She was three months pregnant and in danger of losing her baby when Vicky Galo’s mother asked her to wrap a shawl around her womb. When she did, she felt “an utter sense of peace and calm that everything would be okay.” It was.
Years later, when she and Janet Bristow were wondering how to apply the program of feminist spirituality that they had taken at Hartford Seminary’s Women’s Leadership Institute in Connecticut , she looked back on that experience. It became clear to them that a shawl was “a perfect metaphor for our experience of a mothering God,” said Ms. Bristow. “When you wear it, you are wrapped in God’s love.” She adds: “Shawls are also symbolic in many parts of the world. In some cultures babies are carried in shawls wrapped around their mother’s body. Even Jesus wore a prayer shawl called a talit.”
In 1997, the two friends gave birth to a ministry that would fuse knitting and prayer. Called the Prayer Shawl Ministry, it has spread worldwide, including Canada , and has attracted many faiths. “It’s been called a comfort shawl, a healing shawl, a peace shawl; there’s not one word,” said Ms. Galo. “It’s ecumenical; it speaks of many faiths and traditions.”
Knitters are given instructions on what yarns, stitches, prayers and rituals to use when making a shawl on a Web site, www.shawlministry.com.
Ms. Bristow and Ms. Galo make shawls for battered women in a local shelter. Others knit for cancer patients in hospitals and for people facing tough times. “It’s like a second wheel for them to turn around,” said Ms. Galo. “I’ve heard stories of cancer recipients who feel they’re not ready to die and they make it for others.” They are also given away for milestones and joyful times, she said.
Saskia Rowley, art director of the Anglican Journal, received a prayer shawl from Debby Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the diocese of Caledonia and editor of the diocesan newspaper.
They had met at a conference and had talked about each other’s lives. Before they parted, Ms. Shaw told her that she was sending her a shawl. “She didn’t ask me if I wanted it, she told me it was for me,” Ms. Rowley said. “My eyes welled with tears. I was taken aback. I’d been going through a difficult time, and had isolated myself from people.”
Ms. Shaw, who had learned about the ministry from other dioceses, said she prays for guidance each time she makes a shawl. “When I pray, names would float.”
Ms. Rowley didn’t open the package containing the shawl that Ms. Shaw had mailed until she was alone at home. “It was beautiful. Soft ivory white with mohair carefully woven through it in a subtle pattern, and a fringe.”
The shawl has been a source of comfort for Ms. Rowley’s family. “A few months ago, as I was pulling into the driveway, my 13-year-old daughter, Laura, came running out of the house towards me, crying,” she recalled. “Something terrible had happened at school that day, and she couldn’t wait for me to come home. She was wrapped in the prayer shawl. The first thing that she said through her tears was that she hoped I didn’t mind that she was wearing it, but that it had made her feel better while she was waiting for me.”