I met Brother David Steindl-Rast, of the Roman Catholic Benedictine Order, at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Edward Conze guest house where he was staying briefly on his way to a monastery in Big Sur. The setting was apt: Conze was a Westerner who became one of the century’s great authorities on Buddhism, and the Victorian house has an inviting spaciousness, an unpretentious elegance and absence of clutter, yet real warmth—all of which fit the monk with whom I was to speak. To those who encounter Brother David now and again, he seems very much a man on the move, remarkably mobile for a monk. Yet despite all this travelling and speaking, he always appears a calm eye at the center of any storm of activity. To a passing observer, he might look disturbingly gaunt and ascetic, confirming popular prejudices about monks being world-haters. But as soon as he greets you, the illusion of severity vanishes: he is so warm and effervescent that you really want to learn how he packs so much alertness and delight into his life.

Originally from Vienna, Austria, Brother David has a doctorate in psychology and has been a monk for twenty-six years now; he currently lives in a small community, called the Grange, in Connecticut. He says that he is as much at home in a Zen monastery as in a Catholic one, and it’s hard to think that he would not be at home anywhere. For he has a remarkable ability to be joyfully and wholly present: when he listens, he does nothing else; when the phone interrupts, he takes the call with full attention and delight; when he answers questions he does so with the kind of care and élan that make an interviewer’s task a joy. More than many teachers I’ve met, the man is his message, and it is hard to imagine a more persuasive and attractive advocate for the Catholic monastic tradition.

Many people ask him whether the spirituality he embodies and presents is really the Catholicism that they’ve found so difficult to appreciate in other forms which they’ve encountered. But it may be that few people have so appropriated that tradition that they can express it with such simple grace.

—John Loudon


John Loudon:   What does “holy warfare” mean to you?

Brother David Steindl-Rast:   Today the notion of warfare is inseparable from that of alienation, whereas the very essence of spiritual warfare in the monastic tradition is the overcoming of alienation — what we call nowadays pulling or getting yourself together. And the monastic symbol for pulling yourself together is the belt, which monks wear in many different traditions. The aim is to overcome alienation from yourself, from others, and from God.

JL:   What forces need to be overcome in this struggle against alienation?

BD:   Well, in the classical discussion of holy warfare in the writings of the Eastern Elders of the early Church, these forces are personified as demons. Even in the New Testament Paul says that it is not against “flesh and blood” that we are struggling, but against principalities and powers of evil. But it’s not necessary to take these powers literally, in a fundamentalist way, and in fact to do so we probably would do an injustice to the early Fathers who wrote in those terms. They were no doubt as alert to the metaphorical nature of this imagery as we are, just as Buddhists have long known that the different hells in their tradition are best understood as mental or psychological states, not actual places.

JL:   Can you give examples of some of these personified forces and some indication of how you might express them today?

These three elements — anger, lust, and laziness — are precisely the three ways that we can fail to be present where we are, and the whole idea of getting yourself together is to be present where you are.

BD:   The three great forces that the Christian Elders in the Egyptian desert identified as the enemies against which we’re battling are anger, lust, and laziness. The third one is called the noonday devil. It is in the middle of everything — of a day, of a life — that you can lose your resolve, that torpor can set in. When you’re in the middle of swimming across a river, it’s too far to go back and seems too far to reach the other side, and you are tempted to give up. Well, these three elements—anger, lust, and laziness—are precisely the three ways that we can fail to be present where we are, and the whole idea of getting yourself together is to be present where you are and, in the Christian context, to respond to the presence of God.

Anger really means impatience (as opposed to the righteous anger that is desirable in many circumstances). Impatience makes us get ahead of ourselves, reaching out for something in the future and not really being content with where we are, here and now.

Lust extends much wider than the sexual sphere, and essentially means attachment to something that is not present, or is not the appropriate thing right now.

And one by-product of laziness, of being victimized by the noonday devil, is sadness — not the genuine sorrow of compassion, but the lifeless ennui of never really being involved in the present, with what’s happening.

