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On Capitol Hill – cultivating a monastery mind-set

During gnashing of teeth over the stimulus bill, a Thomas Merton-inspired House reflection group was holding hands and taking its weekly step back to reconcile personal conviction and political reality.

By Correspondent / February 24, 2009


It’s supposed to be a reflection group, this early-morning gathering of a half-dozen members of Congress. And they begin reflectively enough – settled, with coffee and bagels, in a member’s memorabilia-lined office on Capitol Hill. There’s soothing background music, a thoughtful passage from spiritual giant Thomas Merton, a well-practiced shift from conversation to quiet. And they end in a pensive mood, too, joining hands in prayer.

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But in between is a mother lode of emotion as the House members speak of how personal conviction is proving to be little match for political reality. For some, the philosophical “What am I doing here?” has become literal: “Why haven’t I left town by now and sent for my things?” They joke that their reflection sometimes sounds more like anger management or grief therapy, and if that seems to be the case this day, well, such is their world at the moment.

Thomas Merton, meet the stimulus legislation of 2009.

Forty years after his death, the Trappist monk’s vision of bringing a contemplative, spiritual perspective to people who lead ordinary lives still beckons, as the distracted and the disheartened yearn for a piece of the peace of the abbey: In Britain, the monastery mind-set has spawned a hit reality BBC television show. Gregorian chant has been at the top of the charts here and abroad. And 2,000 reflection groups, organized by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living in Louisville, Ky., meet in universities, military bases, churches, and prisons around the world, for those who seek at least a shot of contemplation in a BlackBerry world. The two reflection groups offered to members of the House of Representatives are adaptations of the Merton Institute programs, conducted here for the past 17 years by Washington’s Faith and Politics Institute. The groups – ranging from three to eight members – are but part of the numerous prayer groups, Bible studies, and denominational worship programs available to legislators.

Merton’s abbey-inspired notion of melding the spiritual and the active lives might not seem doable here. But according to the Rev. Cletus Kiley, the Catholic priest who cofacilitates the groups, the warp speed of politics makes a spiritual perspective all the more necessary.

“Leadership that’s not reflective is going to be reactive, stuck in party talking points,” he says. “But leaders who take the time, even if it’s only for an hour, to deal with the deepest issues the nation faces, are able to cross the aisle.... They engage in conflict much more creatively. It changes the tone. It changes the possibilities.”