Symbology in Contemplative Knitting

I recently moved back to Vermont—my birthplace—after living in Seattle, Washington for almost 20 years. I moved back to join a Benedictine monastic community here in a rural part of the state. Well, that unfortunately didn’t work out, so I’m not certain exactly what’s happening with my life right now. But when life is too confusing or depressing or complex, I can always knit. Knitting is like saying the rosary or like singing the Office of Psalms (the Litany of Hours)—it is something that is meditative, something grounding, and if you do it with intent, as with charity knitting (like a sweater for the homeless shelter, or a prayer shawl for a cancer patient,) then all those repetitive loops and all that miraculously intertwining yarn might actually do some good and justice in the world sometimes. I have been knitting and crocheting since I was 5 years old (for 40 years), and I enjoy creating free-styling designs, which is great for yarn bombingLest you think that yarn bombing doesn’t have anything to do with charity or with bringing justice to the world, let me pose the thought that bringing a smile or a laugh to a stranger can be just as important as delivering a bowl of soup to the homeless.


Religious knitting_1


But back to the repetitive and meditative nature of knitting… As you might know from exploring other pages on this website, one of my products—and regular knitting projects—is fingerless gloves. They’re small and easy to carry around so I can work on them anywhere, and (big commercial plug) they’re ultra-super hip and cool. Just like with a cooking recipe, there is something about doing something—a knitting project—to such an extent that one becomes rather adept at it. There starts to be comfort in doing something so familiar. There is a core base—a basic pattern—to which one can depend and return, but from which almost infinite variations and embellishments can issue forth. This is where the creative source flows from: the stability of knowing one’s comfortable core.


There also comes the comfort, when doing something so routinely comfortable, of being able to do multiple things at once—which is a kind of magic. At its most basic and simple, doing this magic might be as elementary as knitting and listening to the radio at the same time. Eventually, one might graduate up to knitting and watching television simultaneously. (Lots of people don’t think they can knit and concentrate on other visual activities at the same time; seasoned knitters know that this isn’t true, for once you truly get the “feel” of how the stitches flow off one’s fingers, it can become a “secondary,” background activity.) In my case, knitting and contemplation, knitting and prayer, is a kind of magic.


Religious knitting_2


I have often associated knitting patterns with the philosophy of contemplation. Sometimes, it’s simply the energy brought focused in upon the intimate space of one’s hands as they weft and warp and create an aura of charity in the making of something. (This is similar, I think, to the intimacy of creating art on paper or the canvas—one’s consciousness eradicates the surrounding world and draws one’s focus to a small area of creation under one’s fingertips.) But sometimes it is the filaments of thought that astral project from that focal point of one’s entwined needle-sticks to other parts of the globe where war or hunger or sorrow reign, and where the comfort of one’s weaving fingers might express the sympathy and good-will and prayer of relief for human beings in those strife-laden places. You could call it an associative magic that wants to vibrate out along the filaments and strands of goodwill to those other places scattered around the globe.


Religious knitting_3


And if that gets too intense, you can always draw a little more yarn out of the skein, wrap it around your finger, and knit a few more stitches of stability along the row… because, just like life—no matter how tattered and desperate and grievous things get—the repetition and the stitches and the loops have to continue and go on, or the form never reaches any kind of accomplished shape, and the whole thing just eventually unravels.


I suppose a lot of people would call that kind of contemplation as having meditative visions. I suppose sometimes I do have them… visions, that is. I don’t think that these visions are addictive, but they feel important. So I return to the knitting, to the contemplation, to the visions, regularly.


Other times I have associated knitting patterns with numerology. It struck me while I used to knit at my monastic community that the knitting patterns I worked on reminded me of the Litany of Hours itself. The ribbing pattern that I start at the bottom of my fingerless gloves pattern is a simple knit-1, purl-1 pattern over and over (especially because I do it in the round). In many ways this is like the two sides of the choir calling and responding, one group singing every other verse, of the psalms: Primarium et responsum. Chiamata e riposte.


Religious knitting_4


Depending on the particular pattern, I could also attribute the number of stitches or the number of rows to certain Christian symbology. Any Cabbalist or Jewish scholar knows that numbers are important; almost all verses and all words have significant numerological relevance or reference (particularly in the Old Testament). For example, the number twelve is important because it indicates the twelve tribes of Israel, as well as the twelve apostles in the New Testament; and the number forty is used over and over again to indicate periods of time of waiting, times of transformation, and of travel. In one of my favorite texturized patterns, 12 rows complete one pattern cycle (that will be repeated over and over) as I work my way up the glove.


The glove can also be divided into sections representing the various periods of the Litany of Hours throughout the day. Lauds in the morning begins the celebration of the renewal of light. Prime begins the study period. None, Sext, and Terce comprise the work periods, midday food, and psalms. These periods also can be represented inclusively in the construction of the thumb gusset which is a period of labor, and also a period of intention that moves outward into the world’s conflict, the burden of which is brought back into the community (the core body) as a lamentation and for which continued prayers are offered. Vespers includes evening prayers, gratitude for the day’s work, and celebrations, and Compline ends the day and begins the hours of silence. The day ends as it began, with a call and response of the songs of the psalms.


Also, the fact that the knit article is a glove, a protective garment for the human appendage of action, or reach, of touch, can have meaning in-and-of-itself. One version of the Lord’s prayer contains these words: “Create your reign of unity now, through our fiery hearts and our willing hands…” It is right and just that I should create a garment that protects such an important instrument of action.


The symbology in the contemplative knitting of a glove


I suppose this is an example of how holiness enters our everyday lives. There are an infinity of ways that holiness and grace enter our lives if only we would make the effort to recognize them. (This is a part of contemplation, the contemplative life.) Most often, people recognize holiness and grace when it occurs as we interact with our fellow human beings, our family members, our co-workers, our congregation or community members,… or our brothers at the monastery. But here, I am explaining the particular holiness that enters when one is in conversation with the “other” or with God, I think. Some people have trouble quieting the mind enough to get to this point. For others it comes rather naturally. For myself, it’s as easy as picking up a pair of knitting needles…






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Posted in Close to My Heart, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, The Art of Knitting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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