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Spirituality of gratefulness begins with existential ‘Wow!’ at God’s giving

Special Report Writer

“Thanks be to God,” sang the Psalmist David in the most spirited texts of the Hebrew Bible. Whether gazing upon his surroundings, realizing his good fortune or suffering afflictions, he continued to say: “Give thanks unto the Lord for he is good.”

Three thousand years later, a namesake of the psalmist, Benedictine Br. David Steindl-Rast, stood inside the Chapel of Thanksgiving in the heart of downtown Dallas, still giving thanks. It is easy to offer thanks in this tiny chapel, ensconced inside a curving shell of white marble that resembles a scroll, a flame or a flower unfolding. Architect Philip Johnson’s chapel, with its inner circle of 68 stained glass windows, is designed, some say, to express the infinite reach of the human spirit sounding forth, “Thanks be to God.”

It is a perfect space to share Steindl-Rast’s spirituality of gratitude. “Thanksgiving is the full response of the human heart to the gratuitousness of all that is,” he told a small audience of academics -- moralists, philosophers, behavioral psychologists. The two dozen scholars from across the nation and from the Netherlands attended a conference titled “Kindling the Science of Gratitude,” sponsored in mid-October by the John Templeton Foundation of Radnor, Penn.

Steindl-Rast reminded them that the gift of being is just that. None of us is here by our own power. God did not ask our permission to bring us to life, he said.

All philosophy begins in the amazing realization of the “gratuitousness of God’s giving,” the diminutive monk, 74, told those assembled. “Gratefulness is an existential ‘Wow!’ before any interpretation.” It is experienced at “peak moments that thrill and fascinate us or when we behold a beautiful sky.”

But gratefulness is not on the surface. Rather it juts forth from an inward disposition that lies “deep in the basement of our personality,” said Steindl-Rast, who holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in Austria and is also a graduate of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In 1953 he and his family came to America where he joined Mount Savior Benedictine Monastery in Elmira, N.Y. and became a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell University in Ithaca and the first Catholic to hold the school’s Thorpe Lectureship.

The monk studied philosophy and theology for a dozen years and trained in monastic life -- his own Benedictine style, as well as the Buddhist way practiced at the New York and San Francisco Zen Centers. He received a letter encouraging his work from one of the Vatican Pontifical offices in the late 1960s following the close of Vatican Council II, which sought new outreach to the major world religions.

His abbot sent Steindl-Rast to Japan to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. There he met with Zen masters and traveled and lectured widely. Back home he became active in monastic renewal. He remains a sought-after speaker on spirituality and prayer.

In Ithaca, he lives a contemplative life that includes praying the hours, chanting, gardening, cooking, fasting, reading and writing. Schooled in Latin, Steindl-Rast prefers Gregorian chant to other forms of musical prayer. “Gregorian chant primes us to respond fully to each moment of the day; it takes us out of clock time and puts us in the presence of God -- where nothing is mute, where the universe awaits a soul able to breathe the mystery that all things crave communion,” he wrote in his book The Music of Silence.

Among his other books are Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and Belonging to the Universe, a dialogue with physicist Fritjof Capra on new thinking in science and theology.

Steindl-Rast calls gratefulness “the mother of all religions” and thankfulness “the mother of all virtue.” Gratefulness “permeates” thankfulness just as a deeper meaning permeates a shallower one, he told NCR during an interview in Dallas. Faith, hope and love “undergird” all the religions: The three virtues unite secular humans and agnostics with believers.

“Accept whatever is as being good simply because it is; be open to surprise; love your neighbor as if there was only one self” are principles that mirror the theological virtues and are practiced by many religions and by those that claim no formal faith, the Benedictine said. That is why he lamented, but was not surprised by the Vatican’s “exclusive claims” in its recent Dominus Iesus directive.

“This is the last hurrah, the final big noise before the church collapses.” It’s like the final “flare up of the candle before it goes out,” he said. “When someone yells that loudly and is that entrenched in authority, they’re gone.”

The Benedictine draws distinctions between authentic authority that “builds people up” and authoritarian authority that “brings you down.” Church authority must be questioned compassionately as “unquestioned authority will deteriorate.” Steindl-Rast was in Switzerland when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Dominus Iesus Sept. 5.

“It will have no effect on anyone engaged in ecumenism,” the monk said, “only on some bishops and institutional men.” He chided the institutional church for having made itself “irrelevant. An institution meant to serve life has become self-serving,” Steindl-Rast said. As the Vatican’s powers and influence wane, its centralization increases, he added.

“The Spirit of Jesus is opposite to the centralizing of power,” he said, so the institution “will break down. … I tell people, ‘Don’t shake it. It’s collapsing by itself.’ ”

Steindl-Rast said he remains optimistic about the ecumenical future. One cause for hope lies with today’s youth, who are highly spiritual and “feel very close to Jesus, to Buddha, to Allah,” he said, adding: “There is only one spirit.”

He has met many of these young people and scores of adults at Zen centers. Many of these “recovering Catholics” are persons who rejected their faith only to rediscover elements of their Christian tradition in the practicing of Zen. Christian mysticism, chanting, meditation, fasting and a contemplative lifestyle were unknown to many of these former Catholics before they entered a zendo, or temple.

Steindl-Rast believes that Zen-practicing Christians are important for the future church. “These are not people recovering from being Catholic, but they are persons potentially recovering a new sense of Catholicity that is much more catholic than what the institutional church stands for. …They are our hope for spreading Christ in the world.”

When he was in the early stages of learning about Buddhism, he came to know Thomas Merton. He asked the Trappist monk if Buddhism had influenced his writing about Christianity. Merton said: “Let me think about that.” He then left the room, Steindl-Rast recalled. When he returned a half-hour later, Merton related how much of his spiritual writing had been done in “the light of Buddhism.”

The same can be said for Steindl-Rast who believes that many Christians -- church scholars among them -- have “gotten themselves into a corner” in the second half of the 20th century. The Holocaust has made them question whether an all-good God can also be almighty, the monk said.

“ ‘If he’s all good, then he can’t be almighty,’ people say because they have set their own standard for what good is,” he said.

Buddhists, on the other hand, have never relinquished gratefulness, he said. At their very root they accept all that is as pure gift and they are grateful. This, Steindl-Rast said, can be a gift to Christians. It is one that he hopes will be understood, and received gratefully.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000