THE POTTER’S HOUSE

Put a group of twelve people in a room together and it is prob­able that in an hour's time they will have splintered into several small groups, that most of them will still not know one another, and that there will be at least two of them arguing about poli­tics. Put a bag of clay in the room with them and the transfor­mation is profound: they become a community and attain a de­gree of freedom with one another that no amount of talking could have brought about. Perhaps it takes a natural element to make us natural. Think of all the serious-minded businessmen who shout and kick ball like children when they are near the sea - a thing unimaginable on the street.

We are working again with clay. After some time I suggest we allow something to take shape that may be symbolic of one's life. I point out that it is important not to begin with an idea, for then there is no discovery. An idea is a destination, but all real discoverers set out into the unknown. In a short time there is an immense, effortless concentration, almost like that of children - and deep silence.

A new medium, such as clay, does not simply express the same things in another way. There is genuine newness, for each new medium brings another part of us to life. It happens in a moment. Something 'clicks', we say; and it is a good word, for it is the opposite of 'woolly'. The moment when someone finds his or her new medium is a precise one, like a click, how­ever uncertain and woolly the preceding moments may have been. I wait for these visible clicks around me, and it is nearly always a surprise to the one who has it. A new vitality is visible because something in the person has risen from the dead. At such moments I am awestruck at the power of living symbol­ism. I have no doubt that we live by symbols. Unlike abstract ideas they have roots that draw power from every level of the self, and so they bring these levels to life - as plants can be said, in a special sense, to bring the earth to life.

Everywhere fingers are smoothing and pinching and squeez­ing. Your hands are your power, your efficacy, the force of your life. God moved in the Old Testament "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." At the other extreme the man in the Gospel who had a withered hand had no creative power at all. Perhaps he had disowned it, for it is life that causes us the most fear, not death. And you, like everyone else, have false friends who prefer you dead - or at any rate not quite alive. They may be dead themselves and needing company. You are predictable as long as you are dead, but if you become alive no-one can be entirely sure - not even yourself - what you will do next. When the Lord healed that man's withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were furious for they were legalists and had a special interest in keeping God's power in the proper channels and keeping people predictable. He was sent to set prisoners free; and we make prisoners of ourselves with invisible manacles. I have a sad friend who has fled from the pain of life into the bleak Nirvana of alcoholism, and I have noticed his hands become less and less alive, till the fingers scarcely oppose one another any more. I sometimes draw his atten­tion to it in the hope that such an image of death may shock him back to life.

Once, a group of gifted children were brought here by their harassed parents. I had always thought that the higher a child's intelligence, the happier a parent would be, but it seems it is not so. Exceptionally high intelligence is a little like cancer, for it devours other areas of one's life. I remember one ten-year­-old whose face was red with frustration as he clawed at the clay. I sat beside him and enquired how he was getting on. "I can't think of anything to make," he said. When I suggested that he shouldn't bother to think about it but let his hands make something - something that was never before seen on the earth - he objected: "But hands are bad things; they are for hitting and fighting." I was amazed to see the disequilibrium of the age mirrored so perfectly in so young a person. Then on reflection I saw that it was because he was so bright that he was such a perfect mirror, and if any of us had been a complete success in our education we would be just like him. A little stupidity may be a saving grace, for it allows the other gifts a space in which to grow.

From Go Down to the Potter’s House: a Journey into Meditation
Donagh O'Shea, 1988, 3rd edition 2013

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