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.

Jake Turcotte/Staff

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.

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.”

Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, says that the relationships established in the group foster good governing. Though he stopped attending several years ago after House and family responsibilities crowded his schedule, Representative Upton says “the people in my group I’m still very close to. People relay some things that are very personal, that are still confidential to this day ... it’s just opened some doors where you get to know folks and what’s in their hearts and what drives them, so when they speak you listen.”

Sometimes the relationships prompt action, as when the Ku Klux Klan emerged in Upton’s district. “I went to John Lewis [the Democrat from Gerogia and founder of Faith and Politics] and said, ‘What advice can you give me?’ ”

Representative Lewis came to Upton’s district and spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about race relations. Since then, the midwestern Upton, who’d never been to the South, has joined Lewis several times in Alabama, commemorating Rosa Parks and the civil rights march.

Though current members are all Democrats and all are from Christian backgrounds, the group is open to everyone. In fact, four or five years ago, the groups were predominantly Republican, says Father Kiley. Though current members are in the majority in the House and could be expected to be enthusiastic about the new administration, the sentiment this February day is a mix of resignation and fury.

Some are disappointed with the new president, some with their congressional leadership, and all with partisanship in general: Should I as a person of conscience walk out of a caucus? How do I serve if I’m sidelined? What happened to honesty? When I go home, how do I explain what I don’t even understand myself – how this stimulus will work, how one seats a cabinet member who didn’t pay taxes, how one who watched as Wall Street crumbled is the overseer now? And then there are the Republicans....

The meetings provide a framework for growth to those “making decisions off the back of a galloping horse,” as Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, describes the life. “People come here because it’s a centering place.” So much so, he says, that in the 10 years since former Democratic whip David Bonior invited him to the group, it’s become a calendar item he refuses to cancel.

Profuse and robust venting doesn’t make the “reflection” billing a misnomer. By its nature the process of reflection isn’t necessarily idyllic. Growth can be messy; its direction not always evident.

“We get off into the dissonance between what we believe and what we deal with here on a daily basis,” McDermott says. “If you believe that there is some spiritual element to life, dissonance can be pretty upsetting.”

The Monitor agreed not to identify reflection group members if allowed to sit in on a meeting. McDermott agreed to share his experiences as a longtime member. The Seattle congressman is a child psychiatrist. Raised in a small Christian fundamentalist sect, he now belongs to an Episcopal church, but rarely attends. The reflection group is his de facto church, its non-Scriptural perspective providing spiritual structure while affording freedom for the “complexity” of thought he favors.

The conversation helps him keep his sights on the reasons he’s been sent to Washington, affording him clear purpose despite the innate limitations of the political process. McDermott will hearken to Merton or to one of the other writers whose works launch the meetings each week, but he’s not taking orders. “You don’t wait around for Thomas Merton to tell you what to do.”

One senses that the weekly step-back has made him more philosophical. He came to the House in 1988 intent on working with Hillary Clinton on national health insurance, he recalls, and while he may yet have another crack at the issue, he’s gotten to work on some other things in the meantime.

“I used to think when I started that you could resolve something [in Washington]. Nothing is ever resolved in the political process. Whatever issue you’re talking about, it’s never done,” he observes.

“For most people, the spiritual life has been something very private,” says Robert Toth, executive director of the Merton Institute. But he contends that the community found in a small group can stave off navel-gazing while shedding light on what often prove to be common spiritual experiences. The institute considers popular inner-life techniques like yoga, tai chi, or centering prayer to be secondary to the building of essential relationships with God and others. “Our objective is to make the contemplative life accessible for people who are leading ordinary lives. We don’t take long retreats or extensive time for meditation.”

It’s a perfect fit for the House members. They tried a silent retreat once, but didn’t go back – days without talking just seemed like a waste. In the meetings, they’re “always listening, always integrating,” says McDermott. Obviously fond of one another and comfortable together, members draw one another out and offer commiseration and perspective. They rely on humor to defuse tension. Fellowship notwithstanding, participants don’t walk in lockstep whether in regard to the president or the issues. McDermott thinks that the group could absorb Republican members again without changing its essential nature, saying some of the partisan content simply wouldn’t “make it to the table.”

“They’re struggling, too,” he says.

Recent life on the Hill strains Merton’s vision of spiritualizing the active life. But as the meeting draws to a close, facilitator Kiley almost imperceptibly brings things together for his charges, drawing them back to their individual understanding of what gives their lives there meaning, be it the concept of political unity, or the responsibility to represent a needy constituent, or the notion of politics as a vocation. And in the acute frustration of the week, the priest reminds them that Merton himself introduced the reading of the day as “a small message of hope.”

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