Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Column: Broken pots

"We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?" — Dietrich Bonhoeffer (read the rest here)

MikeF at The Mercy Blog posted this quote from Bonhoeffer the day after I submitted this column. It made me think not only about showing gratitude for small gifts, but about our willingness to receive such gifts with joy.

Only the lid of the tea pot shattered, so it's still good for use at home - though the one in the photo is unbreakable and might be more practical for now!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 23 September 2010.

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. — 1Pt. 4:10

I was standing in the hallway talking to a student when I heard the unmistakable sound of something fragile hitting the floor. I ducked my head into the kitchen where Mike and Chris, on their day off from school, were giving me a hand in setting up afternoon tea for my lab students. “Anyone hurt?” No blood, but Mike was crouched on the floor carefully picking up the pieces of my china teapot’s lid.

As we cleaned up, I told Mike the teapot was a gift from a graduate school friend when I was married the first time, almost 25 years ago. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty, Mom?” he worried. I reassured him that I was not, I was just holding in my heart for a moment both gift and giver.

I wasn’t feeling guilty either. Not about having used my “good” china for students for all these years, and not about letting my sometimes less than advertent teenagers handle it. Given how often I host a formal afternoon tea, it always seemed such a waste to leave the pot to gather dust in the china cabinet. And so it came to spend most of these years at school.

St. Augustine, in reflecting on this passage in Peter’s letter, reminds us that grace is provided “so that we will do what he has indicated should be done” — to build up the Church and to care for each other. But Augustine also points out that grace enables us to do so “not only without complaint but with joy.”

I’m reasonably certain St. Peter did not intend his advice to the early Christian community to literally mean putting material gifts to work in the way that I’ve used the teapot to serve my students tea. The subsequent verses certainly ponder more metaphysical gifts. Still, I suspect there are things to be learned about deploying the intangible gifts from these gifts we can see and hold.

Tea bags might have been more practical for the lab, each student making her own cup. But the china pot, for all its impracticality, offered us two things the tea bags could not. For just a moment, it invited us to care for each other’s needs as we poured cups for one another. And it had a permanence and a beauty a tea bag could never match.

Pulling out the teapot for my students each week for all these years transformed the ordinary into a moment of grace and the mundane into the beautifully joyous. It reminded me, too, that the grace that comes with God’s gifts is not utilitarian, merely directed at getting things done, but like the teapot, offers unexpected perspectives and holds unanticipated joys.

I’ve replaced the elegant white china teapot with a sturdy stoneware version, which serves “without complaint” but with far less joie de vivre. I wonder about other gifts I’ve been given — tangible and spiritual — which I might pull off the shelf and put to use. There may be no risk of breakage if they’re left there, but no joy to be had either.

Lord our God, give us grace to serve you always with joy, because our full and lasting happiness is to make of our lives a constant service to the Author of all that is good. We make our prayer though our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. — Closing prayer for Morning Prayer 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link, Michelle, and thanks for this story of the teapot... It's good to make these connections into ordinary life, as it were. We are thoroughly created beings, and we worship an incarnate Saviour: as he knows so well, we need teapots and sheep, lost coins and fig trees, to make the metaphysical real for us. Thank you!