Spirituality of Gratefulness Begins with Existential `Wow!' at God's Giving

Article excerpt


"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" thankfulnes just as a deeper meaning permeates a shallower one, he told NCR during an interview in Dallas. …