To turn, turn will be our delight,
Til by turning, turning we come round right.
-- Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr.
I took a ceramics class at summer camp and learned how to throw pots. To work the clay properly, it must be perfectly centered on the wheel. This requires steady hands. You have to put your whole body into it, your arms braced against your thighs as you press down on the wet clay with both hands. You know the clay is centered when it spins smoothly under your touch. Now you must open a hole at the top with your thumbs, pressing down until you are close to the bottom. Again, you must keep your hands still as the wheel spins around, so that the hole you open is perfectly centered. Even a slight misalignment and the centrifugal force of the wheel will work against you, causing the pot to wobble and then collapse. If properly centered, the clay will respond magically to your touch, rising up to form a cylinder and then opening out like a flower as you shape it into a bowl or vase.
"Pottery is metaphysics," wrote Mary Caroline Richards, a poet and potter. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the first man was created on a potter's wheel by the god Khnum. The Old Testament prophets could not resist the metaphorical possibilities. The Lord told Isaiah, "Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, 'What are you making'? or 'Your work has no handles'?" Jeremiah was told to go to a potter's house, where he saw the potter reworking clay that had been spoiled by his own hand. The prophet wrote, "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel."
One might easily conclude from such fulminations that we are mere inert clay in God's hands, but it is not quite so simple. Richards related a story about the potter Robert Turner, hunched over his wheel at their studio at Black Mountain College. He was not looking at the clay but rather listening to it. "It is breathing," he said. One can imagine God hunched over his wheel, having breathed the breath of life into the man he has formed from common clay. He listens and hears breathing. And as this earthen vessel takes shape under God's still hands, it is not so easy to tell which is the potter and which the clay. As Richards has observed, the potter's task is "to allow the centered clay to live into a form which it would itself declare."
Mary Caroline Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person