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Originally published November 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 5, 2008 at 6:46 PM

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Guest columnist

Wisdom of the monks: a vow of dialogue

Only by detaching ourselves like monks will we be able to practice the compassion that can regulate the economy, keep natural habitats of other species intact and equitably share the world's resources with the world's people.

Special to The Times

WHAT better time to seek the quiet of the monastery than during the last weeks of the election season, when civil discourse devolves into gross exaggerations, baldfaced lies and character assassinations.

I was delighted to arrive in mid-September at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky., for a two-week silent retreat. Thomas Merton had spent 27 years here, and I had two weeks to live the life of the monk, read Merton's works and listen to many hours of tapes of him teaching the novices during the turbulent 1960s.

I discovered almost immediately, however, that you don't leave the world behind you when you enter the cloister. You continue to think deeply about the world's problems. Therefore, I resolved to learn what I could, and not leave the monastery behind me when I re-entered the world.

The monastery is a marginal community that can enlighten us on life outside its walls in the larger human community. Here, where silence is the rule but monks are always available when conversation is appropriate, one learns that speaking doesn't break the vow of silence; "the anxiety to be heard does." The monk listens to the voices of others and speaks to be spoken to.

Paradoxically, in the silence of these halls, one grasps the absolute necessity of dialogue. Our political leaders should reject the monologue that power induces and take a vow of dialogue because the solutions to the crucial problems confronting us are never accessible to any individual party or nation. They can only be worked out through give-and-take.

The contemplative urge has been manifest in all religious peoples for centuries: Christians, Buddhists, Hassidic mystics, Islamic Sufis and Hindu renunciants. Members of each of these groups have come to the Abbey of Gethsemani to partake in the contemplative life practiced here. Rather than being alone in solitude, one becomes aware, while dwelling within a particular tradition, of a unity of spiritual endeavor that encompasses all faith traditions, a universal commonality in which faith transcends dogma and brings together all believers.

One recognizes the holiness of other religions and understands that religion is a means rather than an end in itself. Such an awareness underscores common aspirations and destinies and promotes dialogue and exchange, tolerance and interdependence. World peace will also necessitate a secular reading of the Christian view that "we are all members of one Body."

One of the crucial principles of contemplative life in all traditions is that "compassion is proportionate to detachment." To make progress in contemplation, to achieve inner peace, one must detach oneself from material, even spiritual, objects and from the fluctuating whims of one's will. Doing this requires what Merton calls "heroic acts of self-denial."

This monastic lesson applies to our current dilemma, which is predicated upon disproportionate attachment: our dependence on oil and the enormous percentage of the world's natural resources that we consume. Only by detaching ourselves, will we be able to practice the compassion that can regulate the economy, keep natural habitats of other species intact and equitably share the world's resources with the world's people.

The Trappists join their Buddhist counterparts by refusing to dispose of anything and by recycling everything, thereby transforming waste into flowers, hatred into understanding, anger into compassion, swords into plowshares and ourselves into sources of peace for others.

The election season is interminable. The presidential candidates have enough time not only to "Meet the Press" but to Meet the Monks, who have centuries of accumulated wisdom to offer us. All we have to do is interpret that wisdom to discover how essential it is to the resolution of our contemporary worldly problems.

Whitman College professor Patrick Henry of Walla Walla is the author of "We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust" (Catholic University of America Press, 2007) and a speaker for the Washington Commission for the Humanities (Inquiring Mind Series).

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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