Brother David Steindl-Rast on Gratitude


KATE OLSON, correspondent: On a recent Saturday morning at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, church members and neighbors gathered to hear Brother David talk about living “a spirited life.”

Church group singing: Viva, viva la musica…

OLSON: For Brother David, it is grateful living that makes everything come alive.

BROTHER DAVID STEINDL-RAST, OSB: The practice of gratefulness that I’m concerned with is grateful living. That means every moment of your life you practice gratefulness. You practice awareness that everything is gift, everything is gratuitous, and if it’s all given, gratuitously given, then the only appropriate response is gratefulness What we really want is joy. We don’t want things. We don’t want to accumulate things. We forget that, and so gratefulness can help us see that, can help us realize that.

OLSON: Though Brother David acknowledges there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, he encourages people to be open to the opportunity being given in every situation.

post01-steindlrastBROTHER DAVID: We cannot be grateful for war. That’s an unmitigated evil. We cannot be grateful for exploitation, for untimely death. But we can be grateful in every situation. The key word is “opportunity.” If you catch onto that, then if we are in practice, when something comes along for which we cannot be grateful, spontaneously we will—our mind will say, “Well, what’s this the opportunity for now?” And there’s always an opportunity for something positive, usually the opportunity to learn something new, even in the worst situations, or for the opportunity to do something. If we learn of an injustice we have the opportunity to stand up and to speak up and to do something.

OLSON: During the day, people reflected on moments of ‘epiphany’ in their lives – what brother David calls mystic or peak experiences, which often include an experience of profound gratitude.

BROTHER DAVID: The mystic is not a special kind of human being, but every human being is a special kind of mystic. We all have mystic experiences, and in these peak moments, in these peak experiences, all of us have this experience of being one with all. Those are the moments in which we feel most alive, most truly ourselves.

OLSON: Grateful living is something you can practice moment by moment in your daily life, he says, and like other spiritual practices, such as Zen meditation, its goal is to live in the present moment, to see everything as “word of God.”

post02-steindlrastBROTHER DAVID: “Word” is not just vocabulary, but “word” is everything that speaks to us, and in this sense a flower can be a word that speaks to me. A poem as a whole can be a word that speaks to me, a piece of art, everything. It speaks to me. It tells me something, it tells me something about ultimate reality. That’s a mystic insight that every human being can appreciate, I think, and experience, if we only allow ourselves.

OLSON: Cultivating this aliveness in life is central to Brother David’s vocation as a monk and to his message. Born in Austria, he immigrated to the US in 1952 and joined Mount Savior Monastery in Elmira, New York.

Brother David singing: Alleluia …

OLSON: For decades he has lived part of his life as a hermit, in prayer and contemplation and writing books. The other half he travels the globe lecturing and leading retreats, helping people discover this “aliveness” in their own lives. Finding the deeply shared personal experience is at the heart of Brother David’s work in interreligious dialogue.

Brother David speaking at retreat: “…always checking it back with your own experience, always checking it back against your basic faith…”

post03-steindlrastOLSON: A pioneer in the Christian-Buddhist dialogue, he returns frequently to Tassajara, a Zen monastery in California where he lived for several years. As part of the dialogue with Buddhism, Brother David trained in Zen meditation and joined in Buddhist rituals. He says the task of interreligious dialogue today is to understand the meaning beneath the words of particular creeds or beliefs, to discover the faith that underlies these words that we all share.

BROTHER DAVID: Deep down there is only one faith that all human beings have, and that is that deep trust in life. Even our body expresses that trust in life by always taking another breath. We can’t even stop it. We can’t stop breathing. So that deep trust in life—that is what all humans share, and that expresses itself, then, in a Buddhist way, in a Christian way, and even in ways that we don’t recognize as explicitly religious. Many atheists have a deep faith. They all have that deep faith, but they express it very differently.

OLSON: Beliefs are not faith, he says. Faith is deep trust. And the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.

BROTHER DAVID: The one most frequently repeated command in the Bible is not “love your neighbor,” but “fear not.” And if there is one thing that we need in our world, if there’s one thing that we should write on our mirror and see every morning when we look into the mirror, it’s “fear not.” If we went into the day with that command deeply tattooed on our heart, “fear not,” we’d be completely different people and create a completely different world—a world of faith.

OLSON: This deep trust in life is at the heart of what he sees as “the round dance of grateful living.”

BROTHER DAVID: So we participate in this tremendous dance in which the gift comes forth from the source and through thanksgiving returns to the source, where the word comes out of the silence and through understanding returns to the silence. Gratefulness is not just saying “thank you.” It’s acting. It is being your self. A mother is grateful, shows gratefulness by mothering, a scientist by doing science. That is what the Bible calls “in God we live and move and have our being.”

Church group singing: “Viva, viva la musica…”

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Kate Olson reporting from San Francisco.

