Earthen vessel

I remember. It was three inches tall, its colour was matt black, it had cracks running in different directions, and in a few places where these cracks met there were gaping holes. It had been crippled thus at its birth in the kiln a few years before, and had lain abandoned ever since in a corner of the yard; besides, it was covered with dirt. It was a most forgettable pot.

Yet someone had put her eye on it and was cleaning it up to serve as a candle-holder on the altar during our Mass. It had not in fact been designed as a candle-holder at all: so you could say it had no qualifications whatsoever for the job.

There it stood on the altar, holding a short stub of lighted candle. If pots could feel, it would probably feel very small and frightened, and deeply ashamed of itself. But no one paid it any attention; in a way it was just as abandoned as before.

The first reading for the Mass was from St Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4: 'What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.  For it is the God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God's glory in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.'

We sat quietly after the readings, I remember, and people shared the thoughts that came to them. Many took up this theme of 'earthen vessels', being reminded that human fragility is no obstacle to God's grace. Someone connected it with an­other line from St Paul, 'when I am weak then I am strong.' And someone with an interest in techniques of pottery-making mentioned that in St Paul's time pottery was quite soft and breakable because it was not fired to high temperatures.

Then an old man spoke and this is what he said: it may not always be through our gifts that God shines through us; some­times it could be through the absence of some gift. And he be­gan to tell how this was clear to him in his own life.

As he was still speaking, the stub of candle melted and sub­sided into the pot. There it continued to burn in the candle-­grease that had trickled down before it, and its light shone brightly through the cracks and the gaping holes in the sides of the pot. It illustrated with uncanny precision what the old man had been saying - and what St Paul had said long ago. It was a perfect moment; no one could have planned it. I remember the laughter - it continued for minutes. It was not so much from amusement; it was a kind of joy. Perfect moments can have that effect.

I can never again read 2 Corinthians 4 without remembering that blackened broken pot. I have made pots without number, and I have forgotten them all but that one. Yet it started life maimed and useless; it was thrown away, and when it was re­covered it was put to the wrong use; besides, it was entirely without beauty. But I will never forget it. I remember it espe­cially on days when I feel useless myself. It provided a moment of joyful recognition, a glimmer of God's grace working through human frailty. 'The overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.'

Then one day, a few years later, it was no longer there. I never found it again. But it had completed its life's work: it had made God's grace visible for a moment in the world.

From In a Fitful Light: Conversations on Christian Living,
by Donagh O'Shea, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1994

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