Ellen Morris Prewitt‘s work has appeared in several literary magazines, including Image, North Dakota Quarterly, Texas Review, Brevity, and Relief. Her book, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, will be released by Paraclete Press on April 1.
LiturgicalCredo recently emailed Prewitt a few questions, and she graciously replied.
You started this new practice of making crosses after 9/11. How did you arrive at the idea to make that first cross, what was it made of, and what did it look like?
Earlier, before September 11, when I’d found my personal life in disarray, I’d picked up the pieces – literally – and begun making vignettes from the scattered debris. I used whatever was at hand to tell small stories, and the frame on which the pieces were glued was an integral part of the story. When I needed something more after 9/11, the cross was the “frame” I turned to. One of my earliest crosses was made from the louvres of a shutter I had used as a dog gate, with fabric glued onto the crossbeams. My first “outdoor” cross was a three-pointed stick I found in my driveway. To adorn it, I threaded straight pins through tiny fake pearls and added leftover silver trim to make a scepter for what I named a “Royal Diedam” cross. It is hard to adequately describe how halting these early crosses were. They were very complicated, with many things stuck and glued onto them. Interestingly, over time, as the practice has deepened, the crosses have grown simpler. The principle of using whatever I find discarded in the world is stronger than ever.
You say that Making Crosses teaches the reader how to make a personal cross. What kinds of things can a personal cross represent?
A personal cross can represent whatever the person brings to God while making the cross. My motto is that these are not “Nicene Creed Crosses: I belive in God the Father, God the Son, . . .” but are “Lord’s Prayer Crosses: Give us this day our daily bread.” As a result, we’ve seen in the workshops pain, celebration, delight, deep insight – so many, many things. One of my most personal crosses was entitled, “It may be the Trinity, but Only Jesus had to Die,” a cross embedded with nails and staple “tombstones” which came out of my grief at the fully human sacrifice Jesus made for us. I love the description below of a cross one my workshop participants made, “Dancing in the Wind”:
My relationship with God is never static; it is like dancing with the wind: sometimes gentle and warm, or breezy, playful and impish. At other times – when I try to lead the dance myself – I struggle just to hang on under the cold, fast wind. Then God coaxes me back into the rhythm of life.
– Evelyn Baker, workshop participant
I am setting up a website, http://www.makingcrosses.com, that offers a “cross making community” where you can become a member and share your cross making experiences. I am hoping that folks will join in the community, and we will see even more fully what a personal cross can represent.
How is making a cross similar to praying? How do you think understanding comes from doing?
I think of cross making as a type of prayer, if you define prayer as spending time with God, which I do. It is very interactive prayer, to me, because you are asking and asking and God is answering and answering. Many of the questions are along the lines of, what am I supposed to do with this? When God tells you, there usually comes with it the “why.” “Because I want you to celebrate gratitude.” “Because the beauty is always tempered with the sacrifice that brought it.” The understanding is very much wrapped up with the physical thing you are creating; much of the explanation lies in the visual. Sometimes the understanding doesn’t come in the two-hour workshop; but participants have stopped me later to say, now I know why.
Also, it’s interesting to me how my focus on thrown-away material that the world considers worthless has affected the rest of my life. I’m not sure I would have been so taken with the “sustainability theology” if I hadn’t been practicing seeing all the world as God’s creation in making crosses. That is a level of “understanding from doing” that I could not have predicted, but for which I am grateful.
Have you witnessed others being transformed by this process of making a personal cross? What kind of transformations took place?
I have seen people quietly amazed at the difference in where they began in the cross making experience, and where they ended up, the road between being paved with the workings of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen the most wonderfully creative crosses made by those who consider themselves uncreative people. I had one woman tell me if she’d understood exactly what we were doing, she wouldn’t have come, and how much the experience meant to her. I also had one woman for whom the cross making just didn’t take; interestingly, she was from the arts community. In general, this is my favorite part of the cross making workshops: when people tell the story of their crosses, looking with wonder at the crosses they have created, rejoicing in something that they didn’t know about themselves.
I also have to say that, for me, the most basic transformation is that I am here, talking about God in public. For most of my life, that would not have happened. Because of this, I warn readers that cross making may affect your life!
How does the process of making crosses relate to your work as a writer?
Someone once told me that all writers should have a creative outlet that doesn’t involve words. In a way, the cross making is that for me, an alternative process of creating that doesn’t depend on linear, analytic thinking. More profoundly, it is a practice I go to when I need quality time with God. When I’m making crosses, I get away from what has become my work – writing – and I go to something that has so little worldly purpose. I guess you could look at the cross making as a “taking in,” where writing is a “letting out.” The similarity is that, in both instances I rely on God to navigate. I can do this in cross making, I can do it in writing; I hope one day to be better able to do it in all aspects of my life.