Concealment and Manifestation

With every creature, according to the nobility of its nature, the more it indwells in itself the more it gives itself out.  Nothing has such a great sallying-forth as the soul in her highest part.
                                                                                    Meister Eckhart


Home has been called "a world of strife shut out, a world of peace shut in." This division is less certain when your home is a Retreat Centre that opens its doors to bus and carloads of strife every day. St Dominic's, Ennismore, my home for eight years, has been doing this for more than thirty years. Yet it manages, because of its seclusion and because a religious community lives there, to be a world of peace shut in.

On returning to Ireland from Prinknash Abbey in 1978 I was asked to join this community and devote my energy to giving retreats. About seven thousand people make retreats here every year, some groups staying for a single day, some for two days or a weekend, some for a week or longer. It is a privileged way for a priest to spend his years, for there is no need in such a place for small-talk: those who come here are not just passing the time, they are asking you a question, they are seekers.

She wanted him to find God. Religion was the only difference between them; otherwise they were suited to each other, she said. They were getting engaged at Christmas and it would be nice if they could see eye to eye on this. They often had argu­ments about it and it would be a bad prospect for their mar­riage if these arguments continued.  We sat, a company of three, on a park bench in the grounds, overlooking Lough Mahon. Far away in the harbour a small boat made its way like a slow insect; it seemed from this perspective to be set to cross the path of a dredger. Around us the air was still warm in September. He watched the boats intently now and then, and I sensed his discomfort. He had strong hands and didn't seem sure what to do with them. Beside me, she was clarity it­self: clear eyes, explicit ideas, decisive gestures. My presence made them seem like complete strangers to each other, and yet they had come to me in order to understand each other.

How can anyone find God unless he or she is searching for God? I ask. And even then, is there not right and wrong searching? God cannot be part of any campaign or pro­gramme, for God is whole and not part. Her friend seemed a little more with us now and was watching me apprehensively. It was clear he had been brought here to have his arguments quashed. I feel again the painful ambiguity of talking about God. All our preoccupations bear dimly on God and yet God cannot be measured by any of them.  God is wild, not domesti­cated. How is God to be known in this bright girl's domestication and in her friend's lack of it?

I feel the weight of their different expectations as a tension in the shoulders. At my suggestion of a walk he is the first on his feet. It is one solution to a too painful presence of another. In walking there is a rhythmic outlet for nervous energy, and a decent reason for not looking the other in the face. Besides, you can always round on the other, or be rounded on, at a key moment.

With movement he gets his courage. He was in disrepute at an early age for errors that most of humankind get away with. Since then he saw himself as an outsider and had developed the knack of inviting trouble. He had stopped practising his religion as early as he could and had a low opinion of hypo­critical religious people. I wondered aloud how the tidy being beside me had set her sights on such an untidy package. Sal­vation, I try to say, is through the opposite, and there is a need to have the opposite, or dead, parts of the self brought to life. Through the other we may receive the courage to awaken the opposite in ourselves. There is a special provi­dence of God in it and we are angels - messengers of God ­to one another.  I long to be more practical for their sake, but at the same time I know that inner adjustments are a subtle matter that no one else can bring about for them. 

We had reached the tall gates of the Mews. This is a home within a home for my spirit. It is a cloister-like square of stone buildings from 1824. The pottery is here and the Meditation Centre with its cupola, and the ivy-covered Hermitage. Since my return from Prinknash, I have made the gift of almost all my spare time to these old buildings, coaxing them by slow steps from dereliction. And they have been transformed into a holy place by the many people who have prayed here and searched for God. It was more by instinct than design that I brought my two young friends here.

I have a strong sense of place. Our spirits are embodied in this flesh, but this flesh in turn embodies itself in the place where we are. It is a mistake to think that our being termi­nates at the skin. We fill a room or a house. In fact a house is an archetypal symbol of the self. For this reason, when people sit together in a room they are in a special sense - for better or worse - within each others' selves. We are not simply sepa­rate entities but interpenetrating worlds.

