The question came the first long winter I served my first parish in New Hampshire. My members there were primarily older folks. I knew that for most of the women, it was customary to sit down in the evening with some “handwork”; knitting or crocheting for one grandbaby or another, or for charity. On Mother’s Day each year, we had a display of beautiful layettes made by the women of the church for babies in poor communities. So I wasn’t surprised when they asked “Do you mind if we knit while you preach? It helps us to listen better.” When two matriarchs of the church, women whose spiritual power I learned to admire deeply, ask such a question, smart clergy pay attention.
It turns out that many people have a hard time concentrating when their hands are empty. Even with the various multimedia options for sermon enhancement, preaching is primarily an auditory activity. Knitting helped these ladies work off their energy so that they could listen deeply to what I was saying. And I could see that they were really listening. I was honored.
The image that many people have of spiritual practice is sitting absolutely still. And for some people that is an important part of the practice, maybe even a relief from the need to be constantly doing. But for some, the rhythm of breads through the fingers, or knitting needles, or smoothing wood helps to free the mind and soul for reflection and prayer.
“Hands to Work, Hearts to God” is a Shaker aphorism. Craftspersons and artisans in close community, the Shakers believed that doing simple things well was a spiritual practice. Their furniture and quilts are a labor of prayer and love that draws the heart to God just by looking at them.
If you are struggling to stay focused, or find yourself feeling twitchy during your prayer, try adding handwork, something repetitive and simple to your practice and see if that soothes your soul.