This week’s book – well, one of them – was The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. It was written pre-pandemic, when gathering was something we could take for granted. We know better now. So it was really interesting to explore the art of gathering at a time when usual gatherings are suspended. Every gathering has within in an often unspoken social contract which is as much a relational expectation as it is transactional. As a host there are certain behaviours and actions that your guests may reasonably expect from you, and as a guest there are certain behaviours and actions that your host can reasonably expect of you. Our difficulties often come when our expectations of each other don’t match up, or we fail to meet the shared expectations of our roles. Guests turn up late. Hosts fail to make us feel welcome. That kind of thing. The reality is that we are rarely explicit about our expectations of each other and we can often miss, misinterpret or ignore the subtle (or not so) clues that prime us for how we are to participate in the gathering.
We are social beings, but we often don’t give our conscious, careful attention to how we are together, or indeed, why.
Also, I wonder how much thought you have ever given to what happens when you, individual that you are, moving through your life holding your values and goals, thinking your thoughts and performing your actions, move into a space of ‘we’ and form a shared life and identity with group values and goals, beliefs and actions that are ‘ours’. There is a dynamic of merging – albeit imperfectly – with a larger reality, becoming part of something greater than myself and connecting, finding a sense of belonging. There is symbiosis here. As Rudyard Kipling puts it in Jungle Book: the strength of the pack is in the wolf and the strength of the wolf is in the pack. We can be better together. We can enrich each other by our difference, learning from each other, recognising how we complement each other and, through engaging with the heat – the push and pull of the friction of differences – with respect and the intention that all are understood, we grow together.
This is more likely to happen for a football team than for a faith community, however, or even a family. A single purpose – win this game – is far easier to orient around than the multiple purposes (often unspoken) and needs (again) of each member of a family or faith community. When we make harmony and similitude our highest values we avoid, ignore or cool the heat of friction and we miss the chance to understand and be understood. We miss the chance to change and grow, to listen and be listened to.
Pause to reflect: what has my experience been of a good gathering and what were the elements that contributed to make it so?
As I reflect on how we gather and why, I see lots of interesting connections with Richard Rohr’s idea of the cosmic egg with three layers of significance – my story (me); our story (we); The Story (every thing). He explores the significance of each of these for spiritual growth and awareness in this podcast, which is well worth a listen while you wash the dishes or whatever.
I also see connections with the gospel reading for this Sunday which is John’s telling of Jesus clearing the outer courts of the Temple. Priya points out some important elements of how we gather that have relevance here. Firstly, that the space where we meet does most (85%) of the work of setting the tone with regards the expectations of host and guest and behaviours that are welcome in that space. And she observes that a ritualised gathering often becomes a routine gathering. We become emotionally attached to the form of the thing and so we resist adapting or changing it long after it stops accurately reflecting the values or beliefs, the hopes and purpose of the participants. The form in and of itself becomes comforting and confers a sense of belonging – but only to those already attached to it. This is true for board meetings as well as church services.
Pause to reflect: what resonates or rises as I consider the space and form of a ritualised or routine gathering?
And one more thing. When we gather we have the potential to become a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – for good or for ill. When we gather it is easier for us to get stuff done, to influence, to overcome obstacles, to be and feel effective. In a faith community we want to harness that power for a good cause, in service to others and for liberation, healing and justice. All well and good. But. What if, in the fifty hearts that gather there are fifty different callings, fifty different passions and particular connections, relationships, sparks of possibility for fifty different ways that Love longs to be made manifest – and we unite for one idea, one vision, one big-ish impact? Does that sound like the Kingdom of God?
Pause to reflect: what is mine to do? How might a gathering support, encourage and resource me in doing what is mine to do?
A teaching story
This one comes from Turkey: One day the Teacher was invited to a banquet at the home of the most important man in the town. All day as he worked in his vineyard, the Teacher thought with relish of the fine food and the good conversation ahead of him.
But, alas, he had misjudged his day’s work, and he arrived home with too little time to dress for such a grand occasion. It was either not wash and dress, or be late for dinner, and he felt he must on no account be late for dinner, so off he went in his workaday dress and with the marks of his day’s toil upon his hands and face.
