Part 1: Growing Up in Austria
Brother David was born Franz Kuno on July 12, 1926, in Vienna, Austria. Hints of Brother David’s unfolding destiny, with its generous response to the call of an “evolving consciousness,” can be seen in the qualities of heart and courage that Brother David inherited from his grandparents, particularly his grandmother. Equally remarkable was his mother, affectionately known to Franz and his brothers as “The Lion Mother,” a tower of strength for man throughout the tragic, chaotic days during and after the war. The fact that she managed to put anything at all on the table was sheer magic.
Having known such strong and feisty women so well, it is no mystery that Brother David would have us know that “when I speak of women reclaiming their power, I try to stress that it is their power, since I am convinced that the very concept of women’s power is different from that of men. Women’s power is the power to foster new life and growth.” He goes on to say, “If more people would understand how this life-giving power differs from power over others, the world would be a more peaceful, healthy and sane place.”
Franz was to spend all his teen years under the Nazis, being twelve years old when Hitler marched into Austria and nineteen when the occupation ended. When asked by Michael Toms in a 1991 New Dimensions Radio interview if the experience of spending his teenage years in an occupied country had anything to do with his leaning toward a contemplative or spiritual life, Brother David said “yes.” He expanded:
Because Hitler really did persecute the Church… some of our priests and pastors were imprisoned and a few were even executed. We knew that…and that we were in a certain danger if we went to church….For teenagers, [that danger] was exactly what we wanted…so it drove us more and more deeply into a commitment to our faith, and to the Church too.
With all the problems that I find in the Church nowadays, at that time in the ‘40s, that was where real life was.
It was the only thing that you could rely on. I remember, for instance, during the bombings of Vienna, when everything was in shambles…and I mean the house, the rooms we lived in, had boarded-up windows because all the gas was gone and the walls had big cracks where you could put your finger in and so forth, and there were no more trains and trams, and at the end there was no more water and no more electricity….The only thing you could rely on was that the priest would come at exactly the same time every day and bring communion, and go through the ruined houses. That meant something. And it continues to mean something to me… with all the problems I have with the institution…. There was the institution at its best.
Fortunately, when Franz was eventually drafted into the army, he was never sent to the front lines.
How that happened I don’t know. I just had a great guardian angel, and after a couple of, well several, months—I was there from May ’44 until February ’45 — I just took off and my mother hid me and two others, one other soldier, at home. It was very brave of her. We were hidden there from February until April.
Today he speaks of his time in the army “as almost a monastic experience: “Hours of marching drill were so many hours of praying the Jesus Prayer, and I felt grateful for this time of undisturbed prayer. Nothing in daily barracks life held my interest sufficiently to distract the mind from prayer.”
Surely these practices were signposts on the invisible map of his life, pointing to what lay ahead, as yet so largely undiscerned. Perhaps, too, the discipline he encountered in the army was to contribute to his later conviction that it is our Christian duty to question authority. Indeed, the lesson of the war —to constantly ask, “Who said that and why?” — would remain with him throughout his life. He remembers:
Our outfit was the 86th Regiment, a unit of “Pioneers” – the corps of engineers. I remember that number, because one of the humiliations we had to undergo when making mistakes was this: we had to climb on our locker, crouch in the narrow space between the top of the locker and the ceiling, and yell 86 times, “I am an ugly little dwarf!”
Perhaps, too, we see intimations of Brother David’s later focus on gratitude and surprise in his remark, “On the whole, however, my time at Krems was bathed in gratitude for not yet being dead — a gift surprisingly renewed with every day one was not shipped off.”
After the war had officially ended, but before things returned to normal in Vienna, Franz found himself working with refugees some fifty kilometers north of the city on the Czech border. On one of his visits to his Uncle Hans — which always yielded, besides something edible, news from the larger world — he learned that Cardinal Innitzer, archbishhop of Vienna, was appealing to young people to volunteer their help to the thousands of refugees pouring into Austria in the area of Laa and thereabouts. The misery was said to be heartbreaking. In his memories of that time, Brother David notes the following:
That only active love can bring order out of chaos was not a far-fetched idea under the circumstances. It wasn’t mere theory for us. To suspend our Greek lessons and respond to the Cardinal’s appeal made good sense. An organizational structure for this venture didn’t exist. We had to…set it up as we went along….We decided to break up into groups of two or three, only the men at first, and walk north to check what we might find…and how we might be able to help. In retrospect, how completely unstructured and unorganized this undertaking was [still] amazes me. But, at the time, we simply took it for granted.
In a journal found later, Annemarie Heidinger, a young refugee fleeing across the border of what had been Czechoslovakia, writes:
June 5th, 1945: Old people stood along the edge of the road, mostly near collapse, because they lacked the strength to go on living. No one was around to care for them. They simply died and were left lying there. Was no one burying them? Or at least covering them with earth? How many skeletons would the farmers plowing their fields find later on? Here an arm, there a shoe, there a cracked and fractured skull…
We were dependent upon begging. On one such begging expedition when I was fortunate to get several slices of bread and a little milk for my mother…
You must imagine…the road…lined with destroyed tanks, bombed houses, rotting corpses of horses and graves…only lightly covered with…earth. A gentle hand had sometimes laid a flower on a grave….Again and again, when my courage failed me, someone took me by the hand. Strange how I then regained my courage and strength.
