I would not necessarily confront people right off the bat with the discrepancy between our actual policies and our avowed ideals and values. But I would hope that somebody could inspire them just by putting those values again in front of people in an appealing way…
Editor’s note: More than 30 years old, this interview is surprising in its contemporary relevance. Rather than alter or delete dated references, we trust readers to interpret them in light of today’s news.
Born in Vienna on July 12, 1926, Brother David Steindl-Rast grew up through the Nazi occupation of Austria. Each spring he saw the young men of the high-school graduating class drafted into the army. A few months later the first of them would come back dead. Years later, explaining why he became a monk, he would write:
“When are you ever in a situation that allows you to question what everyone else takes for granted? One situation calls our values in question one by one: that existential situation everything around us seems designed to hide, to disguise, to camouflage—our confrontation with death.”
In university, Steindl-Rast studied art, art history, children’s art, primitive art ; then anthropology and child psychology. He received a doctorate in experimental psychology in 1952 from the University of Vienna. In 1953 he immigrated to the United States with a vague hope of “getting rich.” Some mysterious pull, however, directed his keen and curious mind away from academics, success, and wealth.
During his first year in North America, a friend gave him a copy of The Rule of St. Benedict . In that book, he glimpsed his first clear sign of a life-path. The contemplative, simple life of a monk appealed to Steindl-Rast immediately, but he did not know where or how to go about pursuing such a life. Another friend told him that , if he was truly considering becoming a monk, he should visit the Mt. Saviour monastery in Elmira, New York. Within three hours of arriving at the monastery on his first visit, he knew that he would stay. He has been a member of that community ever since.
We interviewed Brother David in early spring at the Weston Priory in Weston, Vermont. Though learned, he is a man of feeling, of few and soft words. His eyes are filled with great love and, at the same time, with great sorrow. His wisdom is a wisdom of the heart more than of the mind, though his mind is quick and brilliant. His presence is soothing, even healing.
He has become something of a successor to his mentor Thomas Merton, who shared with him the wonders of Eastern spiritual teachings, and once told him: “We will need those who have the courage to do the opposite of everybody else… This is what the Zen people do: they give a great deal of time to doing whatever they need to do. That’s what we have to learn when it comes to prayer. We have to give it time.”
Brother David lectures worldwide and is outspoken on social, environmental, and nuclear issues. “In one day,” he notes, “this world spends more money on weapons than the United Nations can scrape together in a whole year for the World Food Fund. Every single day hunger kills as many human beings as if a city of 57,000 inhabitants were wiped off the map. Wastefulness, fearfulness, indifference are undoing us fast. That’s why I hear a bell clanging in my ears; time is running out.”
Brother David, what is your work in the world now?
Well, I still spend the better part of my time in the monastery, a good part of it as a hermit. My little hermitage is just like a ship’s cabin, a tiny little thing. Several months every year I travel and teach, and I try to address myself to the great issues of our time, which always have a spiritual side. I like to travel in different parts of the world, and I appreciate the possibility of getting different perspectives on what is happening here. Our news, as you know, is not all that accurate, so it’s good to visit other countries. But the rest of the time I try to hide as best I can.
In the past few years you’ve spoken a lot about world hunger and the threat of nuclear destruction. Is that the result of traveling?
I only gradually became aware of the seriousness of the situation, and I think that it is through exposure to many people who are speaking about it. One of my great concerns is how we can get the message of peace to as many people as possible.
Do you have any ideas about that—how we can do that?
Well, each one of us has to speak out wherever we are. I have been working with Buddhists and people from other traditions to gain perspective. It is very important to show that all of us are concerned; it isn’t something that is restricted to Christians or Buddhists or whites or, for that matter, the Western world. We are all in the same boat, and that is very important.
