US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Sewn together

By Karen Rushen O’Brien | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
An idle mind may be the devil’s workshop, but busy hands are where the Holy Spirit hangs out.

I love to make stuff, which doesn’t make me much different from many women I know. Lots of us like to knit, quilt, crochet, or do needlepoint for a whole variety of reasons: because it relaxes us, it empowers us and brings us joy to find we can make something, or because we wind up creating something beautiful that we can give to someone special.

These are all wonderful reasons to develop crafting as a hobby, but I firmly believe that handcrafts are more than that. They can be a spiritual practice and even a spiritual path to deeper union with God, with the world, and with others, particularly the poor and disenfranchised.

Historically, there have always been handcrafts at the heart of the church, such as the tapestries, vestments, and altar linens so often made by religious women for liturgical purposes. Certainly the production of such handwork provided income for the women, but it also provided “holy work” that engaged their hearts as well as their hands, providing opportunities for silence, focus, and the creative expression of their love for God and others.

Handcrafts—knitting, pottery, basket making, literally anything made by hand—require a certain degree of concentration while at the same time freeing our minds from lots of chatter. Anyone who’s a proficient crafter knows that learning and practicing a handcraft has the ability to bring you to an inner place of calm, peace, and quiet where time flows and the mind is able to relax and open up to a different level of consciousness.

For those who have a hard time with contemplative prayer and meditation because they find their mind wandering, taking up handcrafts can provide a gentle path to learn how to simply “be” at a different level, where words are of less importance. It’s a place where the body develops a rhythm, through repetitive action, that helps quiet the mind and open the heart to new ways of listening and being still.

Sometimes the rhythm of pulling a needle in and out of fabric over and over brings me into a deep and steady peace that, recognized or not, has its source in the divine. In this manner, making a quilt or felting a brooch can become a way of praying.

In creating a thing of beauty, I can appreciate the wordless revelation of the divine in creativity, beauty, pattern, color, design, and the raw materials of the earth. I become one with the Creator in spirit, appreciating that so much of what God has been about since the beginning of time is creating and sustaining beauty—and inviting us to share in the unfolding of beauty and goodness in the world.

Creating works of art and beauty also sensitizes my soul to beauty in all aspects of life, and cultivating creativity makes me a more creative thinker, problem-solver, and even pray-er.

In my nearly 20 years as a professional lay minister I have come to deeply appreciate handcrafts as a spiritual path and as a “tool” for building the kingdom of God. Even in the poorest of slums I’ve met impoverished women who claim making beautiful things as their birthright.

I remember especially a Guatemalan woman who told me that when she was weaving, she was most truly herself. And a group of Bolivian women once told me that knitting things of beauty is not simply a path to union with God, it is union with the Creator.

These women have no doubt about the importance and power of arts and crafts to celebrate and sustain life, even in the face of crushing poverty. Often they form cooperatives where they not only gather to create crafts to sell but also to sustain and celebrate their artistic, spiritual, and ethnic heritage, to support each other as women, and to struggle together for economic justice and empowerment.

Likewise, meeting with women here in the United States for crafting has been an important part of my own spiritual life. I meet with six to eight women monthly, making cards and scrapbooks for battered women, beading bracelets for teenage girls in group homes, and crocheting blankets for the poor and homeless. Last summer we coordinated a weekend crafting retreat where 30 women came together to make dolls to send to Mexico with the organization Dollies Without Borders.

As we continue to gather and make things, we grow in loving support of our different journeys, and our circle of good works continues to grow as more and more women are joining us or creating their own crafting groups or crafts retreats.

Handcrafts have introduced me to new ways of knowing and loving God. Through “making stuff” I can listen to the divine and pray with my hands and hearts. I can be in solidarity with the poor and with other women on the spiritual path, and put beauty, goodness, and love into the lives of others and our world.

This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 5, page 37).