Dear Donagh, A little bird told me that you are starting up your pottery again. Can you put us in the picture? I loved your book ‘Go down to the potter’s field’. Any chance of having it reprinted? And will you have pottery retreats in Tallaght…? Love, Paula.
Dear Paula, Yes that bird’s report was right! To put other readers in the picture: recently I got a new job. I'm in charge of a retreat house 10 km from Dublin. The move came as a shock to me at first, but I've realised that it’s a good thing to be repotted from time to time! It has given me new energy – enough to revive the ‘Potter retreats’ that I had been conducting for 30 years. Because they are very labour-intensive I had discontinued them this year. But I found that I missed them, and I especially missed my workshop, my ‘potter’s house’. (By the way, the name of that book was ‘Go down to the potter’s house’, not field! The Potter’s Field was the one bought with Judas’ thirty pieces of silver!) Here in Tallaght I have a little workshop that I love. So here goes for another 30 years, or until I go down to the potter’s field (you know what that field was used for!)
That little book is from the distant past and is out of print, so I thought I'd reprint a page of it here.
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 stays in his 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 of him. 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 powerful line that depth in one's life is "a vital relationship between concealment and manifestation."
From Go Down to the Potter’s House: A Journey into Meditation,
(Michael Glazier, Inc. and Dominican Publications, 1988)