Earthen vessels: Treasured containers

Bridget Macaulay gets to grips with how God inhabits this ‘fragile vessel’, us.

This article was published in the May to August 2019 issue of Rapport magazine.

Over the past year or two I have been painting, making, praying and thinking a lot about containers and vessels of all descriptions: pots, cups, kettles and bowls being the most obvious ones.

A vessel is an ordinary, down to earth container, often carrying food and drink. It is a holding or carrying place, but a vessel is also a boat, a mode of transport, a means by which goods make their journey and reach their destination. Scripture is full of vessels too … gardens, bowls, cups, water jars, wells, boats and tombs; all containers rich with meaning.

We, as created beings, are also vessels. We contain and carry the material and spiritual stuff of human life. Our bodies are a collection of containers. Our lungs fill and empty with air, our guts with food. Our heart and blood vessels carry and hold our life-blood, our wombs can carry babies, and our hands make a bowl to splash water on our face each morning as we wash.

We carry and hold so much in our human experience: our hearts carry joy and pain: we can sometimes feel it as a physical weight. Our bodies can house and contain health or disease, our minds hold wonderful ideas as well as heavy concerns and anxieties. Our human capacity, as creatures made in God’s image, is to be caught in the vessel’s rhythm of filling and emptying, holding and carrying, containing and releasing: it’s built right into what keeps us alive: breathing in, filling up, breathing out and emptying. As physical beings we are a series of contained and boundaried spaces, sometimes empty, sometimes full, but essentially vessels that hold and carry our physical and spiritual life.

C. S. Lewis said this:

‘It is not an abstraction called Humanity that is to be saved. It is you yourself – yourself, not another.

‘It is your soul and, in some sense not fully understood, even your body, that was made for the high and holy place. And that you are – your sins excepted – every fold and crease and nook and cranny of your individuality, destined from all eternity to fit God as a glove fits a hand. And that intimate particularity which you can hardly grasp yourself, much less communicate to your fellow creatures, is no mystery to Him. He made those ins and outs that He might fill them.

‘He gave you just so curious a life because it is the key designed to unlock the door of all the myriad doors in Him.’

More examples of containers, empty spaces, vessels designed to be filled: God’s hand in the glove of our life, or maybe God as the container (the lock) which holds the shape of each of us (the key)? There is something of this shape of the vessel, the container about us. And when we start to see this shape in and around us, we see how much of the natural world follows this pattern of contained and boundaried spaces that fill and empty.

The ordinary day-to-day rhythms of these vessels filling and emptying are the spaces and places where human beings meet with the Divine.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he speaks of this tension:

‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, the excellency of the power being from God and not from ourselves. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; and always carrying around in the body the death of the Lord Jesus, that also the life of Jesus might be expressed in our bodies’
(2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

The paradox of treasure in earthen vessels, or as The Message translates it: ‘We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.’

This mysterious containment of the holy in the ordinary stuff of everyday life is what the church has called ‘sacrament’: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So for instance water is contained in a font or baptismal pool and it becomes a sign of God’s cleansing, going down into the watery container and being lifted up out of it points to our dying and rising to new life. Another example is wine poured into and contained in the Eucharistic cup which becomes a sign of God’s life-giving love, and so on. But even before the Christian church defined and designated certain rituals as official sacraments, Paul was telling the believers in Corinth that their daily lives (often struggling though they were as people of faith) were outward signs of the grace and treasure of God’s life, contained within.

It is stuff, matter, the repeated routines and rituals of our lives that can become containers for this precious Treasure, i.e. that Christ in us identifies us as beloved creatures who belong to their Creator and bear witness to His glory. This is our identity as people of God. One of the possible roots of our word ‘identity’ is from the Latin essentia (which means being or essence) combined with the word identidem (which means repeatedly). So identity could be understood as ‘repeated being-ness’. Might this help make sense of this image of treasure in earthen vessels? We carry within us the essence of our being. This being-ness is the life of Christ placed in us, giving us our identity as God’s beloved children. And this identity, this essential being-ness is contained, housed in the repeated rhythms and habitual routines of everyday life. In this way our habits can contain and embody our identity. Perhaps the mundane repetitions of daily life are the earthen vessels which contain and hold the treasure of our identity in God. Maybe God inhabits our habits?

Emily P. Freeman in her book A Million Little Ways suggests we are

‘colanders filled with glory-water. Our best efforts are spent trying to cover the seeping holes with not enough fingers … We want to be something more sensible, more practical. Something like a jar with a lid. No holes. No glory leaks. But God’s glory demands display. God steps out of heaven and into us his workmanship. And from inside us he declares his own glory.’

Paul says we carry and contain this glory, this treasure, not in fancy, rarified or beautifully decorated vessels, but rather in earthenware, filling and emptying every day, maybe broken and mended many times, maybe even designed to leak?

The treasure of who we are, our identity in God (our ‘repeated being-ness’) is the precious message, the good news we can share with others out of the ordinary, often chipped, sometimes broken, always earthy containers of our human lives.

Bridget Macaulay is a priest and artist living in Cornwall with her husband Kenny and three teenage daughters.

Sacrament

I stand waiting for the kettle to boil
hearing the slow rise to a crescendo
the steam takes the thin prayers that evaporate out of me
rising as incense
here and then gone

And there the laundry spills
like a waterfall from the basket
a Mass of un-fresh mess
making its way to the ground
seeking absolution

I kneel to fill the machine, a custom of confession
taking my place in the priesthood
of all mothers

At night we tread our traditions
folding and smoothing the towels and sheets
like fine linen on an ironing board altar

Collecting up the used containers of the day
mugs and bowls and pots fill the dishwasher
which rumbles on
filling and emptying
rising and falling like plainsong

housed in our habits
treasure glints in the cracks
seeping glory

We repeat the rhythm and ritual
building day by day
a bridge of sacrament
on which grace walks

Bridget Macaulay, 2018