A few weeks ago I went to a discernment retreat, the theme of which was “A Cup of Your Life.” A Cup of Life, right beside the Bread of Life, is a deep-running symbol in Christianity, and I need not explain to you where it comes from. At the mention of the word, we envision the table of the Eucharist and the cup of Precious Blood, and we think of liquids that fill our cups: wine, and water of Baptism, Living Water of salvation, water that nourishes and quenches thirst without end, water that pours from the side of Christ. We remember the cup of suffering Jesus spoke of in Gethsemane.
At the retreat, people spoke of what the metaphor of the cup meant to them. Some reflected on what their lives contained or didn’t—the empty spaces to be filled and how difficult it can be to fill them with the right stuff, to keep it hot. Some spoke of the fragility of our lives—we can be broken so easily—and yet that the cups cracked and chipped are full of memories, dearest of all if they are mended. Others noticed the great variety of shapes and colors, handles and patterns: cups are like our lives indeed, showing taste and personality, some easier to handle, others elegant and pretty, yet third, reliable and sturdy. What do you want to be?
I too like the metaphor, both of the cup as an artistic expression and of the cup as container, but as we talked with my fellow retreatants, tucked into cozy chairs around the room, I kept thinking: My life is like a cup and yet it’s not. In one very important respect, I don’t want it to be. I want it to be exactly the opposite.
A cup is made to be filled and to be emptied, and then to be filled again. This too can feel like a cycle in our lives. But profoundly, a cup is made to hold its contents, to keep them from being spilled. Its purpose is to contain, to keep within boundaries, to control a portion. Don’t pour into a cup more than it’s designed to contain. Empty it, and it is vacuous. Fill it again to predetermined capacity. That’s the life of a cup. But it’s not the life of a living person—or it’s not supposed to be. We, I think, are made to spill.
I was listening to the women in my circle talk about the cups of their lives and thinking: These women’s hearts are bottomless. Their love for humanity has no boundaries. When they pour themselves out into the world, they do not become empty inside. They are not cups; they are fountains. Eternal springs. Geysers. This is how I feel, too; this is what I want to be. This is how people are. This is how you, my reader, are.
That, I believe, is the flaw in the metaphor of the cup of our lives, the critical difference between a cup and a human being: A cup is of use when it simply stores its contents, but we are not. A cup may serve when it is half-filled, but we cannot.
Oh, we need to be filled indeed. There is a proverbial space inside us that must be nourished, bursting, taken care of, because as long as it’s lacking in fullness, we are as small as little cups: circumscribed, self-contained, and self-centered, giving away only at the cost of exhausting ourselves. Both cups and humans exist to give something away, but cups give of the contents they don’t produce; we give of our own essence divine, and we only can give when our cups overflow.
This is it. In the metaphor of my life, I am only of use when my cup overflows. This is my substance—my heart, my spirit, the very gist of me—mixing with the universe, connecting us into inseparable oneness, suffusing pains and blessings of Reality. I am not made to fulfill my potential or to fill whatever I am to capacity—I am made to burst through every membrane, blow off every lid, and overflow my cup day after day, without end, with love, and with ideas, and with creative energy, and with compassion.
Of course, it all sounds very idealistic, but it is not. Living to spill ourselves over onto the world is not easy, and it brings both challenges and consequences. A cup is filled and emptied, washed and stored, it rests and then is used again. A fountain gets no rest. Its edges are worn by the never-ending flow, and even in Living Water all kinds of things live, not all of them nice. The source that feeds the fountain must be kept going all the time, pumping, drawing from the depths of Reality itself, never to run shallow or dirty, for this is a drinking fountain.
And yet, for all the precious fluid we spill out of our hearts, only so much touches somebody’s lips—and only so often do we know how much, and whom it nourishes, and how. Overflowing by its nature is an uncertain process: We preach and we teach and we share, we care, we love, but what happens to the drops of our love, we don’t know. Remember the sower that went out to sow? Some drops of us will land directly in someone’s hands, and others will soak into the ground and water the gardens and grasses, and others yet will dry up in a desert and fall much later as rain into the ocean. And some will become mud, quicksand, and drown a child.
Living a life to overflowing is not easy, and it is messy at that. Ecstasy mixes with fatigue, inspiration with uncertainty. But a cup of the human heart doesn’t know how to tilt, and love from it only flows over the edges, only if it’s too full to contain all the love, only from a never-ending source.
So, I suppose, in the metaphor of my life, I am not so much a cup as a cup-shaped fountain.