If you would like another contemporary interpretation of the idea of spiritual warfare, there is C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters , in which he translates the tradition with great wit and insight into a modern idiom. It’s all about struggling with the forces that are all around us in the world and within us and that distract us from being really unified, in one piece.

The sun rises and the bell rings, and you are to be there: Your impatience can’t make it happen before the right time; your attachment to staying in bed can’t delay it; and you’ll miss it if you’re up but not really present, alert, attentive.

JL:   When I was thinking about the theme of holy warfare, it occurred to me that there are military virtues — such as discipline, strength, courage, resolve, fidelity, and so on — which are also vital to spiritual growth. And especially the aspect of discipline, involving training and regular practice. What are the disciplines that have been developed that can be used against these devils today?

BD:   The word discipline is very significant in this context, since it is not primarily a military term. The corresponding military term is regimentation. Discipline is a school term: the discipulus is the disciple, the pupil. Even the word pupil is apt here, because it is related to the pupil in our eye, the pupilla — the little doll, the little image of oneself that one sees in another’s eye. This eye-to-eye contact is the essence of discipline: discipline is the attitude that you have when you see eye-to-eye with your teacher. Today especially people reject external regimentation, and are looking for a teacher that gives discipline eye-to-eye. The drill sergeant doesn’t care if you are eye-to-eye with him or anybody else, just that you do what you are told. But discipline involves bringing out what is already within you. That’s what the true teacher does. And the other virtues you mentioned have similar parallels. Fortitude or courage, for instance, is simply the resolve to overcome obstacles. Spiritual warfare involves the acquiring and implementation of the strengths and virtues needed to overcome obstacles.

JL:   Discipline suggests to me habits of behavior and regular practices that the teacher would presumably teach. How does this dimension relate to overcoming anger, lust, laziness?

BD:   Within the monastery, which is my background and the essential environment that I feel comfortable with and know well, there is a particularly highly developed tradition of such training. In fact, the monastery can be understood precisely as a setting in which this discipline is cultivated. It is a place to which people go in order to get themselves together, again in the sense of uniting with themselves, with others, with God.

The two realms in which this discipline is cultivated are space and time, and the aim is that the whole of life should be brought together from alienation to fullness. With regard to time, for instance, there are in monasteries all sorts of bells, gongs, clappers, drums, and so on — all kinds of signals that tell you what it is time for. The struggle is within yourself to overcome your laziness, your attachments, your impatience in order to be truly wherever you need to be at any particular time. T.S. Eliot speaks of “Time, not our time,” and he explicitly says this in relation to the Angelus bell that, in monastic life, rings three times a day — at sunrise, at sunset, and at high noon. The sun doesn’t rise again or wait for you if you oversleep and don’t get up when the bell rings. The sun rises and the bell rings, and you are to be there: Your impatience can’t make it happen before the right time; your attachment to staying in bed can’t delay it; and you’ll miss it if you’re up but not really present, alert, attentive. If this sort of timeliness appeals to you, as it does to me, these signals are not a torturing regimentation but musical invitations, celebrations of particular moments.

The difficult aspect, of course, is the one expressed by St. Benedict in his Rule: “When the bell rings, stop everything. Don’t even cross your t’s or dot your i’s, but go quickly.” The challenge is to learn to respond immediately to whatever it is time for. Not to wonder whether you have time for it or whether you like it, but simply to respond when it is time. And the truth of this discipline is universal. For instance, in Taoism, the flow goes on and you can either be in tune with the flow or not. All these signals are simply means to get you into the flow, and the less you are in tune the more difficult the immediate responding is, the more obstacles you have to overcome to get with it.

With regard to space, the monastery is organized in such a way that there is a place for everything, and relatedly that everything is there, the monastery is self-contained. The ideal is wonderfully expressed in the Benedictine tradition by the famous plan of St. Gall, which is reflected more or less in many medieval monasteries. With everything there and a place for everything, you can be at home in your world, in the place where you belong. And belonging and getting yourself together are closely related. This sufficient world, which St. Benedict calls a workshop for the spiritual life, affords the spaces and the tools for working on yourself, transforming yourself, and in turn the world around you.