There’s another aspect to it which I find very, very important. I think that what you might call the “average American” still holds ideas about the role of the United States in the world that are basically inspired by very high ideals and by ideals to which I also subscribe. After all, I came to this country, I joined this country, I became an American citizen, and I share those ideals. If one could show to the average American the discrepancy between those ideals (to which we still pay lip service) and what we are actually doing as a nation in the world, that could cause such a shock among these people and such an uproar of righteous indignation that I think it could really make an impact. Watergate was an example. I wish that somebody who has the touch for American patriotism would talk about those American ideals.
All the spiritual practices in the world agree that we must cultivate the child within us.
People may feel threatened if you tell them that America is not living up to its ideals. The other difficulty is that people don’t want to be depressed by the horror of what is going on. Do you see a way of breaking through that resistance to knowing?
I know. I guess one has to work with the line of least resistance. I would not necessarily confront people right off the bat with the discrepancy between our actual policies and our avowed ideals and values. But I would hope that somebody could inspire them just by putting those values again in front of people in an appealing way, and maybe show them particular applications in which we could actually help the world. Then let people discover for themselves that this is not exactly what we’re doing; let them discover the things they would not be willing to accept.
It is also a matter of getting the right publicity. This is still a very important thing. I think the Gandhi film may have had a great influence on people. It was quite mild and the story was far away and long ago, so it didn’t upset people too much, but it got something under their skin. It is effective on a totally different level – not politically in the obvious sense.
The moment that you divide people with they and us, you’re always on the right side and they are always on the wrong side, and I find that makes communication very, very difficult.
How can people learn to communicate effectively, without anger or aggression?
That is where we have to work with ourselves. Anger in itself is not really wrong, but we cannot allow our anger to carry us away and make us violent. This I find myself a most difficult task: to always think in terms of “we” and not “they and us.” The moment that you divide people with they and us, you’re always on the right side and they are always on the wrong side, and I find that makes communication very, very difficult.
Last Lent – you know, Lent is our special time before Easter, six weeks in which we do a little housecleaning internally and externally, and pull ourselves together – last year for Lent, I almost tortured myself by it, but I think it was a very healthy exercise: I pinned up a photograph that I found in some journal that had Mr. And Mrs. Reagan and General and Mrs. Haig, all four of them, kneeling next to one another in a church pew. I had this thing in front of me every morning, when I got up, and it was a real experience: “This is us, they go to church and they are us, and so I cannot point my finger. I will have to find some other way.”
I think that, if we start working in this way on ourselves, we might eventually find a way. That is what Gandhi did, after all. I mean, it didn’t come so easy to him. He had to really struggle, and he had a very hard time. Gandhi, the Man by Eknath Easwaran has the distinction of really showing the development of the man. The film didn’t show that (it didn’t set out to do that; it had a different task), but Easwaran set out to show how Gandhi really grappled with his own faults to his last day. I think that is important for us to know.
Lewis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi brings out the fact that, politically, he would never accept a victory if his opponent was weakened in some way; he would never take advantage of that to seize a political victory or exert power.
Yes, that’s very beautiful. He was a brave person, and that’s what shows. There’s a beautiful African proverb that says, “A brave man is one who stops fighting when his opponent slips.” That’s Gandhi.
Do you think that in the Western world today we need such a person to serve as a model, a sort of symbol?
Yes, although I think we already have that symbol in the American flag, paradoxical as it may sound. It still stands, for many Americans, for values that could bring peace to the world. Another symbol is Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom.” That is the one image that we have of eighteenth-century New England: the child has herded all the animals together (the lion and the lamb and the bear and the goats); he has his hand on the hole out of which the snake comes, and in the background is William Penn making a treaty with the American Indians. It’s a child, you see: American was a child at the time and the child has enormous power. But the moment we try to have power, we become children in the negative sense; we look like little idiots, weak giants – and that’s the reputation that we now have in the world. When we were really children, we had the power of children.
Do you think that we might recover our childlike nature through spiritual practice?
All the spiritual practices in the world agree that we must cultivate the child within us. The Buddhist mind, beginner’s mind, the baby-faced Buddha, “Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven…”
You find it in other traditions, too. It’s so simple, everyone can understand it. And that’s the approach I like to take to spirituality, rather than some theologically complicated approach. I’m not opposed to theological questions and to asking them (in fact I’m absolutely fascinated with theology; I can really get my teeth into it), but it’s a game – a very serious, beautiful, and exhilarating game. But there’s a time for games like that, and there is a time for action, emergency action.
