The Work of Our Hands: “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether”
S. Beth Taylor
Born and baptized into the First Presbyterian Church (USA) of Smithfield, North Carolina, S. Beth Taylor has served as an artist and musician in churches in Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, and New York.
My paraments/quilts are often complex in composition to reflect my sense that as a person enters a church, they bring their own history, joy and grief, memories, and unique, complex, and messy life story.
What draws someone, in the words of a hymn, into “the Spirit’s tether”? Is it a prayer, a service of worship, or communion? Are we drawn in by a word of encouragement, a look of acceptance and understanding, a glimpse of something beautiful, or a kindness quietly delivered at the perfect moment of need? Does what we hear, who we remember, what we see, or what we do together draw us in?
Visual art—created, shared, or appreciated—can draw us unexpectedly into the Spirit’s tether. As God’s loving and creating Spirit shows God’s goodness to all through creation, so elements of that creation can become a starting point for artistic endeavors that God can use to draw in people of all ages and abilities.
For when humbly in your name two or three are met together,
you are in the midst of them. Alleluia! Alleluia!1
Without words, musicians know well that singing or playing music together includes an unspoken dimension of connection and understanding. Similarly, the simplest art projects appreciated or created, alone or together, can open a window through which the God of creation works with us and among us while connecting us to each other and to God’s creating Spirit and presence. In a time when many struggle with isolation, art and music open a space for connection to God and others within the faith community.
Through God’s grace, we encounter what we could not have planned. Small gifts of welcome and encouragement come from those around us, whether they know the encouragement they share or not.
Some years ago, I received the gift of an introduction to Taizé worship and Brother Roger’s writings. Founded in Taizé, France, in 1940 by Brother Roger Schultz amid a period of conflict and war, the ecumenical Taizé community for eighty-two years has set about the work of peace, justice, and reconciliation through music, worship, reflection, and prayer. While the Taizé worship and community are meaningful to people of all ages, the community is purposely focused on young people. The community welcomes pilgrims from around the world, while Taizé worship services with simple, repetitive, chant-like songs and prayers have spread far beyond France. I remain enormously grateful for the experience of singing and participating in these services.
Whether you wake or sleep, night and day, the seed springs up, you know not how.2
And so we would like to say to God: “God, you love us: turn us into people who are humble; give us great simplicity in our prayer, in human relationships, in welcoming others . . .”3
In the same month that I was introduced to Taizé songs and became interested in Taizé prayers, a few moments of encouragement from others brought me to free form quilting and fabric art. I have always loved fabric and wanted to quilt and sew, but working with patterns seemed impossible. With one understanding comment, an experienced quilter offered a new perspective when she asked me, “Have you ever thought about sewing your own ideas without a pattern?” I began using both fabric and printed or handwritten prayers in my quilts without using patterns. I showed my first Taizé free form quilting prayer quilt to the person who had introduced me to Taizé, whose response was, “Make more of these,” and “Can you make them bigger?” I did, and have been sewing ever since.
After a lifetime of singing, a thirty-year career in higher education and human services, and a long-time interest in language and fabric, I fell in love with combining Scripture and prayers with free form quilting. As a person of faith who has long been affected by the visual, I found creating fabric pieces for worship spaces was a way of deepening and sharing my faith.
Like God’s grace and faith’s surprises, I approach projects with an openness to the Spirit and a prayerful hope that my work might in a small way reflect God’s creativity in the world around me. The beauty of the natural world as a gift from God was often mentioned to me as a child by forebearers who hailed from the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I grew up, my father would call me many mornings and say, “Beth, God has given us a beautiful day today.” I have never grown tired of looking closely at the sky and the mountains and noticing that these unfathomably beautiful gifts from God look different each day, connect us to each other, near and far, and offer a new view of the reality of God’s care in creation. I quilt what I see in nature, especially landscapes, sometimes as a background for hymns, Scripture, and prayers and other times simply as a wordless expression of God’s creation.
This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world;
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas,
his hand the wonders wrought.4
The quilt’s colors and design support and lift up words that encourage, comfort, and teach. Words catch the viewer’s attention and slow them down as they read. I hope my work reminds us of our connections to God and each other and to all that is good in a complicated world. By using written lyrics and Scripture as part of my quilts, I place music, visual art, and quilting into conversation. Making free form quilts and making music have much in common in that both require working within inherent limits. The notes on a page of music, the sounds of the instruments, the qualities of the fabric and the thread are realities that one works within to make a work of art the best quality artistic expression it can be.
Each of my pieces begins with a collection of cotton and silk fabric, including the smallest of scraps. My paraments/quilts are often complex in composition to reflect my sense that as a person enters a church, they bring their own history, joy and grief, memories, and unique, complex, and messy life story. Alongside the complex histories we carry into church, we come with different anticipations and ways of looking and connecting. People of faith find meaning in various details of the experience of attending worship: the gathering people, the quieting sanctuary, the language of liturgy, the singing, the stories, the architecture, and even the creaking of the pews and the texture of the hymnal pages. Whether my work is made of a few elements or hundreds, I hope that viewers will be affected by the visual whole or find meaning in a small detail that draws their attention.
In a recent project, First Presbyterian Church of Durham, North Carolina, invited me to create paraments for Ordinary Time and Easter. Ahead of time, I invited members to contribute fabric or small items that they considered tangible symbols of their own life, faith, and connection to the church community. This very participatory church staffed a table on several Sundays to receive these materials from church members. As they did, the members collecting these small personal tokens heard their accompanying stories. From a ring and a scrap of a minister’s robe to a scarf and a rock—and everything in between—members shared the objects and fabric of their lives that would become part of the paraments in their sanctuary.
While I did not know each story, I did know that each token from church members meant something to the person who shared it. As each piece found its place in the paraments, I felt pulled into a rich history of tender, holy, and diverse connections to First Presbyterian Church of Durham from members who had been drawn into “the Spirit’s tether” through this church for generations.
Drawn into God’s creating and creative world, “we will all serve with faith anew.”
- Perry Dearmer, “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether,” Glory to God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 529.
- Brother Roger, The Rule of Taizè, rev. ed. (London, UK: S.P.C.K. Publishing, 2012), 158.
- Brother Roger, “A Future of Peace,” letter to the young adult European meeting, Lisbon, Portugal, 2005.
- Maltbie D. Babcock, “This Is My Father’s World,” Glory to God, 370.