In Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful novel The Secret Life of Bees, May, one of the three Boatwright sisters, has a unique empathy for suffering. As a deeply sensitive soul, she feels other people’s pain poignantly and overwhelmingly. One of the ways she copes is through her “prayer wall,” a long, low stone fence on the property where the sisters live. When May is overcome with emotion, she scribbles her feelings onto a small piece of paper, runs to the wall and stuffs the bit of paper into a crack in the stone. Each piece of paper is a profound experience of suffering or pain. Lily, the young protagonist of the story, is stunned the first time she comes across the fence. It is almost covered in the small, fluttering scraps of paper. Lily realizes it is a glimpse into May’s heart and the sorrow that lodges there.
Several years ago I too came across a stone wall with small white scraps of paper stuffed in the cracks and fluttering in the breeze. We were just outside of Ephesus, Turkey, and visiting the shrine known as Mary’s House. It is a place of pilgrimage, revered as the spot where the Virgin Mary, brought there by Saint John, ended her last days. The small house is located high on a hill and there is a long pathway bordered with a low stone wall leading up to it. Stations with writing supplies are located along the path and pilgrims are encouraged to place prayer petitions in the cracks of the stone wall. I was surprised to see the lengthy wall almost covered in the small scraps of paper.
The sight reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags. Literally translated as wind horse, these colourful rectangular flags can be found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas, and increasingly, around the world. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside, carrying prayers which are destined to become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from wind and sun. Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the older flags.
Tibetan prayer flags call to mind Christian “prayer ribbons.” These unofficial symbols, rooted, some claim in Celtic Christianity, can sometimes be seen tied around trees and shrubs outside churches or on retreat centre properties. In informal rituals, participants form prayer intentions and use the ribbons as the symbols of these intentions. Tying them to the tree or shrub, they release their prayers to God and the trees, thus embellished, stand as visible witnesses to a belief in prayer.
Spirit made incarnate: a similar dynamic is at work, I think, in May Boatwright’s practice of writing out her sorrow, a pilgrim’s prayer petitions, Tibetan prayer flags, and Christian prayer ribbons. Each speaks to our need to make our soul life visible and concrete: what we hold in our hearts we need to see and feel with our senses. We are helped in our formless prayers when we can give them shape and solidity.
My own “prayer wall” reflects a pragmatic and modern sensibility. Rather than scraps of paper, flags or ribbons, it is made with simple office Post-It notes. These are scattered over the wall near where I pray every day. Each coloured square bears a name, an event, and a date. Each time someone asks me to pray for them or when I am moved to want to offer prayers for someone or something, I make a new note and tack it up. Some of the squares are there for only a short time and some have almost permanent residence.
Their purpose is always the same, though. They are there to remind me of my commitment to prayer and of my intention to pray consistently and consciously for people and events in my life and in the world. There are so many people and so many things to lift up to God in prayer! The notes keep me centred and focused and when I cannot find words to say, they speak for me. But most of all, the prayer notes serve as a silent testament to my faith in a God who cares deeply about human life and the cares and concerns of the human heart. My prayer notes are my soul’s longings and desires writ large.
We celebrate Pentecost this month. I like to think of the stone wall in Ephesus adorned with white prayer notes fluttering in the breeze, of Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind and Christian prayer ribbons being blown about. I like to think of my own little notes, each an expression of my heart, being swept up by the Spirit, right into the heart of God.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.