On Sacred Communities

For the last 18 months I have interviewed or have corresponded with people who are either leading a small group or are part of a small group that meets on a regular basis for community and spiritual direction. I plan to continue to do this with more groups and in more depth. My hope is that we can gain more information from a variety of groups to see what is working and what is not. Most of the information I gained from these interviews so far comes from groups who have been meeting on a regular basis for more than a year. In a couple of cases they have been meeting for over a decade. I am certain I will be revising my thoughts on some of this but I wanted to share what I have learned so far.

There seem to be two distinct types of groups forming out there. One is primarily educational. Everyone agrees to read a book or an article usually written by a well-known scholar. They may meet once a month and discuss what they learned. They may meet weekly, go chapter by chapter and discuss the ideas in more depth. They may read something as scholarly as John Dominic Crossan or something as new age as Eckhart Tolle. For these groups the emphasis is on education and the focus is about the particular books. Most of them are interested in the changes that scholars have made in the interpretation of the Christian story.

The other type of group tends to focus on spiritual experience. They may read a book, even a scholarly book on occasion. However, they tend to be more interested in an inspirational reading or if they do use a book, it is often a book on spiritual discipline or practices. The members of these groups are more interested in their own spiritual development so they often focus on practice. They tend to meet more often. They often include a simple meal and almost always make time for guided meditation or silence together.

In both cases true community can develop simply by being together as an intentional community as long as there is opportunity for open discussion and sharing. However, the groups that have formed for the explicit purpose of spiritual experience appear to deal with the challenges of sharing and openness. I believe they are both a necessary part of true or sacred community by definition. I refer here to the willingness to be vulnerable ultimately leading to greater intimacy and connectedness. That same willingness to be vulnerable allows us to see the divine or sacred in the other. And that can only happen when there is mutual trust among the participants. (See last month’s article.) http://progressivechr.wpengine.com/resources/community-making/

There is one other caveat. The groups primarily gathering for spiritual experience tend to meet more often and appear to have longer lives as a group. I will try and watch that data for future reporting.

There are things I was able to mine from the respondents that seem to be common to all the groups who consider themselves successful. I will list them briefly:

1. There needs to be some basic organization and some agreements about why you are there, what is your purpose and how will you settle differences. It is helpful to put these on paper and review them on a regular basis. It helps when someone new wants to join the group.

2. There has to be some system of leadership. This may not be an inspiring teacher or what might have been the agreed upon figure head. But it is the one who deals with the calendar, follows up with emails, and makes certain someone is going to have a plan for the evening. It may be the one who plans the meals. There has to be someone who makes certain things happen in an organized way. Sometimes someone must let the group know there is an issue that needs to be addressed.

3. All of the groups stating they were trying to create true or sacred community had some ritual. It may be a simple opening. “Let us all hold hands in silence before we start.” It may be the way they chose to close the gathering. I was told by two different respondents that when their leadership changed due to a move in one case and a death in another, they stopped doing their simple group rituals. Interestingly they both shared with me that it changed the group. One respondent said they did not feel as close. The other said it was hard to get their group to settle in and to become more focused.

4. Whenever possible, share a meal. I sincerely believe something changes in a small group dynamic when we break bread together. No one made this clearer than Jesus. Dom Crossan devoted an entire chapter in his in- depth book on the historical Jesus (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant) about the importance of the “Common Meal Tradition” to Jesus and his early followers. This is not just a nod to a tradition today. It is an exchange that can have a spiritual impact on the participants and a deepening of relationships.

5. Most of the groups agreed there should be a time to review how the group is doing and if any changes need to be made. After these groups had been around for a while this appeared to just happen naturally.

I suspect you may sense I have an affinity for the second kind of group and you would be right. It may be because I have participated in both types and am now part of a small group formed around spiritual practices. Our stated and agreed upon purpose is to develop sacred community and to truly open and loving relationships. We eat a simple meal and meditate together once a week. Most of us have been doing this for over seven years. We still feel blessed every time we are together. Yes, there have been issues over the years but we worked them out with love and compassion. We are careful before we invite new participants to make certain they have the same goals and purpose for being there.

We have become extremely close as a family. We know that when any one of us stumbles, when any one has a serious illness in the group, when there is a death in our group, we will become the compassionate family we have created. There will be real, loving support for whoever needs it. It is an amazing comfort, especially at this stage of life.

There is a lot going on in the religions of the world today. As a result there are all kinds of scholarship breakthroughs and new discoveries. They are interesting and even challenging for those who are still trying to hang onto the old religion of our past or are searching for some new way to understand their faith. I personally have an affinity for the Jesus I have come to know over the last 40 years. I spent many of those years, like a host of others, deconstructing the old story built around the concept that Jesus was the substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all humanity.

