The thread that led me to Companions


By Denise Frame Harlan, Companion, Parker River Chapter


I crammed into the knitting circle in the third-floor apartment living room. A dozen kick-ass young women I’d seen around Gloucester were setting up bottles of wine and some snacks. When my friend Katherine arrived, the crowd parted as she made her way to my corner. I had begged her for help with my first pair of socks after church last week, and this was the only night she could get away. This was certainly not church.

“There’ll be kids there,” she said, “but not our kids.”  The dad of the house rumbled through, chasing a handful of rowdy toddlers while some cats hid under chairs.

I opened my tote bag and pulled out the tiny cuff of a toddler sock with an orange picot edge and a border of red ladybugs on purple. Everyone cooed and passed around the pattern book with the next round of wine. “I keep getting halfway through the heel and nothing makes sense, so I rip it out and start again. This is my third try.” The knitters all pointed to Katherine and nodded: the right person had invited me.

In that parenting season of clipped sentences and barely-averted disasters, I was short on concentration, working to keep the thread, follow the thread, to attempt something bigger than this one minute, this one meal, this one errand.

When we reread the pattern, and Katherine pulled out her knitting, I gushed: my mother just died. One of my children struggled with social development. My mom-group dissolved and my book group was falling apart, and I was avoiding any committee entanglements that could require too much of me. But when would I ever speak with adults again?

We touched on her former work with the Episcopal diocese. “Our priest had given me a gift certificate for a retreat center, but it wasn’t open until summer,” I said.

“Adelynrood?” she asked. “I’ve been a Companion since I was 19.” I had no idea what she was talking about. We turned to talk about the pattern again, how to do the decreases on each side of the heel to form those lovely angled stitches.

I told her our priest had also given me the schedule for the retreat center. “I can’t believe I just missed Madeleine L’Engle speaking at Adelynrood a few months ago.” I rushed through my story of reading my way into the Episcopal church in my twenties.

“Oh Madeleine will be back—she’s a Companion, too,” Katherine reassured me.

Now at the narrowest part of the heel, I tightened my frown to say “seriously, what do these instructions mean when they say ‘turn the work’?” Katherine took my knitting in one hand and flipped it from right to left, putting it back in my hands. “Seriously?” I asked. She nodded. I kept going, learning what to look for with the added increases at the beginning and end of each row.

I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘companion?’”

She described a women’s religious group of Episcopal lay-people and clergy and a commitment to simplicity of life, the way of Jesus, support of social justice and intercessory prayer. “That’s everything that I would commit myself to! How could this group exist without me knowing about it? How am I not already a part of this?” I asked.  Katherine smiled.

The wine bottles had emptied, and the knitters were winding down after their discussions of local politics, sex, recipes and cloth diapers. I ‘turned’ my first heel on a sock. Katherine and I promised we would continue the conversation. I finished the second sock on my own and picked up a new pattern for adult socks.

I am, of course, telling you how I found the Companions. As I say this in a compressed way, I know it’s not nearly enough. I visited Adelynrood for several restful retreats, and when I said “the time will come, and I will know it,” no one rushed me.

I would have a difficult time, now, pinpointing the year of that knitting night, and I know better than to ask Katherine. Our lives grew more complicated. We held the long thread of our conversation as I spent a few summers living at an Episcopal summer camp in New Hampshire, and Katherine plotted her cross-country move to New Mexico with her family. Jobs came and went.

My masters degree program met in New Mexico – and Katherine invited me to visit a few days before my grad classes. She drove me to Santa Fe where we would walk local arts festivals and attend church. Madeleine L’Engle died in 2007 before I could connect with her more meaningfully, but by then I’d become friends with her best friend Luci, whom I met in my grad studies. I continued to visit Katherine after I completed my degree.

I moved to a new town in Massachusetts. When my new priest asked me to consider ways to serve the church, I told him I planned to become a Companion. “That’s probably commitment enough, then – let us know how we can support you,” he said with a comforting nod.

More than 10 years after that knitting night, I attended my first Companion chapter meeting with the Parker River Chapter. I felt immediately and profoundly at home in ways that are hard to describe.

What is this long thread of conversation between Episcopal women who take their faith seriously enough to clarify their own baptismal vows even further with our vows of justice, simplicity and prayer?

Many of us read, but not all of us. Many of us appear quite serious, but we all share good laughs. We spend time in silence, and we eat long meals prepared with great affection. The more I try to name this long thread, the more ethereal it seems. For most of us, we sit in a circle in a chapter meeting, in Adelynrood’s chapel or in a circle of chairs six feet apart on the lawn. We sense we are among friends, among kindred spirits in some ineffable way. This does not mean that all conversations are smooth – our disagreements are rich and important, and we endure tedium together frequently. Beneath the occasional tedium, Companions care deeply for God’s world and for each other. There is a tenderness here. The long thread is worthy of patience.

I would say maybe don’t wait 10 years to consider becoming a Companion; yet, I know that I arrived at the right time to this circle. Yes, people were waiting for me to arrive, praying for me. They did not rush me.

I hope that you will come at the right time, too. When we meet there, in that circle, I’ll probably have my knitting with me, and we will make the time for one another to find that long thread together.