Gratefulness is the key to joy…Of course, there are many things that are terrible in our world today, but it gives me joy to be around – to be able to interact with – people who try to make the world better, to see what’s going on, even the difficult things. ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast

When Br. David Steindl-Rast traveled to UMass Amherst in September 2019 for our Spirituality and Social Change Symposium, we understood that this might well be his last trip to the United States. Mindful of the meaningful opportunity his visit offered, we arranged for renowned documentary photographer and director Doug Menuez to record a far-reaching conversation with Br. David. In response to invitational prompts from friend Chuck Roppel, he explored the timeless themes of mysticism, joy, anxiety, aliveness, death, and of course, gratefulness.

The conversation was edited into two “Reflections” videos — one shorter (7:49) and an extended version (25:26). Both videos along with transcripts are available for viewing below.

“Reflections”

Video Transcript

Gratefulness is the key to joy.

Everything gives me joy. Of course, there are many things that are terrible in our world today, but it gives me joy to be around — to be able to interact with — people who try to make the world better, to see what’s going on, even the difficult things.

I don’t even think that I take a very central position in that gratefulness movement, but the center is and the bulk of the movement is really count your blessings, this sort of idea of gratefulness, and our special emphasis, is that you cannot be grateful for everything, but you can be grateful at every moment, because even if something is given to you for which you cannot be grateful, you can be grateful for the opportunity that it gives you.

Suffering is part of life.

Suffering is always connected with anxiety. Anxiety is inevitable in life, but fear is optional. So whether it’s in public life or in private life, moments in which you are really, really challenged, are times where quite spontaneously you live in the present moment. There, if you distrust life, if you fear life, you are simply paralyzed, you can’t even go on. And if you respond to what the present moment is bringing to you, then this is the expression of trusting in life.

Fear not.

Fear not. And the opposite of fearing is trust. So it’s really basically trust life. And if you fear not, life will show you the way. You don’t have to have your ideas…It’s good to have your goals, big goals, big ideals, big values,
but not too clear an idea of how you’re going to do it, life knows better.

Spirituality is measured by our aliveness.

And that means aliveness in the body, even in sicknesses makes a difference, whether you are alive to your body or whether you are somehow resisting it or cutting yourself off from it. Being really alive in your body, being alive in your emotions, being alive in your intellectual interests, all this is really part of spirituality, to be aware, to listen and to respond. And that means then also political situations that you are responsible for.

And then what most people think of first when it comes to spirituality, alive to the great mystery of life. And when I say mystery, I mean very concretely reality or rather an actuality because it acts on us, but we can understand it if it grasps us.

Mysticism is the experience, not talking or thinking about it, but the actual experience of oneness with all.

That is basically the core of all mystic experience, that we belong to that great mystery with which we are most strangely also at the same time confronted. We belong to it, and we are confronted with it. So every human being has a mystic experience and one can really say the mystic isn’t that special kind of human being. But every human being is a special kind of mystic.

What is the gift of death?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that, knowing that we have to die and that, if you take it in the right way, ought to make us appreciate the value of every moment, because this moment brings me something, this moment asks something of me. This moment is an opportunity to come alive. And if I miss this moment, life is so generous that I get another opportunity. However, we are already a little closer to death, so life has only so many opportunities, we don’t know how many, so this already is a great gift because it makes us come alive.

Death makes us come alive.

My hope for the future is that when I look at people today, all our people who are working with us and helping us and volunteers and they are all so enthusiastic.

And my great hope is they won’t lose their enthusiasm, that this enthusiasm will continue and even grow. There’s no limit to the growth of enthusiasm. That would be my greatest hope.

“Reflections – Extended Interview”

Extended Transcript





View Extended Transcript

Gratefulness is the key to joy. Everything gives me joy. Of course, there are many things that are downward in our world today, but it gives me a joy to be at around, to be able to interact with people who try to make the world better, to see what’s going on. Even the difficult things. I don’t even think that I take a very central position in that case for this movement, but the center and the bulk of the movement is really “count your blessings”. This idea of gratefulness and our special emphasis is that you cannot be grateful for everything, but you can be grateful at every moment, because even if something is given to you, for which you cannot be grateful, you can be grateful for the opportunity that it gives you.

