The Gospel of Gratitude According to Brother David Steindl-Rast

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

David Diego

Brother David Steindl-Rast was born in Vienna in 1926 and learned to live in joyful presence during World War II, knowing he could die at any moment. After the war he studied art, anthropology, and psychology, receiving an MA from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and a PhD from the University of Vienna, but a passage from the 1,500-year-old Rule of Saint Benedict, “have death at all times before your eyes,” reminded him of the unique one-pointed happiness he experienced during the war. In an effort to recapture that depth, he became a Benedictine monk in 1953 upon visiting the Mount Saviour Monastery in Elmira, New York.

Alternating between the life of a hermit and an international spokesperson for interfaith dialogue, he developed practical theories on the subject of grateful living, for which he is most known. He is founder of A Network for Grateful Living, with an interactive website linking 240 countries and territories to promote the practice. In the wake of the unprecedented fires that devastated Northern California in October, we spoke with Brother David about myriad topics ranging from prayer and the current political zeitgeist to child molestation in the Church and the vicissitudes of trusting in life.

Steindl-Rast in December 1952
Steindl-Rast in December 1952

Common Ground: How do you remember Hitler’s rise to power?

David Steindl-Rast: I was born eight years after the first world war, so there was still the Imperial Viennese atmosphere combined with the great social upheaval, the Depression, and the rising Nazis. I have two particular memories of March 1938. One was of our young nanny being excited and delighted with all the beautiful German soldiers coming in, and the other was of my Jewish relatives sitting with curtains drawn in the dark and crying.

You were raised as a Germanic nobleman with Jewish ancestry.

I can only say it mixes well, except we had to be terribly careful during the Nazi time. My brothers and I were considered a quarter Jewish, and my mother was considered second degree. She didn’t have to wear the yellow star either. She looked very non-Jewish and so one just didn’t talk about it, and that’s how it worked out.

You were drafted into Hitler’s army.

From May 1944 until February 1945. To this day I have tried to figure it out but can’t find any reasonable explanation why others were sent to the front line, but I was allowed to stay behind. My only explanation is that I had a guardian angel. The Russians were our liberators. We could see the gunfire coming closer and closer until finally we took off our German uniforms and burned them. The first group of Russians were good and kind. They fed us and provided what we needed. The second group was very destructive, looting and raping. We had to hide our mother. It was a difficult time.

Austria just elected a 31-year-old from the far right, Sebastian Kurz, as chancellor. Do you sense similarities to the political zeitgeist of the thirties?

Absolutely. And I’m not the only one—other people who experienced that time say this sounds much like the thirties, when Hitler came to power. The political situation now in Europe is discouraging, but Kurz is by far not the worst. I know him personally—not well—he’s a gifted man, an intellectual. He’s nothing like some years ago, when there were some villainous demagogues, very Nazi types.

David Diego in a black hood

Was it the war that turned you to religious life?

That’s an interesting question. Yes, in a way. During the war the only thing that gave us courage and kept us going was spirituality or religion. We read anything we thought the Nazis wouldn’t like us to read. The young people my age—more of them died than survived. The war made us live in the moment because the next moment a bomb may fall unknowingly. We lived every moment joyfully, not knowing if it would be our last. In the midst of this constant death, we were really joyful. When the war was over, there was a decisive point when I remembered a passage from the Rule of Saint Benedict, a little 1,500-year-old book by the founder of the Benedictine order, with a sentence that said, “have death at all times before your eyes.” With the war over and my life ahead of me, I suddenly remembered how we had been so happy being forced to live in the present moment with death at all times before our eyes. Because that’s where I first read the sentence, I connected living in the present moment with monastic life. I felt very strongly that if I wanted that deep kind of happiness, then I would have to become a monk.

What about girls?

I did find all sorts of excuses to delay becoming a monk and started one thing after the other: art, psychology, anthropology, and kept saying, “I’ll take whatever comes first, the right girl or the right monastery.” Knowing there were many girls and very few monasteries, I thought I was safe. Then in 1953 after being in the United States, I ran into the [Mount Saviour] monastery in Elmira, New York, and within 24 hours I knew that was it.

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, died recently. He was about your age. Did you ever wonder about his lifestyle and think, “Gosh I too am a young man. Am I missing something?”