This is our time right now. We can’t really waste our time; we have to see that we are all in the same boat and that different religious traditions point in the same direction, and now let’s get moving together, doing something for peace.
We tend to forget how many, many hours every day we do things that we really enjoy or could enjoy and should enjoy.
Many people seem to see a dichotomy between the spiritual life and life in the “real world.” Yet you seem to pass freely between both worlds.
While you’re right that some people think there are worldly people and spiritual people, and there’s a big gap between the two, I would say that monks, by and large, are not very highly tempted to have that idea. From the outside it may look like that, but in fact most monks feel they have a responsibility to reach out to people, to bring them in and also to go out – though that may not be something you would choose. Most of the monks in my monastery would rather stay in, and that’s a valid choice. If I had my choice, all things being equal, I would also stay in the monastery. After all, that’s what I opted for. But there’s a call, and one responds to the call. That’s why I go out, and my community really encourages me to do that.
Monasteries also have a very important function in providing an environment where people can discover some inner dimension which might be more difficult to discover in another environment, such as the city. When they go back, they can continue to live in that dimension, but it is easier to discover it in a monastery.
Could you talk a bit about your practice? What practices do you think would help people to rediscover the child?
Some people think that monks have these esoteric practices and “What can we poor laypeople do?” But when you really understand what the monastic life is about, you realize that we are only doing – under more favorable circumstances and in an environment that generations have worked on to make more favorable – something that could be practiced anywhere. I’m not talking about long hours of prayer, long hours of meditation, spiritual reading or studying, or anything like that – because the essence of monastic life does not consist in any of those. Those are all means to an end. The end – in all of the monastic traditions, of both East and West – consists in cultivating mindfulness, being mindful. And “mindful” may be a little misleading, because it sounds a bit much like mind-over-body, but it has nothing to do with mind over or against body. I think “wholeheartedness” is the English word that expresses better what mindfulness as a technical term means; that you respond to every situation from your center, from your heart – that you listen with your heart to every situation, and your heart elicits the response.
If you’re really mind-full, and if you underline that aspect of fullness, wholeness, or wholeheartedness, it reveals the gift character of everything. A partial view often misses the gift character of things. The full view consists of seeing each situation as purely gratis, and if you get that in mind, then your response is gratefulness.
That would be my practice: to try to live gratefully. Sometimes gratefulness has a passive connotation: You sit back and say thanks or something like that. Well, again, that’s not grate-fullness. The fullness shows itself when you realize that the gift within every gift is opportunity – mostly the opportunity to enjoy. We have thousands of opportunities every day to be grateful: for having good weather, to be able to sit in such a beautiful room on such comfortable furniture, to have slept well last night, to be able to get up, to be healthy, to have enough to eat. When you begin to think about just those most basic and obvious things, then you begin to think of the other people who don’t have any of this – of the people who are blind, who are lame, who are sick in bed, who are dying. But even before you start that, you should learn to enjoy those things which you have and be grateful. There’s opportunity upon opportunity to be grateful; that’s what life is.
Gratefulness is the only appropriate response to that which is given – and this life is a given. Every human being can realize that: We didn’t make ourselves, we didn’t even choose this life. If you train yourself to be grateful for everything, every moment, then when you come to something that you don’t like, you realize it’s still given and you have to deal with it. You will be alert to the gift within every gift, which is opportunity. In this case it may not be opportunity to enjoy but primarily the opportunity to do something about it.
That’s what we find ourselves confronted with now. The arms race, nuclear disasters, ecology, and world hunger, and all the different things we could list are not something for which you could off-hand be grateful, but you can be grateful that you see the challenge and that you can do something about the challenge. And that will give you the energy to do something.
