Needlework of all kinds didn’t exactly skip a generation in my family… it’s more like, it skipped one sibling. Of the four Reilly sisters, only my mother was completely unable and/ or unwilling to learn the gentle arts of sewing, knitting, crocheting, etc. But Mom allowed as it would be good for me to know some of those things… if I wanted… and so her best friend Cecily taught me to knit when I was about 11.
Cecily, a nurse in a resort-town hospital, was on a tear to learn these things herself. She had acquired a set of books, one for each art. She and I sat across from one another—I’m right-handed, and Cecily’s a lefty, so I could imitate what she was doing exactly. Sort of.
At the end of this set of lessons I had a blue scarf whose width varied wildly from one end to the other, and my lifelong fascination and self-identification as a lazy, sporadic knitter was born.
There’s room for me in Julie Cicora’s book, Contemplative Knitting. There’s room for every kind of knitter, actually. The reader simply needs to be interested in both knitting and developing a prayer practice (two things I have begun, abandoned, returned to, and which I still hope to “master,” whatever that means). With these conditions met, Cicora, in her spare, unaffected prose, offers a path. The path is filled with stories, both the author’s and ours, which she elicits from us by reflection questions: Who taught you to knit? Who taught you to pray? What community will support you in your prayer practice? What things do you need to unravel and repurpose?
Cicora takes time getting to the heart of the matter. First, she introduces us to herself, to her knitting story, and her prayer story, and helps us ponder our own. Only after we’ve been given the opportunity for the kind of reflection she has modeled does she offer the reader the three questions which helped Cicora to form the basis of her prayer-and-knitting practice:
Step one: What is my motivation?
Step two: What do I believe about myself that will help me sustain a spiritual practice?
Step three: How do I incorporate knitting into my practice?
For each of these the reader is offered the opportunity to do some self-reflection, after which we can begin.
A burning question I’d brought to the book is, “But what exactly are we knitting?” Do I work on a project at already at hand? Do I create something entirely new? Does it have to be a project at all…is this the type of thing where what I’m making isn’t the point?
Yes. In other words, it depends. Cicora spends some time helping the knitter to think about what they want to knit. “We need to find the yarn and needles that are right for us, and they need to be something we care about.” (In other words, if you’re spending time with God while knitting, don’t use the ugly yarn you just want to get rid of. Choose something you love.) As to project/ no project, Cicora offers different suggestions for knitters based on their skill level.
Repetition is at the heart of contemplative knitting. About 16 years ago I discovered the phenomenon of prayer shawls, and was given a simple “knit 3, purl 3” pattern, though the person who shared it with me said nothing about my attitude or approach to the knitting itself. But I started in, and began knitting a prayer shawl for my mother, who was in her last year of life. As a Christian and a pastor, the pattern itself suggested a kind of attentiveness, and I found myself choosing various formulae for the Trinity—Father, Son, Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Maiden, Mother, Crone; Lover, Beloved, Love—and began saying/praying the words with each stitch.
“Repetition is a powerful tool,” Cicora writes. “Repetition in knitting creates fabric. Loop after loop creates stitch after stitch, and soon the individual stitches form a whole. Repetitious prayer creates a fabric of wholeness by calming the mind to create space for healing. Over and over we call out reminding ourselves of the Divine Presence that is always with us.” [p. 72]
I loved this book, but last section was my favorite. My nerdery around the liturgical year is off the charts, so Cicora’s suggestions for knitting through the church year as well as in various other kinds of seasons of life sparked real excitement. During some of these seasons she invites us to knit for others: baby blankets through Advent and Christmas, of course! At other times our knitting offers us the opportunity for celebration, or knitting through grief. There is even a “stash examen”: “What does your stash tell you about your priorities?”
Years ago I wondered aloud to a wise friend, Why do so many pastors knit? She replied, without skipping a beat, “Because the pastorate doesn’t always show real, tangible results for all our work. Sometimes it’s just nice to knit for a while and get a hat.” Contemplative Knitting offers a both-and answer to my question. Knitting with prayerful intention can be the beginning of a lifelong prayer practice (which yes, we will start, and abandon, and return to, because, HUMAN), but also one in which we can get a hat, and to God be the glory.
Contemplative Knitting by Julie Cicora was acquired by RevGalBlogPals at no cost in exchange for offering an honest review.
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007, and is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is a contributor to the RevGals’ book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” (SkyLight Paths Publishing). A native of the Jersey shore and in love with the New England coastline, she is happy to report that yes, she has been to the ocean this year.
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