Treasure in Clay Jars: A Retreat for Congregations

Photo by Nate Jorgensen

The Treasure in Clay Jars retreat engages and plays with the metaphor of pottery as a way of inviting retreatants into deeper discernment and reflection on their callings. Metaphors can be a powerful tool for discernment, helping move from a person’s story to reflection upon the vocational themes and dynamics that surface in their experience.

The CCI leadership team chose to design the retreat around the metaphor of pottery because of its rich biblical ties and the connection to The Saint John’s Pottery, an important focal point of campus life in Collegeville. This retreat was originally created in a virtual format for CCI core team participants in Fall 2020. We adapted the materials for broader use. Consider hosting the retreat for your staff, leadership teams, or other groups in your congregation. All materials are available below.

In preparation for the retreat:

  • View Jane’s video: “Metaphor as a Tool for Discernment.”
  • View the video interviews with Richard Bresnahan, Artist-in-Residence at The Saint John’s Pottery.
  • Reflect with the “Evening Prayers & Preparation” found in the retreat booklet, either on the evening before the retreat begins or at a time that works for you. Note: you will be asked to share your reflections with a small group during Session I on the retreat day. See page 4 of the booklet for more direction.

All guidance for the retreat day sessions can be found in the retreat booklet. Below you will find additional reflection materials for your personal or congregational use after the retreat. Consider using it for individual reflections, small group conversations, or another retreat opportunity.

Metaphor as a Tool for Discernment

Video Interviews with Richard Bresnahan, Artist-in-Residence at The Saint John’s Pottery


Additional Reflection Materials

Part I: Relating the Potter’s Story to Our Vocational Stories

In all of the videos, note how often lifespan issues in vocation come to the surface. What do you notice within yourself about how your age and your particular embodiment affect how you live into your vocation. Are there commonalities with Richard Bresnahan’s observations about his work as a seasoned potter, the experiences of the apprentices, etc.?

The Potter

When do you feel most alive in the artistic process?

Bresnahan talks about how some pieces just really “click.” Everything comes together and there’s a kind of resolution, from the idea in his head to the three-dimensional form.

  • Among all of your callings, when do you feel most fully alive?
  • Does that tend to happen for you in the midst of the process or at the culmination of a project or event?

What’s the hardest part of your work, that other people might not know of?

  • Do you resonate with Bresnahan’s discussion of the burden of other people’s expectations, or is there something else about your work that is either habitually hard or hard at the moment?

Is the difficulty

  • just part of the calling?
  • a measure of how deeply the calling matters to you?
  • or does it threaten your sense of calling?

The Clay

Why local clay?

This question brings up all the issues of context that are integral to our callings. What is the “local clay” that you are called to work with?

The Japanese potter recognizes the sacredness of the earth, and has a ritual for seeking “permission from the earth to take something from the earth, to extract something from the earth to make human beings whole.” In doing so, he acknowledges that we don’t become whole all by ourselves. How does your context (as large or small as you want to construe that) contribute to your becoming whole? How might you give thanks for that interconnection?

Bresnahan speaks of his invitation to be the potter in residence at St. John’s and the simultaneous desire on the part of the Abbey and the University to be deeply connected with their place while also recognizing that returning to a pre-industrial worldview and habits would not be possible. “But they wanted something that would connect a new translation of energy into reminding the community that there are patterns of indigenous systems that can be incorporated into an education and creative environment.”  How does the history of the place you live affect your callings as an individual or a congregation? How are you sometimes called to work in contrast to that history?

“The clay deposit that we’re using is 144 million years old…. If you’re going to take something from the earth and you’re going to change it forever, that’s a serious responsibility.” Bresnahan’s statement reminds all of us that the context in which we are working (the institutions and people) are so much bigger then we are, and have a longer history (and future) than we do. How do these facts shape your understanding of your work and its purposes? What responsibilities do you feel most keenly?

Bresnahan quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict, “You should treat your everyday tools as instruments of the altar.” What are your own everyday tools? How do you honor them?

“I can’t think of buying clay. I don’t know how you could do it. And we don’t sell the clay here.” Among your several vocations, what is there that you do daily that is beyond the reach of monetary exchange? Is there something you are paid to do that you would gladly do for free?

How have you changed as a potter on account of using this particular clay?

How are you changed on a daily basis by the context you work and live in?

“You have to be present and you have to create a pattern of presence on a daily basis. … You have to create at that very moment of what you’re doing as if your life depended upon it. … If you’re not, you’re going to not feel like you’ve done your complete work.” Among your various callings, which tend to pull this kind of presence from you? What difference does it make to be present in that way? Where would you like to bring this kind of presence?

The Fire

What is the scariest part about the firing process?

“When you light that first match there is no going back, and that means when the first match is lit and that small little flame begins, you as a human being have lost all control. You have offered now all of your time for something you have no control over in a sense.” Many vocations have an element of lack of control. Where does that show up in one of your significant vocations? How do you handle the lack of control? What would you tell a trusted friend about it?

“So then the firing … you have to really listen to Mother Earth very carefully and that is so hard.” Who or what are you called to listen to very carefully? What has this listening taught you?

Bresnahan’s experience of wood firing has brought him to a very clear stance against nuclear weapons. Has one of your callings brought you to ethical understandings or ethical positions that you would not otherwise have come to?

The synergy among the elements

“It’s one-third the artist being able to speak. It’s one-third the material being able to speak … that the clay actually has a chance to say something that we often just dismiss. And then it’s the firing as the other third, how the firing also decides. So if you keep that one third whole and allow the other two-thirds to live, then it’s a lot easier not to have any expectations.” Bresnahan sees his work as potter as only one third of the finished product, the work taking place like a conversation among the potter, the earth, and the fire, each speaking its piece. In one of your important callings, who or what is speaking with and through your efforts? How have you been changed over time by this conversation?