Novices always have difficulties with both aspects — time and space. When it is time for something, they often want to do something else; when this is the place to be, they often want to be somewhere else. And isn’t this how it is for most people? The monastery also emphasizes neatness and orderliness; most visitors notice this immediately. There is a close relation between the struggle to put things in order within your self, within your life, and the ordering of the space around you. But novices find this hard to understand. They say, “We came here to learn spiritual matters, and what I’m told to do is how to put my shoes on, when to put them on and take them off, to put them down with the right one on the right side, the left on the left, and parallel, not toed in. What does that have to do with the spiritual life?” It has everything to do with it. That is the spirituality; it isn’t something that you do just as a novice, and then graduate to spirituality. But it takes a long time to see that orderliness and cleanliness is not just cleaning the room but it is getting your life in order.

So bringing things into order is the goal. Order is the disposition of things in which each gives to the other its room, its own proper place. That’s the external aspect. The other is that order that springs from love: there’s no other way of establishing order except through love. So spiritual warfare is radically unlike what we know as warfare, which is rooted in hate and alienation and leads to chaos.

JL:   Besides the imagery of warfare, some people have compared spiritual discipline to athletic training. There is the talk, for instance, about becoming an athlete of Christ.

BD:   Both the athletic imagery and that of spiritual weaponry occur in St. Paul, but the weapons he speaks of are faith, hope, and love. I am convinced that in the present world, in which peace and order are no longer possible through arms, it is best to change our spiritual vocabulary, because misunderstandings do arise on the popular level. I am much more comfortable with speaking about spiritual struggle, since that does not necessarily involve struggling against someone else. You can struggle up a mountain, or struggle to get your body in shape. It even applies to animals: a chick struggling to get out of the eggshell. Plants struggle to break through cracks in the concrete, and amazingly they manage to. And similarly, I prefer to speak of obstacles rather than enemies. The struggle against obstacles, I think, puts the essentials of the tradition of spiritual warfare into contemporary language that is proper and helpful.

JL:   Do you think the spiritual path demands a special way of life?

BD:    If by a special way of life, you mean a special place like a monastery, I would say no. But if the question implies making an effort, having to struggle, I would say yes. The difference between other animals around us and ourselves seems to be that dogs and cats and birds and other animals don’t have to struggle to be good at what they are. But we human beings somehow have to struggle to become what we are.

JL:   Our being is to become.

BD:   Yes. We experience ourselves as unfinished, and we have to struggle to become a finished product. Actually, we’re never completely finished; that’s our glory and our agony. We remain open-ended.

JL:   In contemporary Catholicism, and in the past as well, there seem to be two divergent paths: there seem to be two divergent paths: there is that of those who emphasize spirituality, spiritual disciplines and growth, and then there is the more general, popular path in which salvation is available through regular participation in the sacraments and the life of the church generally. The former way sees becoming a Christian as a lifelong task; the latter stresses fidelity to being a good Catholic. Can you say something about this?

BD:   You speak of participating in the sacraments. At the heart of all the sacraments, especially the eucharist and baptism, is the celebration of the struggle of Christ through death to resurrection. If you really participate in the sacrament, it is impossible not to enter into that struggle. The whole idea of the sacrament is to go through that struggle yourself in communion with the struggle of Christ, to participate day by day and hour by hour in the struggle of dying into greater fullness of life. And the real issue is not whether there is one kind of life that allows for this acceptance of death that leads to fuller life, and so is a spiritual life rather than a run-of-the-mill life. No, the real question is to what extent within ordinary life we can wake up to the essential inner struggle of realizing the fullness of life. Going to church, sending your kids to Catholic schools, and so on, by themselves don’t do anything; they’re worthless, unless they lead you into, wake you up to that struggle.

