Ellen Morris Prewitt discussed the healing aspects of her practice of making crosses with Church Health Reader. She recently published her first book, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God.
John Shorb: Describe the process of making the crosses.
Ellen Morris Prewitt: The process is a way to slow down, to refocus, and to look at things differently. From the beginning, I have only used things that have no value to the world. I began picking things up in parking lots and sidewalks and gradually developed my own standards for cross making.
Using things with no value leaves room for you and God. You can’t mess anything up. In workshops, I always tell people not to worry about breaking anything – all the objects were broken to begin with. Some people bring their own things to the workshop and some bring nothing. I bring sticks from my cottonwood tree – they are very bumpy and have a lot of movement. We start the foundation of the cross by selecting the crossbeams. Then we take tissue paper (ripped into pieces) and wrap the sticks with the tissue paper. Then we select found objects – not always knowing why we are drawn to it. You trust that as you use them to adorn your cross, you will understand why you are doing it.
What led you into writing and making crosses?
About 15 years ago, I began making little vignettes. Then 9/11 happened. I felt I needed to do something with more meaning so I turned to the cross. Framing these vignettes in the cross became a very important part of the story I was telling through these pieces. I did this primarily as a personal, private way to deal with my grief. One day someone asked me if I did anything with these crosses. I began selling them locally at the same time I was establishing myself as a writer. I eventually proposed a book about what I had experienced in making the crosses and submitted it to Paraclete Press they said, “No, Thank You”.
They called back a couple of months later and said that they might be interested in it if I could write in a way that offered this practice to other people, something that could turn into a workshop. So I began to do a series of workshops, and they were just wonderful.
Have you seen this become a healing process for some people?
When I started doing workshops, people always came up to me afterwards to tell me their story. Their stories were almost always stories of healing. Sometimes it was a healing of their relationship with God, something inside them, or a very specific thing. It overwhelmed me because each story carried that seed of sorrow. The thing that had been broken had to be healed.
Making crosses is not an arts-and-crafts activity; it is not about artistic talent. Many people identified themselves as not creative but they trusted enough to go forward. They told me they did not want to come, but at the end they spent five minutes describing the cross they made. It means so much to focus on God, prayer, and themselves. They can look at this wonderful cross that is the result.
How do you see the Bible and Christianity in this context?
I love to ground these workshops in Bible readings. One time, in a workshop the week before Holy Week, I selected verses from each of the Gospels. I read each one as they were picking up sticks. We began with the woman anointing Jesus with oil and ended with the passage where John says all the wonderful things that Jesus did. Sometimes they are just praise and gratitude. I use a hymnal, the Bible, or even old bulletins. We talk about what the cross represents, about gratitude and praise, and forgiveness. It is very personal.
One participant chose a cross scene that had a whole lot of movement. She said this is representation of my relationship with God – it was like dancing in the wind. When God leads her, it is a beautiful fluid movement, but when she tries to take the lead, she gets all jumbled up.
You’ve talked about the Holy Spirit, you’ve talked about God, you’ve talked about the Trinity. Where is Jesus Christ in this process?
One of my crosses is called, “It may be the Trinity but only Jesus had to die.” I work to this question: “Who is Jesus and what does the cross mean to me?” People have radically different reactions to the cross. For me, it is where this inexplicable transformation took place, and it is a very positive image. When I talk to others about offering something to the cross, I get startled reactions. For example, I’ve suggested to a parent to use their children’s artwork and they said “Oh, putting my children on the cross?” That did not sit well with their image of what they thought the cross was.
In light of this work – Would you consider the church a place of healing?
As an Episcopalian, healing has always been a basic part of my church – it is a sacrament. In a larger sense, the church supports us in our journey to wholeness with God, ourselves, and with each other. That is a healing process – becoming whole. The church is a gathering place where I can go. I can hear something during the service, the liturgy, or hymns that speaks to me right then. I can watch people – in all our varied shapes and forms – go up to altar and take communion. The Body of Christ responds in love as situations develop, caring for you in illness and death, and supporting you in grief and emotional turmoil.
Read the review of Making Crosses>>
John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.