Suffering is part of life. Suffering is always connected with anxiety and anxiety is inevitable in life, but fear is optional. If we fear, we put out bristles and we get stuck in that narrow spot of our anxiety, if we trust, we go through like through a birth canal and we go into another birth after all, that is how we came into the world and we have to over and over make that gesture of trustingly going through in their own spot and coming out on the other side in a new birth. Even though at the present moment, when we are confronted with problems and difficulties and anxieties, we cannot see that there’s even a way out. But if you look into our back mirror and if you remember in the past, again and again, we have gone through situations like that, where the worst seems to happen, and this is the end of everything, and out comes a whole new life.

And that’s important for us to remember in the midst of suffering. Then we will come more, actually more alive in… even in the midst of suffering. So whether it’s in public life or in private life, moments in which you are really, really challenged, are times where quite spontaneously you live in the present moment. There, if you distrust life, if you fear life, you are simply paralyzed, you can’t even go on. And if you respond to what the present moment is bringing to you, then this is the expression of trusting in life. Fear not. Fear not. And the opposite of fear is trust. So it’s really basically trust life. And if you fear not, life will show you the way. You don’t have to have your ideas. It’s good to have your goals. Big goals, big ideals, big values, but not too clear an idea of how it’s going to do, how you’re going to do it. Life knows better. Trust in life.

And that is also the center of every spiritual tradition, trust in life. And therefore even the expression of thanking and living gratefully crops up in all the different spiritual traditions. And every one of the great religions will say “gratefulness? oh yes, that is very central for us” it is because it’s essence is this trust in life. And that is the center also of every spiritual tradition. And so spirituality is measured by our aliveness. And that means aliveness in the body, even in sickness. It makes a difference whether you are alive to your body or whether you are somehow resisting it… or cutting yourself off from it being really alive in your body, being alive in your emotions, being alive in your intellectual interests, all this is really part of spirituality. To be aware, to listen and to respond. And that means then also political situations that we are responsible for.

And then what most people think of first, when it comes to spirituality, alive to the Great Mystery of life. And when I say Mystery I mean very concretely, a reality or rather an actuality because it acts on us, but we can understand it if it grasps us. The goal of every religion should be to bring people as quickly and as efficiently as possible to that basic religiosity. But in fact, one finds is that the religion says, do what we tell you and celebrate in this way, and believe this and these things, which is all very good if it leads you back to being a  human being in lively confrontation with the great mystery, but if it becomes kind of an end in itself, it becomes quite destructive actually. The word religious is the problem here, because on the one hand, we mean belonging to a particular religion.

And on the other hand, religious means spiritual… it’s a beautiful word. It doesn’t have a great appeal nowadays, but the word religion comes from, probably, etymologically from Religare. Tie, again, tying again, bonds that have been broken and religion rightly understood, and that means spirituality ties again, the broken bonds between each one of us and our true Self. between each one of us and all other human beings, all other creatures, the whole universe and broken bonds between us and that Great Mystery, which goes to use the word God, correctly called God, that Mystery towards which we are by nature directed with which we have to deal somehow. And that kind of religiousness I call our basic human religiosity. And that one can assume, as long there are humans, in the past… and, will be there as long as there are humans in the future, because that so typically characterizes us.

Now, there is then this basic human spirituality and at certain times of history… one, great mystic usually will express this basic human religiosity in particular terms that speak to his society Will express it in the forms of this particular culture and this particular situation in history And so a religion grows out of that religiosity and it continues then as a religious tradition… may change and take all the forms and a few hundred years, or a thousand years later, another religion emerges. And so we are now confronted both with our basic spirituality, our religiosity, and all these different religions.

Now the religions, the moment they reach a certain size have to become institutions. And there is where the problem is. Institutions, any institution, educational, medical, political, whatever… any institution after a short time seems to forget what it was founded for. And is mainly self-maintaining, self-perpetuating. And that happens also to the religions. And then the different religions, because as institutions, they have to define oneself against one another, they create unrest and wars in history while the deep silence of the shared religiosity connects us. And so religious… interreligious dialogue must always lead to that silence, to that shared silence. And when it does not, it has reached its goal… because there is communion on that level.

We can also learn from one another, because one religion may emphasize this aspect, another of this one. At the first meeting of Buddhism, for instance, and Christianity… in the 20th century, many times Buddhist teachers would say, what we need to learn from the Christians is social action. And many times Christians would say, “what we need to learn from this Buddhist is to come back to meditation.” So one religion can teach the other also on the level of interaction between religions. But the goal is to find that communion that unites us in silence. There is no contradiction between aliveness, intense aliveness and silence. It’s not the silence that you speak in, in terms of spirituality, is not the silence of a morgue, not even the silence of a library, but is the silence of say a propeller that turns so fast that it disappears. You don’t see it anymore. It’s a vibrant, vibrant silence.