A couple of decades ago, it became clear to me that my need to focus on the deconstruction was over. I became far more interested in being a follower of the teacher I had come to know. I became engrossed in an attempt to define the teachings and the path Jesus left for us. I found it helps to lay those teachings next to the teachings of some of the other great teachers of history as well as some of our modern mystics and enlightened contemporary teachers. It was not so much that I wanted to find which one was correct or the best. I was interested in learning which teachings offer support to the others.

Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that if I wanted to learn just who Jesus really was, I had to intentionally practice his teachings to the best of my abilities. You see, I believe when practiced they can lead to a new awareness. Jesus might have called it being awake. It is a path that can lead to a clearer understanding of who we are and what we are not. It is learning in part to observe the observer of our life. It is seeing and experiencing the connectedness of all life. It is being awake. It is discovering that you are awareness.

We can talk all we want about how Christianity was changed in the Fourth Century, and about the many ways the Jesus story was twisted and turned to benefit the Empire. And yes, it is still used to benefit empire thinking. But sooner or later, if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he was teaching; if we want to know who Buddha was and what was he teaching; if we want to know who Sri Krishna was and what he was teaching, we will need to start practicing those teachings. I am afraid there are far too many people who would prefer to debate the scholarship and forget to practice the teachings. It is like studying the way a Steinway piano is built but never learning how to play it. As a former piano teacher once told me, “no one learns how to play the piano, no matter how great it is without practice, practice, practice.” In my personal opinion that is a lost opportunity.

So you might want to gather some friends together and ask them if they would like to form a group to study a path or paths that could lead to a new awareness; a new understanding of who and what they are. You might want to let them know you would like to learn how to play on the path…that you would really like to practice, practice, practice. You just might experience true community and in the process discover who you are.

Review & Commentary

  • Fred thank you for these thoughts on community. You might be interested in hearing about a third kind that we formed here in northern Virginia over a year ago and that is going strong called

    I too have been working at this for over 40 years inside and outside the traditional church. I preach now once a month at a small Episcopal church near Leesburg, and serve as a Companion at Our Lady of the Holy Cross Cistercian Abbey where I have a seat in choir and refectory and a room in the monastery.

    But the most important community in my life right now is followHim…simply put we come together once a month to try to learn from each other how to do just that… follow Him. I usually choose a topic and the topics are always something he told us to do directly… feed the poor, turn the other cheek, be servant etc. And our discussion only, and I repeat only, revolves around how we each personally try to do this. I remind our group we are invited to think selfishly when commenting–how does this effect me. We don’t discuss the great issues of the day in the world or the church, just this one topic and how we, as individual Christians, try to do what he told us to do.

    We also use what we now call the followHim method-I comment first to set the tone and then we go around the circle for comment from each member of fH. There is no cross talk and you may comment about another’s thoughts but you have to wait for your turn to come around the circle. This gives everyone time to talk (if they want) and keeps the discussion from being dominated by one person.

    What we have found out is we always get something for the journey from someone else, or the collective group, at a fH session. Always.

    We hold all the sessions here at my home, which I call The Hermitage. A small 1000 square foot former slave house, the cottage is perfect for our small group of about 15 to either sit around the fire or outside in the peace garden.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the importance of ritual, especially the meal. Our evenings start with a glass of wine at 4:30, then we pray Evening Prayer using the Book of Common Prayer, have our discussion, then share our meal, closing with Night Prayer from the Roman Catholic or other tradition. The regularity of the evening is important.

    Some of our membership say their fH community is their spiritual community. For me it has become a real, honest way to experience what the early church must have been like. And in our community we do take care of each other, and help when we can either physically or with prayer.

    All in all followHim offers small, intentional community with a very clear focus and answer to the question ‘if you say you’re a disciple, why don’t you do what he told you to do?’. And the focus helps us talk about and pray about something we can actually do.