So even in this respect, I think gratefulness is the key to everything. If you want a one-word description of monastic practice and of my practice and the practice I suggest, there it is: gratefulness—with an emphasis on fullness and on activity and on opportunity, taking the opportunity.
If gratefulness stems from mindfulness, awareness, it would make sense to put yourself in a situation like a monastery where you can slow down and have time to pay enough attention to be grateful.
Exactly – even if you were to come in the first place for some different reason. People come to a monastery for all sorts of reasons. If you stay and you make a go of it, grateful living is what you will be doing all day long. Monasteries have been fulfilling this function for a long time – Buddhist as well as Benedictine. There’s a wonderful book by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (he is a very dear, admired friend of mine; we walked together on June 12 last year in New York). In The Miracle of Mindfulness he talks about cultivating gratefulness.
Very specifically, how do you practice this wholeheartedness in the moment?
Well, I just try to be present where I am and present to what confronts me. At this moment, for example. I’m trying to practice it by enjoying your company and responding to your questions and thinking a little bit about your concern and the readers you want to reach, trying to share with them…all very simple. But we tend to forget how many, many hours every day we do things that we really enjoy or could enjoy and should enjoy. I mean, washing ourselves is not just something to get over with; eating and washing the dishes could be like a tea ceremony; there’s cleaning clothes, going to bed… We all spend a lot of time going from one place to the other; if we have our mind on the place we just left or on the place we’re heading to, half of our life is lost. But if you enjoy the going, enjoy walking, enjoy touching the earth with your feet, enjoy driving a car or riding a bike, it’s as simple as that.
It comes back to the child, I guess, because children are doing this all the time. You don’t have to constantly reflect on it and say to yourself, “Oh, now I’m really nicely grateful” or something like that – you just do it.
When we sense the direction in which our heart is yearning, then we realize: In that direction lies God.
You’re doing this in a Christian context, following the model of Jesus. Could you tell us, in simple terms, who is Jesus and what is the tradition of Jesus?
That’s a big and difficult questions, but a good one. First of all, I’d say that a Christian is a person whose spiritual quest in some way or other has received a decisive impetus through Jesus; the tradition is just what brings that impetus to us. And what the Christian message is all about is not so different from what all the other spiritual traditions are about. When you come to the core, to the essence of it, it is about finding meaning in life. That’s ultimately the simplest common denominator: every religious tradition in the world is a way of finding meaning in life.
Now, each one of us, every human being, has religious experiences, whether or not they are in some way associated with organized religion. I would call an experience in which you find meaning in life a religious experience, because the religion within all the religions is the quest for meaning. That’s what makes them all tick, and so your heart, yearning and looking and searching for meaning – that is your religion. An organized religion like Christianity or Buddhism or Islam or whatever is not automatically religious – you have to make it religious. You have to link it with your own religious experience; then it becomes religious for you. You have the task to make religions religious, to tie them back to your own deepest experience of meaningful living.
Everyone has moments of insight – what psychologists call “peak experiences.” Abraham Maslow, who coined the term, originally called these “mystical” experiences; he said, that, from all descriptions, that’s what they are. What happens is that we experience communion with ultimate reality. Profound gratefulness is always a sign; it’s one of the elements that Maslow’s respondents always mentioned – “I felt so grateful, I didn’t know grateful to whom. I don’t believe in a god, but I felt like kneeling down and thanking life or fate or good fortune for it” or something like that. We’ve all had these experiences, and by talking with other people, we come to the conclusion. “That’s what people call ‘God.’” You see, it isn’t as if we first knew God and knew that God is the source of meaning. We know nothing but ourselves and our own experiences. When we sense the direction in which our heart is yearning, and begin to see the source of that meaning which we sense in our peak experiences, then we realize: In that direction lies God.
That is something that all human beings have in common; it is sort of the common stock of human religion. It is also the kind of religiousness that you can talk about with every human being. It is the most important religiousness, because it’s the heart of every religion.
And do you see the different religions as different interpretations or different ways to articulate this basic, universal mystical experience?
