Thursday, 28 February 2013

Blue Heaven's Fading Fire Shawl

My second crocheted prayer shawl for Lent has reached the finish line. It's rather different from the first one although I have still used a variegated, chunky yarn. This one is in Stylecraft Brushstrokes - a mixture of acrylic, wool and mohair in the colourway "Sea Breeze". I love the Stylecraft Brushstrokes range - it is as if the yarn has been painted in watercolours, as the name suggests. Beautifully soft, it has worked up into a beautifully light and fluffy shawl but it was not terribly easy to work with. The fluffiness of the yarn meant that it was almost impossible to unravel, if any mistake occurred, without jamming tight and snagging, like you would not believe, so my initial foray into a pattern with variation and interest had to be rapidly abandoned - too much scope for error that could not be put right. Slightly rattled by the yarn's unravelability, I played safe and chose the first pattern in The Crocheted Prayer Shawl Companion : the "Original Crocheted Prayer Shawl". It is a very simple repeating pattern of single rows of single crochet followed by double rows of double crochet (US terms) using a 7mm hook - so simple even Mrs T with her idiosyncratic, (for which, read "faulty"), counting could not go far wrong! This shawl is a bit wider than my first one - 23" (65 stitches) wide as opposed to 17" but measures the same 60" length, excluding the fringe, so it's quite generous in size.

Initially I felt a bit disappointed that the pattern did not have more interest but in the event the yarn took over and began to sing all by itself as sometimes happens with a project. As the shawl grew, periwinkle horizons began to open up beneath my hook, pale misty vistas and clouded hills, blurred blueness where sea and sky become one, where infinity seems close and where the vastness of creation strikes one with incredulity. There are touches of indigo, like the edges of clouds and some soft chalky green like the tips of distant hills. Despite the reference to the sea in its name, it was the sky that it reminded me of more than anything and in particular this poem by Thomas Merton called "Blue Heaven's Fading Fire".

"Now, in the middle of the limpid evening,
the moon speaks clearly to the hill.
The wheatfields make their simple music,
praise the quiet sky.

And down the road, the way the stars come home,
the cries of children
play on the empty air, a mile or more,
and fall on our deserted hearing,
clear as water.

They say the moon is made of glass,
they say the smiling moon's a bride.
They say they love the orchards and apple trees,
the trees, their innocent sisters, dressed in blossoms,
still wearing, in the blurring dusk,
white dresses from that morning's first communion.

And where blue heaven's fading fire last shines
they name the new come planets
with words that flower
on little voices, light as stems of lilies.

And where blue heaven's fading fire last shines,
reflected in the poplar's ripples,
one little, wakeful bird
sings like a shower."

Thomas Merton, if you haven't come across him, was an extraordinary man. 20th C poet, theologian, Trappist monk, writer, lover of female company in general and, despite his monastic calling, the company of one woman in particular, mystic, perhaps one of the holiest individuals of recent times. Not because he was faultless or saintly, in the sense of being flawless - on the contrary he was deeply flawed in some ways, - but because he somehow distilled his physical, emotional and spiritual humanity to an intensity rather unlike most of what you find in this world.  I love his poetry and his writings and they always lift me to look beyond the mundane and immediate.

It wasn't that Merton was easily holy. It wasn't that he found the way of monastic spirituality he had chosen, easy or even clear always, but he knew who it was he was seeking and he had grasped that silence and stillness and being rooted in the present moment were paths to Him. And for me his greatest gift is the sense that he conveys that if we manage to remain still and silent enough to glimpse "blue heaven's fading fire", somehow, even when we feel lost, we are never alone. And that's a feeling worth cherishing, I think.

Merton communicates the sense that "blue heaven's fading fire" is all around. And I think he's right - it's in the fall of light through a theatre of trees, in wide-winged skies that blur from blue to orange, in the shifting patterns of leaves and water, in the poised presence of a much prayed-in, ancient church, (like the Medieval one where I took my pics above), in the fleeting glance of lovers, in the clutch of a small child's hand on his mother's coat, in the unexpected tenderness of a carer for an aged stranger, in tears that have had to confront the suffering or death of a loved one, in the moment of birth or death, in the sudden joy of just being alive and in unbidden laughter. It is in you and in me and who we are to one another. Throughout his writing Merton is sure of this and longs to share it. "Paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it." as he wrote in his book, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander".