At their best, and at their deepest, Christianity… as well as Hinduism or Buddhism will tell you that the erotic life is something very positive. Erotic life is part of our body and part of our bodily aliveness and therefore suppression of it, as it has happened in many religious traditions, is not healthy. And yet discovering it today,  that it isn’t healthy, and it has a lot to do with the widespread suspicion against religions. It’s a gift especially because in spiritual life, a relationship is such a central issue and our erotic life is the area in which most people most easily discover the joy of relatedness and the relationship and our erotic gift that we receive each one of us, has tremendous possibilities for developing interaction between people, and relationship.

Mysticism is the experience, not talking or thinking about it, but the actual experience of oneness with all, that is basically the core of all mystic experience… that we belong to that Great Mystery with which we are most strangely also at the same time confronted. We belong to it and we are confronted with it. It is us and yet there is an I-thou relationship within it. And every human being experiences that somewhere deeply and at certain times, very lively, for instance, in our peak experiences and Abraham Maslow, who coined that term “peak experience” for us, called this phenomenon “mystic experience.” And only because it didn’t sit so well in psychological literature, he changed it and called it “peak experience”, but all through his life, he insisted that peak experiences were indistinguishable from what we call mystic experiences. So every human being has a mystic experience and one can really say the mystic isn’t that special kind of human being. But every human being is a special kind of mystic.

How then do the great mystics that everybody knows their names: Saint John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and Saint Hildegard of Bingen… How do these great mystics differ from the run-of-the-mill mystic? And I think the answer is that the great ones let this experience of all Oneness flow into their everyday life. It forms, it informs, it changes their everyday living. This way is also open to us in fact, it is a challenge, to every human being: let this experience of oneness that you have at times that you know, this awareness of oneness with that Great Mystery, let it flow into your life. And for instance, if you are aware of oneness, we are aware of oneness with all, also with all human beings. What a difference that would make to social life, if people are aware of that on a deep level.

What is the gift of death? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that, knowing that we have to die and that, if you take it in the right way, ought to make us appreciate the value of every moment, because this moment brings me something. This moment asks something of me. This moment is an opportunity to come alive. And if I miss this moment, life is so generous that I get another opportunity. However, if you’re already a little closer to death, so life has only so many opportunities. We don’t know how many, so this already is, is a great gift because it makes us come alive. Death makes us come alive; makes us also aware that there is something within us or some aspect of us that is not subject to death.

There’s also the fact that when we see somebody after a long time… say 10 years or 20 years, we recognize that person again, but there is not one atom in that body that is the same that it was then. And yet it’s very recognizable. That is the self, the Self remains. And since the Self is not in time and space, when my time is up, the Self cannot be affected. And that is for many people, in a way, a consoling aspect of death. Then you ask, “why do I run around with this I? I myself, why do I even have this? What is this the function of my life?” Again, the poet Rilke gives a beautiful answer. And he says, “we are the bees [humans are the bees]… of the invisible, we gather the nectar of the visible….” And that means not only visible but audible, the nectar of everything that is in time and space “and we harvest it into the great golden honeycomb of the invisible.” And that is the Self. We enrich the Self, somehow. Through everything we suffer and everything we enjoy and everything we experience.

And another important aspect of that Self is that since it is not in time and space, it cannot be divided. So there is only one Self. And that is the Self for each one of us. And all the great spiritual traditions have recognized that Self, that one great Self. Buddhists call it the Buddha-nature. Everything has Buddha-nature. The Christians call it the Christ Consciousness. Saint Paul says, “I live yet. Not I, Christ lives in me.” Yes, I, but Christ lives in that great Self. Each one of us can say Christ lives in me. And Hindus call it Atman. It has something to do with our breath, the breath, we all share this breath. And that’s very beautiful. It’s on a different level, but it’s a very beautiful thought that every breath we take contains innumerable, literally innumerable atoms of argon. So with every breath you take, since there are so innumerable atoms of argon in one breath, you have at least, by average, one atom of anybody you can think of. Of the Buddha, of Jesus, of Gandhi, also maybe people we wouldn’t like to be so intimately connected with. But even on that level of breath, we are connected with everybody and all the animals and all the plants. And so all the more so, in our Atman, in that spiritual oneness that we have with all human beings.

My hope for the future is that when I look at people today, all our people who are working with us and helping us, and volunteers, and they are all so enthusiastic. And my great hope is they won’t lose their enthusiasm. That this enthusiasm will continue and, and even grow. There’s no limit to this growth of enthusiasm. That would be my greatest hope.