Saturday, 28 June 2014

Circles on my mind

I woke on Monday morning with circles on my mind. I am not entirely sure why, but they were there. Perhaps it had something to do with reaching and passing the mid - point of the year and acknowledging that the day light hours would now be shortening. Maybe it was images of a group of Unitarian young adults attending Stone Henge to mark and celebrate the summer Solstice. Maybe it was influenced by the World Cup and the nations of the world coming together in celebration of “The Beautiful Game”. Perhaps it was that image of the spherical football that had sown a circle seed. Or maybe that thought was actually the flowering of a seed that had been planted a few weeks previously when I attended a talk given by Rev Dr Ann Peart on “How We See The World”, which looked specifically at maps and their meaning throughout history.

I know that this probably sounds a little strange but I have noticed that circles and spheres have been cropping up in conversations everywhere. I have heard talk of circles in the physical circles I move in, as well as the social media ones too. I have lost count of the number of times, in recent weeks, I have heard the phrase “circles of friends” and how society is made up of many over-lapping circles. I wonder how many times such phrases have been uttered by my own lips. I heard it several times as I chatted with friends over coffee on Tuesday morning and within a friendship circle I am part of on Monday evening. Now is this because these things are on my mind that I have been hearing them, or is it because I keep hearing of circles and that this is why they are on my mind? Well who knows? Certainly not I.

I woke up on Monday morning wondering if human lives are made up of circles; I woke up on Monday morning wondering if all human life is made up of circles. Circles that are ever widening or ever decreasing.

The great nineteenth century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson held this view, he often spoke of circles. His essay titled “Circles” opened with the following words:

“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

(You can hear the whole essay by clicking here)

Emerson was suggesting that all life is a series of ever expanding circles; circles ever reaching out and encompassing more and more, as more is revealed. I think I agree with Ralph Waldo, certainly when I look at my life it is built on many circles, that are forever reaching out.

Now I am sure that there are many who will say that there must be a limit to these circles and that life on this sphere the earth is one of them. Well while that was once the case it is no longer true, we can after all blast off into space and so the circles of physical limit seem to be ever expanding too. As they say the universe is ever expanding.

Now when Emerson spoke of these ever increasing circles he was not talking of merely physical ones, he saw this same limitlessness with regard to truth and understanding too. He saw God similarly also. He saw the Divine as being beyond the circumference of these ever expand circles, but he also saw God at the core, the centre of the circle. This kind of Panentheism is something I have great deal of sympathy with. It makes sense to me, the idea that God somehow circles all life; the view that God is somehow more than all that is and yet is also at the core of life and truth; God is greater than all and yet at the core of everything.

So yes it seems that life is made up of circles and perhaps it has always been thus.

The circle is a central symbol of many of humanities religious traditions. It is often depicted as representing the sun, the moon, the door through which we are born and the human eye, I hear Emerson echoing these thoughts in his essay. As the circle has neither a beginning or end it is often seen as representing God’s love which is considered both perfect and eternal. This is why the circle is the symbol of the wedding ring, when two souls bind themselves to each other.

One example is the symbol of eternity and perfection, Ouroboros (Greek for tail swallower), which can be found in the Transylvanian Unitarian crest. This image of a snake swallowing its own tail symbolises infinity, re-birth and eternity and can be found in many other cultures throughout human history.

In many cultures the circle becomes a wheel. In Buddhism you will find “The Wheel of Dharma”, which with its eight spokes represents the “eight fold path”, which keeps rolling on to eternity. Other examples include the native American medicine wheel or Celtic wheel which with its four spokes stands for the four compass points, the four elements, the four times of the day, the four phases of the moon and the four seasons. Both were originally formed from stone circles and depict how everything in the universe is tied together, how even separate things move as one and are centred around the Sun, the giver of life, God. Here humanity is also placed at the centre at one with the Divine, the Great Spirit. Other examples can be found in Pagan and earth centred traditions. In Hinduism Shiva is depicted as dancing in a circle of flames, which represents the “Cycle of time with no beginning and no end. All these examples and many others appear to depict the circle as representing the inter-relatedness of everything.

