Gurdjieff International Review

Lunches at St. Elmo

Richard Whittaker

Lunches on a workday at St. Elmo were often crowded affairs. Seating seventy, eighty or even ninety at tables in the salon was a challenge. St. Elmo, as we called our place, was an elegant Mediterranean house on St. Elmo Way in San Francisco’s Monterey Heights neighborhood. Ocean Beach was only two or three miles away. From some of the windows glimpses of the Pacific were visible filtered through the limbs of several large cypress trees on the rocky slopes of the west side of the property.

Our regular workdays were on weekends. Sunday was always the biggest day, and at lunch one found oneself wedged in at one of the long tables. Although the house was grand, it wasn’t designed to seat so many people. Rubbing shoulders, often with relative strangers, was a discomfort one willingly accepted. We were not there to socialize. Each came with the hope of transformation, of encountering moments of seeing ourselves as we really were.

I can easily recall trying to keep knees, arms and shoulders from contact with my dining companions on either side, and, since these lunches always included a generous period of time after the meal for an exchange, this could mean up to two hours of trying to take up less space than was at all natural. It was impossible to escape the tensions and anxieties the close seating precipitated.

The tight seating was itself one of the endlessly changing facets included in all that makes up a part of the larger spectrum of a workday. The close seating was never spelled out as a condition for self-study as such, and yet it was impossible not to experience a taste of one’s conditioning and how little freedom one had from one’s habitual reactions. To say that I welcomed the discomfort would be an exaggeration, but it never occurred to me to complain. This was a small price to pay compared to the inexpressible vision that had been touched and set vibrating. The miraculous was never far away in the rooms of that house or outside, in its gardens and in the air—the marine air that washed in from the Pacific Ocean over the beautiful houses and winding streets of Monterey Heights.

And always, at a certain point at lunch as people were reaching the last bites of dessert, a silence fell over the room. In that silence one was free to gather oneself and to risk speaking, but far more often, one listened. When one did speak into the listening silence of 90 people, it was impossible not to feel the limits of oneself. The words did not come out quite as one wished. And so one received the difficult gift of having a taste of oneself in such moments. And then a response would come from one of the elders. Whatever the risk it was worth it, which is not to say one always felt better after speaking.

At times, having eaten—and the food, cooked with great care, was always good—as one person after another spoke and the responses came, a drowsiness would rise. On one day in that magical space, the curtains at the windows that reached down to the floor moved gently in the air. I remember looking down at my empty plate, at how the sunlight fell across my cup in a curved line, and studying the shadow of my fork on the linen tablecloth—an entire world of beauty, and so close by. Others continued speaking, their voices now less distinct. And perhaps, as with Wallace Stevens and “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, I dreamed a little.” Cradled somehow in the blending of those voices with the ineffable meaning of our search, a feeling arose impossible to put into words. Higher feeling, one might have said. Or, perhaps it was a taste of the pure land spoken of in a form of Buddhism. What is that realm too delicate to sustain any direct gaze?

In the years during which I had the privilege to attend workdays at St. Elmo, I remember these things and so much more—the lived experiences in myriad ways, the words of the teachers and their silences, their presences and their absences, and everything that fell between.

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Richard Whittaker has taken part in the work of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California since 1968. He is the co-founder of the non-profit “Society for the ReCognition of Art” and founding editor of the magazine: works & conversations (

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2012