essay · textiles in literature

A Loom Blessing: Embodying what we Believe

Image source: http://www.scotlandinfo.eu

 

O Comforter! Within me as I drink my tea

Jesus! Sunlight! Offering this new morning

God of all small pleasures! Present cheerily

Three-in-One in this glad day …

God of new beginnings,

I embrace today

Jesus! Healer! Friend!

Come sit beside me

Spirit give me power to dance

Your merry Way

O Gentle Three-in-One

Most Mirthful!

Ho! Ho! What a morning!

—Celtic prayer, by Sharon Morgan

When I was 14, I took a two-week trip to the west coast with a friend’s family. It was the longest I’d ever been away from home without my parents, and my father sent me on my way with this “Waking Up Prayer” to keep me company.

As a Baptist girl, I wasn’t used to prayers printed out on a piece of paper, but I shared with my father a love of poetry, and this sweet text was both prayer and poem at once. After two weeks of praying it each morning (with a cup of hot tea, of course), I had the poem memorized, and nearly twenty years later, it leaps to my lips when I hold the day’s first cup in my hands.

I like to say that this prayer preserved me from a disembodied faith. By 14 I firmly believed that the Triune God was my healer and friend, and that he called me to joy and courage each morning. But prior to this gift from my father, I thought little about how the work and stuff of my life had anything to do with this faith. Over months and years of prayer, the process of setting the kettle, measuring the leaves, and savoring the rich, comforting brew could serve as a potent reminder of God’s love.

This prayer taught me  that by inviting faith into the work of my hands, that work in turn could help keep my desires and ideas true. This lesson has proven itself in my work as a scholar, teacher, and also in my work with textiles.

Some years after my father’s tea-drinking prayer, I discovered a much older and larger collection of “Celtic” prayers the Carmina Gadelica. First published in 1900 by Alexander Carmichael, a Scottish folklorist, this collection offers scores of prayers and blessings for the daily work and seasons of rural Scottish crofters. A number of these deal with crafts of weaving, dyeing, and other aspects of domestic cloth production. While these crafts are certainly interests of mine, the Carmina reminds me that part of my original interest in sewing and weaving came from the desire to learn good work that could teach me how live and pray well.

I dip into the Carmina every so often for inspiration and encouragement. Volume I divides its contents into several sections: “Invocations,” “Seasons,” and “Labour.” Each of these is worth deep reflection and mediation, but the section that bears upon the Whole Cloth project is the third section, “Labour.” These prayers concern the daily life and actions of a rural people. The list of titles summons of vision of an entire day: from “Kindling the Fire,” and “The Milking Croon,” to “The Consecration of the Seed,” “Reaping Blessing” and a prayer for “The Guarding of the Flocks.” Not surprisingly, a number of these prayers concern the domestic production of cloth, from the sheep themselves to the wearer of the finished cloth.

Image source: http://www.scotlandinfo.eu

In “The Clipping Blessing, “ for example, the faithful shearer invokes the Trinity to guard and protect the lambs from all dangers. Like many of the Carmina’s prayers concerning animals, this blessing reveals a deep affection for one’s wee beasts, and an imaginative sense of that creature’s experience of the world:

Michael the chief be shielding thee

From the evil dog and from the fox,

From the wolf and from the sly bear,

And from the taloned birds of destructive bills,

    From the taloned birds of hooked bills.

Other prayers follow the various preparations for creating cloth. You can find, for example, specific blessings for various kinds of fabric: one for ordinary cloth, and another for the lengthwise-striped fabric worn only by women.

The prayers reveal the weaver’s deep knowledge of the plants that she uses to color her wools. The chant also helps her remember the correct order for the several hundred threads she would be measuring and warping on her loom:

The scarlet to the blue,

The blue to the scarlet,

The scarlet to the black,

The black to the scarlet.

Prayers such as “The Consecration of the Cloth,” meanwhile, call upon God’s protection for the wearer of the finished fabric:

May the man of this clothing never be wounded,

May torn he never be;

What time he goes into battle or combat,

May the sanctuary shield of the Lord be his.

What time he goes into battle or combat,

May the sanctuary shield of the Lord be his.

Significantly, this “consecration” does not refer to the designation of cloth to the Church (the ordinary sense of “consecration”).  Rather, it recognizes the wearer to be an ordinary going about the ordinary, beautiful, dangerous work life, and the loving weaver’s dedication of that ordinary (i.e. well-ordered) work to God.

My favorite of all the Carmina’s textile blessings is the second of the “Loom Blessing” prayers. Carmichael’s notes indicate that it would have been prayed by a woman putting her loom away on Saturday evening, in preparation for Sunday’s day of rest. The prayer thus acknowledges sacred time, the rhythms of good work and gracious rest. It also calls upon protection against evil spirits who might disrupt the weaving while the woman is away:

BLESS, O Chief of generous chiefs,

My loom and everything a-near me,

Bless me in my every action,

Make Thou me safe while I live.

[…]

In name of Mary, mild of deeds,

In name of Columba, just and potent,

Consecrate the four posts of my loom,

Till I begin on Monday.

Her pedals, her sleay, and her shuttle,

Her reeds, her warp, and her cogs,

Her cloth-beam, and her thread-beam,

Thrums and the thread of the plies.

The opening lines call God’s protection on the woman’s entire life, with her loom as symbol of her careful and productive daily work. The detailed inventory of the loom’s parts, rather than being tedious, is a loving recitation of a craftsman’s love for her tools. As a Sabbath prayer, the blessing also acknowledges that even good work must submit to the blessing of rest.

Unfortunately, for now my textile work is sporadic, squeezed into evening and odd hours. But I think I’m going to copy out some of these blessings and put them with my loom, sewing machine, and other tools. Just as my “Waking Up Prayer” comes as a reflex when I drink a cup of tea, I want prayers that come just as readily when I sit down to sew, or weave, or put on a garment.

If we wish to have a Christian ethic of craft and clothing, we must have more than right ideas: we need spiritual practices to strengthen our memories, steady our hands, and give us hope. We need tea and cloth to help us embody what we say we believe.

To read more from the Carmina, you can find the full text of Volumes I and II at Archive.org. You can also read Volume I in the reader below.


 

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