Shawls of comfort

OLM Prayer Shawl Ministry?s second knitting gathering (front row, from left): Donna Noon, Peggy Thomas and Susan Becht; back row, from left: Birute Veleisis, Carmen de Brauwere, Patricia Boren and Sonia Ottusch

Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church began a new ministry, gathering seasoned and newbie knitters together to weave warm shawls for the homebound, which include the seriously ill, the very elderly and those in need of comforting who are unable to leave their homes easily.

The knitters begin the first stitches of the shawl with prayers of comfort for the recipient. Upon completion, each shawl is blessed by Rev. Bill Kerze and is gifted to the homebound as a symbolic hug from the whole community in solace and warmth.

Malibu local and longtime OLM parishioner Birute Vileisis, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University, started the Prayer Shawl Ministry in November of last year.

“I was sitting in church wondering how I could gift my time and talents during Fr. Bill’s sermon. I knew how to knit, and I thought others might want to join in a knitting group to do some good work.”

The knitters purchase the yarn at their own expense and donate the finished shawls to Our Lady of Malibu for gifting to those in need. As of Jan. 4, about 15 to 20 homebound people have received a gift of the soft, warm prayer shawl. Mary Lou McGee, an OLM Pastoral Associate responsible for the shawl gifting, said of the first person who had received an OLM prayer shawl, “She cried.”

McGee said the person who received the shawl also expressed wonder in appreciation that strangers would care enough to cloak her with warmth in her solitude.

One shawl recipient wrote, “I can’t thank you enough for the beautiful, handmade blanket. I am often cold and will use and appreciate it this winter … It means so much to me.”

Another homebound person expressed appreciation in a letter of thanks and included a $20 donation so that another person might experience the comfort of a prayer shawl.

Several longtime knitters joined Vileisis, along with some hardy souls who had never stitched a pearl (knot of knitting) or a knit (basic stitch).

“I had never knit before. I learned how to knit for this,” said Pat Boren, a newcomer to knitting.

Another knitting newbie, Donna Noonan said, “I’d never knitted before, but I wanted to help.”

Seasoned knitter, Peggy Thomas (also the OLM parish manager) said, “It feels good to help out by knitting.”

One knitter, Rosario Bayon was so quick with her needles that she knitted three prayer shawls in time for the first gifting in mid-December. “It comes easily to me,” Bayon said, “and it’s for a good cause.”

The group started initially with about 13 people, and has grown during the past couple months to nearly 20 knitters.

An age-old method of weaving cloth into yarn or thread from wool or cotton, handed down from the time of the Ancient Egyptians, hand knitting was supplanted in the latter half of the 18th century by the loom and machined fabric. Hand knitting takes time and patience, and prayer shawls that are knit with prayers of comfort require that each stitch be knit with well wishes of warmth through thoughtful contemplation.

Prayer shawls are common in many religions, including Roman Catholic, Judaic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic. Normally made of wool (except Judaic, which forbids the mixture of sheep’s wool with linen), prayer shawls are also used widely in different cultures. In the Philippines, the shawl is used during the marriage ceremony, and when draped around the bride and groom symbolize the arms of the community embracing and supporting the couple. In more recent times, the prayer shawl was used as a basis for the design of the Israeli flag, with the blue stripes depicting the traditional stripes of the “tallit,” or Hebrew prayer shawl. In East India for centuries before and during British rule, the kings of Mysore wore prayer shawls wrapped about their heads during auspicious ceremonies of state. The shawl wraps were called “peta,” which in English translates to “turban.” The traditional dress of the Buddhists for centuries was the prayer shawl draped about the shoulders and back, and can still be seen today on Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama.

In nearly all cultures and religions that have a custom of the prayer shawl, it still represents comfort and the supporting spirit of the community.

“My shawl was given to the lady who cried in appreciation,” said one OLM parishioner and a newcomer to knitting who asked to remain anonymous. “I didn’t know how to knit, but I jumped at the chance to lend a hand. Several years ago I was homebound for months. I had broken my back in several places in a skiing accident. I was helpless with two 11-year-olds, and so many people in Malibu helped my family and me. It feels good to be able to give back.”