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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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In circles of trust

Responses to art reveal deep feelings

Parker J. Palmer is a well-known Quaker writer whose work is widely read in religious and educational circles. His newest book is A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Jossey-Bass, 2004). It's a good book to read at the beginning of a new year.

Many people today feel painfully pulled between powerful forces. On the one hand are the external stresses of a job, a consumer culture and a world filled with violence. On the other are the often-submerged longings for self-understanding, for what truly constitutes our soul. Palmer explores a way for breaking down that division. He describes what he calls "circles of trust." These are intentional groupings of people who come together to help each other search for ways to integrate soul and world.

This isn't a "group therapy" approach. No one may try to "save" anyone else. Nor do circle members challenge one another or press anyone else to confront painful feelings. In fact, the principle is not the members' responses to one another. It is, rather, their respective responses to what Palmer calls "a third thing." This is usually a poem, some music or artwork that all contemplate together. The idea is to probe our feelings indirectly through the kinds of metaphors that art involves.

Palmer points out that when people gather in groups they often expect to learn from a leader, an expert or from other members. In contrast, circle members learn from themselves — from their "inner teacher." As a way of discovery, they are to note their responses to the "third thing," not the responses of others.

Circles of trust, Palmer says, offer a kind of community that most of us long for yet don't often find, including in our religious congregations. He writes that "churches ... ask members to affirm certain religious beliefs and the mission those beliefs imply. But rarely are churches intentional about naming ... the relational norms and practices that would support their beliefs and mission in the world." In this book, he offers a way of doing just this.


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