Canon Gordon Oliver, ordained priest, spiritual director, theological educator, and pottery hobbyist, shares his passion for working with clay and the joys of making something beautiful.
I’ve been potting for a bit over 6 years. I started when I was teaching a friend called Catherine, who is a potter, how to pray. She needed to get out of her left brain so she could pray with her body. Instead of God being a project, she needed a relationship with him, and she discovered that potting helped her with that. She had to feel the clay like getting the feel of a relationship. She invited me to have a go so I did. I smacked the thing onto the wheel and was scraping it off the walls afterwards. I always wanted to make something beautiful but I grew up cack-handed. When I was at school the art teacher said I was no damn good and would never be. I got the same thing from the woodwork teacher. But when I put one of these horrible pots that Catherine helped me to make into her kiln, and it came out beautiful, I was hooked. I’ve been trying to make beautiful things out of clay ever since.
You can start with new clay. It’s beautiful and already formed, but when you pot and it goes wrong, which it often does, you end up with a bucket full of waste and rubbish. I take the waste and reclaim it. There are gospel parallels. It’s all about God taking what is unsatisfactory in some way, people who are broken, like the waste from the clay wheel, and you couldn’t imagine anything beautiful being made from that. You take all this broken clay and give it some water – you ‘baptise’ it, and it gets reduced. It almost dies to its original shape but tomorrow morning after the potter has taken it up in his hands and let it dry a bit it becomes new usable clay. It’s a redemptive process when you are potting with recycled or reclaimed clay and that’s one of the things that excites me most.
The clay is made out of little tiny platelets so we have to get them pointing in the same direction and we do that by wedging it – a bit like kneading bread. This means it will work all together and it gets the air bubbles out. We don’t want it exploding in the kiln. When we come to the wheel, the first thing we need to do is get the clay centred. Then we can do anything with it. That’s got a kind of resonance with our Christian life. We’re centred by being held in the hands of God. There’s something very consoling for me about sitting at the wheel with the clay becoming centred in my hands. We can then start making something. After a short while we’ve created a container; we’ve created a space. The pot is not just made out of the wall, it’s made out of the space. Then we’re going to raise and shape it by using just the right amount of pressure in the right place.
The journey has been from the breaking, the re-claiming, centring and shaping. This will go into the fire of the kiln that will transform it from being a dull and fragile clay shape into a beautiful and tough and useful ceramic form. I like the expression ‘through the fire of God’s love’. In the kiln the pot will reduce in size by 10-12% as the stuff it doesn’t need in its new form is taken out, just as there is stuff in us that needs to be taken out.
I love the feel of the clay when it’s absolutely balanced right. Some days you can start potting and you’re not centred in yourself. The tension in yourself will communicate itself so if you’re in the wrong place yourself, it won’t work. I’ve heard professional potters will start the day with throwing 20 small bowls. By the end of throwing them they will know if it’s worth continuing.
I find the process comforting and healing even. I love sharing it. People ask me to make things which is great. I also love offering pottery-based quiet days, where I make prayer bowls. I’m nuts on bowls anyway. A bowl is an open container; it can contain anything.
I give it to someone to hold and say ‘what is your life full of right now?’ ‘Have you got a bowl full of blessings or have you had a basin full of other people’s rubbish? They can look into the bowl and see what their life is full of. We can then offer that to Jesus using words, or we can just hold it silently in the presence of Jesus and just say AMEN at the end of it, as that’s our prayer.
The other thing I love to make is pottery crosses. It’s my favourite thing of all for pottery quiet days, spiritual direction and retreats. The pottery cross is uncomfortable to hold, and that speaks about the suffering of the cross. The glass in the centre is full of brokenness. For me as a priest, a whole lot of ministry has actually been quite painful, it’s not been pain that’s been resented but you’re dealing with people’s brokenness all the time, your own brokenness, and the brokenness of the Body of Christ are often very present to you. I love it that these crosses are filled with brokenness but because they have been through the fire, the brokenness has become beautiful and it’s smooth, in contrast to the roughness of the clay that surrounds it.
If you get people on a quiet day, you can talk about brokenness in a theoretical way but if you get practical and invite people to put their hands into the bucket of reclaimed clay and experience it, it goes right past all the left brain stuff and gets people right into the depths of their guts. They’re doing relationship with God, deeply and quickly. We can talk glibly about the Lord using our vulnerability, but the reason why people are vulnerable is because they are hurting, so I think you have to be careful. As the leader of the quiet day, you have to be pastorally sensitive because the purpose isn’t to upset people, the purpose is to lead them deeper into the love and joy of the Lord.
The first time I did a retreat with about a dozen clergy, I showed them this bucket of gooey clay and asked if they wanted to spread it on the block. Surprisingly, all did it. I had allowed 10 minutes for this exercise but it went on much longer and it was a deeply emotional and spiritual experience. Each of them stood up and placed their hand on the reclaimed clay, as if they were delivering their brokenness and their need to be reformed.
We’ve been talking quite seriously about this but I think the whole advantage to this process is it’s enormously fun and often very funny. When I did a quiet day recently, I realised in the first three minutes it wasn’t going to be quiet. It was almost like a messy church day for grown-ups. As I was doing my first talk I gave them a piece of clay just to fiddle with. I told them to just look after it. It was very powerful; it’s non-directive but sometimes people can’t cope with that. I stress that each of the sessions is an invitation and you relate to it as you want to. It’s voluntary not compulsory.
I don’t think it matters if it’s not perfect. It’s mostly about error. The clay is transformed by fire from something that is quite ordinary, even not very pleasant-looking, into something really quite beautiful. I can just splodge stuff on and the fire will make it something else. It sounds familiar.
If anyone would like to contact Gordon about organising a pottery-based quiet day or retreat please contact him on email@example.com. Maximum number is 20
Gordon demonstrates throwing a pot on the wheel and how to correct mistakes along the way.