JL:   Since you participate in both the Christian and the Zen communities, do you think there is an ultimate difference between Christianity and Buddhism, and what kinds of differences do you see between the two?

BD:   The point is, how ultimate is “ultimate”? There are many different levels. On one level there are great cultural differences: the two traditions grew up in entirely different settings, and so are dissimilar in many respects. But the moment that you penetrate through the accidental cultural differences, you find a remarkable similarity. Sometimes now I cannot remember if I’m in a Christian or a Buddhist monastery. The atmosphere is very similar. Then you go deeper still, and you discover profound differences in approach, although it’s difficult to put them into words. Basically, the Biblical tradition centers on the Word in the widest sense: the divine speaks to us, approaches us, and we have to respond; we’re burdened with responsibility.

JL:   The Bible also emphasizes hearing over seeing.

BD:   And the reason for the emphasis on hearing is the call to live by the word of God, being nourished by it, responding to it. In Zen the stress is not on the word, but on the silence—the silence that is so profound that you can go down into it forever and ever. Openness, emptiness, void—all this permeates Zen. Of course, in the Christian tradition, the Word comes out of the silence and returns to the silence. But despite the teaching of the dark night of the soul and the like, the Christian tradition still stays very close to the Word. Though there are lots of words in Buddhism, they aim at silence. After everything is said and done, the Zen teacher will say, “Ah yes, but what a pity that we have to say anything at all.” The saying doesn’t really effect anything; what I think might well be the deepest level, you can experience communion and unity between the traditions, the complementarity of the Word and the silence.

By changing yourself, you’re beginning to change the world. In fact, you’re changing the world much more by changing yourself than if you’re running around blindly, involved in one cause after another.

JL:   What is the connection between the life of contemplation and the call to social action in the world?

BD:   You can’t really be a contemplative, unless you also want to change the world. You want to change yourself, and that’s where the struggle comes in. By changing yourself, you’re beginning to change the world. In fact, you’re changing the world much more by changing yourself than if you’re running around blindly, involved in one cause after another. But the difference between what we call the apostolic and the contemplative orders, or vocations, is that the apostolic approach says, “We live in this world, we’re responsible for it, and we have to do something to change the world for the better.” The monastic answer is, “We are not strong enough to change the world in general. Let’s change that little spot where we are. And let’s put a wall around it and say this is as far as we go, as far as our strength reaches. And now within that narrow confine, let’s change the world, make it more what it’s supposed to be.” That approach has its drawbacks, too, because it can become ingrown, its own private little affair. And the apostolic approach has limitations, because it can become so watered down that nothing spiritual remains. So we need the two; they are the poles of one continuum. People who are now engaged in apostolically changing the world need to come back periodically to a monastic environment where what they are trying to achieve everywhere is to a certain extent achieved already. And if the world could gradually become what a good monastery or Zen center is, that would be fine. The monastic communities can provide the strength, the encouragement to realize that true order can be achieved.

JL:   Traditionally, Catholicism has emphasized that the contemplative life is valuable in and of itself, even if the effect on the outside world is not very immediate or direct, but with the faith that spiritual service of God would redound ultimately to the benefit of all of humankind. How would you translate that idea into contemporary terms?

BD:   The problem is that all too easily you can think of the spiritual as the opposite of the material. But in authentic Christianity, the material is completely integrated with the spiritual. The essence of Christianity is incarnation. Spiritual is not opposed to material, but to the unspiritual. It’s better to speak of alive and dead. Spirit, “breath,” means life. The unspiritual or “the flesh,” as the New Testament puts it, does not mean the material, the bodily. Flesh stands for that which is dead and in the process of decay. So it’s best to think of death not in the sense of negating life, denying life. Life-affirming and life-denying are what spiritual and unspiritual mean. So from that viewpoint, there is a struggle for more and more spirituality, but this spirituality does not deny the world and material things, but expresses itself in more and more beautiful transformation of the material world. Now and then you see a place where every roof tile and every door knob speaks of spirituality, and it reminds you that material things can be completely transformed.

