Ninety-nine percent of the time we have an opportunity to be grateful for something. We just don’t notice it. We go through our days in a daze.
Austrian-born Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., is a senior member of Mount Savior Benedictine monastery in New York State. After years of monastic training, Brother David was sent by his abbot to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Together with Thomas Merton, Brother David contributed to the renewal of religious life, especially through the House of Prayer movement. Brother David is the author of A Listening Heart, Gratefulness, and Belonging to the Universe, which he co-wrote with Fritjof Capra. At present, Brother David is concentrating his efforts on a truly wonderful interactive website, grateful.org. (Visit and light a candle.) Henry Stark, a frequent contributor to SACRED JOURNEY recently interviewed Brother David about his most recent book, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day, co-written with Sharon Lebell.
In the monastic tradition every day unfolds during eight “hours” or public services of prayer and chanting. “Vigils,” the early morning hour is when mystery and darkness reign. “Lauds” acknowledges the coming of the light. “Prime” is the time to deliberately take up the day’s labors. “Terce” is a short mid-morning break where spiritual blessings provide the energy to reawaken. “Sext” is in the middle of everything when the sun is at its peak and life is often frenzied. This is the moment to think about peace and offer service to another. “None” acknowledges the lengthening shadows and fading of the day. “Vespers” celebrates the lighting of the lamps as darkness descends and the contradictions of the day are examined, reconciled, and replaced with serenity. “Compline” brings completion to the day. This final prayer for the day begins, “A peaceful night and perfect end grant us. ” Thus, the circle of each day is drawn.
Henry Stark for SACRED JOURNEY: In Music of Silence you explain how the monastic hours allow you to “step out of mere clock time in which we simply react.” How can people who are subjected to the hustle and bustle of everyday life live in harmony with the day’s natural rhythms?
Brother David Steindl-Rast: You start with noticing the more obvious “seasons” or aspects of the day. Morning is a time of day that is different from noon time and different from evening. Gradually you might attune yourself to seeing that there is something special and recognizable about midmorning or midafternon. Everybody, not only monks, used to follow the day in former times. The monks especially attuned themselves to the sacred character of these different times of the day and night, but everyone experienced them. Before we had clocks and electric lights to make the night like day, we lived this way. But now everything is divided into clock time. Many people find it is good to come back to that natural rhythm of the day for their spiritual nourishment.
The last thing I do before I go to sleep at night is to lie in bed and think to myself: What service did I provide today? What were the good things I did today? This quiets me and motivates me because I know that is how I am measuring the success or failure of each day.
That’s great. You can do the same in the morning. You can pause for a moment, even before you open your eyes and ask: What service can I offer today? Somewhere during your lunch break take one minute and ask: How am I doing? These simple activities are already a part of living the day’s rhythm. Living with intention comes quite naturally. It isn’t exotic.
You write, “Eternity is not a long, long time. Eternity is the opposite of time. It is no time.” How can we free ourselves in a practical sense from chronological time to live in eternal time?
What mystics and spiritual writers of all the different traditions called eternity should not be misunderstood as a long, long time. That is a popular misconception. You may have heard the story of the little bird who comes to a gigantic mountain once every thousand years and scratches its beak and then flies away. When this bird has worn away the whole mountain by scratching just once every thousand years, then one second of eternity will have passed. This is an intriguing story but it doesn’t really say anything about eternity. It just describes a long, long time. The whole point of eternity is that we as human beings reach out or stick out into a dimension that transcends time. Past and future are elements of time, but NOW, the present, is intangible and really exists outside of time.
Are we too obsessed with chronological time?
I myself am obsessed with being on time and not waiting too long in lines, but my point is not that we are obsessed, rather we are in danger of being prisoners of time. We cling to the past because we don’t want to let go of it. We focus on the future and are not really present in the NOW. True happiness consists in being here. Yes, you treasure your past and look forward to your future, but mostly, you are focused on the NOW. This strangely liberates you from time.
It is hard to live in the NOW. I’ve noticed that the older one gets the more one is tempted to live in the past because it has spanned a longer time than the future will.
One of my former teachers at Cornell University who is in his 90s told me yesterday that he recently has discovered meditation. He says when he is meditating he is completely living in the present. In meditation we can release that sense of time. In our peak moments, whenever we are really given to what we are doing, time seems to stand still.
All of those examples are about getting out of oneself. As soon as I get out of myself and into the moment, who cares about time?
And where do you “get to” when you get out of yourself? You get into your real self. Your real self is the self that is in communion with God and belongs with God. I remember a Zen teacher of mine who said “‘just’ is the best word in the English language. Just do whatever you are doing and you have made it.” In our best moments I think all of us experience this. We have to remind ourselves: What was that moment when time stood still? I lost myself and I found myself.
When work is distributed to the monks during Prime, you write that we “savor our work as we are doing it. We need to resist our tendency to rush into things and to hurry through our activities.” What advice would you give a production line worker about making work meaningful?
First we have to set this into context. There are kinds of work that are not humane. Piece work on the conveyor belt is not humane and should not exist. We should find other ways of dealing with those tasks. But I’d say this to the line worker: “This work you do to earn a living has to be complemented with work where you see the process of what you do from beginning to end, even if it is gardening, or making a kite for your kid, or knitting a sweater for your grandchild, or whittling for your own enjoyment.” Try to put something into your professional work that will redeem it as best you can. In a famous Japanese film, a young woman shows this older man a mechanical bunny rabbit that jumps across the table. She tells him that she makes these rabbits for a living. She says that while she works she thinks of all the little babies who will use and enjoy these bunny rabbits. Someone who works on an assembly line could bless every piece or product as it is handled. Blessing is a very concrete reality. The word “blessing” is related in English to the word “blood.” Blessing is like the spiritual bloodstream that flows through the universe. When we bless something we are returning what we have received to its source. We know we receive life and breath from a source which is beyond us. We haven’t bought it or earned it. We are just put here and life comes to us from some mysterious source, and we can give it back. That is like the blood coming from the heart and going back to the heart. That blood keeps on flowing and if we tune in to the bloodstream of blessing the world comes alive. The same thing happens if we cut off the bloodstream or drain the sap from a tree; life withers.
