In several unrelated settings recently, I’ve heard people describe (with immense gratitude) their spiritual community as “safe.” This struck me as odd and beautiful. Odd because one rarely hears safe attached to church. It is true of course that too often church is the last place we encounter unflinching acceptance that invites us to express eviscerating doubt, paralyzing fear or the numbing loneliness that a sermon and song could never fix (an inexplicable predicament when our prayers and worship are shaped by the Psalter, the most uncensored religious text I could imagine) — but none of that’s exactly what I mean. I simply mean that safe is rarely a religious word. It’s simply not part of the eclessial lexicon. Maybe it should be.
In each of these conversations, the person had encountered something generous, something spacious and healing in the rhythms, posture and tenderness of their spiritual circle. Best I could understand, they found room to breathe, room to be themselves, even if the selves they are right now seems to have little to offer and arrives as a Grade A mess. They knew the joy of the slow knowledge (over time) that their community possessed the strength and the patience to bear their full selves, that they would be honored and would receive tenderness and would never be shamed. There was room to be playful and to fail and to have a long stretch where their head’s just not right and they are not “productive” members. They’ve been told that their mere presence is enough, that it’s a gift – and they’ve slowly begun to believe it. So safe might be odd, but it’s also so, so beautiful.
Many of us live in fear of being exposed. Exposed for not being as smart as people think we might be or expect us to be. We fear what would happen if someone saw us in the true muck, at our absolute worst. We fear (particularly in church settings) what will happen if we ‘fess up to the shadow themes in our story or let loose with the questions that haunt us. We play the charade because we lack courage, and perhaps we lack courage because no one else has courage. Perhaps we are all afraid together. Perhaps none of us feel safe. Perhaps we are all alone, in the same big room.
So when someone tells me they have found a safe place, I perk up. I want to belong to a safe community. I want to be a safe person for others.