This time it was a young student, Franz Kuno von Steindl-Rast. In the framework of the Catholic Youth, he was put in charge of the refugee camp in Wolkersdorf. I no longer know many hundreds of people were there. But he managed to comfort and refresh all of these dis-heartened and despairing people. Sometimes I think of the wonderful miracle of the bread, because suddenly all were nourished and satisfied, and he made us timidly believe somehow in the future.
The numbers of people in the camp slowly dwindled.…It because easier to care for those remaining. And now our Franz Kuno performed his miracles. I was naturally extremely happy to meet a person who could speak with me about music, who understood how to talk about the most beautiful spiritual topics, and who carefully, gently, helped me, led me, once more to believe in life, in true life.
Part 2: Answering the Call
In 1953 Brother David, having received his Ph.D in psychology (with a minor in anthropology) from the University of Vienna and having followed his family to the United States, “suddenly” joined the Benedictine community in Elmira, New York – Mount Saviour Monastery – where today he is a senior member. While this sudden turn in the roadmap of his life may have surprised some people, Brother David would later explain that he had always felt that his move to join his family in New York was partly a “running away from a monastic vocation. In Austria, although the question had been which would come first, “the right girl or the right monastery” — and there had been an abundance of girls — he felt that the Austrian monasteries of the day, with their layers of encrusted traditions, had all but smothered the original teaching of St. Benedict.
The call to a monastic life had clearly remained alive. When it was suggested in New York that he might be interested in a newly founded monastery in Elmira, where they adhered faithfully to the original rule, Franz immediately jumped on a bus to see for himself. He recalls that when asking for directions as he wandered about town in search of a large monastic building, people looked perplexed, until someone final exclaimed, “You mean the monks?!” Sure enough, he had not found them because they were living in a farm house. That afternoon while working on the land with one of the brothers, Franz, reassured that the community was indeed committed to St. Benedict’s original vision, made his decision. He immediately returned home, where his mother, seeing his radiant face, burst into tears, knowing it meant that he would soon be leaving her. Sure enough, Franz joined the order shortly thereafter, continuing his studies as Brother David.
We recognize Franz’s responsive spirit when challenged to a new adventure in that swift decision, so surely made. And that commitment could only have been reinforced when he heard that Father Damasus Winzen, the founder of Mount Saviour, had noted that, “historically, the Catholic priesthood is an anachronistic prolongation of the Old Testament priesthood, which the early Church saw abandoned in Christ,” and that his vision of monks was that they served as the “successors of the prophetic lineage.” Indeed, before Franz went to the monastery, he would inscribe a book to his brother Max, “From your anti-clerical brother who is becoming a monk.” Even today, Brother David points out that many monks have looked at clergy as the “organization men” and at themselves as the “loyal opposition.” Brother David recounts that Father Winzen himself used the image of “those pikes one puts into carps’ ponds to chase them around so that the moss will not grow on their heads”! In short, Brother David’s inquiring mind is never at rest. Take his reply to a recent question about his spiritual reading: “Books on science are on top of my list, and I think of science as a contemporary form of ‘exploration into God.’” No false dichotomy between science and religion for Brother David!
Perhaps in addition to that curiosity and openness to surprise, Brother David’s responsiveness stemmed from his attentiveness, his ability to experience the fullness of life. Every experience fertilized the seeds of his burgeoning gratefulness for the wondrous givenness of all that is. To Brother David “being” has always implied becoming, and one of his appealing characteristics has been his childlike delight in unexpected surprises.
In late 2008, just back from a retreat in the Sahara Desert, his bemused comment —at eighty-two years old — was, “One thing I never expected to do was ride a camel. And now I have ridden on several!”
Part 3: Monastic Outreach
Continuing his studies, Brother David accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in 1958-59 at Cornell University, where he also became the first Roman Catholic to hold the Thorpe Lectureship, following Bishop J.D.R. Robinson and Paul Tillich. In the 1960s, after twelve years of monastic training and studies in philosophy and theology, Brother David, at the urging of his prior, began leaving the monastery to give talks on monastic life at universities and other locales. He was also encouraged to widen his horizons by exploring the emerging Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Those were busy days.
He met both Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton during the 1960s, at a time when both the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the Catholic Trappist were passionately writing and actively working for peace. In 1995, when Thich Nhat Hanh asked Brother David to write the foreword to his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Brother David would write about his sense of privilege in meeting Thich Nhat Hanh, known to friends and students as Thay (teacher), and how he recognized in him a brother in the Spirit.
Less dramatic and less intellectual perhaps, but certainly physically demanding, was his participation in numerous Zen retreats. Brother David helped open the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara Springs, Carmel Valley, in the hills of California. A hot springs resort for over a hundred years, it was bought by the San Francisco Zen Center in 1966. In the afterword in the 2001 collection of essays entitled Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict, Brother David recounts a “surprising little incident” at Tassajara that illustrates how quickly bridges can be built between East and West.
