The Garden, the City, and the Table

Yesterday I had a full day of orientation activities at Palmer. It was such a great time… and I am even more excited and looking forward to beginning this journey. One of our assignments for orientation was to read this article by Parker J. Palmer about “staying at the table”. It is just so good. He talks about three images of community in the Bible…

The Garden of Eden

The City of New Jerusalem

The Table at the Last Supper

… and gives us some wonderful insight into how we are to live together in community… koinonia (more on this when I finally get around to writing my followup post on Philemon).


On Staying at the Table: A Spirituality of Community

By Parker J. Palmer

God call us to community, to a mutually supportive, empowering, and accountable life together. We know that from the Bible, we know it from Christian tradition, and we know it from the yearnings of our own hearts. Today, the heart’s call to community is amplified by the practical need for community in our lives. In this time of dwindling resources, we need to share; in this time of dangerous social tensions, we need to cooperate and celebrate; in this time of political madness, we need to support each other’s sanity. But what, exactly, does “community” mean to us? What is it that we are called to and looking for in the church (or in friendship or in the family)?

If we cannot answer those questions we are in trouble. Without an accurate image of life together, we may settle for something that falls far short of community. Or we may fail to recognize community when we are in the midst of it – ignoring or even denying the gift when it comes.

So what does “community” mean? As a sociologist I might answer that question in a rational, objective way, listing the attributes of community in strict conformity to the best sociological theory. But I shall try to obey W.H. Auden’s eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit a social science,” for the simple reason that our everyday dealings with community have little to do with reason and objectivity. Our yearnings and our actions are shaped not by theories we carry in our minds but by images we carry in our hearts. If we look deeply enough within ourselves, I think we will discover the images that shape our hopes for community. If we find (as I think we will) that these images are romantic, unrealistic, and doomed to defeat, we can look for other images that will help us stay open to the community that God continually offers us.

I believe there are two images of community rooted so deeply in our psyches that they might be called archetypes. As such they have a powerful impact on our lives, our attitudes, and our behavior. Both of them are found in the Bible, a document full of archetypal material so profoundly does it reach into human experience.

The first image of community is found in Genesis. This is the image of “the garden.” Here community is portrayed as the harmonious, organic unity of all things. That is the way God created us before sin intervened: humans, beasts, vegetable and mineral life existing in oneness, in unity, in ecology of grace. And there are words in Genesis that describe the human experience in this communal garden. “They were naked and unashamed.” The image of the garden and the possibility of living naked and unashamed – these resonate deep in the human soul and draw us toward the dream of community. As we come into community we hope to find a harmony that is not available in the larger world. We hope that in community we can, at last, be naked – open and vulnerable to all the pains and failings of our lives –without ever having to feel shame about who and how we are. This image from Genesis exerts a powerful influence on our expectations of what community is and can be. At least, that is true in my own experience and the experience of many people I know.

The second archetypal image of community is found in Revelations. This is the image of “the New Jerusalem,” the city of God purified of all sin and sadness, made clean and holy by the action of grace. Here, too, the text offers key words to describe the personal meaning this image has for us: “And every tear shall be wiped away.” The image of a holy city and the hope that our sorrows will meet with solace – these too, resonate deep in the human soul and draw us toward the dream of community.

Or so it has been with me and with many people I know. We came into community hoping to find a safer and more sacred city than the cities we had known. We came into community hoping that our sadness and struggle might be lifted, that the kingdom of God might arrive. The New Jerusalem, like the garden, has a profound, if unconscious, impact on our image of what community will be.

But the experience of community is nothing like the garden or the New Jerusalem. Not, at least, after the first few weeks! Many people experience an initial euphoria with the new marriage or the new friends or the new church. But soon “the honeymoon is over.” Euphoria fades and dies. We begin to realize that all is not harmonious here; that it is not entirely safe to be naked with each other; that earth is not yet heavenly; that even if our old tears are wiped away there are new ones to be wept.

As the euphoria dies, as our images of community crumble, several options open up to us. Some people simply abandon their hopes for community and return to isolation and individualism. But they go back to that condition with the added burden of disillusionment and cynicism; the community that once existed for them as a beckoning dream no longer exists at all. Other people choose to stay in community – sort of – but withdraw their hopes and enthusiasms and energies, eventually creating the kind of community that Revelations calls “lukewarm.” This is the condition of many of our churches, I think. People have dealt with their disillusionment by “sort of” staying in community with each other, but not at any depth of investment or risk.

Then there is a third option we might take following the death of euphoria, the crumbling of our utopian images. That is to keep on keeping on; to press deeper into the experience of disillusionment to see what it has to teach us; to abandon our romantic images of community and look for new images that have the power to explain what is happening and to help us deal creatively with it.