The Purchasers / Users

What do you hope will happen for people who use your pottery?

“We hold on to [certain things] so we can hold onto the memory of those who’ve gone before us. So I said you need to use that [vase] every day. Put flowers in it and then hand it to your favorite grandson or granddaughter and say, “This is my favorite vase.” And they will put flowers in it for you to remember you.” Just as Bresnahan’s process involved relationships with the earth and the fire, so too the ultimate purpose of the pottery resides in relationships with the items themselves and with the people you gather about you for a meal or for tea or a conversation beside the beautiful vase full of flowers. What relationships are created by your work and your other callings? How do you honor these relationships?

Bresnahan also recognizes that once a ceramic piece goes into someone else’s life, it bears meanings that he never envisioned. Is there an aspect of one of your callings that is like this, that is meaningful to others in ways that you could never have imagined?

Bresnahan ends with a story that points to the legacy of each of us, as we live day by day into out callings. What legacy would you hope to leave for those who follow you?  What did you do today, or this week, that is part of that legacy?

Part II: Questions that Engage Pottery as a Metaphor in Discernment

Metaphors are not like allegory, in that they don’t just line up in one way, but permit a lot of flexibility in the interpretation. You might initially experiment with the metaphor by identifying different entities with the aspects of the metaphor: Is the potter God, or you, or your congregation? Is the clay you or your congregation or the congregation’s community context? Is the fire Covid? the American political situation? something that has befallen your congregation in particular? Is the user your congregation, or the town you are in, a global situation, or some outreach? Let your curiosity guide you. Sometimes it helps to try the least obvious connections.

In reflecting on your own life ...

In reflecting on your own life, imagine that God is the potter and you are that local earth that God knows intimately. You have a long history that God knows, and now you are at the point of being formed into something that God imagines. How do you partner together to bring about this new form? Where do you resist, and why?

The fire represents a force that must be encountered for the earth to become a piece of pottery that can be used or enjoyed by someone for a very long time. The fire requires a whole community to tend it. The fire is also dangerous for everyone involved, including the shaped clay in the kiln so hot that it causes the shapes to waver and the glazes to liquefy. What has been the fire in your life? What were the losses, and what were the gains? How did the fire perform a role in shaping your vocations that nothing else could do as powerfully? Is the fire over now, or is it ongoing?

For what relationships have you been shaped?

How have you been shaped as a person by your callings?

What are the most sacred moments in this story? How will you honor them?

For congregational leaders, lay or ordained ...

For congregational leaders, lay or ordained: Imagine that you are the potter and the congregation is the indigenous clay, whose history and future are far longer than yours. The shape you will give to the clay is just a blink of the eye in its story, but an important blink, and one that requires all of your imagination, dedication, and perseverance. What plans and dreams do you bring to the process? How is God calling you, inspiring you, shaping you for this work? What must you know about the clay, in order to work with it effectively? Who is serving as potter with you? Are you an experienced potter or an apprentice? How has the clay surprised you? How do you partner together? Where are the points of difficulty or misunderstanding?

In the life of your congregation, what has been the fire, both dangerous and necessary for your formation? Who are the people who tended the fire and helped it do its work without becoming destructive? Is the fire over now, or is it ongoing?

For what ministry in the world, what relationships, has your congregation been shaped?

What are the most sacred moments in this story? How will you honor them?

Bresnahan says, “It’s one-third the artist being able to speak. It’s one-third the material being able to speak … that the clay actually has a chance to say something that we often just dismiss. And then it’s the firing as the other third, how the firing also decides. So if you keep that one third whole and allow the other two-thirds to live, then it’s a lot easier not to have any expectations.” How do you keep your part whole, so that the other two entities (clay and fire) can speak their parts?

Now imagine that the congregation is the potter, and the indigenous clay is your local community context. How do your dreams and ideas, grounded in the Gospel as you know it, meet those of the community? The life of the community is far longer than that of your congregation, and God has a long relationship with the clay that you have not been part of. What do you need to know about the community’s history and its dreams for the future in order to partner well with it, so that the community responds to God’s callings (whether they know anything about God or not)?

What has been the fire for your local community? What did people suffer, and how has the fire shaped them? Who tended the fire so that it would not destroy the community? How has the community changed and been shaped for new purposes by the fire? Is the fire over now, or is it ongoing?

In relation to your community, what do you want to know more about, in order to partner more effectively with them?

What purposes, relationships, and ministries is your congregation called to, in relation to the local context? Sometimes people use a piece of pottery in ways that the potter never imagined (a wine cooler becomes a vase, a plate catches water under a plant, a jar with a lid becomes an urn for someone’s ashes). Are there surprises in how your local community makes use of the church or its ministries?

What are the most sacred moments in this story? How will you honor them?

Follow-up questions on the use of the metaphor of pottery-making for discernment

• What does the metaphor help you see that you would otherwise not see as clearly?
• At what points did the metaphor help you discern what is happening over time, the “plot” of your vocation or that of your congregation?
• As different elements are associated with the potter or clay or fire, how did your sense of power or agency shift?
• If you are still in the midst of the story, how does the metaphor help you make sense of where you are, and have a feeling for where you might go?
• What does the metaphor reveal about your and your congregation’s callings? What does it conceal?
• At what points did the metaphor really work well for you, and at what points did it seem not to fit? Were there some completely different ways to relate the metaphor to your situation that would be more powerful for you?