Closed Enclaves and Open Circles

I have written previously about ways we might work to heal the deep divisions in our society, our churches and religions, and our world. This blog is a further reflection on such healing.


I recently spent several days in the Colorado Rockies with a group of friends from our early days in the Marianists (a Catholic religious order of brothers and priests) It was a continuation of a similar meeting last summer in Burlington, VT. I wrote about our brotherhood earlier this summer after the unexpected death of our Burlington host who was to join us again this time.


Our days together were a wonderful mixture of serious discussion, good food and drink, and much relaxation and laughter. The broad focus of meandering discussion was the current state of our country, our church (Catholicism), and our world…and the great need for various forms of leadership and support to bring healing to ourselves and our world. What follows grows from that discussion.


Mental and spiritual health, whether for each of us or for our society and its institutions, can be described concretely as “a good taste of self and a good taste of the world” (William Lynch, SJ). It is far deeper than ideas and beliefs, and that depth is given with the crucial word “taste.” Healing our inner wounds and outer divisions involves development in such good tastes. And they are correllative and inseparable. An individual or a group cannot have a truly good taste of itself without a corresponding good taste of the world. Which, of course, is why walled off lives do not bring a good taste, whatever their luxury or ideology. Nor can we taste the goodness of the world (of daily life and of the larger world of God’s creation and human history) without a simultaneously good taste of our selves.


Yet the perennial human tendency in the face of pain and loss, crisis and conflict, is to withdraw in search of security. To withdraw into our personal or familial “inner sanctum.” To withdraw into walled compounds or encircled wagons. To make our family or church, our city or country, safe and secure by drawing and defending borders from the dangerous other.  And we must realize (and even be sympathetic with) how terribly seductive such walled enclosures are for all of us, given our limitations and weaknesses.


Such withdrawal is probably most evident these days in the immigration fears and walls growing throughout our world: in the appeal of Trump’s promised wall; in the complex pattern of apartheid enforced by Israel; in various European responses to refugees and immigrants (sadly typified by the Brexit vote); in Putin’s steady drive to redraw and strengthen Russia’s boundaries; in North Korea…in Syria…


But it is also evident much more locally. In the continuing class and racial segregation of neighborhoods throughout the US; in the growing separation of churches even within the same denominations; in our incresaingly “walled off” schools, clubs, golf courses…. And it is a response characteristic of so many of our personal lives, most evident in various forms of mental illness, but pervasive in the mental and spiritual illnesses from which (I do not hesitate to say) every one of us suffers.


The popular spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful and still available book called Reaching Out (1986). That title and his writing argues that mental and spiritual health demands a serious practice of “reaching out” to our better selves, to others, and to God. My mentor Lynch wrote a more complex book, Images of Hope (1965), which argues that real hope (not escapist fantasies) requires real help – real relationships, whether with another (a friend, a counsellor, a mentor) or with the world. It requires that we continually resist the temptation to withdraw into various forms of walled enclosures and live into those inclusive forms of human community which “reach out” to the other, the world, and to God (or the Good or whatever we believe to be the ultimate ground of trust).


If such reflections on the two possible directions we face (which Lynch says we always face throughout our lives) make sense, then the crucial question becomes how do we resist the withdrawal/flight temptation and grow into the inclusive human city? Of course, most of us are typically moving in both directions at the same time – withdrawing and opening, fearing and trusting – and the life-long challenge is over time to shift our habits and tendencies from withdrawal to openness. Or better put, to acknowledge that at times withdrawal is necessary, but to grow into an openness that makes even such withdrawal a resource for opening to the world.


During that recent “retreat” with my brothers in the mountains a recurring theme was that we all need, in the many sectors of our lives, forms of leadership which challenge us to such reaching out. And we all (as leaders in our different ways and forms) need circles of support and discernment which will nourish such reaching out.


Our retreat, our ongoing communications, our larger brotherhood – these are for me that kind of circle. And (Deo gratias) most of us are similarly blessed with a variety of such circles or communities. In our families, our networks of friends and colleagues, our congregations and clubs and workplaces (whatever their problems), probably even on our golf courses.


In Habits of the Heart (1985), their now classic study of “individualiism and commitment in American life,” sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues called for strengthening such circles. They described them as “communities of memory” – based on a shared practices and ideas about social good – and contrasted them with a growing pattern of “lifestyle enclaves” designed to help us close off from the rest, from the mess.


Several of my brothers have had very successful careers in corporate personnel work and management training. Thus our focus on leadership for the health of businesses and the broader society. One especially recommended a trending book on leadership, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges (2007), which makes a similarly fundamental distinction between what I have been calling walled enclaves and open circles. Another drew on Buddhist practice of meditative awareness for becoming present to self and other by ditching the fear-filled distractions of the “news.” And yes, he brought another book into our conversation: Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart (2008). Finally, we discussed the sharp contrast between two visions of our evolutionary future: one articulated in the currently provocative bestseller by Israeli historian Uval Harari, Homo Deus (2017), the other by ecotheologian Thomas Berry in books like his The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (1999). Harari’s (for me dismal) argument is that human consciousness will “develop” into an algorithmic future where we evolve into intelligent machines, where Berry find’s God’s spirit leading us into wider and deeper forms of relationship with nature and humanity.


OK, if you are still reading, you can see that my brothers read widely.  All were and remain teachers in various ways, and together we were what another brother (who couldn’t attend) called “a bunch of nerds.” I make no apologies. But neither is the crucial point here primaily a matter of reading and ideas.


All these references to books is just my shorthand way of suggesting that, despite all that is “breaking bad”  in our country and world, there are many thoughtful folks, in many different fields, calling attention to all that is “going good”  in theory but especially in actual practice – in the many circles of support which lead us to further engagement with the other, and thus to both a good taste of self and world.


We know this. You know this. Again, from your experiences of family and neighborhoods, associations and workplaces, clubs and cities. Sure, we typically are more aware of the inadequacies of such circles, or often try to turn them into closed enclaves of “just us.” We too have our gangs, and often depend on them. Yet our lives would be unlivable if even our gangs were not to some degree communities of support and outreach.


May even our greatest fears and suffering lead us, quickly or over time, into the embrace of those circles which will then lead us back into a world of good.






3 thoughts on “Closed Enclaves and Open Circles

  1. Enjoyed reading your blog, John. It is itself a heart-felt testimony of the necessary “outreach” you speak so well of as a means to healing. Circling the wagons is definitely not the answer to coping with the unhealthy encircling out there. However, it’s so overwhelming at times and we are so constantly surrounded by its nefarious impact that one can understand the tendency to withdraw. You and your determination to reach out are inspiring.


  2. Thank you, John. I like the image of “good taste” of our inner lives and the outer world and discovering the integration of these. Instead of closed circles, we can imagine and then seek out circles of dialogue with people who are different from us. At the intentional faith community called Pilgrim Place where I live in Claremont, CA, we have begun living room dialogues with the members of the local NAACP Pomona Valley chapter, a “Circle of Chairs” to address the impact of racism on our souls. The stories we share are rich and powerful and lead to some transforming actions, an example of engagement with the world that you are advocating.


  3. So many gifts in that group…. You are a blessing to each other just to meet and to share, to plumb the depths of your hearts and minds, and to walk with each other challenging each other as well as your own thoughts. The gift to listen and not be afraid of each other is worth everything. I suspect that when you went back to your homes, the conversation continued in your heads and hearts…thus this blog. Thank you!


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