Yes, A founder of a religious tradition, like Buddha, would give it one interpretation, not basically different but quite distinct from the interpretation that someone else gives. You and I experience what the great religious figures experienced, because otherwise we wouldn’t know what they’re talking about; but what they do with it is that they discover something in it. That’s what makes for the newness of the Buddhist teaching that pops up in the sixth century before Christ, or the newness of the Christian tradition. This man Jesus who started it all made a discovery in our human religious experience which no one before had made with that intensity and that clarity – and here I come to answer your original question: “Who is Jesus?” I’m sure every Christian would express it in different words, but my way of expressing it is that what Jesus saw more clearly than others was that this source of meaning, toward which we strain and for which we long, isn’t just somehow out there, where we can eventually hope to reach it, but turned toward us.
I’m calling it “it” because I’m speaking in a general language, but in Christianity, it becomes more than an “it”; it becomes “the Father.” Here, you have to be very careful, because for us “Father” has sort of macho overtones; for Jesus it had no macho overtones whatsoever. The Jewish father at the time of Jesus was more like the Jewish mother in our time. You see it in the story Jesus tells of the prodigal son who has wasted all his father’s money; then when he is down and out, he comes to the father. The father behaves like a Jewish mother and smothers him with kisses; he doesn’t even let him get an apology out. He says, “Look at your dress, we have to put a new garment on you. ”
In other words, Jesus was using the term “Father” in a broader sense than God as an old patriarch?
Yes. When Jesus speaks about God as the “Father,” he means the parent, the loving father/mother. Now, that seems to have been pretty strongly anchored in the culture at his time anyway, and so the newness that has now come into human religious experience is not that; it’s not as if the idea were absolutely brand-new and nobody had ever had an inkling of it. No, the great thing is that everybody has had an inkling of it, and it has echoes everywhere in religion. The newness consists in the clarity, in the centrality of this insight.
Jesus tells us that God is compassionate, God is our father. He is speaking to simple people, so he doesn’t say it in abstract terms like even “compassionate.” He just says, “God is my father,” and he addresses himself to God as “Daddy.” He used a term that was shocking for his contemporaries and thereby set up a community in which everybody is included. If ultimately reality is my father, then every human being is my brother and sister, and not only every human being but every cat and every dog and every animal and every blade of grass – everything.
So Jesus’ breakthrough was that he went beyond a watchful, avenging God to a God whom you can trust and rely on, someone who can be a friend.
Yes, but it is important to remember that Jesus didn’t invent Christianity. He was a Jew all his life and died as a Jew. And I wouldn’t even say he made a tremendous break with Judaism; what he provided was just a new insight. The name “Father” for God was there in the Old Testament; it wasn’t very frequent, but it was there. Jesus just picked it up and made it central and lived it. That is the decisive thing, because this is what we always do with our peak experience, whether it’s our private religion or whether it’s an organized religion. We have to deal with our experience on all the different levels of our psyche, and that means we have to interpret it.
So Jesus interprets it and tells all these stories because he talks to very simple people. It is now a different way of speaking about the same experience, so that’s the beginning of doctrine. Then, of course, this doctrine develops and evolves with layer upon layer. Eventually we get “Christian” doctrine, which is not wrong, but it continuously has to be brought back and be related to the original intuition.
What would the world be like if there was one day on which nobody would have to go hungry? If we could only strive for that.
How do Christian ethics tie in with the personal mystical experience?
One of the aspects of this experience is the sense that “I belong – I belong to everything and everybody, and everybody belongs to me.” That was actually the first characteristic that Maslow singled out in the peak experience: an overwhelming sense of belonging. Now, what are the consequences of that? “If I belong to other human beings, I have to behave to them as one behaves when one belongs together.” See, that is why religion could be such a powerful force in our world: we would realize we all belong together, we are all in the same boat.
This kind of ethics has worldwide implications. The ethics are sometimes codified, and all sorts of morality and moralism go over it. Again and again, you have to bring it back to the original intuition: “I belong to everybody.” I can’t say, “Yes, I should love my neighbors, but neighbors are those and those, and outside are others whom I will not love.”