[Laughs] No. I always had girlfriends and had a great time, but having a girlfriend then was not exactly what it is today. Young people weren’t going as far. When I became a monk, I was so delighted and didn’t even think of anything else. That was way over 60 years ago and I would do it again. On the deepest level I felt drawn to single-minded concentration on the present moment, and the monastery made that easier. Then after the first 12 years in the monastery, I traveled a great deal, eventually all over the world, which isn’t typical, but I found it very satisfying.

What are the basic precepts of the Benedictine order?

The first rule comes out of the deepest question, “Does he really seek God?” We would translate by saying, “Does he [the aspiring monk] really want to wrestle with the mystery that is human life?” We all eventually must wrestle these mysteries, but in the monastery one faces that question head-on.

Practically, how is it lived? We spend time in manual labor working in the garden or some craft or in the kitchen or something—to keep us down to earth. Secondly, we study and meditate, and that flows into one another. Third is we chant and pray together. That is the course of the monastic day.

You’re famous as a philosopher on gratitude. What is the basis of your theory?

People usually think that gratitude is saying thank you, as if this were the most important aspect of it. The most important aspect of the practice of grateful living is trust in life. Every human being every day has to make a practical choice between trusting life or not trusting life. Again and again in life, one is tempted to distrust and fear. Fear and distrust—this is the same.

If you try out distrusting life and always questioning life, you find that it makes you absolutely miserable. Or you can try trusting life and whatever comes up, saying, “Well, maybe I don’t like it but I trust that life gives me good things—that life is trustworthy.” To live that way is what I call “grateful living” because then you receive every moment as a gift. And really the gift within the gift is opportunity. This is when you stop long enough to ask yourself, “What’s the opportunity in this moment?” You look for it and then take advantage of that opportunity. It’s as simple as that.

You have a practical way to look at it—stop, look, go.

Yes, we call it stop, look, go. The first is to stop and pause long enough. The second is to look for the opportunities to find gratitude. Then go take advantage of it. Grateful living is based on having trust and taking advantage of all the opportunities to live a joyful life. People who haven’t tried it don’t believe it, but most of life is an opportunity to enjoy. When you try it, you find it to be true.

You haven’t thought of all the things you take for granted: breathing, walking, simply being alive. Having eyes to see, having friends, having something to eat. If you take these for granted, they don’t do anything. When we meet other people, even if they are not particularly likable, we find that they are interesting and different and provide an opportunity to learn and grow. Even in politics or in the office or in the family, there are things against which we have the opportunity to protest and say, “This is as far as I go,” but these are also opportunities to be joyful in the midst of unhappiness—to enjoy life.

With Eckhart Tolle in 2016
With Eckhart Tolle in 2016

Here in Northern California, unprecedented fires killed many people and destroyed thousands of homes. How do you tell people to find a silver lining in the face of such misfortune?

I’ve been following the fires in Northern California every day because I lived there for quite some time. First of all, you don’t go around telling people who are in the midst of misery that they should be grateful. That’s not the way to do it. I can’t say anything. You can go up to them and put your arm around them and show how you too suffer.

I have a friend, a psychotherapist who also lost everything in a Northern California fire many years ago. He was a researcher who lost all his files and research. Looking back, it was the beginning of a completely new life. He says it was like going through a new birth. He had the inner attitude that even when the worst happened, it was for the best. But talking that way in the midst of misery—I can’t do it and I would not advise anybody else to do it.

There’s scientific research that suggests health benefits can result from gratitude. That it unshackles toxic emotions, for example.

One researcher is Robert Emmons at the University of California at Davis. He has found that grateful living is something that can be cultivated. He has statistical evidence that if you do, your health improves, your social relationships improve. It’s something very positive, this gratefulness. One doesn’t want to water down the research or overemphasize it, but it is best to read about these things. It’s easily accessible.

I’m thinking about Eckhart Tolle, whose work I admire. I know that you two are close but also that your work has strong parallels. Eckhart points to presence as a window to enlightenment, while you point to gratitude. What are the similarities and differences between his work and yours?