As I have attempted to choose this third option, I have realized something crucial about the images of “the garden” and “the New Jerusalem.” Both of them are images from outside of history. The image of the garden comes before history begins. The image of the New Jerusalem comes after history ends. This does not mean that they are irrelevant (as I shall show later). But it does mean that I must find an image of community that comes from the historical reality in which you and I live.

Once again, the Bible provides the image. For between the garden and the New Jerusalem there is the story of God’s action in history, of God’s entry into history in the person of Jesus Christ, and of Christ gathering people into community – a story that reaches one of its high points in the experience of the Last Supper. So let us look to the Last Supper as an image of community in history. Let us see what that image has to teach us about the true nature of community. Let us see what we can learn from the Last Supper about how to keep on keeping on.

I said that the story of Christ gathering people into community reaches one of its high points in the Last Supper. Perhaps I should have said “low points.” Here is Jesus who has been pouring out his life for the people seated around the table. Now he has brought them together in the universal rite of friendship, family, and hospitality –breaking bread together and passing the cup. And what do these people do? First, in response to Jesus’ claim that one of them will betray him, they deny that any such thing is possible: “Not us, Lord, not here, not in this nice church!” Having taken care of that little matter they move right along to an argument about who is the greatest among them! Blind to their own capacity for betrayal, and obsessed with power struggles, the disciples at the table act out two of the issues that make community life so painfully difficult, so unlike the garden or the New Jerusalem. As someone has suggested, they probably went on to quibble over who would pay the bill.

And what does Jesus do in the midst of all of this? Being fully human, he must have been tempted to get up and leave – just as you and I are when our romantic images of community fail. But Jesus does not leave. Instead, he keeps breaking the bread and passing the cup. Both here and in the rest of his story Jesus demonstrates his commitment to staying at the table.

If we are to follow Jesus Christ, we must try to stay at the table with our own communities, in our own churches and elsewhere. This does not mean that there never come times when relationships must be judged failures, when meaning or healing are such distant hopes that we must make the agonizing decision to separate and move on. But too many of us make those decisions too quickly and easily, with too little provocation. We must learn that betrayal and conflict – and all the other demons that emerge when real community happens – are not necessarily terminal but can provide openings into the deeper reaches of the spiritual life, into deeper relationship with one another and with God. That was true for the disciples as they journey on with Jesus, and that shall be true for us – if we will learn to stay at the table.

And how did Jesus manage to stay at the table? What was his “secret”? It was the same “secret” that Jesus taught throughout his ministry – put ultimate reliance not on yourself or on others but on God alone. Jesus was not shocked or undone by the dissolution of community that he saw at the Last Supper. He knew human nature, he knew our weakness, and the disciples only demonstrated what he already knew. But he knew something more. He knew that there is a God who is with us more fully than we are with each other, a God who will keep us together if we will only place our trust in God and not in our own togetherness.

To put it as sharply as I know how, community is not so much a demonstration of heaven as it is a via negativa (negative way) to God. We will always be disillusioned by community. But in the spiritual life disillusionment is a good thing: it means losing our illusions about ourselves and each other. As those illusions fall away we will be able to see reality and truth more clearly. And the truth is that we can rely on God to make community among us even – and especially – when our own efforts fail. By being willing to suffer the failings of community, we give ourselves the chance to draw closer to God. By entering and staying with community, we enroll in school of the Spirit where we learn about the Source that sustains our life together.

And here is the paradox: as we become disillusioned with community and more dependent upon God, we also become more available for true community with each other. But now we are different. Our eyes have been opened and we have no more romantic .illusions. Seeing ourselves and each other clearly, yet seeing God’s continual healing presence among us, we can begin to experience the fruits of the Spirit with each other: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness. The community we have yearned for is among us, in exactly the measure that we are able to discern God’s presence in our midst.

If the Last Supper is the image of community in history, what is the role of those two images from beyond history –the garden and the New Jerusalem? Their role is crucial. I will even bet that Jesus had these images in mind as he sat at the Last Supper, and that they helped him to stay at the table.

The garden is an image of memory, one of the basic spiritual disciplines. The memory of the garden is a reminder of the fact that God created us in community, one and whole. It is from that ancient memory that our great yearning for community arises, the yearning to reclaim the wholeness we possessed before sin intervened. If we want to live in and for community, we must cultivate this sacred memory of our God-created state as a hedge against history’s divisions.

The New Jerusalem, at the other end of history, is an image of hope, another of the basic spiritual disciplines. Our hope is not in our own good works, as important as they are, but in the fact that God is always working toward the building of heaven on earth. God does this work in the midst of our brokenness, and nowhere is that brokenness more evident than in our fragile and failed attempts to create community.

So let us live in community with the memory of the garden and the hope of the New Jerusalem – but also with the knowledge that we are joining with Jesus in the Last Supper; in the challenge to stay at the table. Let us live in community knowing that what God created whole and is bringing back together no human power can ultimately put asunder.

For more by Parker J. Palmer see:


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