What does it mean to you to love your neighbor?
Loving means saying yes to your belonging. It isn’t just an emotional thing. “Love your neighbor” means that you belong together and you say yes to that belonging. That is the ethical side. And in addition to the ethical and doctrinal sides, the rituals of every religion also express the original intuition.
Is there ritual in all religions?
Yes, even in your private religion you somehow have your private ritual. You can’t help that – they always crop up somehow or other, and so every religion has its rituals. The Buddhists sit in meditation, for example, because Gautama Buddha had his original intuition sitting under the Bodhi Tree. Buddhists recognize the original insight sitting in silence; this has become the central ritual.
What is the central ritual of Christianity?
It’s the breaking of the bread, the sharing, the common meal. This is what Jesus was reported to have done all around: break bread, eat, have parties everywhere, and on those occasions teach, heal, and tell people stories. So that is the ritual that comes down to us: the breaking of the bread. The Eucharist we call it, and that is significant because Eucharist means Thanksgiving. One of the first, earliest descriptions that we have of the Christian community is that they were the ones who broke their bread with thanksgiving.
Again, that comes back to our contemporary situation. Daniel Berrigan many years ago said: “What would the world be like if we all sat around one table and broke bread?” What would the world be like if there was one day on which nobody would have to go hungry? If we could only strive for that.
What are the Christian teachings about social awareness? Are there examples Jesus gave about helping out?
There’s the very famous story of the good Samaritan, of course – that’s one of the central stories in the Christian tradition. In answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of a man who goes from Jerusalem to Jericho, along a road that to this day has roadblocks and robberies. The robbers strip him of everything he has and leave him lying there half-dead. A priest and a Levite pass by, and do nothing for fear of defilement (they’re on their way to temple service and if they were to touch a dead man, they could not participate). Then comes the Samaritan, who does absolutely everything that one can do for another person.
In this story, the question “Who is my neighbor?” is answered in a very round-about way. You see, you couldn’t expect a good Jew at the time of Jesus to identify with the Samaritan. They were absolutely the scum of society. We have no analogy in our society for such an outcaste: everything that was evil was the Samaritan. Instead, the person listening to Jesus would have identified with the man who fell under the robbers, and then he would think to himself, “Well, gee, I wish the others had acted as if they loved me like their neighbor, but the Samaritan was the one who did that.” I think this is the true meaning of the story. When you are in trouble, you will know that we all belong together, because you will wish that even somebody who is such an outcaste as the Samaritans were at the time of Jesus would do something nice for you. Do you see?
That is an interesting twist.
It is. It’s not just an example story: “I’ll go and do likewise.” It doesn’t just tell you what neighborly love means among humans, it helps you put yourself into the shoes of people who are suffering – somebody in Biafra or Bangladash or El Salvador.
I would say, in general, that our religious experience tends to be domesticated by the churches, and that’s not exactly what one wishes would happen to one’s religious experience.
What about the story that Jesus told of the father who asked his sons to go work in the fields? One son said that he would, but then he changed his mind. The second son said he didn’t want to, but then he felt guilty and he went back and worked in the fields.
That’s a good story. Jesus asks, “Who of the two was doing his father’s will?” And who today is doing what Jesus would have done? The ones who say they are doing religious work, or the ones who are actually doing it, living it? Would Jesus find most faithful followers inside the church or outside? It’s a very open question – I don’t know! Because you see, the ones inside the churches somehow find that this channeling of their religious experience makes it too easy for them; they think. “Well, it’s all there” and it sort of pacifies their religious urges. Those outside have this religious experience which every human being has, but doesn’t have such ready channels to put it into, such ready ways to express it. They are more challenged to find out for themselves what to do with it. In the church, “Love your neighbor” is neatly packaged: you give some money in the next collection and you don’t look where it goes. The person outside the church doesn’t have a collection or anything of that sort, so he or she has to look for “What can I do?” Very often these people really stumble into wonderful social action which the people in the churches would also like to do, but their interest is sidetracked or domesticated. I would say, in general, that our religious experience tends to be domesticated by the churches, and that’s not exactly what one wishes would happen to one’s religious experience.
