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.

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