Prayer Flags and Other Good Habits
Habits of Mind
I am sitting on the floor, surrounded by scraps of fabric. There are a million other things I could—and perhaps should—be doing right now. But I have chosen this for a reason. At the moment I am sifting through bits and pieces, looking for a colour or pattern that suggests courage. Something deep red, perhaps. Or purple. A very happy shade of orange is already speaking to me of joy. By my left knee, a jumble of greens sits waiting.
I am making prayer flags.
Rooted in Tibetan tradition, prayer flags have recently become popular around the world. The idea is simple enough. You design and sew (or paint) strings of flags which represent your hopes and intentions. When you hang them outside where they can flutter in the breeze, they become a visible expression of prayer, not so different from clouds of fragrant incense.
This is all part of an attempt to deepen and expand my practice of prayer. I am trying to cultivate some new habits.
Sometimes it feels like my life revolves around habits. I try to curb the bad ones. No more eating chips before bed. Quit checking Facebook so often. Stop being so hard on yourself. The good ones ceaselessly compete for more attention. Keep the yoga mat unrolled and stretch first thing in the morning. Do your push-ups. Drink more water. Hardest of all is trying to cultivate habits in my children. Pick up your clothes and put them in the drawer. Turn off the lights. Clear your dishes. And for goodness sake, when you use the last of the toilet paper, replace the roll!
More often than not, I am torn between the two poles of too much discipline and not enough. As a perfectionist, I tend to become discouraged and disheartened when I fail to live up to my own expectations. Not trying at all sometimes feels easier than facing my own judgment.
But these habits I am trying to cultivate now are too important to give up on. These are habits of mind. I am trying to change not only what I do, but how I think, and see. I am trying to learn how to pray always and all ways. So I have adopted a new motto from The Rule of St. Benedict: Always we begin again.
And I have turned to ritual to help me.
The Transforming Power of Ritual
Ritual—symbolic action—has great transformative power. It engages the imagination, moving us from the purely intellectual to a deeply personal and heart-felt way of knowing. Ritual takes what is external and makes it internal. This is what happens when we gather around the table to share bread and wine, and the universal love and grace of God mysteriously satisfies our own particular hunger. But ritual can also move in the opposite direction, giving outward shape to our deepest desires, hopes, and questions.
All my life I have been drawn to prayer forms which use words. Chief among these is lectio divina, the contemplative reading of short passages of scripture. As we read and ruminate on a brief text, we spiral deeper from listening, to wondering, to responding, to resting.
We begin lectio divina by listening for a word or phrase that stands out or “shimmers” for us. Then we sit with the phrase and pay gentle attention to the feelings and thoughts and memories it stirs. Next, we ask ourselves what those feelings and thoughts might be summoning us to become and do. Finally, we let it all go and simply rest in the loving presence of God.
When practiced regularly, these four movements of lectio divina gradually become a sacred rhythm that shapes our awareness—how we look and listen for the presence of God in every place and every time. This is what I mean by a habit of mind.
My yoga teacher often says that the time we spend on the mat is training for how to live the rest of life with flexibility, strength, and balance. We could say the same about lectio
divina. When we take time to sit and practise this way of praying, we are training ourselves to listen, to pay attention, to wonder, and to be open to new possibilities in every moment, not just the time we set aside for a formal practice of prayer.
Prayer Flags: What and Why?
In her beautiful book, Lectio Divina: The Sacred Art, Christine Valters Paintner reminds us that the Spirit speaks in many way —not just through the words of scripture. She stretches the definition of a sacred text to include art, poetry, music, dance, nature, dreams. Whatever we choose to contemplate, if we do so with the intention of listening for and being open to the Spirit, this is prayer.
Hence the prayer flags.
I must admit I got off to a rocky start. I began by browsing Pinterest (another dangerous habit) looking for inspiration. But there was simply too much out there and I quickly became distracted and overwhelmed. Deciding to limit myself to what was already at hand, I unearthed a box of fabric, dug out my sewing box, and settled down.
My first plan was to base my flags on the fruits of the Spirit. But somehow that evolved into creating flags which represented other characteristics I want to cultivate in my life.
I asked myself some questions: What qualities do I respect and value? What do I already possess? What do I need more of? How might I invite this into my life? What gifts do I already have that I can offer in new ways to the people around me? To the world?
After pondering these things for a while, I came up with a collection of attributes: Courage. Compassion. Creativity. Openness. Calm. Acceptance. Gratitude. Wisdom. Humour. Kindness. Patience.
The next step was to sit with each quality until it revealed something of itself to me. I wondered: What does each quality look like? What colour or symbol best represents it?
By the power of imagination and the Spirit, my scraps of fabric are becoming a vehicle for prayer. Setting aside time and space to make them has focused my intention. Choosing images and symbols and colours has engaged my imagination. Sewing by hand is definitely slowing me down. With every stitch, the flags are becoming an expression of the longings and wonderings of my own heart.
Viriditas: The Greening Power of God
Recently, I learned a new word: viriditas. Well, it is new to me, but it is really a very old Latin word meaning “greenness.” In the 12 th century, the Benedictine abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen used viriditas metaphorically to describe the greening of the soul—the vitality and freshness that wells up in the spirit when it is connected to the source and sustainer of life. For Hildegard, the colour green represented the life-giving power and universal love of God, which she saw in every bursting bud and blade of grass.
Viriditas reminded me of a character one of my favourite novels, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. One of a group of English women who have rented a villa in Italy for the month of April, Mrs. Fisher has become staid and rather crabby, and has long since decided that her life is over and it is time for her to settle into old age. There is something, however, about being among the wisteria in the Italian sunshine, and spending her days with people who are growing to know and love her, that creates in the usually solitary Mrs. Fisher “the very odd and exciting sensation of going to come out all over in buds.”
'Sternly she tried to frown the unseemly sensation down. Burgeon, indeed. She had heard of dried staffs, pieces of mere dead wood, suddenly putting forth fresh leaves, but only in legend. She was not in legend. She knew perfectly what was due to herself. Dignity demanded that she should have nothing to do with fresh leaves at her age; and yet there it was—the feeling that presently, that at any moment now, she might crop out all green.'
The source of this odd sensation is the transforming power of love—a love which transfigures the lives of everyone it touches. Greening love.
Mrs. Fisher is in my mind as I reach for the pile of green scraps and continue to make my slow stitches. Spring is coming. Easter is coming. I wonder when and where I will feel that sensation of greening—of new life budding. I try to look more carefully. Already I can feel myself becoming more aware. Maybe new habits of mind are forming.
Prayer is about transformation—not changing God, but changing ourselves. Prayer opens our eyes to the life-giving presence of God within and around us. Prayer calls us to attend to the needs of others, and to be intentional about looking for ways we can embody the love of God in the world.
Making these flags might not look like prayer, but it is.
I open the window to let a breeze dance into the room. I have a few flags made now. As I hold them up to the light, I imagine my prayers carried out into the world on the breath of the wind. Where will they go? Who will they touch? What will return to me?
Time will tell. Right now I am content to keep sewing.
NOTE: This article was originally published in Glad Tidings, September 2017 (a publication of the Women’s Missionary Society of The Presbyterian Church in Canada)