What’s in Your Jar?

May 24, 2021

By Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D.

Note: This reflection is the fourth in a 5-part series on the Teacher as Vessel.  For the others, click here.

What’s in your jar?

A modest collection of clear glass containers occupies a corner of a shelf in my office. Some are jars; some are more like bottles. They vary in size and shape. Some close with corks, some with lids. Others are open.  They are filled with an assortment of small items useful in teaching, auxiliary tools of the trade so to speak: paper clips, highlighters, magnets, pushpins, etc. Though they often serve as a conversation piece when someone comes in the office the first time, the jars are more decorative than functional. However, those jars relate to the third quality that Kurek attributes to vessels, namely that they hold on to what they contain.[1]

In explaining this characteristic, Kurek distinguishes between vessels and channels. The latter serves as a kind of conduit through which a substance passes. Pipelines and garden hoses are channels, but they are not vessels because they do not hold on to their contents to pour them out when needed. Vessels, on the other hand, do; and this distinction has a three-fold application when considering the teacher as a vessel.

First, no vessel can pour forth what it does not contain. Simply put, I cannot get a paper clip out of that jar of magnets! It follows that teachers cannot give what they do not have. This includes, of course, knowledge of their subject matter and expertise in instructional skills; but it goes beyond these professional requirements.  

The Church teaches, “The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered.” [2] Students are short-changed if they are taught scientific facts and procedures, for example, but are not lead to develop a sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries to which science exposes them. Likewise, they should not study the disciplines of literature or history without learning the virtues of justice, compassion and hope that emerge from such study.[3] The Church calls on teachers to be professional in their duties to be sure, but also to be witnesses. “The nobility of the task to which teachers are called demands that in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher, they reveal the Christian message not only by word but also by every gesture of their behavior.”[4]

While it is true that vessels (and teachers) cannot pour forth what they do not contain, a corollary is also true: Vessels must pour out what they do contain. Some secular expressions of this idea include the challenge to “give 110 percent” and advice to build from one’s strengths—good advice. However, Sacred Scripture gives the most powerful examples of this.

In the Old Testament, we see how God blessed the widow’s jar of flour and jug of oil, so that during the drought, she and her son had enough to survive themselves and to provide for the prophet Elijah. (1 Kings 17: 7- 16). Our Lord told the story of another widow who had very little (two copper coins, in fact) but she gave them and they were worth more than all the other gifts  (Mark  12:41-44). The Lord fed thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish that one young boy gave to the apostles (Matthew 14:13-21). The newly married couple at Cana had no wine, so Jesus asked for what they did have: water. Then He took what that water and performed His first public miracle and His disciples believed (John 2: 1-11). 

We may feel at times that we have little to give. If we do not hold back and pour out our vessel for the Lord, He will use it according to His will and purpose. There can be miracles.

Finally, both the vessel and the contents of the vessel are changed by their relationship. If you pour tea into a pitcher, both tea and pitcher are changed. The tea takes the shape of the pitcher and the pitcher takes on the weight of the tea. Teaching and learning are reciprocal actions. Teachers not only teach; they learn from their students. In fact, the student just might be the most important text a teacher can “read.” Neither student nor teacher remains unchanged.

I am looking at that little collection of vessels on my shelf with a little more respect; they can encourage us during these remaining days of the academic year-a very challenging year. Teachers cannot give what they do not have, but they can give willingly what they do possess. God will take what is given and bless it. Students will be changed; and teachers, too!

[1] Kurek, Michael. (2019). The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp. 125-126.
[2] Congregation for Catholic Education. (1996). The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 14.
[3] Refer to Congregation for Catholic Education. (1988). The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, Parts 3 and 4.
[4] Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. (1977). The Catholic School, 43.

Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D. is Director of the Center for Catholic Education at Aquinas College.