I recently came across a 2016 podcast in the On Being series by Krista Tippett, in which she interviews Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk at the Gut Aich Priory in St. Gilgen in Austria and a teacher and author on the subject of gratitude, who is the founder and senior advisor for A Network for Grateful Living. A Benedictine monk for over 60 years, Br. David was formed by 20th-century catastrophes. He calls joy “the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens”. And his gratefulness is not an easy gratitude or thanksgiving — but a full-blooded, reality-based practice and choice.
Why do I share this at Pentecost? Because he defines “spirituality” from “spiritus” that means “life”, “breath”, “aliveness”. Spirituality is aliveness on all levels. It must start with our bodily aliveness. But of course, when we say “spirituality”, we also mean aliveness to interrelationships, aliveness to our confrontation with that great divine mystery with which we are confronted as human beings and which we can look away from or forget or be dead to. We come alive to it. When people are grateful, they come alive.
Br. David regards gratitude as being absolutely inextricable from the notion of belonging: belonging to God and belonging to each other, there is no end to connectedness – the great mystery in which we are embedded. He speaks of love as a lived “Yes, we belong together” – something that has more to do with the will than with our emotions or with our thoughts. He applies this even when relating to enemies – we belong together: if you are my enemy, I will take a clear stance but I will not harm you, I will be fair, I will seek every opportunity to come to understanding through negotiation not retaliation, I will have compassion for your suffering.
According to Br. David, mysticism is the experience of limitless belonging. Every one of us is a mystic, because we have this experience of belonging, every human being has this. But what we call the great mystics, they let this experience determine and shape every moment of their lives. And we humans, the rest of us, tend to forget it. But if we keep it in mind, then we are really related to that great mystery, and then we can find joy in it.
The mystic is not a special human being. Every human being is a special kind of mystic! You can understand it when you allow it to take hold of you — that great mystery with which all human beings are always confronted, that we can also not grasp, obviously, but we can understand by allowing it to do something to us. And that openness can be totally silent. Silent openness is a wonderful form of prayer, he says.
In the Psalms, gratitude is woven into every human emotion and is more resilient than the circumstances of the moment, an intention that is held. By beholding, listening, attending to the present moment and its opportunity, there can be deep inner peace and joy in the midst of sadness, when we can recognize the uniqueness of every given moment of every day.
Br. David responds to the question of how, in this kind of moment, how is it even reasonable, or how is it vital to talk about, to use language like “gratitude” and “gratefulness”? He is very aware of how it’s instinctive for us to question gratitude. Where do we find the courage to let ourselves down into the depth which gratitude opens up?
‘When I am confronted with something, for instance, of which I have to say, “Heavens, for this I can’t be grateful, obviously. And where do I find the opportunity in this? That’s all too glib, and I have to eat my own words” — then I let go of all this, of all this thought and all this, and I just try to sit quietly. But when you’ve got sufficiently quiet, then, without you having to figure something out, some answer emerges.’
‘We must acknowledge our anxiety. But we must not fear. Anxiety – this word comes from a root that means “narrowness” and “choking” – not just an understandable, but a reasonable response to a lot of human experience.’
‘Fear is the resistance against this anxiety, fear is life-destroying. Everything hinges on trust in life – with this trust, with this faith, we can go into that anxiety and say: It’s terrible, it feels awful, but I trust that it is just another birth into a greater fullness.’
‘On a larger scale: looking back and seeing that all the most difficult experiences always lead to something new and even something better, if we trust. In order to keep us going, it is enough to be grateful for the next breath, because it’s not to be taken for granted that I can take another breath.’
According to Br. David, monasticism, in its many origins, arose as spiritual renewal movements of a church that had grown institutional and imperial and lost its fire and its spirit. And so monastics, in a sense, have always been rebels, in their way. Monasticism itself, even while it may look established, has always been something on the edges of institution – but at the heart of religion.
‘Monastic life is religion of the heart – prayer, also in the context of gratitude, is whatever lifts your heart, that joy that is gratitude. And that joy is prayer, because it lifts up our heart – we are made for that.’
‘In the West, it’s getting smaller and smaller as far as monks are concerned, but there are so many more lay people as oblates [Associates, as we call them], as extended family members, that the monasteries, if you count the oblates, are bigger now than they were before. And for these lay people who live their own lives every day, but in the spirit, somehow, of monastic life – because there’s a monk in each of us — for them, this is really a great help in their lives, and a help, also, to live gratefully.’
I commend this podcast to your attention, and especially the unedited conversation (“Play Unedited”) I found well worth the 75 minute investment of time.