Br. David Steindl-Rast - Gratitude, the Listening Heart, and Contemplation-in-Action.
August 18, 2008 01:50
Written by Corey W. deVos
In the third and final installation of Br. David and Ken’s discussion, we explore some specific practices to help cultivate and stabilize our experiences of gratitude, and to learn how to deal with those darker aspects of our lives we simply cannot feel grateful for, no matter how hard we might try….
"That's why gratefulness practice is not this 'happy go-lucky, everything is nice and be grateful for it, count your blessings' sort of thing. No! It's a very realistic way of dealing with reality, and it has very serious social implications." ~Br. David Steindl-Rast
Who: Brother David Steindl-Rast has been a practicing Benedictine monk for over half a century and was one of the first Vatican-sanctioned delegates to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He is a recipient of the Martin Buber Award, and serves as a senior member of the Mount Savior Monastery in Elmira, New York.
Summary: For some, the notion of "God in 2nd-person" can initially seem somewhat confusing, off-putting even. After all, with whom exactly are we communing? The anthropomorphic "personal God" we know from the Western religious traditions? The pantheon of deities and demons we find in the East? Mother Nature? The Great Web of Life? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? There seem to have been so few exemplars in the modern and postmodern worlds to help us understand the "we" that exists between our individual selves and the divine, especially since this crucial "Second Face" of God is so frequently labeled as obsolete, a quaint relic of mythic consciousness.
It is interesting that, while modernity and postmodernity are quick to dismiss the importance of the 2nd-person nature of God, the Golden Rule ("treat others as you would like to be treated") is widely acknowledged as the common core of all the world's religions, and is so easily adaptable to these post-mythic levels of development. And what else is the Golden Rule, if not a distillation of the very essence of God in 2nd-person? While it can be difficult to find this sort of devotional spirituality role modeled beyond the mythic stage of development, it nonetheless shows up in everyone's life—in every act of kindness, compassion, and empathy, in every quiet feeling of gratitude, in every heartfelt "thank you," and in every intimate connection we have ever felt with each other and with the world. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, we are in relationship with God every single moment of our lives. And every moment is another opportunity to express the deepest gratitude for this relationship, allowing the love we feel between ourselves and God to fill our hearts—until we feel ourselves overflowing with warmth and limitless light, spilling it into the rest of the world.
Cultivating this experience of gratefulness—or "great fullness"—is the impulse behind all devotional practice, no matter what tradition it is situated in. As such, gratitudeitself represents a unique space in which we can anchor our discussions of the unity underlying all the world’s religions. While our third-person descriptions of the divine often vary greatly from tradition to tradition, and our first-person experiences of Spirit are usually elusive and difficult to wrap meaningful language around, the feelings of gratitude and thankfulness are universal—so universal, in fact, that they form the living bedrock of all the world’s great spiritual traditions, from the beginning of the world until the end of time.
It doesn't matter whether it's an ancient deity with a long white beard, a thousand-armed bodhisattva, your guru, priest, or sensei, your friends and family, a stranger on the street, your cat or dog, or the unknowable Mystery behind it all—the point resides within none of these objects of devotion, as they all equally reflect the fractalized perfection of the One. As Martin Buber reminds us once again—in the 'I-Thou' relationship, God is not some sort of ultimate 'Thou' at the end of the universe, but the hyphen that connects you with everyone and everything in creation. God is the essence of relationship itself, the temple of “we” in which every gesture is a prayer, every kindness a blessing, and every conflict an opportunity to bring even more love into the world.