Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places

Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 5:00 am

Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places

I have a favorite coffee mug that I use every morning for making my own cup of coffee. The ritual pleases me. My own coffee, ground and brewed fresh. The aroma of the coffee that fills my home. My fingers wrapped around the cup. Soft music playing. It’s a lovely way to start my morning.

Recently my beloved cup got a chip in it. I don’t remember where the chip came from, but I look at it each time I go to drink from the cup. Thinking about the chipped cup makes me think a lot about cracks. Cracked spaces. Cracked hearts.

I have been writing, for a while, about the theology of cracked spaces, about failing and failing better. It’s a realization that life is not a smooth, linear climb to the mountaintop of “success,” but often a messy, beautifully messy series of falling flat on one’s face, bouncing back, and falling slightly less awkwardly the next time. (And the next, and the next.)

So thinking about cracking and breaking and chipping (and healing) has been with me for a while. But until recently I had not thought about how there is a beauty that can emerge from the cracked spaces. That there is a way to illuminate cracked cups, spaces, hearts.

Turns out that the Japanese have been doing so for the last 400 to 500 years. It’s called kintsukuroi.

It’s a Japanese art form. Cups, chalices, mugs, dishes that are cracked are repaired with gold or silver lacquer. Kintsukuroi is also referred to as kintsugi, meaning “golden repair.

An example of kintsugi by Dutch designer Lotte Dekker.

There is an interview with a 27-year-old Kintsugi master, who explains how this works:

“It’s very important that we understand the spiritual backgrounds or the history behind… the material.”

This is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means “to find beauty in broken things or old things.”

I wonder what it would be like to live knowing that our own hearts are like these cracked, illuminated, and healed dishes. Oh, it is so sweet and innocent to love a heart that has never been broken.

There is a simplicity, a childlike naïveté to that kind of love. And there is a love, a mature love, a whole love, a healed love, to loving someone who has been broken and healed, made whole again, and where the cracks are golden.

We see what was once broken and is now healed. Sometimes they are stronger, more beautiful, more whole for the cracks showing up.

Desmond Tutu was right. We are all wounded healers. Cracked open, healed, and healing wounded healers.

We value success, wholeness. Unlike this Japanese art form, we don’t yet have a way of looking for what was once broken and has been healed and illuminated. How lovely would it be to find that a cracked and illuminated cup can be even more beautiful than a whole cup. How wise to realize that the broken hearts, illuminated and made whole, can be even lovelier.

Give me someone who knows their own vulnerability and sees mine.
Give me someone whose cracked spaces are golden.
Give me someone who has helped do kintsugi to my cracked spaces.
Give me someone who is open to me doing kintsugi to their cracked heart.

So friends, wabi-sabi me.
Let me wabi-sabi you.

Let’s repair each other.
Let’s seek what’s cracked in each other.
Let’s heal our broken spaces.
Let’s fill what’s broken with gold.

May we emerge more beautiful, more whole, and luminous.

So, my love, come and see the beauty in my cracked spaces.
I see the beauty in yours.

You are not a heart that I will discard.
Do not discard me.
We can emerge from this healing golden, more beautiful.

May all that is cracked and broken be healed
be illuminated.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Gabby

    Thank you for sharing this thought and video. Raku pottery, also Japanese in origin, often involves a cracked glaze, typically white riddled with cracks, though not embellished in gold. I have always thought it particularly beautiful.
    I keep a raku bowl on my work table, glazed white with cracks within, as an autobiographical representation after loss from which I have not healed.

  • Warren Santoro

    Since reading of kintsukuroi 5 years ago, it has served as metaphor for my recovery from alcoholism. Further, it allows me to view anyone who is in successful recovery from illness, grief, PTSD, abuse, loss, etc as far more than survivors. Successful recovery entails letting go of everything we thought true, the stories we were given and made up, and embracing what is true in this world-that control, even wholeness, is an illusion. It is how we deal with brokenness that defines us.

  • Dr. SAFI – What a beautiful article. I have gradually learned that we all suffer in one form or another as part of being human. In my own case it’s been through chronic illness, which has provided the opportunity and motivation to keep looking at the cracks within. To keep exploring how to care for them with loving kindness, and to apply these gradual increases in vulnerability and love to myself and my body. It has been a tremendous gift and the work adds gentle joy to my life in the form of relationship and wonder, even as it continues to work me and ask of me and invite me to keep growing, learning, and deepening. I see the beauty in your heart. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this. I am reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen, in the song Anthem:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    And what a wonderful meditation for the Easter/Passover season.

  • Lisa Johns

    What golden wisdom from your heart to ours.

  • Lauren Small

    Thank you so much for sharing this reflection on kintsukuroi. It reminds me of a Hasidic tale Parker Palmer retold in this space some years ago, and that I have kept close to me ever since:

    A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

    What a wonderful meditation for this holiday season.

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  • Candyce Ossefort-Russell

    This idea of kintsugi has brought me much peace within pain since I was widowed 25 years ago. Seeing it described so beautifully here warms my heart.

  • Louis schmier

    Omid, this piece reminds of the story of the cracked pot. If you don’t know it, you can see a version of it at:

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  • Marcel

    Interesting, but I would suggest to use a better example next time. The picture may look nice, but isn’t representative for real traditional Kintsugi at all.

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  • Carrie Bauer

    With great gratitude.

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  • laura field

    I use this Peter Mayer song in a retreat I lead called “Beloved.” It’s titled Japanese Bowls.

  • Barbara Pinson

    This is so lovely. Have been reading your posts for a long time and recently had the pleasure of hearing you speak at Circular Church in Charleston. I asked you for a recommendation for a book for my tiny circle of 5 sixty something, small town women to read that would explain Islam and Mohammed in a thoughtful way to us..a way that went beyond the typical news cycle, political interpretation that seemed empty and biased and missing the point of one of the world’s great traditions. You suggested your book Memories of Mohammed. I wanted you to know that we started it a few weeks ago and we are really enjoying it and learning so much…you give so much depth and nuance to your faith. We have been meeting weekly for many years to discuss faith, and we never really had a name for ourselves. I shared your column with these dear friends, and today we decided that we are a wabi-sabi circle for each other, and so we have finally given ourselves a name…many thanks to you! Please keep writing your thoughtful and beautiful words.

  • Joan Son

    Just now I have retrieved my beloved broken coffee mug from the garbage can. It holds a special place in my heart reflecting a golden time. I thought, when it slipped off the counter one morning, I not yet really awake, that it was an opportunity to “let go.” Now I see the opportunity is to repair. I am so grateful for this article!

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  • Angela Thoburn

    Thank you for this lovely article. At 76, I have many broken spaces repaired with, hopefully, gold. And a fissure breaking open as I watch my husband, diagnosed with a rare incurable cancer of the blood and macular degeneration, fade before my eyes. I needed this.

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