From Beauty to Sacrament


“All unfolded as things do when God’s “fulness of time” has come – with no striving on our side to make them fit.  Today they have gathered for Mme. H.’s first embroidery lesson.  They are as eager as children over it,  – and so is she – & a group of girl heads were gathered over the ‘girgaff or embroidery – stretched on a hoop till they are promoted to the big wooden frame… on which the serious work is done.”   20 January 1901

Among my most treasured possessions are those things made by hand:  the craft of a friend (a bit of cross stitch, perhaps, a painting, a quilt) or items indigenous to a country or region visited by ourselves or another (a tiny crèche native to that region with characters resembling the local inhabitants, a clay pot, a figured carved in wood).

Truth is, I stand in awe of people who work with their hands – artists and artisans – who recreate what they see or create what they envision.  I have the sum total of one piece of handwork, two, really, as it is a pair of crewel designs adapted from the wallpaper of our early kitchen and guided, stitch by stitch, by my instructor in Shaker crafts.  They are handsomely framed and proudly displayed in every kitchen since:  “Yes, I made them myself.”   We moved away from town (and shop).  They remain, at once, my debut and swan song!

The value of handwork can be both in the creating and/or the beholding of the same.  For some it is the simple satisfaction of self-expression or, for others, to mark an experience with an object representative of its loveliness or meaning.  It can be the sheer joy of bringing order to chaos (clay to vessel, thread to tapestry) or taking the common functions of everyday living – eating, sitting, sleeping – and dignifying them through skillfully created forms of beauty.  Handcrafts can boost an economy.

It was for economic reasons that Lilias experimented with the native arts – and her first venture in entrepreneurialism!  As she watched the young Arab girls get married at eleven and twelve years of age and get initiated into the hidden – and uncertain – world of womanhood, she became increasingly concerned with equipping women and girls for independence, both economic and spiritual. Toward this end, she engaged the services of the keeper of an embroidery shop to teach them girgaff, the native art of embroidery, so that they could produce articles to sell in her shop.  She had visions on an even larger scale, securing yarn from a native dyer who “catches the old dim tones of colour,” to create designs to sell in a shop in Paris!

One can only imagine this society of women, committed to mastering their craft even as they discovered their own creative potential while designing objects of beauty and usefulness.  I would like to believe, as I do with all handcrafts, that they left a bit of their souls behind in it.

Luci Shaw, in her article “Imagination, Beauty, Creativity,” related reading about pioneer life in the prairies during the late 1800’s.  One prairie woman wrote in her diary about her quilt-making, “I make them warm to keep my family from freezing; I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”  We who believe that we bear God’s image must likewise conclude that, for us, image-bearing includes the capacity to create – and with it the ability to appreciate the beauty of the creative act.

A study of the making of the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-11) will reveal that God gifts some with a particular purpose to create even filling them “with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts.”  Scripture – and life experience – indicates that the rest of us are gifted to appreciate this beauty.  At times I experience a twinge of envy toward those who create with their hands things of purpose and beauty.  I don’t.  So I write, attempting to restore order from my own personal chaos.  And I decorate my home with objects of beauty and meaning that others have created.

I believe that art and beauty can transcend the immediate benefits of creating and enjoyment of the created, pointing us to the things we cannot see but which have ultimate and eternal reality.  Many of the saints and scholars have developed this thought, at length, through the ages.  But I will conclude with a few words from a contemporary, Roberta Ahmanson, as she cited the vision of two realities – earth and Heaven depicted in the stories of stone and stained glass at the Naumburg Cathedral in Germany:  “Walk through the Cross to Glory and make earth its reflection.”

Let us rejoice in our Creator through His Creation and the range of creative expression gifted to us in the here and now!

Painting:  Journal 1898

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