Five years after leaving Berkeley, I found myself sitting in circles again. This time it was at Pendle Hill, a Quaker living-Learning community near Philadelphia, where I spent eleven years starting in the mid-1970s. But these circles, I soon discovered, were of a different sort. They were not heady, aggressive, self-congratulatory, or manipulative. They were gentle, respectful, and reverent in the way they honored self and world, and slowly they changed my life.

In these quiet Quaker circles, people were doing neither the amateur psychotherapy nor the faux politics that I had experienced in Berkeley Instead, they were doing therapy and politics rightly understood: reaching in toward their own wholeness, reaching out toward the world’s needs, and trying to live their lives at the intersection of the two.

In these quiet Quaker circles, I saw people challenged, but I never saw anyone harmed. I witnessed more personal transformations than I had seen before, and I watched more people embrace their social responsibilities as well. That was when I started to understand why Quakers, who have always been few in number, have often been overrepresented in the great social issues of their time.

The circles of trust I experienced at Pendle Hill are a rare form of community–one that supports rather than supplants the individual quest for integrity-that is rooted in two basic beliefs. First, we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader. Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice for at least three reasons:

  • The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo: lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road.
  • The path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company: finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue.
  • The destination is too daunting to be achieved alone: we need community to find the courage to venture into the alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.I want to dwell for a moment on that little word discern, which means “distinguish between things.” I think again of C. S. Lewis’s tales of Narnia, that land of inwardness the children enter through the back of the magical wardrobe. There is much in Narnia that is good and beautiful, especially the voice of truth-the voice of Asian. the great lion-that is sometimes heard in the land. But there are other voices in Narnia as well, voices of temptation, deception, darkness, and evil. It takes four children, a variety of guides, and seven volumes of pitfalls and perils to sift through this mix of messages and travel toward the truth.Occasionally, I hear people say, “The world is such a confusing place that I can find clarity only by going within.” Well I, for one, find it at least as confusing “in here” as it is “out there”–usually more so!-and I think most people do. If we get lost in New York City, we can buy a map, ask a local, or find a cabbie who knows the way. The only guidance we can get on the inner journey comes through relationships in which others help us discern our leadings.But the kind of community I learned about at Pendle Hill does not presume to do that discernment for us, as communities sometimes do: “You tell us your version of truth, and we will tell you whether you are right or wrong!” Instead, a circle of trust holds us in a space where we can make our own discernments, in our own way and time, in the encouraging and challenging presence of other people.

The man from Agriculture went on retreat with peers who doubtless could have offered him seasoned counsel about his dilemma. But at this moment on his journey-a moment when it was critical that he take his own soul seriously-he needed people who were willing to abstain from giving advice. He needed people who knew how to invite his soul to speak and allow him to listen.

Blessedly, the people he sat with, guided by the principles and practices that shape a circle of trust, never tried to “set him straight.” Instead, they created a communal space around him where he could distinguish the inner voice of truth from the inner voice of fear. And as he spoke the truth he heard from within, these people bore witness to his self-discovery, sharpening his sense of self and strengthening his resolve to follow the inner teacher.

Here is another story about what can happen when a community welcomes the soul. In a circle I hosted, there was a good man who had been wounded by racism. In the course of our three-day retreat, he spoke only once or twice. Most of the time he sat in silence-his face, it seemed to me, a mask of sorrow. Because he was an African American in a predominantly white group, I feared not only that he was in pain but that we were in some way causing it.

For three days, I worried that this man felt like an outsider even here, in a circle that was supposed to be safe. But following the ground rules of this form of community, neither I nor anyone else tried to “fix” him. Instead, we held him and his soul in a quiet and respectful way-though it took a mighty act of will to keep from offering him consolation.

On the last morning of our retreat, I got up early. Sitting in the common room with a cup of coffee, I picked up the journal that the retreat center’s staff had left there for guests to comment on their experience. On the last page, I found these words, written in a bold scrawl, signed by the man about whom I was so worried.

Thank you for helping to deal with some of my anger. Life is too short to walk a path filled with spurs. I am not completely healed, but the process has begun. I want to give back the love and caring that was given to me. This retreat made me deal with my ghost!! Georgia/Nam/TX were all my pits. Now that the healing has started, I feel strong and for the first time capable of feeling some sense of peace.

Reading those words, I realized that for the past three days, this man had been talking with his inner teacher, going much deeper in that dialogue than he could have by talking with us. Once again I felt profoundly grateful for the circles I first experienced at Pendle Hill–grateful for what they taught me about the reality and power of the soul, about a way of being together that allows the soul to make a claim on our lives, and about the miracles that can happen when we do.

If we want to renew ourselves and our world, we need more and more circles of this sort, where people who work in a large corporation can acknowledge the secret hidden in plain sight; where a conflicted farmer-turned-bureaucrat can remember that he reports to the land; where a person wounded by racism can take a step toward healing. We need more and more circles from which we can return to the world less divided and more connected to our own souls.

The circles described in this chapter ranged from ten to thirty people. But a circle of trust is not defined by numbers; it is defined by the nature of the space it creates between us. Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley College, a leader whose integrity I deeply admire, has written about the small-scale “circles” she convenes to maintain her sense of wholeness in a complex and stressful job: “I…come together…with people who bring out my better self, friends with whom I can be…authentic…. I make it a point to connect, whenever possible, with [people] with whom I have a history of shared joy and shared forth in me this feeling of safety.”

A circle of trust can form wherever two or three are gathered–as long those two or three know how to create and protect a space for the soul.

~ Parker Palmer