We climb the stairs to the meditation room. This is a place for the expansion of the spirit, for prayer, for the eternal craft of seeking God.  They become silent, as even children do when they climb up here. The absence of all clutter causes a kind of hush: there is nothing to correlate to one's distractions. The bare stonework of the walls is yet warm, and the brown rafters friendly and protec­tive. It is a single space, undivided by furniture, its focus at the far end, an icon of the Lord with a single candle before it. They pace around reverentially and he peers through each window in turn. When I suggest that we sit for a while she ar­ranges three cushions with housewifely efficiency. Silence is comfortable here, more natural than speech.

I breathe out my spirit to the silent God. It is a kind of ritual; with the first breath I am there. God is where words muffle into nothing, more real than words, more intimate than silence. When we speak again I am aware of the transforming power of conscious silence: she is softer now and her friend is fully with us. He has a hundred questions: about the Mews, the work, the walls, the people, the pottery; and what is medi­tation? This last question always floors me, and I talk feebly ­and far too much about the search for union with God and the difficulty of this search in our time. Finally (grateful for the concreteness) I mention "The Potter" retreat-days, when peo­ple work in a meditative way with clay in the workshop be­low and practise sitting-meditation in this room. They will be here for sure at the next one, they assure me, and I see con­viction in his face.

At this stage they would like to do the 'mile-walk' in the grounds and they will return in half an hour. When they leave I enter the pottery and sit at the wheel. This is always a home­coming. The ritual of centring now works also in reverse, as all rituals do, and centring the clay is a way of centring the self. I make several unplanned pots. These are often the best, because our plans are usually the worst or deadest part of us. Nothing fails like the success of one's plans. When the self-­congratulation is over there is always something dismal about it. It is like sending a Christmas-box to oneself: there is no thrill of surprise, no room for the gratuitous; it is all work and no grace.

The clay walls climb up under gentle pressure. One 'throws’ a pot. This does not refer to the way that some potters un­wisely slam a lump of clay onto the wheel-head before cen­tring. (Think what this does to the bearings!) The verb 'throw' used to mean 'turn,' and this meaning has survived only in pottery. To throw a pot is to form it by this unique method of rapid turning on a wheel. It is different from all other kinds of making. Ask people to saw a piece of wood, and even if they have never done it before, they know from slic­ing bread how it is done. But nothing prepares one for throw­ing, and it is this that makes it difficult. Other kinds of making are by addition or subtraction of material; here the amount is the same from beginning to end, and the making is a reshap­ing.

Here at the wheel is my best place for thinking. I am a little afraid of the thinking that is done at desks; it is all too likely to be spinning out of itself. The mind can detach itself with ease from the other faculties and senses, and produce a cloth that is beautiful but unwearable.
God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone.
                                         W. B. Yeats
The ironical thing about these thoughts we "think in the mind alone" is that they lay the heaviest claims to everlastingness but in fact they decompose much faster than the others. In liv­ing experience the universal is discerned by attention to the particular, and abstraction is distraction. The whole mind and body have to work in harmony at the wheel. Sometimes there are special moments when that harmony gives such a felt sense of balance and buoyancy that everything is full of light, and everything is in its own place. I have learnt to value these moments and not to judge them by less perfect ones.

A pot is made in a few minutes. Whoever invented this method six thousand years ago (or so) was a kindred spirit to Copernicus and Galileo. The potter no longer moves around the pot. Like the sun he or she stays in one place and the pot moves. "Eppur' si muove!" It was a benign technology since it did not replace the potter but demanded a new skill. The speed of throwing gives the moment a magical air. A moment ago there was nothing and now there is a kind of presence.

'Presence' is not too strong a word, for a pot is not unlike a person. It encloses a little darkness, a small mystery; it has a real interior. The irreconcilable difference between interiors and exteriors has puzzled and drawn me since childhood. Once when our home was being reconstructed, a door was opened to the outside through a wall that seemed the most re­liably solid wall in the world. Places that were twenty yards apart were now together. I remember a vague feeling of out­rage. The exterior had invaded the interior; and the house, the symbol of security, had been disembowelled like a rabbit. Pots too, like houses, are symbols of the self and have an in­violable secrecy. This metaphor is strengthened by the anthro­pomorphic language that potters use for different parts of a pot: the foot, the belly, the shoulder, the neck, the lip. And the most satisfying shapes have a discernible relation to the human body. From long looking at many pots, I know when I like a particular one: it is when my hands get itchy to pick it up, like a baby. It was with delight and recognition that I read what Kawai, a great Japanese potter, said when asked how people were to recognise good pottery.  "With their bodies!" he said.

