In the past year, I've been swept into the knitting renaissance. Like gazillions of other women, I've realized that you don't have to be a grandmother to knit, and that a hobby that bears no relation whatsoever to my job might be just the thing to restore balance to my frenzied, frantic life. So I've shelled out big bucks for yarn, needles, knitting lessons, even a one-day knitting retreat and, of course, books: books about how to knit (I'm still a little fuzzy about casting on) and books about the spirituality of knitting. The books in this second group aim to help me connect my newfound pastime to my Christian spiritual life. They suggest that being creative can facilitate my relationship with a God who is Creator and encourage me to think of the regular, rhythmic stitch-stitch-stitch of my scarf making as an embodied rosary.
The cottage industry of spirituality-and-knitting titles—The Knitting Way: A Guide to Spiritual Self-Discovery (Skylight Paths), Mindful Knitting: Inviting Contemplative Practice to the Craft (Tuttle) and Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry (Morehouse), to name just three—is a sub-subgenre of what is now a staple of religion publishing, books on the spirituality of seemingly nonspiritual activities, from golf and gardening to cooking and travel, even housework.
Of course, publishers aren't charting new trends, but capitalizing on trends they see elsewhere. Books about the spiritual possibilities of knitting, for example, began popping up after knitting itself became popular. Once a hobby is hot, publishers can safely spiritualize it, trusting devotees to plunk down $20 for a title that will make their avocations even more fulfilling. The lucky publishers will be those who can spot a craze in its infancy and get that first spirituality-of title to press. It is easy to view this phenomenon as a contemporary commercialization of the sacred, but is it right to see it that way?
Books that highlight the spirituality of everyday life are not new. In Christian spirituality, we can trace the genre at least as far back as Brother Lawrence. A 17th-century French monk assigned by his superior to kitchen duty, Brother Lawrence implored the "Lord of all pots and pans" to "make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates." (Originally published in 1691, Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God is available today in many editions, from such publishers as Dover, NavPress and Paraclete.) This is familiar terrain for Buddhists, too. Dogen's 13th-century "Instructions for the Zen Cook" (recently released from Shambhala as How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment) takes meal preparation as a metaphor for life.
As readers, writers and spiritual practitioners, today we've turned to the spirituality of the everyday in part because we're so busy. Renita J. Weems made the point in her 2000 memoir Listening for God (Touchstone). Overwhelmed by the demands of parenthood and professorship, Weems was trying to "live consciously before the sacred." On her bedside table sat books by poets and contemplative mystics, books that promised a rich spiritual life for anyone who had several hours a day to sit in silent contemplation before God. As the mom of a toddler, Weems didn't have time to brush her teeth, let alone sit in uninterrupted prayer and meditation morning after morning. She would have to find her spiritual sustenance elsewhere, in the hurly-burly of daily life—while changing a diaper, cooking a meal or driving to work. If this sort of pots-and-pans spirituality was pioneered by Dogen and Brother Lawrence, it's no surprise that outside of the monastery it's been embraced by women, regardless of religious persuasion.
I've enjoyed my cache of knitting books (even if I can't always read them with a straight face). Still, I worry about my need to find such profound significance in a simple hobby. Perhaps those of us who snap up these spirituality titles are highly evolved people seeking holistic and integrated lives. But maybe I've turned knitting into a spiritual practice because years of multitasking have shaped me as much as any spiritual discipline I've ever undertaken, and now I feel obliged to wring as much meaning as possible out of what began as an effort to unwind.