The Larger Whole

Reflected SkySpirituality is our experience of connection to the larger whole of which we are a part. I believe that each being is sacred, and we are all one family, one circle. My deepest experiences convince me this is true, even though we may forget, even despite the ways we may be estranged. Linda Hogan writes that the purpose of ceremony is to remember that all things are connected. She says:

“The participants in a ceremony say the words ‘All my relations’ before and after we pray; those words create a relationship with other people, with animals, with the land. To have health it is necessary to keep all these relations in mind.”

As we begin to build bridges across the broken places within our hearts, across the broken places between peoples, across the broken places between people and the earth, we are doing the work of mending the world. We are awakening, we are remembering, the reality in which we actually live, the unity of all. The Buddhists call it inter-being. In South Africa it is called ubuntu: we are all born to belonging, and we know ourselves in just and mutual relationship to one another. We move beyond the small self of the ego, into the larger Self some call God, or what I have called Mystery. Thomas Merton writes,

“We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

The purpose of spirituality is to remember that all things are connected and to heal the brokenness between us.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and day had begun.
Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”
No,” answered the Rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
No,” answered the Rabbi.
Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.
It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
                                                                             (Hasidic Tale)

Quotes from Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, (New York: Norton, 1995)
Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, edited by Christine Bochen. (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2000)
Hasidic Tale, Quoted in Spiritual Literacy, edited by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, p. 502. 

Choosing Community

So often when we hear that we should love one another, it sounds like hard work, like a task, like a moral imperative that would be good to follow, but not very pleasant. And I admit there is something difficult about loving one another. But somewhere in the middle of it, comes a surprise. There really is divinity within each person—and when we see it, it is beautiful, joyful, mysterious, and wonderful. It is like the diamond that Dorothy Day was so quick to give to the homeless woman. 

And not only that, when we risk opening our hearts to others, sometimes we experience the divinity that happens in the connections between us. We experience something of that ancient belonging for which we have been yearning. Ubuntu. We experience the oneness of all beings, our part in the family of all things. We realize that we are all gathered in a circle already, we are all part of one dreaming.

Those moments give me energy for the work of creating circles of love and faithfulness. Because we really do have to work at community. We have to make a choice for community. In our society, the bonds are frayed, and the mainstream is drifting toward isolation and competition. There are people who have no one with whom to share their real feelings. So dreaming in circles is about choosing connection, choosing love, joining hands with one other, and then another, finding the people with whom we can cast our lot, those who are similarly looking to manifest ubuntu in our lives.

When we choose community, when we practice loving a particular group of people, we are letting the reality of the universe enter our hearts—we are learning how to experience the reality that we truly are all part of one another. Of course we don’t usually get it right. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to practice. We are not here to try to fix everything in order to create some sort of perfect circle—we are the circle right now, trying to wake up together. Every person is sacred, and we are all one circle. Stone Circle

Born to Belonging

Excluded, Photo by Juan Ferr Alvarez, Flickr Creative Commons

Excluded, Photo by Juan Ferr Alvarez, Flickr Creative Commons

Have you ever felt on the outside of the circle? When I was in third grade, I went to a new school in the middle of the year. It was a Catholic school and when I arrived everyone was in church waiting for morning Mass. I went into the church but I had no clue what to do next. Everyone seemed to be sitting in groups by classes, but I didn’t know where I belonged.

I tentatively edged down into one pew, but the child next to me said, “This is for fifth graders, you don’t belong here.” I tried to move to another spot without being noticed. Again, the child near me looked askance: “You’re not a sixth grader!” I moved to yet another pew, with similar results. I was scared and embarrassed and out of place: I had no way to know where to go. Finally, one of the teachers noticed me, and brought me to where the third graders were supposed to sit.

It was a minor incident, yet a frightening moment of dislocation for a small child. Because my family moved frequently when I was young, that dislocation repeated itself often, and I was left with an unsettled feeling in my heart. I was left with perennial questions: How do we know if we belong or if we do not? What must we do to belong? Perhaps it was those moments of dislocation that made me aware just how important community is.

Activist and writer Mab Segrest wrote about a South African word that describes this essential need for community: ubuntu. “Ubuntu translates as ‘born to belonging.’” Ubuntu expresses the African idea that our human dignity and fulfillment is dependent upon our links to each other in community.

In contrast, our modern American society bases itself on the idea of individualism. John Locke formulated a theory of society as a contractual type of relationship freely entered into by individuals. Locke proposed that in the original state of nature, all humans were free and autonomous individuals, and from that state, they agreed to give up certain aspects of their independence, for mutual benefit and protection.

Today, this individualistic understanding is endemic. But Mab Segrest challenges individualism, and she begins her argument with the experience of motherhood. She writes,

It was after watching Barbara give birth to our daughter, Annie, …that it occurred to me the degree to which this Original Individual was a ridiculously transparent …fiction. None of us start out as individuals, but as fusions of sperm and egg, embedded and growing in the mother’s body for nine months. For months after birth, our consciousness is still merged with its environment, and a sense of the particular and separate self emerges only gradually.2

We start out in relationship, and our unique individuality grows out of that circle of relatedness. Not the other way around. We all need each other in order to flourish and to thrive in life.

To give Locke and others their due—the philosophy of individualism was created in rebellion against the authoritarian structures of an earlier age, the tyranny of church and monarch. To affirm relationship is not to deny the importance of human dignity and freedom. But we must recognize that relatedness comes first, and within that circle of relatedness, we find our inherent worth and dignity.

Quotes from Mab Segrest, Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice, (Rutgers University Press, 2002) p. 2.