My young friends return after their walk and make enthusi­astic comments about the new pots. I have to make several other shapes on request: open shapes, tall shapes, bulbous shapes…. I expound the equation between pots and people, and they make fun of identifying each other. Her spirit is like an open shape, a bowl, an uncomplicated manifestation. His is an enclosing shape, a concealment. And I recall Kierkegaard's line that depth in one's life is "a vital relationship between concealment and manifestation." 
If you can hear us, Søren, help these two to understand each other!

Together we inspect the new-born pots, and because of the equation we are aware that this is about something more than pots. A few have a certain meanness about them and we agree to return them to the anonymity of the lump. There are many reasons why a pot fails, but the most frequent one is when there is no energy or spirit in the way it rises from foot to lip. Then it is better not to keep it; scrape it off the wheel, with apologies, and return it to the lump. Later its clay will get another chance to come to something. If a pot has no energy in it, it is an expression of weakness and will languish in someone's cupboard, bringing no joy. The egocentric urge to think too well of one's own products has to be chastened, but without self-disgust. There has to be attachment with detach­ment - a difficult blend in pottery as in the rest of life. At­tachment with no detachment is self-indulgent, self-enclosed; detachment with no attachment is cold, heartless, drawing its energy perhaps from self-hatred. This eye (this detached at­tachment) with which to look at one's pots, indeed at one's whole life, is the eye of meditation. Perhaps non-attachment is a better word.  It is pure awareness. In meditation one looks with compassion at everything that arises within the self. To hate something in the self is to drive it into deeper darkness, and to indulge something in the self is to be trapped in its particular limitation. It is a great help when we can make tangible this kind of looking, when we find some praxis, such as pottery, through which it can stare us in the face.

They are both clearly aware that this looking at pots is also a looking at the self. It may seem an unusual way of looking, but it matters a great deal how one looks at the self. Some therapies, despite their bland appearance, are really a kind of aggressive tampering that cannot be good. They contain too many generalised assumptions about human beings. One such theory or generalised assumption concerns human ex­pression in its widest sense. It is the belief that expression is the universal remedy. What is the solution to my anger, my fear, my hatred? "Express them!" What do I do with my loneliness? "Cough it up!" What is the meaning of my life? "Do something, do what you want." To express means ‘to squeeze out’. When this be­comes a general prescription it is a sort of hydraulic principle: it is about pressure and the release of pressure.  Such therapies arose after the failure of the adjustment theory: "I am well because I am ad­justed to society." When society itself is seen to be unwell the individual must somehow 'produce' well-being from within him or herself, with no guidelines from without. There is nothing but one's own expression; it is a 'doing' without con­text. It may indeed be important to express emotions that have never been adequately expressed, but there are times when the expression of an emotion is only another way of running away from it - another way of not looking. If ex­pression by itself were the cure, then angry people, for in­stance, would become less angry the more they expressed their anger. But I have seen people in therapy for years who sound more and more like a record on which the needle is slipping. Expression of an emotion is no substitute for awareness; what is needed is expression of awareness of an emotion. This awareness, when it is without hatred or indulgence, allows real healing to take place.

We have been talking about these things, and I feel deeply in sympathy with this young man's inexpressiveness. Some­how he is carrying his burden with dignity. If expression were thought to be his cure, then repression would be his disease. And there is almost nothing that cannot be seen today as re­pression. Suddenly one's ordinary father or mother becomes the Satan of a new religion. All structures are angrily put aside. Where, in this picture, is one's interiority? On the face of it, everything should be interiority now; but in fact there is none. There is no privacy, no inwardness, no reti­cence, nothing inviolable, nothing undisclosed. The self has been gutted like a rabbit. Oh, for one or two little repressions!

They have gone home now, and I am left with the ghost of Kierkegaard. I wonder what fierce truths he would shout at us if he were writing The Present Age today. What would he say about character, interiority, silence? To his contemporaries he said: “Superficiality is the result of doing away with the vital distinction between concealment and manifestation; it is the manifestation of emptiness.”

(From Go Down to the Potter’s House: A Journey into Meditation, Donagh O’Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin 1988)

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