Community does not descend down from heaven. We have to shape it right here on Earth.
We all crave belonging and a sense of community. We are not meant to be alone. We deserve both solitude and connection. These are not opposites as much as they are rhythms of our soul.
These days, I find myself thinking a lot about community — what it means, what it does to our hearts, and what happens to us when we live without it. I look around me and wonder how community is shaped, and missed.
As is so often the case, I go back to ancient mystical texts for wisdom and inspiration. This time I went back to an old Persian text, called the Rose Garden. The 13th century, Sa‘di’s Rose garden, is the masterpiece of Persian prose. For some 700 years in India, Central Asia, Iran, and beyond, the humanism of Sa‘di has been a mark of erudition and cultured civilization. In the text, the great poet Sa‘di talks about a person having gone to a public bath. There, someone brought that person a piece of clay from a beloved. The clay was ever so fragrant… like a rose.
The person begins a dialogue with the piece of clay. (Don’t freak out. In these genres of literature, people talk with inanimate objects all the time.)
Are you Musk? Or amber?
You scent is intoxicating!
The clay answers back:
I am just a humble piece of clay.
But for a day or two
I’ve kept the fellowship of roses.
It’s their companionship
that has had an impact on me.
Otherwise, I am just ordinary clay.
There is a pun in Persian about the word for “clay,” gel, and the word for “roses,” gol, being written using the same consonants. In Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, the clay refers, of course, to the earth/dust material that we as human beings are created from. We are cosmic dust, spinning and dancing away in space. What makes us become human is that the clay becomes suffused with spirit. In Sa‘di’s telling of the story, though, there is a less theological and more interpersonal turn. It is about fellowship, keeping the company of beautiful ones. Or, rather, the fellowship of the roses is what makes the spirit real.
Which brings me back to community, that perpetual quest for a sense of fellowship. We have The Fellowship of The Ring. So many churches promise, and perhaps deliver, fellowship. Ultimately what we all seek is a sense of fellowship. The Kingdom of God on Earth was not merely about saving an individual soul, but also about building a beloved community. Muhammad’s mission was also about revolutionizing society and building a “mother community” (umma) based on the bonds of faith. In Buddhism, we seek refuge not only in the dharma, but also in the Buddhist community, the sangha. Religion at its best has always been about linking together individual quest and communal fellowship. Fellowship reinforces teaching. We need each other.
Here is the mystery about community, about a sense of fellowship.
Community is about much more than one person entering a space, and then another person entering the space, and so on. Community is not merely a gathering of individuals coming together. Community is an almost alchemical reaction that happens among all that we are capable of being and becoming.
Each of us is like a musical symphony, made up of so many unsung notes. It is the encounters with our fellow human beings that determine what notes emerge from us. We have a say in the matter, we have so much say in the matter… but the beauty of our companions also has a say. The beauty of our fellowship has a say.
So many of us are starting to pay attention to what we put into our bodies. Good. Drink plenty of water. Avoid the food porn of fast food. Fill up on fruits and vegetables. Reduce or eliminate meats. All lovely. So many are taking care of our bodies through exercise, yoga, or similar ways of strengthening our bodies. Again, beautiful. We know that our bodies and souls mingle.
I wonder how many of us are equally purposeful about the fellowships that we keep. Of course, even Sa‘di points out that it is possible to learn from the rude and unrefined. But for those innermost companions of the heart, how lovely it would be to surround oneself with the fellowship of roses.
For my own sake, I realize a big change in how I approach my sense of fellowship. When I was younger, I used to judge the company I would keep based on the qualities those friends displayed. I sought friends who were kinder, gentler, more luminous than myself. Now, my focus has shifted a bit more inward. I am more focused on qualities that different fellowships bring out in me. Whose companionship makes me kinder, gentler, more aware of our interconnectedness. And, yes, there is more to us than merely having an inner goddess or reservoir of divine qualities. Some people also bring out my inner demon, my inner jerk. It is not always even about them; sometimes it is about the particular dynamic of my qualities and their qualities. This sense of remaining mindful — and heartful — of the impact of our community on our hearts calls for a more vigilant and careful inner inspection.
I am just a bit of clay, cosmic dust. I want to keep the company of roses, those beautiful human beings who bring out good and beautiful qualities in me and, with the grace of God, I can bring out in them. It is a sense of community that is a commitment to making goodness and beauty become real.
This sense of fellowship is one that I want to seek each and every day.
This community is heavenly, but it does not descend from heaven.
We have to seek it, work for it, and build it here and now.
This is all of us: spirit-filled, rose-scented cosmic dust seeking fellowship.