It started with the gift of some whittling knives, that I used to strip the bark from sticks, revealing something beautiful, which in turn connected me with ancestors who’d worked with wood, one 40,000 years ago. I made a holding cross for myself, and then many holding crosses that I gave away, before being led to create a prayer stick also for myself. It’s been an adventure of exploration, and maybe it still has ways to go?
One of my daughters gave me some whittling knives as a Christmas present. I was not sure what to do with them. People usually make carved wooden spoons, and even little wooden figures, but I was sure that that would be beyond my skill. I had been looking for a long time for some simple creative hobby that would involve using my hands, and that might have a contemplative dimension to it. I have tried several possibilities but nothing felt right. Maybe wood carving could be the answer? I didn’t know how but thought I’d explore the idea and see where it led.
We had some branches that my wife had trimmed from bushes in our garden. So I sawed some of the branches into shorter lengths, and then, using one of the knives, stripped the bark from one of them, revealing the hard inner core of the wood. To my surprise, it was smooth, rather beautiful, and comfortable, indeed pleasurable, to hold. It reminded me of something.
Some years ago there was an exhibition at the British Museum of ‘Ice Age Art’ and I was fascinated by a carving, made from a piece of mammoth tusk, of a figure of a lion man, with the head of a cave lion and the body of a man. In 1939 it had been found in fragments at the back of a north-facing cave in what is now southern Germany. The war intervened and the fragments were stored away in a box and forgotten until some years later. When re-discovered it was found that they fitted together to make this carved figure of a lion man, which was reckoned to be about 40,000 years old Nobody now knows what purpose the figure served, but the assumption is that it may have served a ritual purpose.
A skilled carver was asked to make a replica for the exhibition, out of a piece of tusk, using the implements that were thought to have been available back then. It took him 400 hours. Why would a small group of humans living in conditions where survival was the prime task, have invested so much valuable time & effort to make such a thing? We don’t know.
But looking at the re-assembled figure it struck me that whoever made it, 40,000 years ago, would quite likely have learnt their carving skills practising on a piece of wood, not unlike the one that I now held in my hands.
As I reflected, I recalled that my father’s brother had been a carpenter, that I had in my possession a pipe cabinet made of wood, that I think he must have made for my father who smoked a pipe as I do. My father had made one or two small things out of wood too, and I have a brother-in-law who’s a skilled wood carver. Suddenly I knew myself to be standing in a line of people, probably men, who made things out of wood stretching back at least 40,000 years. I’m a part of something much greater than myself.
I know that I can’t carve anything like the lion man, nor do I aspire to the carpentry skills of my uncle, so what might I be able to do? I do have some wood, pieces that I’ve picked up locally after the recent storm, and logs that we feed into a wood-burning stove in the winter. Perhaps I could use a piece to make myself a holding cross? I decided to give it a try. It involved cutting the wood into smaller pieces in order to create a ‘blank’ measuring about four inches by six. I bought a small handheld saw, to cut the ‘blank’ into the right shape, and then used my whittling knives and sandpaper to create a smooth-ish finish. Finally, I waxed it. After a bit of trial and error, I was quite satisfied with what I had. I went on to make others, and have been giving them away to friends ever since.
Then I felt called to do something with one of the original branches that I’d stripped of its bark. As I mulled I sensed that I should try and make what I called a ‘prayer stick’ that I could hold in my hand: something other than a holding cross, but which might complement it. I’ve ended up making what I now call a ‘blessing stick’.
It’s more detailed than a holding cross and this is its meaning for me:
The yellow at the top reminds me of the sun. I see the sun as a means through which the Cosmic Christ is present in the world. Without the sun there would be no life on our earth. It is the source of all life, as Christ is. Even when we can’t see it, because of the clouds, it is there bringing light, warmth and life as Christ does.
The white at the bottom reminds me of the moon, which reflects the light of the sun when the sun is hidden. Even when Christ might seem to be absent, His presence is mediated to us indirectly in other ways.
The coloured circle around the stick represent different things to me:
The green ring reminds me of the web of loving support that always holds me. When I was ill some years ago I had many cards and good wishes, and they reminded me that there were many people holding me in love and prayer. It often takes a crisis for that web to manifest itself but it’s always there. For me, it’s made up of family and friends, past, present and yet to be born. It includes painters, poets, writers and the like whose works have shaped & influenced me over the years. And of course, I’m a part of webs that support others as well. There is a vast network of such interconnected webs.
The blue ring reminds me of the angels, signs & miracles that touch me.
Angels are messengers through whom God speaks to me, ordinary people who have no idea that they serve that function when they do.
Signs that I have recognised, and which have touched me deeply, open me up to fresh insights and truths.
Miracles that have brought about changes within me. Miracles are not inexplicable external events but rather events that have changed something inside me for good. The miracle is internal, not external to me. An example is my watching the sun rise in the early morning and my being sent more cheerfully and optimistically into the new day.
The red ring reminds me of my Memories of the Home with God from which I came at birth and to which I shall return when I die: so they are also Glimpses of Eternity. They are things that are difficult to define but which I recognise when I see them, such as Love, Beauty, Peace, Hospitality, Friendship, Harmony, Creativity, Rest, Stillness, Wonder and Awe, All human beings seem to be born knowing these things, although different cultures may express them variously.
The dark blue/purple ring reminds me of the various Holy Places that I know and which act for me as portals to another world.
The brown copper ring reminds me of the many spiritual resources that I’ve collected over the years, many of which are stored in my laptop: my journal, my Personal Bible, the poems, words, works of art, music etc that have spoken to me at various stages in my journey.
So an unexpected gift has led me on a rich spiritual journey of exploration. I’ve learnt new insights, grown a bit, and not least, found in wood a means of deep connection with others and with God. It’s a gift that’s kept on giving.