Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and teacher, has been writing and teaching about gratitude for over 30 years. I’ve been a fan through that time and have kept his book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer with me through many moves.
Browsing the web last week, I discovered a recent interview he did with Krista Tippett for her podcast, On Being. She travelled to the monastery where he lives, Gut Aich Priory in St. Gilgen, Austria, to talk with him in person. I was captivated by his Austrian accent, occasionally unusual syntax, and deep wisdom.
Listen to the full interview. It’s great! But my gift to you today is a few excerpts from the transcript – answers to Krista’s probing, insightful, and deeply informed questions.
One of the things I love about his work, is that Br. David allows the practice of gratitude to be simple and accessible to us all, without simplifying what it takes to find peace in a complex world.
Being grateful, does not mean reducing life to a kind of Panglossian fantasy where we talk about everything as a “gift”. If you ever read Voltaire’s Candide in school, Dr. Pangloss was that satiric character who went around exclaiming, after witnessing countless horrors, “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
Br. David, who grew up witnessing the horrors of Nazi Germany doesn’t ask us to accept everything.
Sh-t does happen. War is not a gift. My cousin’s breast cancer is not a gift. Torture is not a gift.
There’s some terrible stuff out there, Br. David explains, and the world is at risk of self-annihilation. Yet now, more than ever, he invites us to stop, listen and find within the moment, opportunities for gratitude.
The following sections are Br. David’s words, taken from the interview, and arranged for clarity. (Section heads are mine.)
Not everything is a gift
“I don’t speak of the gift, because not for everything that’s given to you can you really be grateful. You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence, or domestic violence, or sickness, things like that. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful. But in every moment, you can be grateful.
For instance, the opportunity to learn something from a very difficult experience, what [how] to grow by it, or even to protest, to stand up, and take a stand. That is a wonderful gift in a situation in which things are not the way they ought to be. So opportunity is really the key when people ask, ‘Can you be grateful for everything?’
No, not for everything, but in every moment.
I always say joy is the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.
… there is a deep inner peace and joy in the midst of sadness… For instance, losing a friend, a dear friend under normal circumstances, not to an accident and so forth, but under normal circumstances, losing our grandparents, losing our parents when they get very old, there’s a deep sadness, but there is also a great joy…”
Society pushes us away from gratitude by having us want more
“For many people in our culture, the heart fills up with joy, with gratefulness, and just at the moment when it wants to overflow and really the joy comes to itself, at that moment, advertisement comes in and says ‘No, no, there’s a better model, and there’s a newer model, and your neighbor has a bigger one’.”
And so instead of overflowing, we make the bowl bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And it never overflows. It never……gives us this joy.
We can learn that the real joys come with quality, not with quantity.”
Three simple steps to attending: stop, look, go
“For me, this idea of listening and really looking and beholding, that comes in when people ask well, how shall we practice this gratefulness?
And, there is a very simple kind of methodology to it: stop, look, go. Most of us are caught up in schedules, and deadlines, and rushing around. And so the first thing is that we have to stop, because otherwise we are not really coming into this present moment at all. And we can’t even appreciate the opportunity that is given to us because we rush by and it rushes by. So stopping is the first thing. But that doesn’t have to be long.
When you are in practice, a split second is enough to stop. And then you look. What is, now, the opportunity of this given moment? Only this moment, the unique opportunity this moment gives? And that is where this beholding comes in.
And if we really see what the opportunity is, we must, of course, not stop there, but we must do something with it. Go. Avail yourself of that opportunity.
And if you do that, if you try practicing that at this moment, tonight, we would already be happier people, because it has an immediate feedback of joy.”
Gratitude starts with the body
“Spirituality is aliveness on all levels. It must start with our bodily aliveness. For many people, the sense of smell is practically nonexistent. If you really are grateful, come alive with your smell. Start smelling, not sightseeing, but smell-smelling, and it is wonderful. It makes you so much more alive. So it starts with the body.
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 sort of look away from or forget or be dead to. We come alive to it. And all this coming alive, that is spirituality. And so, science has discovered that when people are grateful, they come alive.”
Fear and the anxiety of self-annihilation
When we look at things like global warming, or the destruction of the environment, or this uncontrollable violence that’s breaking out here and there, and can’t be — you can’t touch it, you can’t grab it, that is really — I think that justifies us to say we are at the brink of self-annihilation. However, we must acknowledge our anxiety about it. But we must not fear.
Anxiety, or anxious, being anxious, this word comes from a root that means “narrowness,” and choking, and the original anxiety is our birth anxiety. …It’s a reasonable response, and we are to acknowledge it and affirm it, because to deny our anxiety is another form of resistance.
Anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.
But what really paralyzes us is fear. The fear is life destroying.
It’s about as tight [a] spot as the world has ever been in, or at least humankind. But, if we go with it — and that will be grateful living — if we go with it, it will be a new birth. And that is trust in life…
And with this trust, with this faith, we can go into that anxiety and say, it’s terrible, it feels awful. But it may — I trust that it is just another birth into a greater fullness.”
Silent openness is a wonderful form of prayer.
“What we experience when we are grateful is that something lifts up our heart, that joy that is gratitude, and that joy is prayer because it lifts up our heart. Whatever lifts up our heart. And we are made for that.
Just be grateful for the next breath.
In my youth, we couldn’t take it for granted because every night the bombs fell. ..
That uniqueness of every given moment of every day, to open your eyes and know another day. We can’t take it for granted.”