Mirrors and nails and spiritual tales

Church members create personal books of uncommon prayer
May 2, 2008

What are prayer books made of? For some members of St. George's Episcopal Church, Glenn Dale, Maryland, prayer books include fabric from a favorite dress, fragments of stained glass from a church destroyed by a hurricane, bumper stickers, song lyrics, prayer cards and postcards, crosses, newspaper clippings, photos of friends and other treasures that evoke joy, gratitude, comfort and closeness to God.

Bearing boxes and binders, plastic bags and notebooks, seven parishioners gathered on a recent rainy Saturday to weave the threads of their spiritual lives together.

The gathering followed an earlier session at which group members discussed how they accessed God and identified "things that resonate for us," said Terry Doyle.

"I was struck by how, as we went around, people said, 'Oh, I have this bulletin board' or, 'I have all these pieces of paper that I stuck in my Bible,'" said the Rev. Connie Reinhardt, rector of St. George's.

Group members went home after this session to identify meaningful items and gather them together to create prayer books that chart their personal spiritual journeys. They returned to share what they had found and what they had learned.

Opening a red box, Doyle gently unwrapped nine crosses nested in white tissue paper and passed them around for all to touch, along with an accompanying text.

There was a cross made of a shattered mirror -- "the idea is to look into the cross and see Christ but to also see yourself" -- a cross of nails; a joyful, colorful cross from El Salvador; Celtic crosses portraying journeys and meetings and oppression; a Native American cross that Doyle called "journey into forgiveness;" and other crosses that illustrated journeys into grief, emptiness and, finally, glory.

Doyle's project, a long-term effort to make "tactile, hands-on stations of the cross," began as a Holy Week activity, he said, and evolved into a series of meditations.

"This will be a component of my prayer book," he said. "A kind of novena."

With his prayer book, John Rebstock said he hoped to "integrate the spiritual journey of my life all in one place." He had chosen to include journaling notes, quotations he liked and notes from retreats, along with programs from concerts and collected prayers and hymns. He needs to use a binder, he said, so he can move things around easily.

Lee Rowe, whose six-year-old daughter, Rebekah, was peacefully drawing pictures beside him on the sofa, showed the group a prayer card of the Holy Family titled "A Quiet Moment" that he was including in his book.

It helps him to remember that they were a real family, too, he said, just the three of them, and that they were not always surrounded by angels, shepherds and the hurly burly of life.

A self-described "word person," Rowe said his prayer book also included sonnets by John Donne and other poems, and was taking shape in a beautifully bound notebook.

Inspirational fabrics
Deborah Boda said much of her inspiration came during her drive to work, when she turned her thoughts away from the traffic to her own spiritual journey.

"That thought process is still going on, of where do I find myself feeling safe and comfortable," she said. "I've got a 45-minute commute each way, so I've got plenty of time to think about it."

At home, Boda found several swatches of fabric she had saved. In addition to a section of cloth cut from a former favorite dress, now threadbare, she was including a piece of a poncho her grandma made in her prayer book, to be housed in a large binder she planned to decorate with bold stripes of color.

Reinhardt said she planned to include coaster-size crocheted squares made by her grandmother in her book: "She was such an important part of my spiritual history."

She also planned to include passages from her favorite prophets, a colorful card that reads, "Jesus and his troublemakers merrily go on," and some alternate images of God. She was starting her volume in a notebook with a magnetic flap but allowed that binders might provide greater flexibility for a work that by its nature can never really be finished.

The contents of Emma Hadley's prayer book tumbled from a blue grocery bag: postcards -- "I have all these postcards that mean something to me," -- greeting cards from significant people, bumper stickers -- "Hate is not a family value" -- and a yellowing newspaper clipping in which she stands in a tree with other cast members from a musical.

"I'm organizing it around people and things that are important to me," she said. "People who have helped shape me, who have been significant shapers in my life."

Hadley said she hoped to cover her finished book with cross-stitching.

"This project made me feel that prayer is largely an act of treasuring and gratitude," Rebstock said. "I think a lot of times we think of prayer as intercession, and this helps me get beyond that."

Reflecting on the group's work, Doyle said he had been amazed at "the breadth -- the wide range of the types of things that touch on the personal and the spiritual."

"Another theme that I heard was remembering," he said. "Making sense of the past and bringing it into the future."

"But," Hadley said, "delving into the past and looking at where you've come from -- sometimes that can be a challenge."

Other challenges included "finding or making the time" (Boda); ensuring the book is "more than just a greatest hits" (Reinhardt); learning to pray individually as well as communally (Rowe); and fighting perfectionism (Doyle).

"Part of my ongoing challenge is to think of the everydayness of prayer," Doyle said. "It's really easy to be holy during Holy Week."

But the main challenge, Reinhardt said, is "to keep working on this." On paper, and in life.

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