“During one of the first practice periods at Tassajara in California’s Los Padres Wilderness, I was a dishwasher. It was a period when we were still working out the practical details of running that Zen Mountain Center. The dishes for scores of students had to be washed by hand outdoors in water from the hot springs and stored on makeshift shelves. When I was asked to leave written instructions for my successor on that job, I did so and added, “ Bodhidharma’s contemporary, St. Benedict the Patriarch of Western Monastics, writes in the Rule which we follow that pots and pans in the monastery ought to be treated as reverently as the sacred vessels of the altar.” A few months later, while visiting a Hindu ashram in New York State, I was asked, “Are you Brother David the dishwasher? We have your quotation from the Rule of St. Benedict posted above our kitchen sink.” In so short a time, a passage pointing to the holy ground we share had traveled clear across the continent and from Buddhists to Hindus.”
[quote text=”In 1975 Brother David would receive the Martin Buber Award for his achievements in building bridges between religious traditions.”]
Part 4: The Response of Grateful Living
Brother David has written extensively on universal topics, exploring spiritual themes that have emerged as prominent preoccupations in today’s uneasy society. To him, the essential aspects of grateful living have always been belonging, beholding and delight. In his writings he expounds on his major theme of gratefulness, with all its implications for an urgently needed global ethic. He stresses the universality of belonging as a profound human need. He speaks of belonging to the universe; to our Earth Household (a favorite phrase originally coined by well-known environmental poet Gary Snyder) with all its humming and buzzing creatures; and to every last one of our fellow human beings, without exception. When asked in a 1992 interview, “What do you see America needing spiritually?” he replied:
“What is most urgently needed in American spirituality today is an ecological awakening. That would be the most appropriate religious gesture for today. It would require all the virtues that religion implies – faith, hope, love, sacrifice – and it’s urgent. Unless this spiritual awakening takes place, we’re lost.
The core of every religious tradition is the mystical tradition, and mysticism is the experience of limitless belonging. That means limitless belonging to God, if you want to use that term, but also to all humans, to all animals to all plants; that’s at the core of the mystical tradition. And since the mystical tradition is at the core of religion, that sense of belonging is both ecological and religious.”
Indeed, when elaboration on our belonging even in unfavorable conditions – conditions in which, according to Brother David, we should “draw out the consequences all the way to loving our enemies” – he quotes author Elissa Melamed: “When you are in the same boat with your worst enemy, will you drill a hole into his side of the boat?
Echoes of delight can also be heard in Brother David’s understanding of spirituality as aliveness, with gratefulness as the measure of that aliveness – a theme that runs through his talks, whether he is speaking to a small group or to large audiences on lecture tours across five continents. He buoyantly gives of himself to all people, whether his audience consists of starving students in Zaire or faculty at Harvard and Columbia Universities, Buddhist monks or Sufi retreatants, Papago Indians or German intellectuals, New Age commune visitors or naval cadets at Annapolis, missionaries on Polynesian islands or Green Berets, or participants at international peace conferences. In October 1975, he was asked to give the final blessing at the five-day celebration marking the thirty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (see Br. David in this image at the U.N in the back right).
There is a subtle differentiation in Brother David’s use of the word “gratefulness” rather than “gratitude.” He invokes responsiveness, rather than just our response, perhaps best caught in the difference between “a” response and a self-spending life of responsiveness. He casts further light on this distinction in his emphasis on the associated qualities of aliveness, alertness, and wakefulness. He emphasizes the dynamic growth in saying “yes” to belonging and speaks of the importance of caring about life itself, rather than our all-too-human tendency to grasp hold of the structures that life creates. As always, his very words are dynamic:
“The great danger … the trap into which one could fall … [is] to conceive of ultimate order as static. On the contrary, it is profoundly dynamic; the only image that we can ultimately find for this order is the dance of the spheres…. We are invited to attune ourselves to that harmony to which the whole universe dances…. That order is simply the expression of the love that moves the universe, Dante’s l’amore che muove il sole e l’altre stelle [the love that moves the sun and the other stars]. But the fact is that while the rest of the universe moves freely and gracefully in cosmic harmony, we humans don’t….The obstacle which we must overcome is attachment, even the attachment to our own effort. Asceticism is the professional approach to overcoming attachment in all its forms. Our image of the dance should help us understand it. Detachment, which is merely its negative aspect, frees our movements, helps make us nimble. The positive aspect of asceticism is alertness, wakefulness, aliveness.”
In Brother David’s generous sharing of his own experience with us, he has shown us the way of all prayer, of the great fullness of life, of living gratefully. As we explore Brother David’s writings, may we all experience the expansion of heart he invites us to share. May we all choose to allow the world to give itself freely to us, to shower us with the gifts of perception. In Brother David’s words: “Nothing gives more joy than when your heart grows wider and wider and your sense of belonging to the universe grows deeper and deeper.”