Yet today we see the seeds of a growing movement of more social action within the Christian churches.
Yes, the church has handed out very high social ideals, and now there are more radical movements within the church: liberation theology, the statement that the American bishops made regarding nuclear arms, and their appeal to the President to stop sending military aid to El Salvador. This is a clearly political question, and the bishops stuck their necks out. But I think that as long as the churches have some weight to throw around, they might as well use it, because very soon we won’t have any more weight to throw around. As soon as the world and the government catch on to what we Christians are about, we will be repressed in the United States just as the churches were in El Salvador and Guatemala. Right now the church has a certain amount of prestige, so let’s throw it around while we have it.
What makes you think that prestige is going to be taken away, as it has been in South America?
Let me give you an example. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was eventually assassinated in El Salvador, was appointed bishop because he was quite a middle-of-the-roader. He never stuck his neck out. He was not a particularly politically alert person. But he was a good, conscientious person, so when he took over this office, his vision broadened. He saw the responsibility to inform himself, and he came to see more things. The moment he saw what things were like, he started to speak out, and the moment he spoke out, the government cut him off and tried to discredit him. Finally, when even this was impossible, the government apparently hired somebody to shoot him. It has not been proven. The government blames it on the leftists. But the leftists had no interest in shooting him.
Anyway, this is sort of a typical development. Many Catholic bishops and priests have been called Communists in Latin America, and it’s even beginning in this country.
At the same time, there is a strong Christian momentum behind the anti-Communist movement in this country. So it gets very fuzzy in terms of who’s really doing the Father’s work, or who’s a good Christian and who’s not. It gets very confusing for people: Does Jerry Falwell represent Christianity, or is Archbishop Romero closer to true Christianity?
I understand the confusion, and I think if I were to find myself outside of the Christian churches I don’t see offhand how I could become a Christian under these circumstances. But there’s always grace, and people’s eyes are open for what Jesus really stands for.
I happen to find myself standing within the church, and within that tradition I’m willing to take a stand against the negative aspects that are also there in that tradition. But there is no question of my getting out, because it is this very tradition which has given me the insights and has channeled to me the life-giving word and insights of Jesus. So I must speak for that, for those positive aspects. If somebody outside the church were to ask, “Why should I bother with the church?” I would say, “Why don’t you just bother with what is really urgent and obvious right now? Then, when everything has settled down, Jesus will say to you, ‘Well done, faithful servant’ – though you may not know Him.”
This is one of Jesus’ most important stories. In the end, he said, he will return to separate the sheep from the goats (this is the judgment scene) and he will say to those on the right side, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was imprisoned and you came to visit me. I was naked and you gave me clothes,” and so forth. And they will say to him: “When were you hungry and we gave you to eat? We did not know you.” Jesus will say, “Whatever you did to the least human being, to my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.”
It’s like what Mother Teresa means when she refers to the sick and down-trodden as “Jesus in his distressing disguise.”
Yes. And she is one of those symbols that you spoke about before – one of those witness figures who give us a model to follow.
There seem to be so few Christians who act like Christ.
You say, “act like Christ,” but how do you know who acts like Christ? I’m not questioning it – I know you know. But how do we know? We are basing all these judgments on our own real religious experiences, on those peak moments, whether they are striking and flashy or just small and sort of imperceptibly seeping in. It doesn’t make any difference whether spring comes, as it does some years, with one big bang and there’s a sunny day and everything blooms and all the birds sing, or whether it comes very, very slowly as it does sometimes, so that you hardly notice it, but sooner or later there are the sounds and sights and smells of spring. As long as spring comes, it doesn’t make any difference how it comes; it comes to all of us, and so we all know what it means.
Reprinted from an interview by Rex Weyler and Catherine Ingram in New Age,September 1983, Vol. 9, #2, pp. 36-40 and 62-64.