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Spiritual Reflections

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2007

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

What is faith? Lately I've been embroiled in frequent conversations and -- yes -- arguments about faith. Some people say they have it. Some think others don't have it. Some have it, but not the right kind. Some claim I don't really have it. Others claim they don't want it. And in academic circles, it's practically a four-letter word.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." W.B. Yeats wrote these lines nearly a century ago, in an era of political turmoil in Ireland. Yet they could easily be used to describe our national condition today in America. Faith language is all around us, we are drowning in its cheap wine. But faith in what? What IS faith? Is it an easy acquiescence to a doctrine, a one-time assent that saves its adherents from ever having to think hard again? Is it an either/or prospect? Is it an exclusive club, set up by a jealous deity who wants to make his groupies jump through hoops to get in?

It is so difficult for those of us who consider ourselves religious progressives to re-claim the language of faith in such a climate. We are in danger of appearing to lack all conviction, like those in Yeats' poem. We can't abide easy answers or quick-fixes. We know that faith is a slow process, like a well-aged wine or a seasoned stew. It involves our intellect and yet so much more: listening, reflecting, tears. Faith is a relationship with Something large and mysterious -- profound and yet winsome. Like any relationship we must work at it over time, making daily the small stitches of commitment that create, over long years, a patchwork of deep color and bright light.

One day recently I was upset about a story on the news - it doesn't matter which story, on which day - there are so many candidates. I was sitting on a patchwork pillow my Grandmother had given me many years before. She had been a seamstress during her life, making a living by taking in other peoples' sewing. From the left over bits of altered clothing she made pillows, colorful squares of dress fabric stitched together in a jumble of colors and shapes.

In my passion at the TV news I leapt from my chair and snatched up the pillow, prepared to throw it at some talking head on the screen. The ancient fabric of the square I was grasping tore away from its neighbor, leaving the pillow hanging by a flap from my hand. But it did not tear completely away. I looked closely at the pillow and discovered the reason: my grandmother had of course stitched the square of fabric to the adjacent squares. But in her wisdom, she had stitched it also to a piece of backing: a heavy plain piece of fabric to which all the colorful squares were also attached. I could see her careful, tiny stitches beneath the square of colorful cloth. No matter how much pressure was applied to those old frayed swatches, they could not be torn completely from the pillow. They could not be separated from the larger whole.

This is a fine metaphor for faith. It is not a slapdash collection of doctrines and creeds. It is not an overnight conversion. It is the gathering together of many diverse pieces by means of the slow and careful stitchwork of a lifetime. It is the weaving of disparate elements into an integrated whole that is larger and stronger then the sum of its parts. It is both intellect and emotion; desperate wrestling and wild ecstasies of joy. It is the discipline of reason and surrender to awesome mystery. It is a patchwork, diverse and colorful and different for each one of us; yet all our disparate pieces are stitched to one strong foundation, whether or not we call it by name.