I feel very close to him and I’ve even said to people, “If you only buy one book, don’t buy mine, buy The Power of Now.” I subscribe to everything he says and am promoting him. I would simply say it’s another slant on the same truth and the same reality. Perhaps for you and me, the saying “live in the now” is more attractive and interesting, but it’s a little more difficult than to say, “just be grateful, trust life.” Every child understands gratefulness. Every religion emphasizes gratefulness—it’s at the heart of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. So you have something that’s alike amid spiritual traditions, and that has certain advantages.

bubbles diego ortiz

[Chuckles] Do you and Eckhart speaks German with each other?

[Laughs] No. Only here and there for a word or two, but normally we speak English.

What are simple practices that readers can take away to cultivate gratitude?

Within the phrase “stop, look, go,” many find difficulty in the stop because we live in a very fast society. People get carried away and get ahead of themselves, so we need reminders to stop. One has to find out for oneself the best ways, but often in the beginning, something new is good. For instance, when you get into the car you can train yourself for one second or a fraction of a second to wait before turning the key in the ignition. That’s the stop. Then we look for the opportunity to be grateful. We have the gift of the car, something to get around in. Then we go—we go and take advantage of the gift, which can be a joyful ride.

Or in the morning before opening our eyes, we can train ourselves for one split second to stop and keep our eyes closed. Before opening them we can look for gratitude such as “I have eyes and I can look.” I read somewhere that there are 42 million blind people, and many of them are children. Their blindness is mostly due to hunger. Anything we can do to reinvent ourselves to pause even for the slightest moment. We used to have prayers before meals, so even if we just put our hands together and bowed before digging in. This will make meals much more enjoyable. Anything we take for granted is lost to our experience. Anything we do mindfully can give joy.

What is A Network for Grateful Living that you started?

It’s online support for offline grateful living. Everywhere in the world there are small groups of people who are very different from one another that meet regularly and discuss their difficulties in living gratefully and encourage one another. The goal is to spread this joy of grateful living all over the world. There is an English website, a German one, a Spanish one, a Portuguese one, and even a small Chinese one.

You operate within the boundaries of the Catholic Church. Do you ever find yourself confronting stiff bureaucratic challenges?

I have been lucky in that respect. [Laughs] I’m Viennese and somewhat diplomatic. If you attack, of course, you will be attacked back. I have close friends who have great difficulties with the Catholic Church. Matthew Fox in the United States and others in Europe, but they are always the aggressive types. But I want to be outspoken, and I am in many ways an outspoken critic of my own tradition, but I try to be a constructive critic. You have to be diplomatic.

I presume the personality of the acting pope dictates the tone at the Vatican. You’ve experienced many popes in your life. What do you think of Pope Francis?

I’m delighted with Pope Francis. I think he’s number 11 or 12 in my lifetime, and I compare him to Pope John XXIII, who was also truly human and whom everybody loved. He started the second Vatican Council, which received a great deal of opposition but was a breakthrough. We have forgotten how many things that we have today we owe to Vatican II.

What Pope Francis is doing—it’s not just being nice and compassionate, which is all very fine. He’s dismantling the power pyramid of the Church, where the pope sits on top and then there are the cardinals and then the bishops and the priests and so on. Jesus faced that power pyramid in his own lifetime because that is how the world is built, but he spent his life dismantling that, saying to his disciples, “With you it ought to be different. The highest among you ought to be the servants.” He turned this power pyramid, which is based on fear and rivalry, into a network of cooperation. I very much hope the present pope finds a way to secure his understanding of what it means to be a Christian for the future.

Does Pope Francis face a lot of opposition?

Unfortunately, he does—from the structures, especially from the cardinals.

How does Opus Dei factor in the Church?

I think it’s no longer as dangerous as it used to be under John Paul II and Pope Benedict, but it’s difficult to judge. The great danger I see in the Church began when Jesus’s message of the power of love confronted the love of power. Unfortunately, very soon Christians thought they could enforce love by power. From all that one typically hears about Opus Dei, they tried to play this power game. Jesus died as a political offender who preached the reign of God against the emperor, against the occupying forces. By preaching the power of love and by living the power of love, he undermined the love of power. Crucifixion was not for any other offenses. It was for runaway slaves and revolutionaries—those who undermined the existing political order.

