Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Night of a Stranger

It is in community that we find our true self, the speaker intoned. I wrote the words down in my little notebook. I had transcribed other words and phrases. Contemplative exercise in organizational development. Spirituality & leadership. The speaker was serious. He read from a long prepared text.

He told us that there had been retreats with important participants -- Nobel peace prize winners, important clerics, prominent politicians. There had been dialogue and process, trust and communication. Deep concerns had been probed. Communion had been achieved. Subsequently, there were new programs being developed, new curricula for spiritual development. There would be foundations and websites and publications. There were handouts by the door.

I looked around the clean beige room. It was a smallish college lecture hall with tiers of comfortable seats and long, curved countertop desks. There was a podium with a round seal and Latin motto. There was a flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Two dozen people sat scattered throughout the seats, most in groups and pairs, and a few, like myself, alone.

The new project was, the speaker said, about Contemplative Living, a corrective to our quadruple alienation from others, self, God and nature. When applied to society at large, it would lead to peace and justice. It would be an antidote to futility, corruption and despair.

The curriculum was based on passages from the writing of the monk, Merton. They would be used for springboards to group discussion and dialogue. The program, he went on to say, stemmed from Merton's vision. The monk Merton was why, presumably, we had all come to the clean, beige room to hear the serious man from Louisville speak about his programs and curricula.

A man in the back row had been in the novitiate under Merton; a young woman identified herself as the niece of a Merton contemporary. A dapper oldster raved about the Merton retreats he'd attended. The president of the local chapter of the Merton Society stood up announced the agenda of the upcoming meeting. An middle aged man leaned back in his chair and asked a long, aggressive question about the "Christ centeredness" (or lack thereof) of the proposed curricula. Two earnest young men asked about spiritual practices. The serious man agreed that they were necessary. A woman in a bright red sweater offered a strong and detailed opinion about something I didn't quite grasp.

I looked at my notebook. Monastic safety net, I'd written, for societies adrift.

The monk Merton represented, said the serious man, a bridge to the secular world.

I sighed. I was very tired. Beyond tired. I had nothing to say. I felt self-conscious, out of place. Conspicuous. Something inside me seemed to be withering. The title of one of Merton's famous essays kept popping into my head: "Day of a Stranger." There I was again, the perpetual stranger sitting apart from the crowd in the throes of three of the serious man's four alienations: self, God and others.

I thought of the serious probing dialogues, the endlessly unfolding spiritual conversations, the communing, the groups, the schools and congregations, the clubs and societies and parishes and sanghas, the churning, interpersonal spiritual processes. It was positvely oceanic. I sat on the beach, high and oh, so very, very dry.

He was a HERMIT. I scrawled, staking my shaky claim to the one piece of the carcass that was left.

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