Thursday, October 22, 2009

Column: Counting Stitches

When I realized how many stitches I'd put in, and how many there were to go, I very nearly did despair. The yarn softens my hands as well -- the lanolin in the raw wool rubs off! I love finding the bits of the monastery right there in my yarn -- dried bits of grass still caught in the spun fibers.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 22 October 2009.

Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.
— Ps. 90:12

I was flipping through one of the dozen catalogs that arrived this week when I saw it — a gorgeous grey wool sweater with an intricately patterned yoke. It would only take a few clicks on the Internet, a credit card and it could be on my front step by week’s end. I have to admit it was tempting.

Actually, I’m already waiting on a sweater — but I don’t have a tracking number because I’m knitting it by hand. The rough spun wool came from a Benedictine monastery in New York, ordered not with a quick click or two, but by scheduling a phone call with Brother Bruno. I worked in earnest on the sweater last January amidst the silence of the Spiritual Exercises. Ten months and 22,000 carefully counted stitches later, I’m only half done.

“Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” I’m counting the days as well as the stitches until I can wear my sweater, but I wonder if I am any wiser for spending my time in this way. What lesson in wisdom are the psalmist and I seeking here?

The sweater’s slow progress certainly fosters patience and as St. Augustine counseled: “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” Even more, it is an invitation to delayed gratification. The waiting is a discipline, one that has much the same flavor for me as fasting. There is a certain freedom that grows from knowing that I can wait, even for what I need, not just merely want. Fasting teaches me to know the difference, so does knitting.

I am learning more than patience. Each stitch in the sweater grows from the previous one; the strength of the whole depends on the integrity of these individual twists of yarn. Perhaps when I learn to see my days from this same perspective, recognizing the spots where the strands I am weaving are weak and in need of repair, and how the ultimate worth of my life depends on the shape of each day, I will have a wiser heart.

Most of all, the sweater fosters persistence. There is nothing to distinguish one row from the next, but despite the lack of signposts, I need to keep working. It can be hard to persist when you see no progress toward an end, particularly when the landscape is dull and clear road signs are lacking. It’s hard to count the days when they are like this. Still, I watch a friend who lost her son a year ago persist in prayer, though she sees no sign that God is near, and the landscape is unbearably barren. Endless rounds of knitting or prayer may not be wise in the eyes of the world, but I suspect she and I both hope a time will come when we can see the shape of what has been wrought by our hearts and hands.

St. John Cassian, whose writings inspired St. Benedict to write his rule for monastic life, points out that we have many tools at our disposal as we grow in our spiritual lives — fasting, vigils, deprivation. No matter what we choose, their purpose is not to merely possess the tools, but “to produce the crafted objective for which these are the efficient means.” The more progress I make on this sweater, the more I realize it’s not about efficiently making a sweater, but about how the sweater efficiently re-makes me.

God of eternal wisdom, you alone impart the gift of right judgment. Grant us an understanding heart, that we may value wisely the treasure of your kingdom and gladly forgo all lesser gifts to possess that kingdom’s incomparable joy. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.— Opening Prayer for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A


  1. Is it the same wool as Julie's "baa baa black sheep"?

    Lovely reflection. This is how I felt about making the rosary!

  2. kb -- from the same sheep (or close relatives and neighbors!)...

  3. You did it! Knew you could. Hope you're not too trashed from the combo.

  4. any chance of me learning patience by watching Margaret knit?

  5. wonderful reflection:)