Labour of Love : A Meditation on Psalm 139

(Click here to read Ps 139 in the English Standard Version)

elijah-and-elisha

Elijah and Elisha (Source)

Images and metaphors related to textiles abound throughout the Bible. Sometimes, like in the story of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 19), a garment — a cloak — symbolizes on its own the whole prophetical function : the prophet Elijah quite literally throws his cloak at the one who is going to become his successor, as a visible sign of his role and authority as the one who speaks in the name of God. Sometimes, like in the Gospel according to Mark, garments stand for one’s identity : called by Jesus, the blind Bartimaeus relinquishes his cloak as he jumps in answer to that call, and we guess that with his cloak, he also relinquishes his old self, the one who sat for endless days in darkness, to become the one who walks with the Light (Mk 10).

And sometimes, like here, it is the process of making a garment which helps us understand what is going on.

But first, let us read that psalm from the beginning : “You know when I sit down and when I rise up ; you discern my thoughts from afar”. “Where shall I go from your Spirit ? Or where shall I flee from your presence ?” What is the psalmist trying to express ? Is that praise for the Lord’s wondrous deeds, or is he crying out in despair at that terrifying thing : intimacy, an intimacy much too close for comfort with his God ?  Such an intimate relationship was, after all, none of his own making. He had no choice, no say in it.

Intimacy, most of us know it, can sometimes be difficult to manage, wether between close friends, in a family or in a couple. There are things we would prefer to keep secret. There are things we would prefer not to know. But however difficult it may be, we can bear it because, in our relationships, intimacy usually is chosen and reciprocal. We allow ourselves to get known by the others as the others allow themselves to get known by us. This is not what the psalmist is talking about. Wether he likes it or not, God knows everything about him, even those things he would prefer to hide in the darkness of the night, those things he dares not avow even to himself — in fact, He knows him far better than the psalmist knows himself. And yet, to his human partner, He remains at the same time a mystery, the greatest mystery of his whole existence. Indeed, being intimately known by a complete stranger who watches you at all times, relentlessly, and has the power to pronounce a definitive sentence over your entire life — and God, in His utter otherness, is a Stranger to us — is a terrifying experience. It is no wonder, really, to see how desperate the psalmist is to stress how much he hates the wicked and their evil ways. These bellicose verses are no more than a “O Lord, have mercy on me !”

Mary weaving with Jesus at her feet ; French miniature drawn by Jacques de Besançon, illustrating a "Life of Christ" (1490s)

Mary weaving with Jesus at her feet ; French miniature drawn by Jacques de Besançon, illustrating a “Life of Christ” (1490s ; photo credit)

And yet, the psalm expresses more than a heart-wrenching cry of despair. Hope and comfort are not absent from it, because of that simple fact : God, the psalmist says, “knitted me together in my mother’s womb” ; He has “intricately woven me in the depths of the earth.” Every knitter, crocheter or weaver knows it : creating an intricate and elaborate fabric is a minute, time-consuming labour. Slipping the shuttle again and again through the threads on the loom ; catching yarn with knitting needles or a crochet hook to create loop after loop, tens of thousands of them : there is no better image to express a long, painstaking, patient work. There is maybe no better image for selfless love, for time freely given, than those textile crafts where progress is so slow, sometimes barely perceptible (some particularly intricate woven fabrics are so time-consuming that it takes one year to weave one single meter of it), and which result in a thing of wonder and beauty.

It is no coincidence if, for centuries, the good wife and mother was the one who clothed her family herself from the work of her hands, because it seemed that only the deepest love and the greatest dedication could keep her back bent on the loom and her hands busy with the needles, in a ceaseless and constant effort, each garment only completed to leave place for the next.

“You knitted me together in my mother’s womb”, says the psalmist. And suddenly, God is not that stern, terrifying judge any longer ; He becomes the loving mother herself, working with an infinite patience on this labour of love which makes us more than just living and breathing human beings : the flesh of His flesh, His beloved ones. In this act of creation, we are given more than a body and a beating heart : we are made both the work and the recipients of God’s overflowing love which creates us just as He created Wisdom (Proverbs 8:23). And because of this love, because He knitted us together and intricately wove us before we could even remember it, intimacy with God becomes not only a bearable, but even a desirable thing. It becomes the promise of a life-giving and lasting love, far greater than our sin, our fallings and our shortcomings. It reminds us that we have no sterner judge than our own heart, but that in God, we will find that most extraordinary thing : forgiveness. It reminds us that, in the words of John (1 John 3:20), whenever our heart condemns us, God — the God whose infinite love and infinite patience knitted us together before we came to the world — is greater than our heart.

