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Bowls by James Newton, Berkley California
Bowls by James Newton, Berkeley California

Earthen Vessels

When I travel, especially on vacation, I find myself drawn often to the local pottery. It seems to me to be a  melding of a place’s natural resources and it’s local artists in a form of beauty I have a hard time resisting. Maybe I romanticize  the authenticity that a bowl or mug can offer, but nonetheless I’m drawn to it.

This summer was no exception. On both family vacation trips I found myself buying up small pieces of pottery for gifts and for my office and kitchen. In Berkeley I stumbled onto an end-of-season sale by potter James Newton. I shipped home a stack of small delicate vessels that may find many uses. Could hold treasures of all kinds.

This week I read a lovely essay by Parker Palmer in Christian Century (if you’re a subscriber you can read the entire article).

In “Taking Pen in Hand” Palmer reflects about the life of writing and faith. I liked many things he said in this piece. I want to share a couple of paragraphs about vessels and treasure:

“The constant challenge of both faith and writing is to hold this great paradox of treasure and the earthen vessel in a respectful way. The vessels deserve our respect because they enable us to preserve the treasure over time and pass it back and forth among us. But if we become attached to the vessel in ways that obscure the treasure, we must discard the vessel and create one that reveals more than it conceals.

If we fail or refuse to do that, we are failing to respect the treasure, which is not our possession to have and to hold; it is the love and the power that has and holds us. To forget that fact or to defy it is the ultimate disrespect, and it leads not to life but to death, for individuals, for religious communities and for the world.”

Our traditions and institutions (books, liturgies, rituals, practices, sacred texts) can all become the vessels we worship and adore rather than the way to hold the greater and more elusive treasure. If we take ourselves or the many containers of the holy in our lives too seriously we can spill the mystery they hold and be left with a stack of empty containers.

So I’m holding lightly whenever I can. It’s just that all the vessels are so lovely. And easily distract me from their purpose and the the treasure they hold. What if I could believe – really believe with all my being – in that love and power, the mystery which holds me in so many earthen ways? How would my life be different? How about yours?