JL:   I asked you earlier if a spiritual life demanded a special way of life, and in the light of the distinctions that you’ve made, I’m beginning to think that what it actually comes down to concretely is how you spend your day. Of course, monks spend their day differently than people who drive trucks or work in offices and so on. How do you spend your day? And what principles that the monastic life has taught you might apply to people who live in the “ordinary world”?

BD:   One doesn’t go to the monastery to lead a different kind of life from the rest of people. The challenge of living according to certain principles is the same for everyone, and we all need to lead a special kind of life if we want to come truly alive. The monastic day starts with getting up earlier than most of us would like to get up. So the struggle is right there at the start.

What one should and can take out of the monastic life is its very essence, and that is the grateful approach to life moment by moment, being grateful in everything you do.

JL:   Do you get up earlier because it is difficult, or because it’s good to be up when the sun comes up?

BD:   You never do anything, theoretically or ideally, just because it’s more difficult. You do it in spite of it’s being difficult, but for a good reason. The reason for getting up early is that these early morning hours provide a setting, a quiet, a silence that never comes again later in the day; there is something special going on in those early hours. And you’re also there for the sunrise, dawn, which is very important: you celebrate the dawning of each new day. But it’s struggle to get up and to remain alert.

Then during the day, there are several times for prayer and times when we get together to celebrate important points in the day — high noon, sunset, night prayers at the end of the day. The rest of the time is spent studying or in manual labor. Manual labor is significant and everybody in the monastery takes part in it, including the Abbot. It’s simply a part of life. It keeps you humble, down to earth (humus—the word that also gives us humor and human). Essentially, then, monastic life is dedicated to prayer, manual labor, and study.

JL:   How much of this regimen can you take with you when you travel?

BD:   It’s very difficult, and that’s why monks don’t usually travel. The kind of prayer that I find most helpful, in place of the divine office that is chanted seven times a day in the monastery, is the prayer of the heart from the Eastern Christian tradition, which involves a kind of mantric repetition of the name of Jesus. But I try to restrict my travel, because it’s so hard to take much of the monastery with you, although it’s fine if I can stay in another monastery, such as Zen or Camaldolese [one of the Benedictine orders in the Roman Catholic church with a monastery in southern California].

JL:   And how would you suggest that the values of that sort of structure be translated to people who live their whole lives in the situation you find yourself in when you’re not in the monastery?

BD:   There’s no point in just imitating the externals. What one should and can take out of the monastic life is its very essence, and that is the grateful approach to life moment by moment, being grateful in everything you do. That means, for instance, an alertness to the character of every moment demands a response, and the basic Christian response is trust in the giver.

JL:   But you can’t have awareness just by wanting it, can you? There are people here at the Zen Center who have spent years and years of their lives trying to be more awake.

BD:   That’s true. But there are degrees of wakefulness. And people who have practiced for years and years may not realize that they have made great steps toward greater wakefulness. The difficulty in speaking about wakefulness is that when you are asleep you can’t just wake yourself up. But if you focus on thankfulness, it is easier, since being grateful is within your power. If you do it again and again, you remind yourself that every moment is a given moment. Gratefulness is an experience that everyone has, and seems very natural when cultivated. Actually, it is emphasized more explicitly in Buddhist monasteries, where there are so many formal bows. It is a form of teaching us to receive everything — a cup of tea, another person — with gratitude.

JL:   So this rhythm of gift and response is a spiritual practice, or at least a way that anybody can practice in any circumstances.

BD:   Yes, and I don’t think spiritual practice is too grandiose a term for it. If you really explore its larger implications, it is at the core of every spiritual practice, although it may be expressed in quite different ways.

JL:   What is the importance of the dialogue between Christianity and Zen?

BD: These are traditions that seem to me to have a lot of future and that complement one another well. And what really interested me in Buddhist-Christian dialogue was the monastic dimension. I wanted to know in what sense Buddhists are monks like I am. And ultimately I’ve come to see that monastic life isn’t something that is especially connected to Buddhism or to Christianity, but is related to one’s frame of mind, one’s own inner bent.

