Circles vs. Ladders: Deconstructing Power-Over Dynamics

Sarah’s circle symbolizes a dynamic that has been among us for a long time though we rarely name it as such. It is present, for example, when we eat with others. When we invite someone over for dinner, we do not climb a ladder and drop crumbs on them, much less pour drinks from that height. We talk of “sitting around the table”—even when the table is oblong, for sitting and eating together is a Sarah’s circle experience.

Toasting a family dinner. Photo by fauxels from Pexels

It is sensual and earthy, all are eye-to-eye; it is interdependent (“please pass me the jam”) and yet not dependent; it is shared fun, shared conversation and shared ecstasy (provided the cook is adequate to the occasion). Wherever there is true conviviality, as in dining together, there is Sarah’s circle in action.

AA, Al-anon and such groups are effective because their dynamic is eye to eye and circle sharing.

Another example of Sarah’s circle is folk dancing. In folk dancing barriers of age, sex and professionalism are broken through. Eight year olds and eighty year olds and all ages in between can enjoy themselves equally at a folk dance. Competition between male and female, young and old, expert and amateur is broken through.

“Spiral Dance” Photo by Pat Kight on Flickr.

Even cultural differences thaw in the warmth of folk dancing. A certain exertion and physical weariness, along with joy, are among the healthy outcomes.

I have experienced transformations of egos and spirits in persons taught to change the militant words of “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” to “We are dancing Sara’s Circle.”

Joining hands and weaving about a chapel, church or room as a curved line in motion, as a spiral or circle, is truly a spiritual conversion for many who have never before been invited to put their bodies into worship. (In worshup bodies are usually instructed verbally or non-verbally to stay behind).

“Jacob’s Ladder” Closure panel of an iconostasis from Zakynthos. Painted by the 17th century Cretan artist Ilias Mosko. On Wikimedia Commons.

The traditional hymn to climbing Jacob’s ladder that Protestant children sang went as follows:

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/Soldiers of the Cross.

Every rung gets higher, higher/Every rung gets higher, higher

Every rung gets higher, higher/Soldiers of the Cross.

Notice the militarism expressed in this song at the end. 

Yet the music is catchy and very danceable, and to simply alter the words in the following fashion while keeping the music intact is a powerful undoing or conversion for those raised on a militaristic and ladder-like liturgical song.

Matthew Vaughan performs “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.”

We are dancing Sarah’s Circle/We are dancing Sarah’s Circle/

We are dancing Sarah’s Circle/ Sisters, brothers, all.

Every ring gets fuller, fuller/Every ring gets fuller, fuller

Every ring gets fuller, fuller/Sisters, brothers, all.

A current example of a Sarah Circle dynamic includes marching together to protest violence and corruption, all protesters gathering at street level and eye to eye, face mask to face mask.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, pp. 53f.

Banner Image: “Circle Dancing in Silhouette” Photo by Joseph Phillips from Pexels

Queries for Contemplation

What further experiences of a Sarah-circle dynamic have you experienced and been inspired by?

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3 thoughts on “Circles vs. Ladders: Deconstructing Power-Over Dynamics”

  1. Avatar
    Margaret Rose Hess

    Circle singing is another of Sarah’s circles. Several years ago I was member of an all women’s choir who’s director worked hard to negotiate a visit for us to the choir of the local women’s correctional facility. After prior fingerprint and background checks, followed by pat-down on entry and constant surveillance, about 30 of us were able to meet with about 45 women of the prison choir. For two hours we were shoulder-to-shoulder sharing songbooks with those women, who had made some serious mistakes in their lives but nonetheless sang like angels. Our large song circle took up about half their dining space, with tables pushed back to the walls. I will never forget that evening, nor will the guards, I suspect. Eye to eye is heart to heart. A circle has no beginning and no end.

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