    If anyone is interested into the model for followHim they are welcome to email for information at followhim@outlook.com

    Kurt Aschermann
    Founder of followHim

  • Bradford Bray

    Dear Fred,
    I could not disagree more with your present understanding of who Jesus was. I believe what fr. Berringan said, “if we want to follow Jesus, we better look good on wood.” It is clear to me that Jesus’ primary mission was to teach about God’s Kingdom (a political and religious community) here on earth and in our own souls. He did not come to establish a small group meditation center!!! He died because his teachings and his actions were a threat to the State authorities as well as the religious authorities. He did not die because he wanted people to experience whole-ness or be one with the universe. That kind of thinking would not have shown up on the Roman radar. To me, I see many “spiritual” pathways as a cop out to what is going on in the real world of communities under siege by present day Ceasars around the world. THAT is why Jesus was executed, as a political threat. Not for teaching love and spiritual one-ness. I believe these spiritual pathways are the privilege of the well to do, for the most part. Meanwhile, those who struggle to survive, the working poor and poor (again, whom Jesus advocated for) have no real advantage to participating in these spatula groups becaus, at the end of the day, they do not change anything about their suffering in the real world. In essence, at worse, it becomes another opium held out for the suffering masses. Jesus is known today becaus he was executed for being a political and religious trouble maker. I am convinced of that. As far as I am concerned, many spiritual practices is profoundly self-ish, elitist and, again, do little to nothing in making serious social and political change for those who are most vulnerable. Peace.

    • Carlos Allemand

      Your contribution helps us to see how people can have very different perspectives on Jesus’ life and ministry. And they are not necessarily exclusive one from the other. Perhaps He had a more rich and ample personality that sometimes one understands. However I cannot agree on your evaluation that the small group gathering have nothing to contribute to ‘those who struggle to survive, the working poor and poor (again, whom Jesus advocated for). It is in small groups that many of them have felt being listened to, have learned to express their feelings and real needs, have realized that they counted as persons, as individuals, that they were taken into account and together with others have made moves, provoke actions that have accomplished some political actions. There must be some good reason why Jesus started his movement with a small group… and small but very significant ‘revolutionary’ gestures or ‘political’ seeds….

  • Russell Smith

    Contrary to the preference of Fred Plumer, I can report on a Thursday Morning discussion group (informally referred to as The Heretics) that has been prospering for many years (15?) in spite of (and perhaps because of) the dearth of organization and of formalized spiritual ritual. Organization consists of a couple of meetings of a “committee of the whole” each year to plan the forthcoming months. Discussions are led by a rotation of (most of) the members, on subjects ranging from a new look at a part of the Bible (recently it was Philippians) to a current lecture by Marcus Borg or a new book by Karen Armstrong. Resources are searched out and circulated by the current “moderator.” Coffee and cookies appear. Most but not all the participants are members of the church where the group meets (a parish of the United Church of Canada.) The strength of the group comes from a spirit of intellectual honesty and tolerance.

  • Buck

    Fred, since you are interested in small, spiritual communities I drafted a description of one such group.

    In 1992 an announcement was made at church in for those interested in a short-term study on community. Eleven of us gathered using a series of readings to guide discussion. We decided to call the get together “K group” from the Greek word for community. The original agreement was to meet for 8 times every other Sunday evening from 7-8:30 p.m. Since many of us faced work on Monday mornings, we agreed not to go past 8:30 p.m. No food or drinks were expected. No cross talking was permitted to avoid debates. Each member was encouraged to speak without evaluation or reinterpretation by other members.

    We begin and end a meeting with a time of togetherness. It might be a prayer or a circle holding hands as each expresses his or her concerns and joys. Most meetings start with a “check in” so that we are up to date on the events and changes in our lives. There is no leader. We hold meetings on a somewhat revolving process in our homes. The host plans and presents the evening’s focus.

    We’ve read books, shared articles, spent entire meetings providing support for members in distress, gone on weekend retreats, walked labyrinths, funded special needs in the wider world, met for dinners on occasions and celebrated and mourned important passages in our lives. We experienced the addition of one member, the new wife of #11, and the loss of two members who were forced to move due to employment. We’ve faced together health problems, career challenges and the deaths of parents, children and friends.

    I would not have known these folks as family without that initial invitation at church. We’ve become dedicated to one another. Our spiritual and intellectual lives have been deepened and challenged. Each of us has been changed by the love, support, caring and sharing.

  • Dear Fred,
    I find it easy to respond to an article when I totally agree. Can I just say I totally agree with what you shared on sacred community building, and especially the part about out-growing the need to only demythologize and the value of walking the walk, i.e. engaging spiritual practice together in community. This has been life giving to me personally and to many in our ecumenical School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net). I am amazed by how many people keep coming together from around our region to share contemplative practice and what this means to us, including some weekly readings on this lifestyle.
    Because I was so moved by this shared life I published a book with Wipf & Stock this year called Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture. This is a spiritual memoir about exactly what you are writing here – the gifts of finding a sacred community. Feel free to check it out and pass it on as a resource for creating contemplative community.
    Blessings on your own unfolding journey and your ministry.