When you close your eyes and think of the word “prayer,” what do you see? People kneeling, their hands folded, silently sharing their concerns with God? A congregation saying The Lord’s Prayer together on Sunday morning? What about… ribbons?
If you walk past the front of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie this week, your eyes are bound to stray to the wood arbor out front, covered with white ribbons that flap in the autumn breeze. If your curiosity gets the better of you and you step up for a closer look, you’ll see that each ribbon is inscribed with an individual’s prayer, hundreds of prayers, written down and tied carefully to the wire framework inside the arbor itself.
AJ Noyes, the Program Associate for the Cathedral, originally presented the idea of the Prayer Arbor to the Cathedral Chapter in the spring. She was inspired by another prayer installation called “Knotted Grotto” by Meg Saligman in Philadelphia, Prayer Trees, and her own artistic leanings (she has a Bachelor’s degree in art). “My position here at the Cathedral gives me the opportunity to be creative, but I’ve wanted to do an installation piece for years,” she says.
The Chapter was very receptive to the idea, and Dean Downey suggested that the arbor be focused on the city of Erie, given the current issues with homelessness, school closings and budget deficits, and other concerns.
After AJ worked out the initial concept for the installation, Cathedral sexton Terry Bishop took on the task of building the arbor and placing it on the Cathedral lawn. The Arbor was introduced on June 26, and, that Sunday morning, the congregation was asked to add requests to the arbor during the Prayers of the People.
Since then people in and outside the church have taken advantage of the Prayer Arbor to either add prayers, or to take time to pray for the concerns already listed. The Vine youth group and their parents have added prayers, and a contingent from the Cathedral took ribbons and information to the National Night Out at Gridley Park in early August. AJ relayed that, “Many people – especially children – took the time to write out a prayer and then we hung their ribbons on the arbor the next day.”
The goal of the Arbor, besides being a vessel for prayer, is to reach out to the community. The Cathedral emphasizes that the Arbor is open to people of all ages, conditions, and faiths, and it has drawn people from the Erie community who may not otherwise have been aware of the Episcopal Church. Some of our diocesan clergy have noted the effect of the Arbor:
“A student of mine stopped into my office earlier this fall to say that he was walking down West 6th street, and noticed the Prayer Arbor in front of the cathedral. While he said that he wouldn’t normally have noticed anything like that or taken the time to investigate, something about the way the ribbons caught the wind caught his interest. He stepped up the stairs to the arbor level, and stepped in. He found himself compelled to read the various intentions that were tied there, and even found himself praying for the individuals who wrote them and the hopes that they had. He was surprised to find that almost fifteen minutes had passed while he was engaged in the structure and its intention. This is just one wonderful example of how the Prayer Arbor had facilitated this moment of prayer in this rather unlikely pilgrim.” – the Rev. Shawn Clerkin
“A few months ago, I was visiting a patient, someone I’d never met before, in the hospital. He asked which church I was from. When I replied the Cathedral of St. Paul across from the Court House, he said “Oh, I live a few blocks from there and walk my dog past it every day! You have that ribbon sculpture out front; what’s that about?” “It’s a Prayer Arbor! As followers of Christ, we’re called to be people of prayer, reconciliation and hope in His redeeming love right here, where we’re planted.” I watched his face fill with awe and excitement as he exclaimed, “You mean I could go in, get a ribbon, write my prayer for the community and put it on the Arbor?! What a wonderful idea, why aren’t we all doing this?” This gentleman is a member of another denomination and church in the downtown neighborhood. And, yes, his prayer really is fluttering in the breeze on the Prayer Arbor.
“Riding hospital elevators as I visit patients, I frequently am asked what I do and where I serve as a clergy person. In the past few months when I say “St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, across from the Court House”, someone will usually ask about “that house thing” out in front of the church. Inevitably, there’s “wow”, “neat” & “you mean ANY one can write a prayer?” when I explain the Prayer Arbor. Sometimes, I even hear “Why aren’t we ALL doing that?” Indeed. I wonder how many of those fluttering prayers might be from someone in that elevator.” – the Rev. Kathleen Ziegenhine
The prayers will remain on the Prayer Arbor until November 6. There will be a Choral Evensong that evening at 5 pm at the Cathedral, at which time the ribbons will be removed and distributed to the attendees for the service, then archived. All are invited to attend.
There are many ways to pray, and many ways to share the love of God – even with something as simple as a piece of ribbon.
Megin Sewak is Communications Specialist for the Diocese of NWPA.