Bishop Sarah delivers sermon on ‘Pottery as Prayer’ at St Giles in the Fields

On Sunday 23rd June, Bishop Sarah preached a sermon at St Giles in the Fields on the theme of ‘Pottery as Prayer’, as part of their guest preacher series on ‘The Year as Prayer’.

St Giles in the Fields
Pottery as Prayer

The Lord said to Jeremiah: ‘Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.’

I am a poor potter. I do not claim to match the Lord’s creative skills! Though I’m possibly a slightly better potter than I was a few months ago, before my recent study leave.

I spent the very first week of my study leave on a pottery course, a boot camp throwing pots. Throwing is by no means the only way to make pots. In the past I have deliberately chosen to use other methods, because I know that I lack the patience for throwing. I coil, pinch and hand build, and I have thrown pots but now I have been courageous to seek to improve my skills.

This evening I have been asked to speak about pottery as prayer. Or to be more precise, the act of making pots as prayer.

During the time of Jeremiah the prophet, God’s relationship with Israel and Judah could be described as a little troubled. The prophet’s words are full of warnings about what will happen if they do not change their ways, stop worshipping idols, and turn back to the Lord.

In the passage we heard earlier, God gives Jeremiah an image to hold onto. God is the potter, and the people of Israel are clay in the potter’s hands. Depending on how they respond to God’s hand on their lives, God will respond to them as the potter responds to the clay – gently and with our sudden movement.

Jeremiah explains: ‘And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.’ Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.’

God, their Creator, is longing to restore the divine image in his people. It is in the Creator’s power to rework the spoiled pot. Whatever the people have done wrong, however much they have damaged the image in which they were made, God can fashion them anew. The potter does not throw away the clay and start over. Instead, he takes the material with which the pot was originally fashioned and re-works it, skilfully and lovingly – though the passage implies firmly and perhaps with a little bit of exasperation as well! And the same is true of what God can do with us.

The imagery from Jeremiah – of God as the potter and Israel as the clay – makes a lot of sense to me. Later in the passage the metaphor changes from pottery to planting and building, as God explores his relationship with his wayward people further and speaks of a time when he will: ‘pluck up, pull down, destroy … then build and plant’.

But the idea behind the image is the same. God holds us in life and in being. When we align our lives with God’s activity in the world and do our best to be conscious of God’s eternal holding of us in love, then we will flourish. We will be planted and nourished and watered and encouraged to grow. In the same way, the image of the potter and the clay suggests that we will be moulded afresh, built up, and gradually formed to mirror God’s image.

The metaphor of potter and clay speaks to us of the need to be malleable in God’s hands, open to God’s work in our daily lives. And that’s where prayer comes in. To be responsive to God’s work in our lives requires an open heart – a prayerful heart. We cannot be open to God’s work in the very depths of our being if we are rigid and defensive. The plucking up and pulling down and building and planting – the remoulding of the clay – will not always be a comfortable experience for us. But it is all the more painful if we are resistant to God’s creative love and the process of rebuilding us from the inside out.

When I spent that week at the beginning of my study leave throwing pots, I realised that the skills involved are similar to the habits we would do well to develop in our personal prayer.

Because in throwing pots, firstly you need to centre the clay. If the clay isn’t centred on the wheel the whole pot will go askew. And that takes a significant account of focus and concentration. You can’t centre the clay correctly if your head is full of other things – full of distractions which are not related to the task.

Centring the clay is similar to centring ourselves when we set ourselves consciously in God’s gaze in order to pray. It can be very hard to let go of the distractions of our lives into focus. As Malcolm Guite simply and ruefully puts it in one of his poems:

‘I am half present in a hundred places
But never present in the place I am.

It can help simply to observe our distractions and then gently let them go. But we do need to bring our attention back to centring the clay – or in the case of our prayer practices, centring ourselves. Instead of meeting the chattering in our head with more chattering, we can try to meet it with silence.

In his book Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird writes about the struggle to pray. He calls our chattering, ‘commentary’, and says we need to move beyond it. He writes:

‘As we pray we meet what is happening (and distractions are part of what is happening) with commentary instead of stillness … The peace will indeed come, but it will be the fruit not of pushing away distractions, but of meeting thoughts and feelings with stillness instead of commentary’.

Of course some of our thoughts will be important ones, not just idle chatter. There is a time and place to bring all of those concerns before God – in the sort of prayers that we might call intercessions. But there is also a time and place for simply being in God’s presence, allowing ourselves to be conscious of God’s love and attention, and nothing else. And this does require stillness.

My second lesson from pot-throwing, is that when you pull the pot up you have to think with your hands. If you overthink with your brain, about the technique you’re using and whether or not you’re doing it right, the pot may well go wobbly. Then the focus is lost and you are left with feelings of frustration, annoyance and disappointment. Though of course you can always start again.

There is something about this that reminds me of contemplative prayer. There are those who have spent time in the prayer of stillness who describe what happens as ‘descending from the mind into the heart’. When the potter pulls up a pot, they think with their hands and not their head. When in prayer we move through and out the other side of our clamouring thoughts, we settle in the stillness of our heart where there is and instinctive knowing and connection with God.

As the words of our Epistle reminded us: ‘For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.

And my third lesson from throwing pots, is that it’s a skill that you learn through repetition. You learn it by doing it. You know when the clay is doing what you are asking of it. You come to know it instinctively. But only with a lot of practice!

Prayer is the same. It grows in us over a lifetime. We may have periods when we feel we’re not doing it very well. In potting, it only takes the smallest nudge for the whole thing to collapse. But it’s always possible to start again, using the same clay. It’s a bit like that with prayer, too. We have days when it feels less instinctive, more like an uphill struggle, too much effort for what seems like little result – we’re just as much as messy lump of clay when we finish as when we started. Yet what matters is that we pick ourselves up and start again where we left off. Nothing is wasted. Every attempt is honing our skills. And in prayer, every moment of connection is worth it.

Fourthly and finally, I think I’d like to suggest that in any artistic work there’s a sense in which the finished item is already there. Henri Nouwen talks about this in relation to a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone to reveal the work of art that is within. In a sense the pot is already there, inside the clay, before the potter even beings work. It just needs drawing out. In the same way, perhaps our best selves, which we increasingly discover through prayerfulness, already exist within us.

God shapes us, through prayer, into the works of art that he created us to be. The shape that in some sense is already within us. It is a lifetime’s work, and we are – as our reading from Corinthians – reminded us – earthen vessels, fragile and liable to breaking. But the glory of God is there. And from the start God knows what is in us, waiting to be revealed.