A Thread of Hope

The Lombardi Arts and Humanities prayer flag project

Step outside on the podium level of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and you will see nurses, physicians, staff members and patients seated at round picnic-style tables, enjoying lunch, coffee, conversation, or an escape from the day. Just beyond, your attention is drawn to strings of brightly colored, rectangular fabric pieces fluttering in the breeze. Hanging between large pillars, the strands mark the perimeter of a labyrinth painted on the concrete floor, where the mother of a cancer patient quietly walks the winding path.

The fabric squares overhead are adorned with simple inscriptions such as “love is the answer” or “never give up.” Some feature Bible verses, Buddhist mandalas, simple drawings or words of peace, hope and health. The prayer flags were installed this year by artist Lauren Kingsland through the Lombardi Arts and Humanities Program.

As a teenager, Kingsland was unable to engage in the type of activities that most young people enjoy. Seriously injured in an accident at 14, she spent time during her long recovery tending to her creative interests instead. Through the experience, she gained personal insight into the connection between the artistic process and healing. Art-making helped her get through a difficult period and put her on a future trajectory of helping others struggling to heal.

Now a professional artist with a master’s degree in applied healing arts, Kingsland is intimately involved with the cancer center’s arts program—an initiative launched in 1992 to introduce the arts as a tool for coping through self-expression. Kingsland spends two days a week at the cancer center engaging patients, family members and staff in art therapy in order to reduce stress and offer an alternative method of care and healing. She serves as a listening presence for those in the midst of challenging times.

“The prayer flag project for the labyrinth springs directly from the core ideas that get me up every day and give my life meaning,” says Kingsland. “My personal mission is to use fiber art as a tool for making something of beauty, for connecting deeply with our spiritual selves, and for fostering a community of wellness. What could be better than this project?”

Inscribing prayers on strands of cloth is an ancient practice that began in Nepal over 2000 years ago. Adopted from Tibetan Buddhists, these flags have grown from their original purpose and religious association and are now embraced by various religions and organizations throughout the world, says Kingsland.

She explains that within the Tibetan Buddhist religion, the flags are sacred objects with prayers block-printed onto colorful pieces of silk that are hung throughout the mountainside. As the flags age and begin disintegrating, the belief is that the wind will scatter the pieces throughout the land, and any area touched by them will become the recipient of the prayers inscribed upon them. While the Georgetown flags may not hang in a space as scenic as the Tibetan landscape, the roof of the hospital emergency room forming the connection between Lombardi and the School of Medicine is a location with meaning—and foot traffic.

Although the Georgetown project is non-denominational, it draws from the traditional Buddhist aim to benefit those who come in contact with the flags—both those who create the flags and those who view them.

Each patient, family member or staff person who chooses to participate in the project is given a colorful fabric square, markers, and the freedom to embellish it with a prayer, a drawing or anything of personal importance, says Kingsland. People have created over 150 flags so far, and the number continues to grow. The flags are approachable and meaningful to many.

“Articulating the desire for health, the desire for peace and making the prayer is important, and this is a non-sectarian way to do that while also being authentic. Because it’s tangible, those participating have deliberately chosen to express whatever they write on the flag, either for themselves, for others, or for the world at large,” says Kingsland.

Several unexpected benefits have emerged from the project, she adds. Creating a flag together offers an opportunity for a patient and their family members to jointly express their hope for healing. A mother of a gravely ill patient seized the occasion to not only make a flag with Kingsland but to also discuss the emotional toll the illness has taken. Perhaps most surprisingly for Kingsland, creating prayer flags has provided an outlet for those who have made it their profession to care for the ill—chief among them, nurses.

“I have seen a lot of nurses offer really heartfelt prayer for the health of their patients. Part of their training suggests that they create a little bit ofdistance between themselves and their patients for protection and self-preservation, so this has been a way to allow them that emotional connection with patients and to have some expression of it, in a safe and controlled way,” says Kingsland.

Ultimately, Kingsland views these flags as a vehicle for personal engagement and engagement with the creative self.

“Everyone’s interpretation of the request to create a flag offers a snapshot that captures the person in that moment and time,” she says. “Making the flag doesn’t necessarily change anything about the illness or the set of circumstances, but it does help people change how they think about the illness, and how they process it."

By Elissa Ernst
Elissa is the director of development for Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. She can be reached at es349@georgetown.edu.