Some years ago, at an all-ages UU retreat, I was introduced to the spiritual practice of basket weaving. I thought it would be an easy break in between the workshop on Paul’s letters and our hike in the woods. People from age eight to eighty sat around the table with various kinds of ribbon, natural and artificial reeds, and coils of rush fibers spun into long strands. Such simple materials! The most complicated piece of equipment was a pair of scissors. What could go wrong?
The leader was an artist who worked in all kinds of folk media, like pottery and quilting in addition to weaving. She started with the twining technique of basket making. There are other ways to make baskets, but twining was a good place to start. To make a basket using the twining technique, we would take flexible strands, arrange some of them into a framework of spokes, and use other strands as weavers to bring the whole thing together. Finally, we would look at our creations and practice forgiveness and repair. In my first few attempts, I needed to practice a lot of forgiveness and repair.
I took four green rush fibers and four brown rush fibers to make my spokes. I laid them out on the table in a circle. They looked like a nice, round compass. I found a strand of rush fibers printed with a nice pattern and chose it for my weaver. I threaded the weaver in and out, over and under. Despite my experience with braiding long hair, I seemed to run out of fingers for keeping track of my project. The basket started to take on an oval kind of shape, like the old weeble-wobble toys from my childhood. I had envisioned this sacred, meditative process, but it was more like building a tower of wiggly blocks. Once again, the “practice” part of spiritual practice turns out to be key.
Looking back on that experience, I think twining baskets has a lot in common with extending the power of hope in community. We begin with softening, with preparing for a mission by cultivating flexibility. We connect with the pattern and each other, turning backward and forward. This would be impossible without changes in direction and position, sometimes leading and sometimes following. At the end of the day, we appreciate what has been created, we make repairs by reinforcing connections, and we find grace in the absence of perfection. Preparing, turning, and repairing are three steps in weaving baskets and in creating a spiritual life.
Preparing is the first step. In many cases, the fibers for a basket have to be softened to get them ready for weaving. That might mean soaking or even boiling the vines, branches, reeds, or rushes in water so that they can bend without breaking. Creation takes flexibility. Transformation begins even before the first connection is made. All of the fibers are prepared together, joined in a common process even if they don’t yet touch.
Spiritual journeys can also begin with this kind of softening. Seekers in all kinds of traditions— from Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River, to Shinto practitioners at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine standing under a waterfall for the purifying Misogi ceremony, to Pagans who soak in chamomile water before a full moon ritual— many kinds of religious and spiritual people move through water as they prepare to receive new insights.
Softening matters. We need to be a little flexible to connect with community, with loved ones, with a living tradition that is sometimes complicated and contradictory. In the liberal Christian church where I was raised, I remember the minister advising us on Palm Sunday that, though we may be tempted to keep our palm frond in water to keep it looking nice for a few days, eventually it would dry up and die, because it had been disconnected from the living plant it had grown from. Palms can be used in weaving, but the weaving is usually done when the palms are green. They need life to be flexible. We, too, need to stay connected with the people and traditions that help us to be flexible, to be aligned with the forces that create and uphold life.
As Unitarian Universalists, water does come into play in our rituals. The bowl of the chalice is a cup that holds refreshment, is a symbol of the circle of community, a container for compassion and renewal. The water gathered in Unitarian Universalist congregations every September is part of who we are. Bodies of water change every moment with flow and evaporation, so even if the water were gathered from the exact same places each year, it would be different water. We change. We are changing. We create the container for change. May the rituals of our community join us together, soften our hearts, and equip us with the flexibility we need for weaving hope.
Turning and Connecting (Weavers)
After we’ve prepared ourselves with immersion and flexibility, we’re ready for the twining. The fibers that run over and under and around the spokes are called weavers. The fiber equivalent is the weft. Weavers turn, trading places, emerging and disappearing into the matrix of the basket. If strengthening the power of hope is a process of weaving, we need to be able to turn, to step forward or back, to embody the dance of transformation. Sometimes what looks like a new direction is a return to the pattern.
All of that is to say: I believe this church is at a turning point. You might be at a turning point as we figure out the best way to pursue our mission as a congregation. There is a possibility that you will turn to partner with a new settled minister in June, and there’s a possibility that we’ll follow the twists and turns together for another year. You might be at a personal turning point in your spiritual journey. Sometimes a turn brings us back into the larger pattern. Let’s keep our weavers moving.
Forgiveness and Repair
The final step in weaving hope, before we come around to start over again, is forgiveness and repair. Most of us are beginners when it comes to hand-made baskets, to managing a congregation’s institutional relationships, and to strengthening communities. The work of our hands will not be immediately entwined with perfection. That’s OK. Baskets do not have to be flawless in order to be useful, and quirky communities can be containers for hope.
In my very first basket, I ran out of pretty weaver strands way before I reached the ends of my spokes. Now what? My friend leading the workshop showed me how to bend the spokes back into the basket, re-integrating the ends into the rest of the work. If there were any gaps or tears, add a little extra matching material. Tie extra strands together inside the basket, where it won’t show. Repairs are accomplished with extra connections.
Human relationships are the same way. Repairs are accomplished with extra connections. Clearing up misunderstanding takes energy. Reconciliation is hard work, and usually inspires some anxiety at least. We can start by forgiving ourselves and each other for not being perfect. Examine the broken places. Where is there a gap in the weaving? Where is the web of compassion so loose that the container doesn’t hold? Where can we make a turn and bring things back into the pattern? How do we create space in the center where the spirit can thrive? When it comes to forgiveness and repair in community, we’re especially looking at ways to improve the container for hope.
As we turn toward the next chapter in our weaving, we might look around and see if there are places that need repair. There may be water under the bridge among ourselves, or with another congregation, or out in the community; water we need to draw from and flow along with in grace. As Unitarian Universalists, we have both faith and reason to guide us on the path of healing. Let’s make the extra connections of forgiveness and repair so that we can go on offering the ministry of hospitality to all of the wandering souls within us and around us.
My inaugural basket might be described as kittywompus. The opening at the top is much smaller than I had intended. (Much like my weeble-basket, I’m coming quickly to a close here.) My friend said it looked like a basket used to catch fish, something designed to hold things securely. And it has. Over the years, this basket has held sacred stones, fragile keepsakes, and bouncy superballs. Very few things escape this basket by accident. My accidental mismatch of weavers to spokes resulted in kind of a neat two-tone effect near the mouth of the basket. The thing I like best about this basket is that it reminds me of a day when I sat in spiritual practice, side by side with children and adults, weaving community. Each strand is part of something larger. Our congregation is part of something larger. We are each part of something larger than ourselves. Connection gives life and strength to faith. May we go forth and seek connection. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.