09 Sep The Intimacy of Spirit
One of the Scripture readings for this Sunday is from Jeremiah 18, in which we humans are compared to clay that is being worked by a potter, who represents God. The claim is made that the potter is free to rework the clay if the vessel he or she is making is spoiled in some way. I never warmed to this image before. It seemed too passive a metaphor for human beings, and too cavalier to suggest that God, the potter, might value us as much as we might value a lump of clay.
Then, again, the problem might lie in the fact that I have never sat at a potter’s wheel. In the movie, Ghost, the characters played by Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze revealed the erotic and intimate nature potentially held in the relationship between clay and hand. The potter is not distant from or emotionally detached from the clay. The clay may be lifeless, but can become something beautiful when shaped by the potter’s hand. The clay is both pliant and resistant, so that the potter must feel its texture and respond to its movements and the impact of his or her touch upon it. To claim that the potter does not care about this interaction would be a gross misunderstanding. If the potter is displeased with what is being shaped, then the potter would likely also take responsibility for the disappointment. Artists tend not to blame the medium for its lack of beauty.
Clearly, in pursuing these lines of thought, I am departing from the intention of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is not blaming God for the failings of Judah. He is calling Judah to repent from her selfish and rebellious ways. But the image may be more mutual than I first saw. God loves Judah and wants for her to become a beautiful work of art. Jeremiah holds out hope that, along with her resistance, she might also offer to God pliancy to be touched again by God in life-giving ways. The image of potter and clay might provide a very helpful way for us to think about our relationship with God. Our natural human resistance to trusting and yielding completely to God, or to anyone, is not necessarily an impediment to becoming a work of art. Perhaps God needs our resistant medium in order to create something of substance, grace and utility. Of course, with this, we must become soft enough to be molded. We need to practice letting go and trust. There is passivity on our part, but not total passivity.
All relationships are works of art. Not all relationships are inspiring works of art. Living in a culture that does not teach the subtle arts of love and communication and sensitivity very well, leads to much brutality, violence and brokenness. We are paying a heavy price for our lack of attention to creativity and soul formation. Education can’t touch matters of the soul or spirit, and, religion in our culture, has succumbed to the alienating effects of reducing all relationships to matters of transaction. Make a request and God will answer. Join a church and purchase religious services, expecting that the customer will always be right. In our relationships, do we expect the other people to make us happy all the time? Is this how we do religion and life?
I find myself returning again to our ancient contemplative ancestors. They would have laughed at our spiritual gullibility, thinking that we can buy happiness by seeking to satiate every desire which comes into our awareness. They knew that the self is a clueless child who must learn to temper its passions so that it can experience the more refined fruits of virtue. In contemporary parlance, passion equals life. We preach getting more passion. For our ancestors, passions were often life-diminishing, increasing our passivity. Our passions act upon us, and often blindly. Obeying them will not lead to wisdom.
Rather, it is life’s suffering and pressures which shape us into people of compassion and wisdom. Choosing not to return evil for evil may hurt in the moment, but lead to something much better. Choosing to take responsibility for what is wrong in our lives or in our world may not be as much fun as blaming others, but it holds more promise for us and our world. Choosing to sacrifice for others instead of worshiping at the temple of self may not give us instant gratification, but will prove beneficial in the long run. To borrow an image from another biblical prophet, Isaiah, God’s desire was to produce the finest wine through us, but we ended up giving God some pretty awful tasting stuff.
There is no denying that our biblical tradition finds itself at odds with a culture looking for constant self-congratulation and costless discipleship. We are impatient with challenge and are confounded with true wisdom which does not cater to every whim and preference. Yet, what we might begin to relearn is that the call to unseat the self is not motivated by some impulse of self-hatred. What our tradition knows is that there is more to us and our world than we can see or understand or control. There is an infinite presence which seeks an intimate interaction with us in our core, which frightens us to death. So we see images like this one from Jeremiah, and, to us, they appears only as bad news. But if we have the courage to go deeper with them in a form of disciplined spiritual practice, we may find that they begin to speak to us of a life more abundant.
Not that I claim to have achieved much in the way of virtue, myself. Most dedicated disciples discover how much they need the help of divine assistance on a daily basis. It is in that discovery that an inner softening can happen, which is all that God needs to create a work of art in the most unlikely people.