From the Book of Deuteronomy:
I turned and went down from the mountain, while the mountain was ablaze; the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the Lord had commanded you. So I took hold of the two tablets and flung them from my two hands, smashing them before your eyes.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 9:15-17 (NRSV) – February 20, 2013.)
The Bible tells us that the Tablets of the Law were kept in the Arc of the Covenant which traveled with the Hebrews throughout their forty years in the desert and that it was later housed in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple until lost at or about the time of the Babylonian Exile. According to Rabbinic lore, the Ark contained not only the second, whole Tablets, but the broken fragments of the first Tablets, to which Moses refers in this speech from the Book of Deuteronomy.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (a very conservative Orthodox Jewish sage) once asserted that the keeping of the broken tablet fragments represented that truth can be crafted not only from the spiritually perfected life, but also from the pieces of a broken human life. This is good news since many, if not all, human lives are broken in some sense.
The Japanese have made art from of fixing broken pottery with a lacquer resin sprinkled with powdered gold. The technique, called kintsugi, renders the piece even more beautiful than it started out. The idea is not to hide the brokenness as ugly, but rather to beautify it using gold to make it shine, to expose and illuminate the damage. Kintsugi repaired vessels are particularly prized for use in the traditional tea ceremony.
Tea-ceremony aesthetics often focus on the beauty of imperfection; in the contemplative atmosphere of the ritual, host and guest appreciate the idiosyncrasies, the flaws, the differences in the glaze that differentiate one vessel from another. The context creates an awareness of transiency, of the way in which all things exist in a fleeting way and are decaying. As with tea vessels, so with human beings.
One of my favorite singer-songwriters is Leonard Cohen. His song Anthem celebrates brokenness:
The birds they sang at break of day
“Start again” I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be
You can add up the parts
But you won’t have the sum
Strike up the march; there is no drum
Every heart to love will come
But like a refugee
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
There are no perfect offerings. There are no perfect lives. Everything, the tablets of the Law, tea ceremony vessels, human beings, are all prone to be broken; there is a crack in everything.
This Lent, as you evaluate your life, look for the brokenness that can be repair with the gold of truth, for the cracks where the light can get in.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.