The Snowmass Conference and the True Heart of Dialogue

Netanel Miles-Yépez

 The 2nd Snowmass Conference at Ananda Ashram in La Crescenta, CA, 1985. Front Row: Swami Buddhananda, unknown observer, Gayatri Devi, Pema Chodron, Tania Lentov Back Row: unknown observer, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Gerald Red Elk, Imam Bilal Hyde, Fr. George Timko, Fr. Thomas Keating OCSO. Photo by Roger La Borde.

The 2nd Snowmass Conference at Ananda Ashram in La Crescenta, CA, 1985. Front Row: Swami Buddhananda, unknown observer, Gayatri Devi, Pema Chodron, Tania Lentov Back Row: unknown observer, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Gerald Red Elk, Imam Bilal Hyde, Fr. George Timko, Fr. Thomas Keating OCSO. Photo by Roger La Borde.

There is a common misconception of what interreligious dialogue is supposed to be about. Often, assuming the subject to be 'comparative religion,' the well-intentioned participants prepare in advance, looking for similarities and differences in their traditions, hoping to find arcane bits of information with which to make an impression on the other. But this is to miss the point . . . albeit subtly. For the subject is not really 'religion' at all, but a relationship based on dialogue. It is not that it is wrong to prepare for a dialogue, but that it is a mistake to think that a dialogue between, say, two representatives of different religious traditions is really about two religions, rather than the relationship of two individuals with different religious commitments. Though a subtle distinction, it was precisely this emphasis on relationship that made the dialogue of the Snowmass Interreligious Conference (usually, the Snowmass Conference) a unique and inspiring phenomenon in the world of religion for over twenty years.

The now famous Snowmass Conference was originally the idea of Father Thomas Keating, one of the pioneers of interfaith dialogue in the Christian tradition and the co-founder of the highly influential Centering Prayer movement. Having resigned as abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey (a Cistercian Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts) in 1981, Father Thomas took up residence at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. Officially retired, he began to devote his time to the dialogue work he loved.

In 1983, he was invited to participate in a series Buddhist-Christian dialogues at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, that would ultimately change his whole approach to dialogue. During these sessions, Father Thomas noticed something interesting:

. . . I noticed that we, the dialoguers, weren’t speaking to one another so much as we were addressing the audience. But, on the two occasions when the conveners succeeded in bringing us together a day before the conference, we got on very well and actually got to talk to one another as peers, albeit all too briefly. So I asked myself, what would happen if the whole point was just to get together and talk, without an audience? And what if it was broader than just a Buddhist–Christian dialogue?[1]

The next year, after collecting a host of recommendations, he issued invitations to a select group of individuals. Among the attendees of the first Snowmass Conference retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery were: Thomas Keating, Pema Chodron, Douglas Steere, Gayatri Devi, Gerald Red Elk, Rami Shapiro, Bernie Glassman, and Bilal Hyde. It was as impressive a roster as any public interreligious dialogue had ever had before, except that this dialogue was to take place far from any cameras or eager spectators in an isolated little monastery in the Rocky Mountains.

Naturally, on the first day the group talked about the unique nature of this meeting. Everyone understood the significance of meeting in private, but many were still unsure of how to go about the dialogue in this atmosphere. What were they to talk about? And at what level of exchange were they expected to speak?

Father Thomas knew that if this was going to be successful, it would have to be based on intimacy. But this was a group of strangers. It was obvious that they needed to tell their stories to one another first; comparative religion would have to wait. “This was the reason we were disinclined to have any observers at the Snowmass Conference,” Father Thomas told me, “because what was developing was a kind of friendship that enabled us to feel comfortable and safe enough to share, to disclose to each other, what our own spiritual journey was like . . . You usually won’t tell your secrets to somebody unless you’re friends or until you know that person. So the idea of getting acquainted and being at ease in private was a primary goal.”[2]

But even if the space was safe enough in terms of privacy, there was still one question in the back of their minds: should the conversations be recorded? It was clear that this was an historic meeting and some wondered if they had an obligation to record the sessions:

When the question was raised, “Do we want to tape some of this?” Grandfather Gerald Red Elk said, “No, that would not be good, because then we would be hesitant about people back home hearing what we say. This is intimate stuff, and I think we should not share it outside the group. If the wisdom needs to be heard, it will be heard.” That won the favor of everyone, and we’ve never taped a conference . . .[3]

Thus began one of the oldest and longest-running interreligious dialogues in the world, and certainly one of the most unique. Over the years, word leaked-out about this unusual cabal, and with it came many invitations to hold their dialogue in a public setting. On the occasions that they acquiesced (mostly in the early years) it was an unmitigated disappointment for all of them. The public loved it, but the members felt that something was missing. So they declined any further invitations and went back to what they loved best, an intimate dialogue among friends.

This they continued for 20 years, weathering changes in membership, sickness, deaths, and the increasing fame of some of their members. In 2004, acknowledging their 20th anniversary, they began to wonder if perhaps they had served their purpose and considered calling a close to the Snowmass Conference. But talk of “the end” seemed to give a new energy to the dialogue that year, and they took up an old question: should we not share something of what we have learned? For, by now there was an accumulated wisdom in the group. It was not that their answers were new, but that there were subtleties to them, real-world wisdom born of experience in the trenches of interreligious dialogue. It is always the simple things that are the hardest to understand and do.

In the end, they decided that they would publish a few memories and a series of aphorisms on what had made their dialogue work over the years in a commemorative pamphlet. Since I was acquainted with four of the ten members, it was suggested that I help them to shape just such a document. I agreed without much deliberation. But when I looked at their collection of “Points of Uniqueness,” I immediately thought that their idea of a pamphlet was too humble; there was something here to be shared with a much wider audience in a small book.

So I interviewed all of the members to learn not what they had talked about, but how they had talked about it. What made it work? What were the bumps in the road? And how did they deal with them? As much as people may have wanted to hear the details of what was undoubtedly a wonderful discussion of religion (me included), this was not what people needed to hear (nor was it in the spirit of the group’s original intention).

Thus, our book, The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue (2006) is primarily a book about dialogue. I have reconstructed some of the notes from the first conference in it and give the Snowmass Conference “Points of Agreement,” thoughts on “Spiritual Authority and Ethics,” and “Points of Uniqueness.” But as wonderful as these pieces are, they are merely the by-product of a profound relationship. The Snowmass Conference members learned to appreciate one another as individuals, and how different religions inform and enrich the experience of an individual, and this is what we can learn from them as we continue to explore the same territory.

Notes

[1] Miles-Yepez, Netanel (ed.). The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Lantern Books, 2006: p.3
[2] Ibid, p.34
[3] Ibid, p.16