I fell into conversation yesterday with an elderly man who lives in an old age home across the street. He had contributed articles on local history to our neighborhood newsletter. In the course of our conversation he informed me that as a young man he had spent over twenty years in a monastery.
“I’m wondering,” I asked him, “what it was like to finally emerge from the cloistered halls to the outside world?”
“Not easy,” was his reply.
How could it be? That kind of contemplative life divorced from the round of day to day cares, responsibilities, friends and family, joys and sorrows, has fallen out of fashion these days.
He looked around, inviting me to survey his simply furnished bachelor suite, and said: “I don’t have much. I never succeeded in marrying.”
We chatted for an hour, mostly about the history of the neighborhood, and parting I assured him how much I would enjoy getting together for a beer sometime and continuing with our conversation.
What would it be like to voluntarily withdraw from the world in order to contemplate the Divine, to study Life actively and reflectively free of distraction? Unburdened of the need to earn a living, fancy given free reign to take wing!
I confess that was largely the life I lived for well over a decade. My monastery was the Omphalos Cafe, and it was in the back room, Xenon’s Bible Room, where imagination was granted complete license.
My friends were Henry Miller, to begin with, and Elie Faure, Oswald Spengler took up a great deal of time, as did Joseph Campbell, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann. Kerouac was around, but he was too much of a whiner for my taste. And then Will Durant’s Story of Civilization could always be counted on.
So many more, too many to name. I would leave the Cafe brimming over, too electrified to go home. I would walk late into the night, images and ideas churning in my bean.
Once, late at night, carrying books and a few records after a day spent reading, wandering, and pulling on the odd beer, I fell into discussion with a woman. My head was swimming with the day’s words and beer. She said I sounded like I had fucked up my mind on drugs. “No,” I replied, “I’ve fucked up my mind on literature.”
That remains true to this day. It’s like being knocked out of orbit, sent careening into space, only to find yourself orbiting another sun. A bigger sun perhaps. Like my new friend across the street, you walk the streets on your day to day round, but you are different inside. You only partially belong to this world.
Joseph Campbell writes about the hero’s journey in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The most difficult part of the entire cycle, he says, is the return. If you’ve undergone a life changing experience, how do you return to the everyday world you once knew? It’s a tough balancing act, he says, living with one foot in this world and the other in eternity.
But to hell with this living in two worlds! Xenon has his Cafe, I have a wife and child. The time has come to share the Omphalos Cafe with the world. The world sure could use it.
Balance has been lost, truth and meaning have slipped out of our hands. Life has taken a back seat to … you name it.
It’s late. Time I be heading home.