Gwen Gustafson-Zook is an ordained pastor in MC USA and is currently completing a year-long chaplaincy residency at Portland Providence Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. Thanks to Zoom, she is able to stay connected with her beloved “Knitting Circle” at her home congregation, Open Table Mennonite Fellowship, in Goshen, Indiana. She recently graduated with a Doctorate of Ministry in Spiritual Direction this spring, having completed her dissertation, robustly titled: “Doing Theology: A Phenomenological Exploration of Knitting in the Lives of Contemporary Mennonite Women.”
In March 2020, Gwen wrote, “I am knitting my way through a pandemic. And while I know that there is absolutely no guarantee that we will all make it through this alive, I do hope that these remnants of love, of positive intention, of wholeness and holiness, live on as statements of hope — that while the world was unraveling, there were people around the world who were knitting the unraveled world back together, stitch by stitch. Despite the virus. Despite the posturing of politicians. Despite uncertainty. Stitch by stitch. All for love.”
During the course of my 12-hour, in-person, on-call shift at the hospital seven people had died. Seven lives extinguished. Seven families in pain. Seven sets of caregivers weary beyond words. I came home and sat down next to my untouched bag of knitting supplies. I couldn’t find the energy to pick up my very light-weight needles. I was numb. No tears. No feelings. Just exhaustion.
Prior to beginning my pandemic year of residency as a chaplain in an urban hospital, I had been immersed in writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry in spiritual direction, a project that explored the meaning of knitting in the lives of a small, intergenerational group of Mennonite women. The timing was such that it coincided with the pandemic. And it was so meaningful that we continued to find a way to meet each week, online, for 18 months. I knew that knitting was a powerful tool for creativity, contemplation and community. Now I was faced with a real-life challenge: Could knitting serve as a spiritual, physical, embodied practice for putting my life back together after the daily disintegration that was my experience in the hospital?
At the nudging of nothing less than the Spirit of the Holy, I found myself at a small yarn store in an artsy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Once it was my turn to enter, and I took my place among the allotted number of patrons allowed in the shop under pandemic restrictions, I gingerly stepped into the small space, as if stepping into the wardrobe in Narnia. It was a mysterious space, full of color and light and texture and potential. My hand instinctively reached out and touched a muted mauve skein of wool, soft and silky. Immediately, tears welled up in my eyes.
I knew in that moment that my healing, my spiritual sustenance, my ability to live and work through this season of loss would need to include knitting.
Since that first on-call shift several months ago, I have repeatedly turned to knitting as a spiritual practice that combines meditation, creativity, brain science and encounters with beauty to re-integrate my soul and my body, my heart and my mind. After stressful times of loss and grief and exhaustion, I sit in the quiet, knitting needles and wool in hand, and make one stitch at a time, in an effort to put my world back together. Like any spiritual practice, it takes intention. It is far easier for me to think about knitting than to actually sit down, be still and knit. But when I do settle myself and knit, I experience a grace, a grounding, a restoration of my being. My hope is that this spiritual practice of knitting also spills over, impacting others, even as it impacts me, adding a bit of love to the world.
Learn more about the Mennonite Spiritual Directors Network at mennosdn.org.
You can find links to the Spiritual Directors Network website and other congregational and ministerial resources on MC USA’s Church Vitality webpage: https://www.mennoniteusa.org/
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.