Knitting, Praying : On The Virtues Of Repetition

medium_3306329555When I gave this blog the title of “The Knitting Theologian”, it was because I was anticipating that writing about knitting would lead me to write about faith, theology or spirituality. Since Lent has begun, and is a privileged time to think about one’s daily practices, I wanted to try and write about the way knitting connects with spiritual practices in my everyday life.

When I first took up knitting, it wasn’t long before I realized how soothing it is. Knitting is, after all, a craft in which you endlessly repeat two basic gestures : knit stitches and purl stitches. Every pattern, even the most intricate lace shawl, is but a variation on these two basic stitches. If you knit stockinette stitch in the round, when knitting a plain sock for example, you’ll even repeat the exact same little dance of your needles row after row. At first, I didn’t make much of it ; I was content with enjoying the calming effects of repetition : the breaths drawn deeper and slower, the parasite thoughts gradually silenced, leaving space for concentration and reflexion.

Then it dawned on me that I could pray my knitting in a very simple way : by pairing its gestures with the simple words of repetitive prayer.

Though it isn’t a very popular practice among Protestant traditions (but things are changing), repetitive prayer is something I often do. Now I don’t think God is deaf or not paying attention. On the contrary, I do it because I’m the one who is unable to listen and concentrate. Like many people, I generally have much on my mind at the same time : what to put on the list for grocery shopping, what to cook for supper, what to read next, how to express this or that idea in an intelligible written form… I even often have imaginary conversations with authors of books or essays I’ve just read (but then I may be a little weird). All these thoughts produce a permanent inner “noise” and keep interfering with whatever I do, making it really difficult to concentrate on what I’m doing and to be truly present to the task I’m working on or to the person I’m being with. It gets even worse when I’m trying to pray. I sit in silence, close my eyes, and there it goes : as there is nothing to distract me, my own noisy, boisterous thoughts instantly take up all the space. I can see them speed in front of me in every possible directions, like the most anarchical fireworks there ever was. Prayer ? Forget it. There’s no place. I might manage to fit one or two words between thought-rockets wheezing by and going off in spectacular explosions, but that’s all.

Repetitive prayer is the only thing that helps. By simply saying, or rather thinking, the same few words, often from a biblical verse (or it can be a simple song ; I recently discovered that Taizé songs are perfect for this) over and over again, saying them slowly and concentrating on them, trying to fully grasp their meaning, the inner noise gradually subsides. Maybe one could argue that repetitive prayer isn’t prayer in the usual sense of speaking to God, but rather more a way of saying : “Here I am, Lord.” But after all, isn’t it precisely what prayer is about, saying to God : “Lord, I stand before you and I depend on you” ? And as I slowly repeat these simple words, something changes : my breaths are drawn deeper and slower, my body becomes very still, the parasite thoughts disappear one by one, and at last I’m wholly there, present, concentrated, listening, waiting for that subtle Voice to make itself heard in the silence. Yes, that’s right — repetitive prayer and knitting have similar effects in silencing that inner noise.

So I now often do both at the same time. Of course, I have to chose a relatively simple knit — you know, not one of those which have you constantly muttering under your breath : “purl two, yarn over, knit three together through back loop, yarn over…” I tend to favor things with lots of stockinette stitch for “meditative knitting”. I let my hands set the rhythm, I breathe calmly, and choose a simple phrase which I match with the ostinato of the stitches. Silence comes — and then, I pray.

Of course, I’m not the first one to make this link between prayer and knitting. For example, and this is really just one example among many, in this little book (the link will give you access to a free pdf version of the first chapter), Peggy Rosenthal explains the same thing in a much better way than I can. In particular, she narrates how she was reminded by a friend who is a Trappist monk that the Desert Fathers, faced with similar issues in prayer, resolved them by similar means : they weaved baskets to help them focus and being fully aware of the present moment. As it was primarily the process that mattered to them, and they probably ended up with way more baskets than they could ever use, they often burned them after they were completed. This is not something I’d do to my knitting, but I do like to think that a finished garment, even before having been given or worn, has already accomplished its purpose : being a vehicle of peace, both for me and those for whom I pray.

photo credit