Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Thursday, 30 June 2011

"We drew a circle . . . ."

"He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in."
                                                Charles Edwin Anson Markham

About ten years ago, not long after I started attending the Unitarian Church in Padiham – a friend gave me a gift of a circle of people.  They are called circles of friendship and are often found in garden centres in varying sizes and designs.  The thing that is always the same though is that it shows a circle of people with linked hands.  

This gift was special to me because I received it early in my Unitarian journey and the feeling of being drawn in to the circle of the Unitarian Community was beginning to matter more and more in my life.  This circle  of friendship spoke in many ways to me and to make the gift more special there was in the centre, along with a candle, a piece of paper which contained the words from Markham’s poem ‘Outwitted’
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

This small but special poem is often quoted by Unitarians – after all we are familiar with the terms heretic and rebel in association with our faith and those that follow it.  In our past there is a whole history of rejection and exclusion.

For me the idea of a religion that held within it’s circumference the space to embrace one’s own religious inclination and not exclude because of difference in belief is what was most important to me about Unitarianism and Unitarians, it was that which enabled me to continue attending and eventually train for the ministry.

The symbol of the circle too was one that has always appealed to me, not least because of my mathematical background.  I have always been fascinated by circles.

The meanings and symbolism of the circle are many and varied.

The meaning of the circle symbol is universal, sacred and divine. It represents the infinite nature of energy, and the inclusivity of the universe.
John O’Donohue  says: 
"Deep within the human mind, there is a fas­cination with the circle because it satisfies some longing within us. It is one of the most universal and ancient shapes in the universe. Reality often seems to express itself in this form. The earth is a circle; and even time itself seems to have a circular nature."

In some cases, there is a distinction between that which is contained within the circumference of the circle and that which lies without.
Circles are often seen as protective symbols. Standing within a circle shields a person from supernatural dangers or influences outside of the circle. Conversely, a circle can also be containing, keeping that which is inside from been released.

The Circle is an unbroken line which has no beginning, no end and no direction. Because of these attributes, The Circle represents a completeness which encompasses all space and Time.

Circles commonly represent unity, wholeness, and infinity. Without beginning or end, without sides or corners, the circle is also associated with the number one.

With all these different views of the circle there is little wonder that we can find associations with religion or spirituality.

Hermes Trismegistus said:  “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The circle is a spiritual symbol of wholeness. It's been used in astrology, religion, and all kinds of rituals.

The circle has then, been a metaphor for inclusion, an openness to all life, a gesture of respect for the earth and all people.

And so it is that my 'circle of friendship' has been of special significance to me . . . and yet there is something not quite right about the symbol.  If we look at the ring of people it can look nice and inclusive it can appear to represent all those things that I have mentioned and yet there is something rather exclusive about this symbol.  

To me this symbol also suggests that just as some are included or embraced within the circle so too some are shut out and so it is that I return to Edwin Markham’s words:
"He drew a circle that shut me out:"

Doesn’t this circle suggest then that some are indeed shut out.  By forming a circle it has given a boundary and surely the beauty of our Unitarian community is that it is inclusive and that there is no boundary.

Sometimes it can feel as though we have lost the art of circling, of living in community with others.  We need within our lives to learn to draw ever larger circles of inclusion.  We need to draw circles that are large enough to include everyone because ours is a religion in which everyone can belong.  Our circles need to respect life in all its diversity, to embrace a set of principles that will uphold a community of people of equal worth, regardless of their differences.

If we can understand what Markham’s poem is trying to tell us, then we should be able to talk with others about our faith without fear. If we can understand that ours is a religion not of exclusion, but of inclusion then we can be proactive about broadcasting what our beloved Unitarianism is all about.  We have to remember that many people are seeking and searching for something in their everyday lives and as Unitarians, we have something to say to them.

Let us in our words and in our deeds draw the circle that lets them in.


  1. This is just beautiful. Thank you Gill

  2. Hi Gillian, great to see your writing on the Internet. I personally don't believe that ours is a faith community where everyone can belong. I think that there are boundaries - but this does not mean that we cannot connect with those who stand outside - it is to be hoped that they are inside another circle or perhaps several. With love, Louise

  3. I think louise that what I am trying to say is that we shouldn't create excluding boundaries we need to try and be open and inclusive. Of course some will not want to be inside our circles but maybe that is their choice and not ours. And yes maybe there are some that we would not wish to embrace in our world but we can only decide this if we first listen to them and not just shut them out indiscriminantly.

  4. Thanks Gillian. Agree with this. Boundaries are not always bad. If we are to have an identity then we must say that some characteristics (and therefore people)are in and some are out. As you say it's how we do this. And loved your poem today and the pictures. xx