  • Lorraine

    Absolutely beautiful. I live in the UK and I am attempting to live one whole year learning, and talking and telling stories about Gratitude. I am day 58 into the year and I am finding real treasure through the daily practice. I came across Br David’s work during the beginning of my research, through the internet and I am so grateful to the internet that it allows me to not only see his wonderful website, but to read things like this.
    Thank you – the article has touched a little corner of the UK on a wet and cold Saturday morning!

  • Margy T

    Would love to live this philosophy daily. Loved this piece.

  • Shelby Kuenning

    He is a very wise man!

  • Evlyn Schnieders

    This was awesome! I greatly appreciate segments like this on RELIGION AND ETHICS. Brother David has long been a soul brother to me.

  • Julia Johson

    This piece was so touching and moved me deeply. Brother Steindl-Rast has hit on the kernel of truth of focusing on trust rather than fear. It is a deep meditation and a way of choosing to live. Thank you Brother Steindl-Rast for sharing with us!

  • Leon PIsano

    Brother David’s life and work are the work of God through the Holy Spirit!
    I feel that I found a treasure in Brother Davids words.
    I am grateful and inspired.

  • Charles Roth

    I read Brother David Steindl-Rast’s book, “Gratitude”, many years ago, and that was some years after the book was given to me with the encouragement to read it. I’ve often told friends that it was one of the best books on spirituality that I ever read (along with Henri Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”.

  • Henry Spelter

    It is deeply satisfying and encourging to know that respecting and learning from other ideas and ways of living do not require abandoning or denying our Christianity, but being enriched by them in the brotherhood of the eternal Spirit.

  • Gerd

    As an ideological agent of a German church, I know that is brought in David’s brother talks a truly religious piety comprehensible expression.

  • Jessica

    I have no doubt that Brother David is pious well-intentioned, and an eloquent speaker, but what is “a deep trust in life?” He gives the example of not having the choice to stop breathing, which seems to not elucidate this concept in the slightest. At the end, he proposes that showing gratitude is doing what it is that is needed or what you can offer the most doing, but where is the link between a deep trust in life and gratitude? The connection is vague at best. It seems that Brother David has a romantic notion of all religions and faiths as partaking in one ultimate truth, but how is this justified by anything he has said? While a nice idea, this speech provides no support and only weak connections among his ideals and their relation to all religions.

  • Elspeth V

    Seeing Brother David on Global Spirit, ( Link T V, March 2011), I was greatly inspired by his philosophy, and trust in the awareness and the value and consolation returned by inspired gratitude. But in this article his idea of being so easily able to “fear not” completely baffles me. How, after losing so many loved ones as one ages can one escape the all encompassing terror of lonelines and isolation? Every moment is frought with fear. Primarily the fear of being an endless burden on family, and fear of losing all self sufficiency and spirit.

  • B. Michael Foley

    “A deep trust in life” is what? My Grandmother often said: “Life takes care of itself.” Bro. David speaks from a deep personal experience, one that many have/ had and live out daily. To have a problem with his posture or to detract from the implication that such a philosophy is lacking clarity is perhaps more indicative that those who would do so, have yet to experience a deeply contemplative dimension of their inner life..which gives way to many insights and with it, a greater trust in the process of life. Thus, “Life takes care of itself,” see Grandma. A woman of 94 years who lived in the real world of loss, pain and suffering..but also knew benefits of family, health and joy. The choice to not stop breathing is a comparative to the fact that one can’t stop life from unfolding..unless of course one choices suicide. You breathe in, you breathe out. You wake up, you go to sleep. You live life by trusting that when you “choose” to live from aground of courage and gratitude, it is far from is fulfilling and meaningful..and this experience IS found in all major religious traditions of the world. It’s not an ideal, it’s a reality. And, a connection is clear. As for One Ultimate Truth, how can/could it not be otherwise? Ultimate Truth is Truth, no matter from what cultural or religious ground it stems from. Anyway you slice it, gratitude “is” the expression of a deep trust in life. So, to Jessica and Elspeth, I respect your views, but must kindly bring attention to the inner meaning of your comments, both of which indicate/suggest that the conflict is not with Bro. David, but more personally related to a weak connection somewhere Within. People can’t give what they do not have. Nor can they understand a connection between gratitude and a deep trust in life. As Zen Master Sueng Shan once said: “I can tell you all day long about an orange, but until you bite into it and taste it, you will never know.” See?

  • Cheryl Fogg

    If you take it to the atomic level we are all equally the same but different, hence the Good, the All, the Infinite is the same across all cultures. As human beings we have a choice – to look upon experience as something to learn from, enjoy and growth with or to look upon experience as that thing that we want ot be according to our desires. How limiting if we choose to see only what we want to see. Hence the fear – of the unknown.

    Be grateful for the miracle of daily life and draw closer to God, then we can really start to understand each other.

  • Krystyna Yalon

    I fail to understand what part of my response is in need of “moderation”, please explain.

  • Malvina Greto

    I am a Stephen Minister and it’s a very important ministry for me in helping someone. I’m thankful that I am able to be a part of this program.