Re-Gathering the Light
by Theresa Scherf
There is a creation story left to us by Rabbi Isaac Luria, a Jewish mystic who lived in the sixteenth century. According to this story, in the beginning there existed pure Being, the Source of everything that would be created. Infinite and absolute, this Source of all that would be did not at first have any Self-manifestation. Creation occurred when from this pure Being there came an emanation of light.
But something unexpected happened. The container holding the Source of pure Being was broken open, and fragments of the light of God were scattered throughout the universe. Countless holy sparks of light became hidden deep within everything and everyone that was.
The purpose of human life, according to this story, is to uncover these holy sparks of light and help to release them from the containers that hold them. Thus, in a kind of reversal of the original breaking open and scattering of the light, all the sparks will become gathered back together into one light.
This holy work of repairing and restoring creation, Tikkun Olam, is a collective undertaking in which everyone shares. It happens through acts of love and compassion that create and sustain the kind of community among people that allows them to become open and transparent to the light within them.
The writings of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are striking in the degree to which they emphasize the formation of community as central to God’s purpose and plan for creation. In the Hebrew scriptures, God gradually brings into being a ‘covenant community’—a body of people who recognize God’s presence and guidance in their lives, God’s ‘saving (or healing) love,’ and promise together to be ‘God’s people.’ Being God’s people meant that they would worship God alone, imitate God in the living of their lives, and join in God’s work of forming community—community based on compassionate love and manifested in relationships of peace and justice.
This shared commitment and purpose was repeatedly lost sight of. It was frequently more a vision to be looked toward and ‘lived into’ than a present reality. But prophets and poets, often risking much, continued to remind the people of God’s calling and purpose for them. They did this most especially by drawing attention to those at the margins of their society—the poor, the enslaved, the widowed and orphaned, the stranger or foreigner—and making the community’s treatment of these the measure of their faithfulness to God.
The book of Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to renew creation in such a way that everyone will share a common joy and well-being living together in safety and abundance, ‘enjoying the work of their hands,’ in a community that includes all living creatures (65:17ff.). This work of re-creation involves the internalizing of the community’s covenant relationship with God, so that God’s will and way are ‘written in the heart’ of each one, and God’s Spirit and its gifts are poured out upon and manifested through all alike (Jer. 31:31-34; Joel 2:28f.).
The Christian movement expanded this development. It came to see that the whole world was called to this kind of community. Almost the first thing Jesus did in beginning his ministry was to gather around him a group of men and women who were drawn to and prepared to live out a particular vision of what that meant in daily life. It included sharing together in prayer and worship, ‘proclaiming good news to the poor,’ healing those who were physically and emotionally ill, seeking out and extending community to the least, the lost, the lonely.
The Christian church communities that began to emerge after Jesus’ death were meant to be extensions of this. Each was to be a microcosm, in a particular time and place, of the whole community into which God is gathering all creation, living that out in such a way that others might see and wish to share in it. They were partners with God in the work of renewing creation. In the words of the writer of the book of Ephesians, “[God’s] plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth…” (1:10).
For both the Jewish and the Judeo-Christian traditions, the dual commandment to love God with all one’s being and one’s neighbor as oneself stands at the heart of the life of the individual-in-community. Many have suggested that a right understanding of the second part of the Love Commandment involves coming to see the other, all others, as if they are one’s self, as inextricably connected with one’s own being and life. There has been a growing perception across cultural and religious lines that all creation truly is ‘one’ and that what happens to ‘the very least of these’ happens also in some way to oneself.
There is, however, a very strong countervailing force that acts to undermine community, to keep hidden or further fragment the light of oneness in God. This is expressed in a rather striking way through the words of the Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, written over a hundred years ago:
Look at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself… They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom,… but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest of men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them”…. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder… (Bk.IV).
Robert Bellah focuses on the institutional dimensions of this: “The greatest threat to our genuine human happiness, to real community, and to the creation of a good society comes not only from a state whose power becomes too coercive…but from market forces that become too coercive, that invade our private and group lives and tempt us to a shallow competitive individualism that undermines all our connections to other people…” He adds: “We need to probe more deeply what freedom really means” (“The Role of the Church in a Changing Society,” Crosscurrents in Theology and Mission, 1990).
