Kintsugi and Covenant

By Sana Saeed

Our conversations around covenant making can be playful, tense, messy, joyful, complicated and all those things are normal. But I find people get stuck on making a perfect covenant or they try to create a covenant where people must live up to this ideal of perfectionism. That is not what covenant making is about. It’s not about wordsmithing. It’s about the deeper promise you are committing to hold yourselves to when things get hard. It’s about deepening the relationships that already exist.

We’re not perfect people. We all have scars that we carry. We carry joys, too, but at the same time...intersecting with that joy can be sorrow, fear, shame, and brokenness. A covenant needs to hold all the complexity we bring as humans into these spaces.

When I think about covenant making, I think of Kintsugi.

Kintsugi is a Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery in which cracks are filled or in some cases traced with golden paint, highlighting the shapes of the cracks. The golden traced shape of the flaws adds to the beauty of the piece.

I learned kintsugi when I lived in Tokyo, Japan for two years and the process often made me think of the ways we deal with our own brokenness in life, the grief we carry when things are broken and the ways we heal or even mend the mistakes we make that lead to brokenness.

broken chalice with a glue on a table with a red cloth and lace doily under it

I was recently able to practice kintsugi with a chalice that I ordered online. It arrived broken in several places. I decided to use kintsugi as a meditative practice. It allowed me to reflect on the ways brokenness and grief were part of my life this past year during the pandemic, but also on healing.

The kintsugi technique was developed accidentally when 15th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his favorite tea bowl. He sent it to China to be repaired and was disappointed that it came back stapled together.

Andrea Montanvi tells us,

“Local craftsmen came up with a solution—they filled the cracks with a golden lacquer, making the bowl more unique and valuable. The repair elevated the fallen bowl back to its place as shogun’s favorite and prompted a whole new art form. … This method transforms the artifact into something new, making it more rare, beautiful, and storied than the original.”

Another author, Laura Casely writes in her article “Broken Plates Get A New Meaning With ‘Kintsugi,’ The Art Of Finding Beauty In Flaws" that

"Behind kintsugi is a spiritual philosophy, wabi-sabi, or the embracing of imperfection. A much-used, well-worn object, for example, is considered beautiful for its history and for how useful it’s been. The cracks signify an event in the life of this bowl, the way a scar or a laugh line might signify an event in a person’s life. The cracks in a dish are considered something to celebrate, not something to hide. It reminds us that the things we think are flaws — like scars, blemishes, wrinkles, or other signs of our own wear and tear — are actually signs of our unique growth and stories."

Kintsugi taught me to enter co-creating covenants humbly, knowing we will make mistakes. While we will aspire to stay in right relationship, there will be times we will break covenant or the promise we make.

Blue gold chalice with gold repair lines in Kintsugi, three different views.

Think of covenants like a broken chalice and think of the work of repairing the covenant as gluing the pieces back together using intentional practice - knowing you must hold still for some time until the pieces stick together and can hold themselves up without support.

For me, that’s what it’s like entering conversation after breaking a promise. Covenants require us to lean into the difficult conversation, confront the shame and fear that may be hindering us, and perhaps have some supportive people there to help us to enter back into right relationship.

After some time when the glue dries and the pieces of the chalice are holding themselves up, we then trace the cracks of the once broken chalice in gold symbolizing the ways we renewed our promise and deepened our relationships.

As a result, our covenant becomes “more rare, beautiful and storied than the original”.

As Jalaladdin Rumi, a Muslim philosopher, poet, saint once said “The wound is the place where the light enters you” (Montanvi).

Covenant making work can be joyful work, but it is hard. It calls us to doing hard work like being accountable when we harm. Accountability is the willingness to practice repairing harm and mistakes, the willingness to engage in the discomfort of knowing a promise was broken, recommitting to the covenant, and knowing the process of re-commitment brings with it healing and light into the wounds that were created.

I leave you with the words of Mia Mingus from her blog post, Dreaming Accountability says,

“What if accountability wasn’t scary? Take a breath and let that sink in for a second. What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred? What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be? To practice that which we can only practice in real time? After all, we can only practice courage when we are afraid. We can only practice taking accountability when we have wronged or harmed or hurt. Practice yields the sharpest analysis.

Accountability is not a destination; it is a skill we can build and practice. It is an art, a craft, an alchemy we can learn how to wield, just as we have learned how to wield hurt and shame and fear. If accountability is a skill we value, then we must make room and make commitments to practice it ourselves each day, each week, each year. We can start small and build up our skills from there. We can start with our everyday relationships and those closest to us: our families, our friends, our partners, our coworkers, the earth.”

Sometimes when we break promises we break each other’s hearts. Sometimes we inherit broken hearts because of generational trauma passed down to us. But we also inherit covenants covered in gold repairs, signs of our unique growth and stories as humans. Signs of the practice of liberation.

Omid Safi, a contemporary Muslim sufi poet and philosopher says in speaking to Kintsugi: "I wonder what it would be like to live knowing that our own hearts are like these cracked, illuminated, and healed dishes. We see what was once broken and is now healed."

repaired blue gold chalice rings after Kintsugi

So, friends, think of what it would be like living and knowing that covenants you have committed to are like a cracked, illuminated, and healed dish. Covered in golden cracks highlighting the beauty of the ways we come back together into our beloved community. May that thought give us hope and ground us in resilience knowing we can do the work of liberation rigorously if it means we all can be free.