Throughout human history the circle has appeared and re-appeared over and over again. It usually relates to the concepts of eternity, infinity, re-birth and perfection, with the Divine at is core and yet also somehow beyond the circumference.

Now while the centre is ever present the circumference is not, it is ever expanding. I believe that if we wish to remain in harmony with the core then we need to continue to expand with it. If we allow ourselves to be inspired by the centre we will forever be expanding the circumference. This is beautifully illustrated in the poem "Outwitted" which is the middle section of “Epigrams” by Edwin Markham.


He drew a circle that shut me out--

Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

There is something here that speaks to me about what true religion ought to be about; true religion ought to be about ever widening those circles so that all are included within God’s Love. Love is there at the core ever empowering us to widen the circle so as to include all. Sadly too often religion fails to do this as it draws its circles to exclude so many for a variety of reasons.

This is not to say that the exclusion is limited to religion, no you will find this occurring in all aspects of human society. If we look at our own lives surely we will see our own personal circle, our family circle, our community circle, our political circle, our social circle, moving ever onwards. Now while each circle includes ever more people, while doing so it also excludes many others too.

You know it came to me while I was wrestling with the sermon that this "blogspot" was created from, why circles are on my mind. The reason is that I am seeing division all around me. It seems that we are once again seeing the circles being sealed. Lines seem to be increasingly drawn in society. Suspicions of those outside our circles are growing and as a result there seems to be less trust. This cannot be a good thing. It is happening within nations and between nations; it is happening within cultures and between cultures; it is happening within the faith traditions and between the faith traditions, as well as those who wish to see an end to faith. It is happening within ourselves too. I often wonder if we are expanding our circles of experience and understanding or whether are we are in actual fact retreating into what we think we know.

So what can we do? Well I believe we can do much. Where does it begin? Well I believe it begins in our own hearts and souls, in our own homes and in our own communities. We need to begin to expand our own circles. How do we do this? Well I believe that we need to reach deep within ourselves to the ultimate source of love and in doing so we can begin to reach beyond our own human created limits and begin to ever widen our circles. It begins by seeing where and how we exclude ourselves and others from our circles. Now of course this will not stop others from limiting their circles but then that should not matter if we expand our circles of love to include all, even those who wish to keep others out.

Now this is no easy task, of course it is not. That said I believe that it is one that is worth undertaking. I believe it is the challenge of our age. I believe that maybe it is the task and the challenge of my own open faith tradition. I believe that it is our task to ever widen our circle so as include all, for there can be no limit to love. This begins by putting love at the core of the circle and to understand that if we see love as the circumference we will see there is no limit, for no one can be excluded from love. For if they are, it is not love.

For love is eternal and love is perfect and love knows no limits.

I would like to end this little blogspot with the following beautiful words by the Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Belletini entitled “Communion Circle”. Please read and then spend a few moments in silence before listening the song that follows...

So I ask you to please still yourselves in meditative silence…

The earth.

One planet.

Round, global,

so that when you trace its shape

with your finger,

you end up where you started. It’s one. It’s whole.

All the dotted lines we draw on our maps

of this globe are just that, dotted lines.

They smear easily.

Oceans can be crossed.

Mountains can be crossed.

Even the desert can be crossed.

The grain that grows on one side of the border

tastes just as good as the grain on the other side.

Moreover, bread made from rice is just as nourishing

to body and spirit as bread made from corn,

or spelt or teff or wheat or barley.

There is no superior land, no chosen site,

no divine destiny falling on any one nation

who draws those dotted lines just so.

There is only one earth we all share,

we, the living, with all else that lives

and does not live. Virus, granite, wave,

city, cornfield, prophet, beggar, child,

slum, tower, mine, robin, eel, grandfather,

rose, olive branch, bayonet, and this poem

and moment are all within the circle,

undivided by dotted lines or final certainties.


everything, for good or ill,

is part of the shared whole:

sky, earth, song, words and now, this silence.

"The Beautiful Game"

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