Conversion in Ceramics
There is an old legend about how Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of all time, went about his creative process. Henri Nouwen uses this legend in one of my favorite books, Spiritual Direction.
“There was once a sculptor who worked hard with a hammer and chisel on a large block of marble. A little child who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right. He had no idea what was happening. But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later, he saw, to his surprise, a large powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood. With great excitement, the boy ran to the sculptor and said, ‘Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble?’ The answer is, ‘I knew there was a lion in the marble because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my own heart. The secret is that it was the lion in my heart that recognized the lion in the marble.’”
There was an inspiration that Michelangelo could feel and a vision he would follow with every piece. Michelangelo sculpted, but he was also a painter, architect, and poet; he was an artist all the same. If this is how Michelangelo created, then just imagine how God crafted each one of us. God also takes on different mediums. He sculpts the mountain ranges across Europe, He constructs the stained-glass panels of tulip fields in Holland, he blows glass in the volcanoes that erupt in Antigua, He paints the sunsets off the coast of Florida, and He molds the human race out of clay.
Jesus would often use parables to teach, and he would compare God to a visual and then relate God’s followers to that visual in a way. For example, the Gospel of John reads “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. If we remain rooted in Him, we will be nourished and bear God’s fruit in the world. The prophet Jeremiah had the same concept but a different take on it when he wrote, “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so you are in my hand” (Jeremiah 18:6). God is the Potter holding us in His hands. Anyone who has ever practiced the art of ceramics can understand the depth of this verse. Clay isn’t formed and glazed as simply as Play-Doh is formed and show-pieced. There are various intricacies in the progression of clay that are symbolic of our interior lives and God the Creator.
The Potter begins with a twenty-pound block of hard, cold clay. At the dawn of the piece, a metal wire is used to cut a chunk off the block. Beginning as one body, now the clay becomes many parts. This solo chunk is about to experience the ride of its life as it is metamorphosized into beauty by the Potter. The clay needs to become workable so the Potter can mold it into His next masterpiece. One can push the clay between the hands to transfer warmth into the adamant mud. Applying one’s body weight through the arms into the pads of the hands and into the stiff mud, the clay squishes into the surface of the table. Rolled over and squashed again, the clay can barely handle the pressure and begins to break. Some chunks off the block even need a little more encouragement because they have surrendered enough but not all. The Potter picks up the clay, winds his arm back, and bangs the clay onto the tabletop. Rolling, squishing, slamming. Rotating, squashing, smashing. The Potter kneads the air bubbles out while also softening the clay. Feeling as though the clay at its wit’s end, the Potter finds it ready.
From hard to stiff to firm to soft, the clay now warmly glides easily into a ball. The Potter tosses the new shape between hands like a player deciding his next pitch. The Potter makes His way to the wheel and sits down. The clay recognizes that it is in a new place and takes a breath of fresh air not aware of what comes next. The Potter prepares the wheel and squares up the space. It is important to throw the clay on the very middle point of the wheel so that it doesn’t fly off. The gray roll flattens on the bottom as it lands in the core of the wheel. Discernment is key to finding the center of the gray mass and it takes a keen sense of awareness because it is by the center that will define the quality of the shape of the piece. The Potter uses a thumb to poke a hole in order to make the center hollow and open. Though stubborn, the Potter continues to work to help the clay realize its true self and to help it to cooperate into its real shape.
Slightly pushing the pedal down to allow the wheel to ease into spinning, the Potter douses the clay with water to mellow it out and saturate every pore. The world above, below, and all around the ball of clay may seem to be spinning out of control, drowning via release of a sponge. Baptizing and cleansing the clay for the moment of molding, excess murky shrapnel droplets go fluttering into space. The Potter has a vision, even if the clay can’t see it.
Once enough water has covered the surface, the Potter gets the wheel to the desired speed, and places a finger in the poked-in center and a finger on the outside of the clay. With a little applied pressure and movement of the fingers, the clay is guided upward. Then it is accompanied back down to where it began. This process is repeated. Like being stuck in an elevator tirelessly going up and down; however, the work is being prepared for its destined shape. The clay is becoming more flexible with each rise and fall. Again, the clay rises upward in awe and nudged downward in humility. This time, though, the clay soars skyward and stays in place. A wooden tool prods into the side as a finger pushes; a lip is formed and a potbelly below. The wood kisses the clay as a running foot is forged on the very bottom. One touch of a metal loop carves out a shallow crevice as curly-cued scraps drop to the floor, forming beautiful scars that will later be decorated.
Stop. The wheel stops. Finally. A half-heart is added to the side of the new shape, and the metal wire gives into the encore as it enters the scene scraping the shaped mud from the wheel. The Potter stamps His signature and puts the new work-in-progress aside…. next to other clay shapes just like this one. This clay ball reformed to its newfound form is delighted to say the least. The process is complete, or so the clay thinks.
The clay shapes sit over night to rest, for their next journey may be more arduous than their first. The Potter opens a large, lidded canister of sorts. He grabs the pieces one by one and loads them into this canister. After all had been accounted for, the lid was closed and the place began to slowly grow warmer and warmer until the sauna was baking. You see, in the kiln, the oven heats up, stays at temperature, and fully cools down. The moisture totally evaporates from the shapes and any extra crumbs are burned off. From soft to firm to stiff to hard, the mud transforms to bone.
Feeling sucked dry and burned out, the lid opens another time. The Potter takes dry bone by dry bone and sits them next to several buckets like aligning the vertebrae of a spine. The hardened shapes don’t have proper perspective to see that the Potter meticulously whipped together different elements to create rejuvenating baths while they were baking. For it is only the Potter who can bring dry bones to life. The Potter handles the clay and dunks each into a bucket. Fully submerging the piece, lifting it, and allowing it to drip. The new gritty layer of color dries quickly, and the clay dives in for another swim. Some are dunked in the same color several times and others swim in multiple buckets. The Potter uses His prolific eye to cultivate each piece.
Laid to rest in the canister once again, the kiln’s high temperature provides a renewal unlike any other. Being exposed to the heat, the pores of the clay fully open to wholeheartedly absorb the multi-color robes. Instead of solely evaporating the moisture, the heat this time will clothe the once dry bones into magnificent color. The grit coating each shape melts and glazes. Once cooled, the treasures are unloaded and bunched together. The color blankets their figures like Joseph’s technicolor dream coat.
The Potter pounded them, drowned them, centered them, molded them, placed them in the fire, dunked them, placed them in the oven. Each step refines the definition of the clay’s identity. In the end, the clay is draped in the finest of color. It went on its own individual journey but became part of a set. Conversion is individual and communal. All are drudging through the muddy trenches or being set aflame in a kiln, but each of us and all of us are in the process of becoming. We are many parts of this one Lord. The clay has been redefined for a new purpose. It is an open vessel, waiting to be filled and shared. Just as the lion in Michelangelo’s heart perceived the lion in the marble, so too does the heart of our Triune God, our Potter, identifies the mug in the clay. In His heart, God recognizes the feeling and vision of you. He labored incessantly to construct you and He is still crafting you.