Quilting: A Spiritual Practice?
A friend gave me a copy of Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World for my birthday, and I’ve enjoyed reading it—twice. Taylor reveals ways to discover the sacred in the ordinary through simple practices of walking, working, and prayer. Sometimes we just need to pay attention to ourselves, to others, and to God.
Many sections spoke to me, but the chapter “Living with Purpose” helped me think about my love of quilting and how it might actually be more than just a hobby. At one point, Taylor says, she was struggling to find her particular purpose. She heard God speak: “Do anything that pleases you…and belong to Me.” In a world where people do paid work that does not always feed their hearts, Taylor says, “it seems important to leave open the possibility that our vocations may turn out to be things we do for free.”
Taylor’s words resonate with me. Somewhere during the past 15 years of my quilting life, what started as an interesting hobby and creative outlet has become a tangible focus of prayer and blessing.
Perhaps the transformation began when a woman in my small group at Bible study shared that she had suffered a miscarriage. In her grief she felt no faith or hope, but our group carried faith and hope for her. I went home and began making a baby quilt. A little more than a year later, I was able to give this faith-gift to her and her newborn baby boy.
When my brother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I began to sew. I chose fabrics and colors I knew he and his wife would like. I finished the project just a few days before he took his last breath, but I know that wrapping up in that quilt has brought comfort to his family as they work through their grief.
Sometimes I see a quilt pattern and immediately know: This would be perfect for (friend). What fun to send off a finished quilt as a completely unexpected gift to a friend living miles away!
I wouldn’t say that while I’m in the process of sewing for someone else—a friend or new baby—that I’m always focused with intentional and worded prayers. But I am mindful, always, of the recipient, so much so that once the project is finished, I cannot bear to think of giving that quilt to someone else. It simply would not do to give something that belongs to one person to another.
The healing, hope, and blessing work the other direction too. I decided a while back that visiting a fabric shop can be a spiritual experience for me. The beautiful fabrics—in all hues and designs, geometric and floral—are testimony to the artistry of designers and manufacturers from around the world. The “hand” of the fabric itself—100 percent cotton—feeds my soul. When I’m feeling melancholy or burdened, a trip to my favorite fabric store can lift my spirits—even if I don’t purchase a thing!
The week between my brother-in-law’s death and his memorial service, I wandered around the house, distracted. It was an odd time of waiting and remembering, of longing to be with family, of desiring to pull together the hole that was now gaping among us. I found I couldn’t concentrate on anything—but sewing scraps of fabric together into quilt blocks was calming and quieting.
Last June, after the shooting on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, I decided I would experiment with making some prayer flags. I wanted something I could see and touch to represent my prayers for the campus. The idea with prayer flags is that one should not be so focused on the end product as one makes them, but use the process as a prayer focus. I followed up my SPU prayer flag with one for Palestine, and with general prayer flags for God’s care over the “sparrows” of the world and for Light to shine in the dark places.
Last summer, with our daughter Jessy in East Jerusalem so close to the devastating military assault in Gaza, I felt unsettled and anxious. My heart ached for those suffering senselessly. Unable to focus on much else, I began to sew. I chose bright shades of orange set on muted gray. The finished effect was stunning—one of my favorite color combinations yet—but what now? I had sewn with no particular person in mind. Then it came to me: This quilt was for Gaza. I decided to make it available for “auction” among my friends and acquaintances online. In the end I was able to make a donation to Gaza relief through Mennonite Central Committee from the sale of that little quilt. It wasn’t much, but it felt fitting and right and good.
Perhaps we’re all meant to do something with our hands—something that connects us to the earth and to each other, to our Creator and to Beauty and to Love. We take up shovels and move dirt and plant; we plunge our fists into bread dough; we wield the carving knife or ax; we poise with pen or pencil or brush above the blank page. Me? I take fabric and scissors and needle and thread, and cut and piece and layer and quilt. My quilting is more than just a hobby or creative outlet. It’s a way I can belong to God and let him use me to bless others in a simple, ordinary way. My hours spent at the sewing machine become hours when my stitches literally become the strands that pull together the fraying, raw edges of others’ lives—and mine.