Father Theophan: Clay And Dirt

Clay cup and bowls created by Father Theophan. Photo by Father Theophan

By Father Theophan
Saint Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church
Los Alamos

Clay is a humble material. It can be found naturally almost anywhere there is running water. It’s not all useful right out of the ground, but most of it can be useful with a little care and some additives.

I used to defend myself and my medium, “Clay is not dirt!”

But to be fair, although not topsoil nor organic, it isn’t very different from sand. Particle size and shape are the defining factors. Clay is much finer than sand. When dried and powdered, it feels like talcum powder. When wet down, it is slippery.

Some clays are even “air-floated” to separate out the particles small enough to be carried by an air current.

A simple and universal as it is, clay is one of the most versatile media for artists and craftsmen. If you can imagine it, there is a way to make it real in clay. From a mug that a person uses for their everyday coffee, to the famous Wedgewood Pottery, to houses of porcelain playing cards indistinguishable from the real thing; clay can be made into almost anything.

From humble beginnings, the artist raises the clay to usefulness and beauty. Some vessels remain humble, while some reach toward the sublime. Creativity and work are all that is required.

Humanity can be seen as merely animal in a materialistic perspective. We are organic material complex enough to reproduce and become self-aware. Thought and emotion are the results of chemical and electrical interactions in our brains. It’s possible.

But then are individual humans special? Are “useful” people more important? What is the worth of a person?

If there is more to our universe than we can see and measure, things get infinitely more complex. And therefore, more difficult to understand. If there is a God, a prime mover, or a universal consciousness, things could be different.

If there is a purpose for the existence of humanity, instead of merely chance, then finding out that purpose is a valid goal. Philosophy and religion are these pursuits.

To be fair, religion has often been twisted and misused to separate, hurt, and oppress.

But that is not what Christ taught.

Philosophy hasn’t really landed on a universal answer.

If there is a creative intelligence behind everything, then even though we belong to this mass of clay that makes up humanity, so vast that it might feel ubiquitous or mundane, we are each a work of the hands of a craftsman. The humblest bowl to the most complex masterwork carry the maker’s mark. Each is cherished. Everyone is precious, unique, and worthy of respect.

I am a modest potter, but at my best, I care for each thing I make. I take as much care as I can and I hope for the best results. How much more expert is our great creator, and how much more are we each cared for. We should care for each other as much.

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” -Anne Lamott

“Any god who is mine but not yours, and god concerned with me but not you, is an idol.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


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