If you walk by my church on a warm spring day, at first glance you might think we’ve been targeted by pranksters: outside our front door, several of the trees bear a rainbow of ribbons, brightly colored strips of cloth that flutter in each passing breeze.
The ribbons aren’t the result of hijinks, for we have actually invited their presence by setting up a small kiosk near the trees that contains a blank notebook and a bag full of fabric ribbons. “Offer your healing prayers here,” says a sign, while inside the kiosk is another note that explains that people around the world have long put ribbons on trees as symbol of their prayers.
When we set up the kiosk we weren’t sure how this addition to our church lawn would be received. Located as we are in the middle of a busy university town, we worried that it might be a target for vandalism or that no one would take advantage of its invitation to pray. Nearly a year later, our trees are adorned with hundreds of ribbons, bearing colorful testimony to those who have stopped for a few moments in front of our church to offer prayers.
Many people have also left petitions in the blank book, prayers that are given voice each Tuesday morning during our weekly healing service. “I pray that I may be strong enough to do what must be done,” says one. “I pray that the Holy Spirit will allow my grandmother to forgive those who have hurt her,” says another. “We pray that our downstairs neighbor will be OK,” offers another.
The brief prayers make me wonder about the lives behind them. What has happened to the grandmother who can’t forgive? Why does that downstairs neighbor need prayers? I’ll never know, but that mystery is part of the beauty of the ribbons.
I also appreciate how the prayer trees are a form of quiet outreach and support to those who walk by our door. “I tied a ribbon on one of your trees for my sister who has cancer,” a friend told me the other day, someone whom I know does not have a faith community. “It makes me feel better to see it as I walk by each day.”
One of my favorite prayers left at the kiosk is this one: “I give a prayer of thanksgiving for this church for providing this awesome opportunity to pray as a community.” Given the fact that the person signed this message with an extravagantly large heart, she was probably young enough to consider “awesome” as a synonym for “great.” I like to think our prayer trees are awesome in the original meaning of the word as well.
As Episcopalians we rightly value the historic liturgies of our church, crafting our services with beautiful words and music. I greatly appreciate those efforts, but I often find myself pausing outside our church on Sunday mornings to look at the ribbons dancing in the breeze. I think that perhaps as beautiful as the service has been, it is these prayers that go most swiftly to God’s ear, for in matters of the heart, simplicity is better than complexity.
I’m reminded too of a line from Lauren Winner’s powerful memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. As Winner struggles with trying to keep her spiritual life alive through a time of doubt and trial, she takes comfort from a poem written by Carrie Fountain. Prayer, the poet writes, “was the last skill I learned. I practiced rigorously. Just as I was getting good, I lost it. As soon as it was gone, I understood it was not a skill at all.”
That’s why I think those ribbons have something to teach us about how to pray. Our words don’t have to be elaborate or skillfully crafted. They don’t have to be spoken inside a church or led by a member of the clergy. However they’re formed, the spirit will take the words where they need to go, borne on the wings of each passing spring breeze.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.