While for many in other parts of the world, ‘freedom’ means access to basic rights and means of livelihood/well-being, for most of us living in western society today it has become a slogan, a euphemism, for unrestrained self-aggrandizement, most especially at the material level. It is a caricature with many faces manipulated by corporate greed to justify and support spiraling consumerism and competitive acquisition—and anesthetizing addictions, including much of contemporary television programming and other forms of ‘entertain-ment,’ when these fail to satisfy. ‘Freedom’ in this guise is antithetical to community and to the life of the spirit in which community is rooted.
When we allow ourselves to be co-opted by these largely economy-based forces, we find ourselves increasingly dissociated. ‘Com-munity’ becomes a construct based upon polarizations—we/they, who is ‘in’ or ‘out,’ haves vs. have-nots. It is derived from shared agendas and diversions rather than from shared humanity. Ultimately this kind of community isolates and divides—to the extent that the only community some are able to experience is in conversations with their psychotherapist.
It is not simply that real community is less attainable because our society is more rapidly changing, mobile, and culturally diverse than it used to be, but that so many of our institutions (whether intentionally or not) promote processes and values that are destructive of community.
A vivid example of this appeared in a Lexington Herald-Leader article several years ago featuring an award-winning elementary school teacher:
“If you walk with a lame man”, [the teacher] said,
and the class chanted back, “you will learn to limp.”
“I don’t have any lame people in my life”, she told them.
Commented one of the students:
“She’s getting us prepared for our future so we don’t have
Life in community, true community, means precisely ‘walking with the lame’—as with all the weakest and most marginalized in society—and teaching our children to do so. It means learning compassion, kindness, supportiveness, self-giving. To do anything else is, in the words of Vaclav Havel, to become ‘morally ill.’
I think that one of the reasons we tend to resist relating to those who are weak or less fortunate is a reluctance to confront and befriend the weak places within our self. If we ‘walk with the lame,’ we may have to slow down and encounter our self as well as others on new terms, in new ways.
Many people, among them Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped adults, have suggested that almost all of us, in fact, have an inner wound. And just as our visible wounds and weaknesses separate us from one another, these inner wounds alienate us at a deeper level from our self. Perhaps our avoidance and rejection of ‘the lame,’ without and within, is one of the greatest sources of our failure at community.
Some years ago, while visiting a New England college campus as guest lecturer, Margaret Meade was asked by one of the students what she believed the earliest sign or indicator of civilization was. “A healed femur,” she immediately replied. When human burial remains are found to contain a leg bone that has been broken and then healed, she explained, it shows that others were willing to care for and protect that person—who would otherwise have been helpless—until the injury had mended.
It is the willingness to help and care for one another, according to Dr. Meade, that makes a culture ‘civilized.’ That is also what transforms culture into community.
‘Regathering the light’ is not about the survival of the fittest. It is about the survival of everybody. It is the recognition that the purpose for our life individually will never be realized until and unless it is realized for all of us together. The way of Jesus’ life and shining of his light offer a paradigm for this.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… (Phil.2:4-7).
In his book The Different Drum, Scott Peck identifies four stages of community-making not unlike what are often cited as the four stages of marriage. In the first stage, that of pseudo-community, members of a group assume or pretend that they are really basically alike, sharing the same views and values. In order to move beyond this, they must go deeper and enter into a second and more uncomfortable stage where they encounter their differences—and begin to try to change or control one another as a result.
After this, if they are willing to persevere, there comes a third stage of what feels like emptiness or self-emptying. Here, accepting the reality of their differences, community members begin to grow in humility toward one another and in respect and appreciation for their differences. Only then is the final stage of true community achieved, bringing with it the experience of peace and deep joy.
There is a way in which, even in community, the other must remain ‘other.’ For we are never fully known to one another, never have exactly the same thoughts and feelings and frames of reference. Real community involves the willingness to accept and honor the mystery in one another.
Perhaps it is only in reaching this point in our experience of community that we really become capable of being transparent to the ‘holy spark of light’ that is within us. Then, through our mutual transparency, the gathered light of the community we have found together will shine out into the world with a great brightness and help to heal it.