But rather than criticize one group, I would promote the many wonderful groups all over the world. For instance the Comunidades de base, the base communities of Christians getting together to understand Jesus’s message as a challenge in their own life—here and now, politically. There’s no question for me that to be a Christian is a profoundly political decision. I don’t mean party politics, but I mean it in the broadest sense. How do people live together? How do people live together in peace?

Steindl-Rast (far right)marching for peace with Thich Nhat Hanh (second from right) in 1982
Steindl-Rast (far right)marching for peace with Thich Nhat Hanh (second from right) in 1982

This is an embarrassing question, but what can you say about the problems with priests and child molestation?

It’s a catastrophe, which in the case of the Catholic Church has a lot to do with priestly celibacy. That is something that could be given up at any moment. Priests, whether they like it or not, are required to be celibate. I’m not a priest so I am speaking as a layperson, as a monk, but I wonder why on earth in the 21st century one insists on buying the privilege of serving the Church as a priest by being celibate? It makes absolutely no sense to me. The Catholic Church has a great lack of priests, and we would have plenty if we allowed them to marry.

Steindl-Rast and Swami Satchidananda
Steindl-Rast and Swami Satchidananda

Might you have a message to crime victims, specifically to those who were subjects of molestation at the hands of clerics?

Before one can approach traumatized persons in a spiritual context, the wounds of their psyche have to be treated professionally. A so-called spiritual approach cannot replace professional medical help. The institutional Church must tackle the problem at its roots. I believe one root problem is the enforcement of priestly celibacy. As for a message to the victims, let me simply quote Pope Francis: “Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness.”

What is the difference between being a monk and being a priest?

Priests are the guardians of the institution, while monks are the royal opposition. Unfortunately, many monasteries simply take it for granted that the monks will become priests. We think of ourselves as pikes in the carp pond. Carp are very slow and a bit lazy and in danger that moss will grow on them because they don’t move enough. So people put a pike inside the pond to chase the carp. The role of the monks is to be the pikes in the carp pond of the institutional church.

Many seekers have fled Christianity because they no longer felt it maintained a path to enlightenment. They’ve turned mostly to Eastern traditions such as Buddhism or Hinduism or Sufism, where there is a mystic lineage. Does the church today offer a mystic lineage?

I have had a great deal of work in interreligious dialogue and often talk with people who say they used to be Christian but are now practicing Buddhism. Very often they say, “Oh, only now through my practicing of Buddhism I have discovered the spiritual riches that were in my former Christian tradition.” To me it doesn’t make any difference what label you put on it, as long as one discovers the spiritual riches and lives a deep spiritual life, but why did they not discover it in the first place? First of course, familiarity breeds contempt. That is to a certain extent true, but it’s also a fact that the Catholic tradition and also a good many Protestant denominations put too little emphasis on the meditative, the contemplative mystic aspects. But they are there. They are at the very heart of every tradition.

Steindl-Rast chatting with Panikkar in 2005
Steindl-Rast chatting with Panikkar in 2005

Catholics have the Prayer of Silence that’s 2,000 years old and has been written about extensively and practiced not only by the great mystics but by ordinary people over the millennia. When I speak with Zen Buddhists about it, they say, “That is exactly what we call zazen.” There is no difference whether you call it the Prayer of Silence or zazen. We have a tradition called “living by the word of god”—savoring everything that is. Very much in the way that I spoke about grateful living. As the Psalm says, “Taste and see how good the Lord is.” God speaks to us through everything there is.

Meditation in action—that is closer to what the Hindus do, where you act lovingly, and through acting lovingly you experience from within the love of God that flows into that action. That is a perfectly valid form of spiritual practice, and we have had it forever in our tradition. There’s no reason why we couldn’t stress more the mystical aspects of the Christian tradition. We are not so hungry for doctrine, we are hungry for spirituality.

Giving a speech in Engelberg, Switzerland
Giving a speech in Engelberg, Switzerland

Being that you’re a Christian monk, I presume you’ve chosen the Lord Jesus as your sole refuge—your beginning, middle, and end so to speak. Yet you describe divinity more as an independent experience of presence. Is there a discrepancy?