When he arrived at his host’s house, the rest of the guests had already come, and conversations buzzed around the room. Curiously enough, no one asked the Teacher’s opinion on any matter, though at other banquets he had been the one most solicited for comment and advice. Quietly, the neglected guest excused himself from the group and hurried home. There he scrubbed himself clean, attired himself handsomely and finally he slipped into his new fur coat, by far the most striking garment in the whole town. At last he was ready.
With his head held high, the Teacher presented himself again at the door. Every eye was upon him as the servants admitted him to the house. Rising immediately, the host came to greet him and led him straight to the place of honour.
When the first course was served, breads and oil, hummus and olives, the teacher helped himself to everything and stuffed the food into the generous pockets of his new coat. ‘Eat, my fine coat, I hope you enjoy these!’ He said each time he tucked another handful of food into the pockets. Everyone was astonished and the other guests looked a little uncomfortable at his odd behaviour. The next course that came out was soup. The teacher picked up his bowl and poured the contents into the coat pockets. This was too much. ‘What are you doing? Are you mad?’ protested the host.
‘Why, whatever is wrong? I am but feeding the guest you invited to this dinner. When I came the first time this evening, you gave me no notice at all. When I came the second time, you treated me as the guest of honour. I have not changed; Therefore it must be that the coat is the one you are honouring and so it is my coat who should receive your hospitality – and the food.’
Questions for the teaching story
- What’s your immediate reaction to the story? Re-read it aloud and see if you have a different reaction to it.
- How do you ‘hear’ the story? with your mind (understanding), your body (feeling/sensation), or your heart (soul/spiritual meaning).
- What questions does the story ask or answer?
- Where do you find yourself in the story? How does it feel to be in those shoes?
- Does this story prompt you to do something? Does it have some kind of ‘therefore….’ for you?
- What does this story tell you about you?
Awareness is the spiritual practice to bring your hidden agenda for gathering into view. The hidden agenda may well be totally worthy, it is only the fact that it is submerged that can result in feelings of frustration when your unconscious and unspoken purpose is thwarted by others. Given the restricted movements of the times, almost all our gatherings are smaller or online, but really, when two or three gather – well, that’s a gathering. There are expectations. So what are yours? Pick one or two meetings that you will participate in this week and see what expectations you can surface about them. Zoom out your focus and drill deeper as you think about this, asking why is that important or why do I expect this? See if you can identify the values that underpin your purpose in gathering and how those will be honoured and embodied. And include checking in with your body sensations – where do you feel those expectations? Tightness in the throat; butterflies in the stomach; warmth in the chest; slight frowny headache? Once you have surfaced everything you can find, see if you engage differently in preparation for the meeting – does your energy shift? Is there something you want to say or do? Remember compassion for self and others as you do this.
The welcome prayer
This is a practice that seeks to bring the same letting go intention of centering prayer into daily living, and it offers a similar kind of challenge as the tonglen practice from last time because the practice tells us: welcome everything. Or as Douglas Adams put it: Resistance is useless. But welcome everything is probably more helpful. There’s a three-fold letting go in the welcome prayer and these are connected to the earliest survival instincts that cause us to grasp for security, cling to affection and a attempt to control life.
So the practice begins as you bring your surrendered awareness (letting go whatever arises) from the centering prayer seat and into your day. You begin to be aware of your reactions to circumstances, to news, to others, to thoughts and self-talk and in the pause between stimulus and reaction, you identify what you are feeling and offer welcome. No matter what and without judgement. Welcome, welcome. Welcome irritation. Welcome denial. Welcome anticipation. Welcome hunger. Try to name accurately (you might find the chart from last post helpful) And then: I let go my grasping for security; I let go my clinging to affection; I let go my attempts to control.
Note: The web of love and belonging is holding you – you don’t need to grasp. The web of love and belonging is holding you – you don’t need to cling. The web of love and belonging is holding you -you can trust.
This is a practice that welcomes impermanence, surfacing expectations and inviting you to host your creativity with generosity. Make something that can’t last, that isn’t meant to last, but make something meaningful, something significant. Make with passion and energy. Make a mess! Throw yourself into it. And then let it go. Or smash it on purpose. And as you do, notice, notice, notice….how does that feel? What is hard about it? What is a delight? What is the conversation in your head telling you about your art, your worth, your time and energy? Whether it is worth even trying this practice?