up the making of the little shawls after 911 and added not only those involved with military efforts but first responders, firemen, and police to the lists of recipients.
The ones I ended up making were the crosses first suggested, as that is a traditional symbol of the Christian church and used in the most denominations in our part of the world. You find crosses on steeples, on church signs, on the ends of pews and in banners inside the sanctuaries and in stained glass windows. But if the little prayer shawls were to be used for both happy and sad occasions, it seemed like other designs would also be applicable. The easiest to make was a heart which has long been a symbol of love and caring. The second one I wanted to do was the butterfly which is a common symbol for the resurrection and appropriate for funerals or for those who are grieving. That design turned out to be the most time-consuming. The butterfly wings and body are easy but trying to find appropriate antennae and get them to stay in place can be a problem. A phone call from Omaha mentioned that a church there makes something similar with an angel design for baptisms. Crocheted designs are usually raised so those with vision problems can feel the motif. Knitted ones are knitted into the design and generally flat.
Before I had a few done I learned there are patterns on the internet which I could have consulted and anyone who would like to try them out can do so. Just type in “Pocket Prayer Shawl” and pictures, some with instructions, will appear on your computer screen. Because they are a relatively small item and take more time than material it would be easy to have some available for those going for chemo, dialysis or other medical needs who want to have them. I have talked to some of the support people and together we could get you one or more if needed. As a disclaimer I do need to point out there is no medicine in the prayer shawls, and they are not magic. Those who carry them will simply know that people in your community are praying for them, and best of all, it is a tangible sign that God Loves You. Happy New Year everyone.