Several years ago, I was invited by a friend to attend a two-day workshop based on a program created by Scott Peck, the author of the well-known self-help book, The Road Less Traveled. This friend knew I was looking for ways to develop an active small group program in the congregation I was leading at the time. She was facilitator for a new organization, Foundation for Community Encouragement. This inspired group planned to lead community-building workshops all over the country based on a newer book Peck wrote in 1987, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. Although this book was never as popular as his earlier books, I believe it is still one of the best books ever written about building true or sacred community. I had already read the book when my friend invited me to attend the workshop. Since I had been impressed by it, I agreed to go.
Scott Peck died in 2005 but the body of his work continues to inspire people all over the world. Most of what Peck wrote about in this book came out of his experiences in leading and observing literally thousands of workshops based on The Road Less Traveled. That book, written nearly ten years earlier than The Different Drum, was still on the best seller list. It remained on that list for over two decades.
In The Different Drum, Peck argued that finding and fostering real community may be the only way the world—or at least her inhabitants—will survive the future. Peck believed there are certain identifiable characteristics of what he called a true community that distinguish it from what he called a pseudo-community. In true community he writes that you find a “group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to ‘rejoice together, mourn together and to delight in each other and make each other’s condition our own.’”
Peck wrote about the mystery of this kind of community comparing it with the mystery of electricity. “Like electricity,” he writes, “[community] is profoundly lawful. Yet there remains something about it that is inherently mysterious, miraculous… unfathomable.” (Chapter two)
In the second half of the book Peck identifies the laws or principles guiding what he understands are stages of spiritual development.
Pseudo-community: when everyone is just being nice to each other and pretending;
Chaos: when people realize they have not been honest, that they were pretending and everything blows up;
Emptiness: when we are willing to empty ourselves of our expectations, our prejudices, our need to control, our ideologies;
Community happens: when we are willing to remove our defenses and to be vulnerable; it happens when we practice open listening and begin practice a level of honest communication that is unfortunately rare.
According to Peck, every community must go through these stages to evolve into a true community or a sacred community. At the time Peck wrote this book he was avoiding any identification as a religious person although he had experienced a religious connection earlier in his life. As a result he attempted to avoid any religious connotations in the book. Yet I think he would have been comfortable with the term sacred communities.
So what do I mean by a sacred community or spiritual community, or as Peck would call it a true community? I refer here to an intentional community with an identifiable common purpose. Maybe that purpose is simple to grow spiritually as individuals. It is a community where one can transcend oneself and experience a sense of the interconnectedness of life. It is a community in which each member seeks to see and relate to the divine or the sacred in the other.
Felix Adler a Jewish philosopher once wrote,
“The unique personality which is the real life in me, I cannot gain unless I search for the real life, the spiritual quality, in others. I am myself spiritually dead unless I reach out to the fine quality dormant in others. For it is only with the god enthroned in the innermost shrine of the other, that the god hidden in me, will consent to appear.”
These communities do not necessarily have to be part of a religious body but it can help. For example, Christian communities have rituals and practices designed to remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, including those who have come before. The ritual can pull us into a connection of something much larger than ourselves or even the gathered group. Jesus was reported to have said when two or more are gathered in my name I will be there. We may be reminded that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses,” as the writer of Hebrews suggested.
I do recall participating in sacred community or true community outside of a church or even a religious setting. While I was in seminary, over thirty years ago, I spent one year in a special program working in the inner city along with eleven other interns. Each one of us worked in some kind of a social center, homeless shelter or in an ethnic minority urban church. Two participants were in churches that had outreach programs in neighborhoods few of us would drive through by choice. Our small group of twelve was made up primarily of white, upper middle class, highly educated folks who were largely ignorant about poverty, homelessness and inner city culture in general.
By the end of first week, most of us were sorry we had signed up for the program. We were certain we had made a mistake by the end of the third week. We were feeling isolated, lonely and lost. But we got together three times a week for debriefing and classes. The teaching professors came to our sites for classes. By the end of the year, however, not one of us was sorry we had made the decision to participate. For several years after seminary some of us would get together and recount our memories. We all agreed it was one of the most important, life changing experiences of our lives.