There is no discrepancy. My religious vocabulary was formed by my Christian upbringing. As a Benedictine monk I use Christian rituals and texts to express myself. What I worship is the same Great Mystery that all humans confront as “religious animals.” Had I been born in Thailand, my basic human religiousness might have been channeled into Buddhist expressions. It is foolish provincialism to refuse to communicate but in one particular language. To insist that only one religion expresses that Mystery validly would be like insisting that only one language can express the truth. In a world of global problems, we can no longer afford religious provincialism.

Through your interfaith work you encountered many notable figures such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh. Who else has been especially inspiring to you?

You mentioned the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I would mention Eckhart Tolle and Swami Satchidananda, whom I knew well. He founded Integral Yoga. I would also mention Oprah Winfrey. I think she’s a deeply spiritual person and does much for waking people to spirituality.

I had one encounter with Sai Baba. He was somewhat controversial, but I think he did a great deal of good and I just liked him. I should mention Thomas Merton, who had a great mind and great heart. I once met Swami Gosananda, who went through prison and torture and great sufferings in Cambodia. The Dalai Lama too admires him greatly.

I also met Mother Teresa and was of course deeply impressed by her personality. She helped the poor but did not ask why the poor were poor. As Archbishop Dom Helder Camara said in Brazil, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” I think it’s absolutely necessary to ask why the poor are poor and then do something about it. Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, did both. I loved her.

Ironically, in America we love Jesus and hate communism, yet the most superficial study of Jesus’s life would earn him the commie label.

Historic communism has shown its shortcomings, but the idea of having all things in common is wonderful. If you read Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament about the church in Jerusalem, it sounds very communist. They had everything in common and shared.

What are some of your greatest joys? And fears?

Nature comes to mind. I don’t do gardening anymore but I love walks with animals and plants. It’s a positive way to be in touch with what I call “the great mystery of life.” Anxieties? When I look at the world and see what they are doing to our environment—that causes me great concern.

On a walk at St. Gerold, Austria in 2009
On a walk at St. Gerold, Austria in 2009

I was at a conference this weekend where one man urged we pray that President Trump become a contemplative. Everyone laughed at the unlikelihood of that prospect, but perhaps we should simply pray he become a better steward of the earth.

I do believe in prayer and pray for President Trump every day. I send him energy. As people, we all have various parts of ourselves, so I am praying that whatever best part of him may come to the fore. The destruction of the environment is suicidal for the whole human race, and that’s certainly bad. But I do not believe that we are to fight against the bad but are to resist it in concrete situations. I believe that bad is the not yet good. I think we should look at the bad things in the world with the eyes of a mother that looks at her so-called bad child and says, “You can do better.” With that look and attitude, she creates the space to encourage whatever little good is there to come out and throw off the husk of badness. But it’s important not to fight evil.

With Father Bede Griffiths
With Father Bede Griffiths

It seems like you have a blessed personality, or as the Easterns would say, you have especially good karma. How do you acknowledge grace?

I cannot improve on what Saint Augustine said: “All is grace, all is gift.” Everybody can say that. Everybody. Because even our shortcomings are gifts. Even our suffering is a gift. My favorite example is Helen Keller. If she had not been blind and deaf, she would never have become the great teacher for humankind that she became. Life gives us what we need.

You’re 91. Do you have any fear of death?

I’m enjoying life moment by moment as it is. So no, I can’t say I’m looking forward to my last breath but will try to trust in life when it comes. I make an important distinction between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is inevitable in life, but fear is not the right response to anxiety. Fear stretches out its bristles and resists anxiety and gets stuck in it. The very word anxiety comes from the same root, angustia, which means “narrowness.” Anxiety means getting into a narrow spot, much like when we come into this world through the narrow birth canal. I’m sure that for the poor little baby, that meant a lot of anxiety but instinctively it doesn’t set up any resistance and is born. In life whenever we get into a tight spot, if we don’t resist and trust in life then life carries us through.

What advice can you share about making this a better world?

Help everybody to live fearlessly. All that goes wrong comes from fear. The opposite of fear is trust in life. Say to each other “fear not” or “trust in life.” That would make a completely different world.

A final message to some readers who are living in the aftermath of this fire crisis?

I say this too will pass. This too will pass.

Rob Sidon is editor in chief and publisher of Common Ground.

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