JL: So it’s an essential human vocation or option; in any culture or society there are going to be people who want to live this way?

BD:  Right, and you could even think of it as an externalization of a dimension that is in every human being and is sometimes very strong in people who do not externalize it because of their life circumstances.

JL:  You spoke about our always becoming and never reaching the end. What is it that one is supposed to become? What’s the struggle for?

BD:  As the Christian tradition sees it, each one of us is a unique word that is spoken, or a unique way of saying the one eternal Word of God. Each one of us is a word, and we become the word that we are by our response to all the other words around us, human or otherwise. Thus we become the word that we are meant to be. If the word is in the process of being spoken, you can never really say it’s finished. In a certain sense, the word is completed with my death, when all that I have made of my life is rounded off. But even then, the Cappadocian Fathers in the early church taught that heavens is not a static state, but a dynamic experience of moving deeper and deeper into the ultimate, and the ultimate can never be completely discovered.

Both eastern and western monastic traditions have stories of the spiritual master who is very accomplished and is having trouble finding a teacher of his own. And he is directed, in a dream or a vision or in some other way, to someone who is more advanced than he is, but is the last person you would have expected.

JL:  If you’re playing tennis, I suppose that one person eventually wins in the end, but the joy of playing is not just getting to the end.

BD:  That’s a good point. The spiritual struggle is like learning to play tennis, with the muscle pain, the awkwardness, the frustration, and so on at the beginning. The element of playing is very important in spirituality, because otherwise you begin to wonder what all this struggling is for. The goal is partly the enjoyment; it doesn’t come later, but within the very process of the struggle.

JL:  What about the people who aren’t even playing the game?

BD: I tend to be very trusting and to believe that even in people in whom we least see it, deep down there is that aliveness, that longing, that struggle, and it’s just well covered over. My world view is not that there are a few people who really struggle and that the masses haven’t awakened to their real calling. My view is that in some the process is more obvious and in others the process is more hidden. And that is a common view in monastic traditions, East and West. Both have stories of the spiritual master who is very accomplished and is having trouble finding a teacher of his own. And he is directed, in a dream or a vision or in some other way, to someone who is more advanced than he is, but is the last person you would have expected. In Buddhism it’s a butcher for example, someone way down the spiritual line, who you’d expect to have no spiritual consciousness at all. And in the Christian tradition it’s often a merchant with a big family and no time to pray, just buying and selling all day. And all of a sudden the searching teacher discovers this is it, this is the one.

And the most urgent spiritual task today is one being waged by just such “ordinary people” — the struggle against nuclear arms, the struggle for peace, which means harmony among all things.

JL:  What do you regard as your special vocation?

BD:  Strangely enough, I really joined the monastery to spend the rest of my life there, and I am perfectly happy to stay there without going out at all. But I do accept invitations to speak or participate in events when there are not that many people available who are interested and experienced in an area, such as the Buddhist-Christian dialogue. And these days I’m more and more involved in working with people who are quite alienated from the Christian tradition, even though many of them were raised as Christians. I very much enjoy, for instance, workshops with New Age people, many of whom come out of a Christian background but have been away from it for a long time and are now ready to give Christianity a new look. They have a real need and longing to be reconciled with their roots. Much has to be thrown out and forgotten for good, but there also is a lot in the Christian tradition, if you grew up in it, that cannot readily be replaced by anything else. So you have to come to terms with it. Essentially, my vocation is simply to be a monk, but part of that is this sort of healing mission that not too many others are involved in.

JL:  So your vocation is to live the Christian monastic life, and then to communicate what you discover in it?

BD:  Really the latter part is more a matter of exposing myself to other people who have the monk within them, and haven’t discovered it. One doesn’t need to say much; it seems to be a help to find a monk who can be a catalyst for the monastic bent of mind that is in all of us.

Reprinted from Parabola, Fall 1982
(Vol. VII, #4, pp. 60-67)