The thing we all remembered as the most important part of the experience was not only what we learned, but the unique nature of the community the twelve of us formed. It was a real introduction for me to experience such special communal relationships. By the end of the year, we had no secrets, no defenses and no agendas that kept us from openly and honestly communicating, caring, forgiving and even forgetting. If one of us was hurt we all cried. If one of us celebrated we all celebrated.
We laughed, we cried, and sometimes we fought like alley cats. But we never made decisions or took an action that did not take into consideration the best interest of the entire group. We were deeply connected. At one point I think I would have sacrificed just about anything for the others.
Scott Peck wrote about what can happen when we make this kind of commitment to the group and to each other. He writes “When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and the joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word…The word is glory.” Maybe that’s what the Psalmist was feeling when he wrote Psalm 133.
It seems Paul knew something about creating sacred communities and what it means to experience this kind of glory. I would guess a third of his writings are devoted to the formation and nurturing of these special kinds of communities. The idea that we are all part of one body, each part dependent on the other is an absolutely brilliant metaphor. In Romans Paul writes, “…all things work together for those who are called to purpose.”
Paul understood that all of parts of the body, of the community, were committed to a higher purpose. If they were going to be successful in their mission, they would have to lay aside their personal agendas, their bickering, their egos and work together toward the higher good.
The author of the Book of Acts suggests the members of the first Christian communities believed they could be extraordinarily generous with each other. These early followers of Jesus saw themselves as companions who could trust each other and share all they had. Maybe more importantly, they sincerely believed their community existed for a higher purpose. They believed these communities existed for something far more important than the needs of any individual. They did not wonder so much what they were going to get out of it but rather what they could give; they did not worry so much about who was in control, but rather about learning to give up control.
In his book, The Birth of Christianity, John Dominic Crossan explains that these new and growing “communities of resistance” as he calls them, were the very heart of the early Christian movement. According to Crossan, their communal living was a real thing. Maybe more importantly, it was a “calculated rejection and purposed replacement for the materialism and greed of Roman commercialization” of their society. It was, according to Crossan, one of the early church’s most important statements to the world.
I know this all sounds pretty idealistic and there are plenty of hints that things were not always peaceful, sweet, wonderful and loving. These communities of intentional God-consciousness, had their share of differences. But like a good marriage, the members found ways to work things out. Although there was conflict and even some pretty harsh conflicts at the time, most of these folks must have felt they were part of something special. They had made a commitment to hang in there through the agony and the joy. And because of that commitment, that trust, that vulnerability, I believe every once in a while many of them must have experienced the glory Scott Peck referred to.
Now let’s be clear. The vast majority of people will not experience that glory, nor will they experience such intimacy. It’s not because of lack of desire. But these kinds of relationships take time. They take energy. They take commitment. And they take risk. Probably most challenging, they require a willingness to look deeply within ourselves, questioning our true motivations, attitudes, desires and fears. In other words sacred relationships, or true intimacy, require a level of vulnerability few of us are willing to risk.
The idea of living as if we are one part of a whole is not a natural thing for most of us raised in our Western culture of rugged individualism. Where else in the world could a song be so everlasting popular as the famous Frank Sinatra hit, “I Did It My Way?” When we take an honest look at the way we design our busy lives, our need to acquire, our need to get ahead, or our need to be on top, we have to wonder where we are going to fit these kinds of things into our lives. Can we ever accept the idea of giving up control and working for a higher good? We are trained to be competitive, defensive, protective, and possessive. Vulnerability is not considered a highly regarded trait in our society.
On the other hand, we are talking about something that should be a natural way of being a human. At some level most people yearn for that kind of intimacy. Sadly, without experiencing this kind of intimate community in our lives, we are often separated from an experience of the Divine, from each other, and even from ourselves.
Sacred communities are just one form of sacred relationships. But in many ways they are the key to experiencing an intimacy that is a reflection of the Divine Spirit. They can provide the doorway into an experience of Sacred Unity or Oneness. They can offer an experience of Glory. But they take a commitment and an openness that does not come easily. However, it is still our choice.