When "the days of trouble come", as Ecclesiastes has it, I find it very difficult not to shorten my focus to what is immediate and pressing but I think it can sometimes help getting through "days of trouble" to hang on to a longer perspective. This shawl is for someone recently diagnosed with cancer, whom I know through my work and who has the long haul of chemotherapy and surgery ahead of her. I hope it may gently and softly remind her of what is beyond the immediate, hard slog of getting through these early days and nights and even if it doesn't say to her all that I have written about here, I hope that it will hold echoes of transparent blue sky mornings and dreamy blue afternoons - past ones, with memories to treasure in the moments when it all seems too much to cope with, and mornings and afternoons to come, in an unclouded future that she and I hope and pray will be hers.

 And I hope that, if nothing else, like Merton's "little wakeful bird", it will softly "sing like a shower" in times of need of that.

I used five 100g balls of the Brushstrokes yarn and had a little left over so what better use to put it to than to make a couple of fluffy pom-poms to decorate the wrapped shawl? Snipping these fluffy pom-poms to shape and snipping the fringe to length was the icing on the cake for Mrs T with her happy snipper tendencies! Had to be so careful not to let them run away with me and reduce pom-poms and fringe to nothing!

Next up, is a prototype shawl of my own design, slightly askew in places so not really up to being given away, but arriving close on its heels, hopefully, with a non-prototype version of the same design that can be given away. Never has Lent been more creative! I am loving it!


  1. What a lovely thought provoking post Elizabeth, I have never read Thomas Merton and really enjoyed the poem you chose to accompany such a beautiful prayer shawl................I hope the shawl gives comfort and strength to your friend and helps her through the trials ahead. x

    1. Glad you liked the poem, Kim - it comes in his Collected Poems or there's a most beautiful book of a collection of his writings, prose and poetry, called "Thomas Merton A Book of Hours" edited by Kathleen Deignan and published by Sorin Books. It's divided into snippets for different times of each day of the week and is full of treasures. I recommend it! E x

  2. Beautiful and thoughtful....

    You had me at "periwinkle"!

    1. Thank you, Astri! Yes, perhaps periwinkle blue is a bit obscure but I wanted to convey that light flowery, I suppose quite English, blue which periwinkle flowers have. E x

  3. All the good thoughts you put behind your work -- whether crochet or baking or something else -- make your work that much more beautiful. x

    1. Thank you so much, Angela - what a lovely thing to say. E x

  4. You are a wonderfully descriptive writer! I was blessed by the reading. I will say a prayer for your friend that she will feel God's presence and sweet comfort through this mountain she has to climb. I'm sure your shawl will remind her of your friendship. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much Jeanette, both for your kind comment and the offer of prayers. I will tell her and she will be so touched, I know. E x

  5. I was so inspired by your last post, but forgot to leave a comment. Instead I found myself researching prayer shawls and associated books. I've just received one through the post, so I hope I'll be following your example very soon. Just fabulous concept. I always assumed prayer shawls were the ones women put on their heads to go into some churches. My eyes have been opened. Thanks for posting about these wonderful shawls and the idea behind them.

    1. So pleased you like the idea and have got a book yourself - do let me know if you decide to make one and I'll post a link to you. I too thought prayer shawls were something different and only realised what they were about when I picked up a copy of this book at the Knitting & Stitching Show last year, so you and me both! I know you knit beautifully too and there are loads of knitted patterns out there as well but of course these are beyond me! E x

  6. Your shawl is both beautiful and the colors are magical. I am sure your friend will love it dearly. Hugs Judy

  7. The shawl is just beautiful. I am sure the recipient will take comfort and pleasure from the thought and love that has clearly gone into it.

    Gillian x

  8. The shawl is so pretty. You have inspired me to make a similar one using your directions.m a friend ash
    Led me for a scarf in green just yesterday, so this will work well.

    Thomas Merton, quite a man. And he has or, he has such a following. I have read a few of his books.

    Where was that beautiful stained glass? It made a perfect background for your shawl.

  9. What a beautiful and thoughtful gift, I have been reading up on prayer shawls too. I'm only just 're-learning' crochet, would love to make a shawl like yours one day.

  10. It feels almost boring to say that this is beautiful, because I keep saying it about your work! It is, by the way - beautiful. And the sentiment will be priceless to your lady. What a magnificent gift, and one which will surely lift her spirits - no better aid to healing, surely?
    I love your words, and the thoughts that Heaven/joy is to be found in the small moments - the little pockets of unexpected happiness which tie our days together. Lovely post Elizabeth, lovely.


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.