Practice of the Week
Category: Might Be Your Thing (This practice is not for everyone -- but may be just the thing for you!)
"Each of us has the task of taking the scraps of our lives, the beautiful satins and velvets, the plain everyday calicoes, the bumpy corduroys, the dark shades as well as the bright, and making them into a thing of unique beauty." (Laurie Bushbaum)
When I was thirteen, I inherited an unfinished quilt started by my great-grandmother. A few years later, I finished it as best I could. I used it on my bed all through high school, and it was stained and bedraggled by the time I graduated. Still, it was precious to me, so I tucked it away in a closet. Fifteen years later I painstakingly took it apart, stitch by stitch, to salvage a few of the squares that were in better condition. I wanted to use these squares in a new quilt I was making called "Four Generations Handed Down," in which I honored my creative genealogy: four generations of textile artists in my family.
In the process of finishing that first quilt from my great-grandmother, and the many that have followed, I discovered that quilting can be a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life on both the personal and collective levels. Each of us has the task of taking the scraps of our lives, the beautiful satins and velvets, the plain everyday calicoes, the bumpy corduroys, the dark shades as well as the bright, and making them into a thing of unique beauty. It is a neverending project. At times it is too much to do alone. The old quilting bees remind us of that; the women gathered together, sometimes for days at a time, sharing their food, their stories, their families and lives, all the while stitching, stitching.
Eventually, quilting became more than a metaphor, but it took me many years to finally name and claim quilting as my spiritual discipline -- my prayer and meditation. Needle through thread, up and down, is my rosary, my mantra. It is my path to comfort, clearer understanding, and renewed compassion for the world.
Even as a child, working with fabric was not primarily a way to expand my wardrobe, but a way to explore my mind and spirit. In college, I remember standing outside the art building having been told by a faculty member that I could not do an independent study in quilting because there was no faculty member who could supervise such a class. And though quilting might be interesting, it was not real art and didn't belong in the department. I was stunned and confused.
In seminary, I was excited by the ideas and words of several theologians in particular, but I was also drowning in words. I longed for a hands-on way to pray, to enter into the Mystery. I was drawn to religious art of many kinds, but I knew that I was not a Russian Orthodox icon painter, a Shaker furniture maker, or a practitioner of Japanese ikebana
(flower arranging). The quilts of the Amish spoke deeply to me, but quilting then was still an extracurricular activity for me and I didn't have time in seminary life to do what I most needed.
Slowly, I have come to understand that quilting for me is about worship. The word worship comes from an old word meaning, "to shape things of worth." One aspect of worship is transformation, transforming the ordinary into the Sacred, the remnant into the Holy. For me, quilting as spiritual discipline is giving shape and color and texture to my inner life. It is about making beauty from what is at hand.
Whatever else art may be, it is primarily work of the soul. Art is very much a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. Art is not so much what we make, but how we relate to the world. Quilting has been a way for me to use a particular discipline as a means of discovering that it is not the art creation itself that matters so much but what the process of creation teaches.
The spiritual discipline of quilting taught me, first, the beauty and necessity of pattern. Pattern is a fundamental part of our human experience, as basic as day and night, as complex as theology and mathematics. Patterns mark time and space, inner as well as outer. Pattern is the background against which we can see Revelation, with which we can balance constancy with change. Spiritual discipline is knowing and recognizing the patterns in one's self changing them if necessary and possible tuning one's self to the larger cosmic patterns, and gracefully resting in this beauty.
Quilting has taught me to respect the wisdom of the elders of paying attention to early lessons. For many years I made traditional quilts. It was all I knew. I delighted" in being part of this communion of saints, women (and a few men) who through time have made beauty out of next to nothing. After several years though, I hit a wall. I was suddenly bored. I didn't want to follow anybody else's pattern. I had mastered all the basic skills, but needed a new way to use them.
And that is the next thing that this spiritual discipline taught me: to take risks, to listen to the still small voice urging me into new territory. Creation always involves risk whether it be the creation of a new piece of artwork, I new recipe, a new relationship. Many of my pieces have started out with a certain plan only to end up quite different than I imagined. Sometimes I have tried one color of fabric in a particular spot and ripped it out the next day. Even the quilts that I did many years ago that are no longer exciting to me are a V1sual testament to my journey, my deepening understanding, my growing experience and wisdom.
The spiritual discipline of quilting has also taught me the rhythms of the creation process. Many of my quilt pieces were started, partially completed, only then to spend two or three years on a shelf waiting for the vision to reappear or clarify. I used to panic thinking the piece was a throw-away. Or I would fight the fallow time and try to force the resolution. Slowly I have learned the wisdom of letting these things happen when the time is right. When the inspiration comes, it sometimes comes with such dazzling, simple clarity that I can only say a quiet "Thank you" for this amazing grace.
And this knowledge transfers over to my sermon writing. I have learned that my sermon writing also has a very particular pattern. Now, when I hit the wall in my writing, I know to do a load of laundry or a stack of filing or to wash the dishes. If I allow these seemingly empty spaces, the pregnant pauses, yet pay careful attention, the sermon does get finished.
When I am in my studio, I can forget my name, the time, the needs of my children, the tasks on my list of things to do. This is one of the benefits of spiritual discipline -- to be immersed in Holy Time, dissolved in Sacred Space. When I fully enter the work, I return refreshed, invigorated, as if I had traveled to a new land. I can return to my daily tasks with greater joy and deeper presence. The opposite is true, too. When I can't find time in my life for my creative soul work, it is hard for me to give to the world around me what I would like to give. For years I struggled, thinking that my artwork was selfish. Then I noticed the profound effects it has on everything else that I do. Though I quilt for myself, I have come to understand it as a necessary form of spiritual renewal, a way to fill my cup so that I may fill others'.
The most recent gift of my spiritual discipline is discovering that it can also be a gift for others. Only in the last few years have I begun to show my pieces in galleries and churches. I am amazed by what others tell me they see or feel from the pieces. The quilts invite contemplation, incite feelings of peace and hope, allow one to revel in beauty. Some very small, private image that I think I have tucked away in a corner often jumps out for others and speaks to their spirits, too. Sometimes I have done something in a quilt piece totally unconsciously, only to have a viewer walk up to it and immediately point out what was too close for me to see. It is both humbling and exciting to speak to another's spirit and heart without words, to be reminded that there is a language of image and color and texture.
By simple definition, quilting is merely sewing pieces of fabric together into a whole. But as spiritual discipline, it is a careful attention to the details of my life. Quilting as spiritual discipline is entering the sensual richness of the universe, creating order out of chaos, beauty out of the simple, wholeness from the scraps, and in the midst, being transformed.
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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index