Do you believe that we all get blessings from God even if we are unaware of them?
The gifts or blessings of life are always there but if we are not aware of them, they don’t do much for us. That is where gratefulness comes in. Gratefulness makes us aware of the gift and makes us happy. As long as we take things for granted they don’t make us happy. Gratefulness is the key to happiness. Practicing gratitude is so central to my spirituality. That’s why I am now working on a website that is called grateful.org. It is an interactive website that helps people to discover and cultivate gratefulness and to change society. There are a thousand ways to do that. We even have a new feature of lighting a candle in cyberspace. This is not a gimmick, but it is a 21st century ritual. You click on the candlewick to light it and it will burn for twenty-four hours and get smaller as it burns. You can send a message to someone telling them you lit a candle for them. This provides a gratefulness ritual you can do right where you are, and we are very poor on ritual in our time. Rituals are very important to human beings; they keep us alive.
How do rituals keep us alive?
Rituals make us mindful. Every ritual — graduations, funerals, weddings-has something to do with gratefulness. The Mass or Eucharist in the Catholic tradition literally means “thanksgiving.” In the Hindu tradition a puja, or sacrifice, is a grateful acknowledgement of a gift. Offering the first fruits of the harvest is a ritual. You lift up a part of what you have received to the source from which you received it. This is an expression of gratefulness.
How do we build prayer breaks into our days? You write about creating a “portable monastery” that goes with you during your frequent travels.
I have some prayer beads that I move and they I keep me mindful. Buddhists and many other traditions have beads, too. Whatever mantra or prayer you use while moving them becomes almost, automatic or habitual in a positive way. Having a little card or picture that you look up at often can serve the same purpose. Many people do this by putting pictures on their desk of their sweetheart or children. These things remind us of what and who matter.
You write, “Prayer is not sending in an order and expecting it to be fulfilled. Prayer is attuning yourself to the life of the world, to love, to the force that moves the sun and the moon and the stars.” When things are going well in my life I can relate to those words. But how can I understand this when I face a devastating medical diagnosis or am in the depths of depression?
The moment when you get bad news or are in a depression is not the moment to start attuning yourself in prayer. If you practice attuning yourself now, it will be relatively easy even in those very difficult times. If you live gratefully recognizing the good when you have a cup of tea or a comfortable seat or a nice conversation, then when something difficult comes along, this will not be the first moment when you wake up. Ninety-nine percent of the time we have an opportunity to be grateful for something. We just don’t notice it. We go through our days in a daze.
I once had jaw surgery for a tumor and while no one I wants to have surgery, that experience turned me on to all sorts of sensations and awareness.
At the time you wouldn’t have thought a tumor was something to be grateful for and it isn’t. The thing to be grateful for is the opportunity to learn something new. I suffer a great deal with depression, so I know how it feels not to be able to be grateful for depression. You hardly can do anything, but if you are in spiritual training you can at least think, well, this is an opportunity to learn patience. You trust that this, too, will pass.
So it is better to start and get into the habit of gratefulness in the good times?
It is not only better; it is absolutely necessary. There is no other time to start. You will find that even your worst times are creative times. And creativity and aliveness are what we are after.
During the monastic hour called None, the last part of the day, you write that you pray daily for a holy and peaceful death. But if you pray for a peaceful death how do you reconcile that with your earlier comment that prayer is not sending in orders to be fulfilled?
“Give us this day our daily bread,” is the most typical prayer because so many people pray it everyday. Does that mean that if we don’t ask for something God won’t give it to us? It would be wrong to pray for a good death like putting in an order. That would be a wrong concept. Rather, when we pray that way, we are really attuning ourselves to God’s blessing and provision. We can trust in the blessings that continually flow and attune ourselves to be grateful for them. There are stages of faith and stages of religious experience. I would say that this praying, as putting in an order and making a bargain, is simply a stage we go through. We maintain certain expressions from this stage but we come to understand them differently.
When you pray for a holy death, are you praying that there will not be a prolonged illness?
I would hope and trust that were so, but I also pray that if there is a prolonged illness, I will be able to cope with whatever comes. It is not under our control.
I think if I live a spiritual life then I will be prepared for whatever is coming.
That is the point. If we train ourselves to be in the present moment and to be with the present moment gratefully, when any other moment comes, even the moment of death, you I will be in that attitude and that would be a good death.
You currently live away from your monastery. What challenges does that create for you?
I have traveled so much for decades doing so much outreach that I have had relatively little time to go inward. My abbot thought this was a good opportunity for me to be in a hermitage. I do feel some separation from my community but feel that being interiorly connected to them is sometimes easier than when you have to rub against them every day. So it has its advantages and disadvantages. But I am grateful, too, for the opportunity to make the best of it. Working on this website, which I can do from the hermitage, offers a strange combination of living in seclusion and being in touch with thousands of people.
Is there a final thought that you would like to share with the readers of SACRED JOURNEY?
SACRED JOURNEY suggests being on a way. If I should name, the particular road which we are on, it would be the road of gratefulness. It is at the heart of every religious tradition and the human path of those who do not identify with any religious path. Gratefulness is the core of spirituality.
Reprinted here by the kind permission of Sacred Journey Magazine.