Giving thanks from a 90-year-old monk

Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving. Even by political standards, this seems to be a holiday that cynics don’t bitch about too much.

Of course there’s the liberal argument that the holiday was created and then negated after Western conquerers committed genocide on the native population. There’s also the conservative response. 

But even that bickering seems relatively low-key, doesn’t it? Compared to Columbus Day or Christmas, it’s basically a blip on the outrage meter.

I think the idea of giving thinks, of having a day provided specifically for the congregation of family and friends, is fundamentally human and transgresses social and religious lines. The themes of Thanksgiving manages to not have any explicit religiosity to it, allowing atheists to enjoy; and also have undercurrents of hope and love that more traditional Christians can appreciate. There’s also the importance of family, another universal value.

In that spirit, I wanted to share an interview of Br. David Steindl-Rast, a 90-year-old Benedictine monk who has developed a spirituality based on gratefulness. Steindl-Rast is a man I’ve respected for years, and has a gentle Yoda-like aura that is pretty compelling when combined with his Viennese accent. Here’s a piece of it that grabbed me. You can read the whole transcript here then go back to arguing with your family that Clinton needs to be prosecuted:

MS. TIPPETT: There are a few quality, say, aspects, or qualities of the experience of gratefulness and thanksgiving that you’ve noted that I’d love to just draw out. And one of them is beholding, that surprise can be a beginning…


MS. TIPPETT: …of being grateful. And beholding, and also listening. I guess what we’re talking about here is attending.

BR. STEINDL-RAST: Yeah. Well, for me, this idea of listening and really looking and beholding, that comes in when people ask well, how shall we practice this gratefulness?

And, there is a very simple kind of methodology to it: stop, look, go. Most of us are caught up in schedules, and deadlines, and rushing around. And so the first thing is that we have to stop, because otherwise we are not really coming into this present moment at all. And we can’t even appreciate the opportunity that is given to us because we rush by and it rushes by. So stopping is the first thing. But that doesn’t have to be long.


BR. STEINDL-RAST: When you are in practice, a split second is enough to stop. And then you look. What is, now, the opportunity of this given moment? Only this moment, the unique opportunity this moment gives? And that is where this beholding comes in.

And if we really see what the opportunity is, we must, of course, not stop there, but we must do something with it. Go. Avail yourself of that opportunity. And if you do that, if you try practicing that at this moment, tonight, we would already be happier people, because it has an immediate feedback of joy. I always say not — I don’t speak of the gift, because not for everything that’s given to you can you really be grateful. You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence, or domestic violence, or sickness, things like that. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful. But in every moment, you can be grateful. For instance, the opportunity to learn something from a very difficult experience, what to grow by it, or even to protest, to stand up, and take a stand. That is a wonderful gift in a situation in which things are not the way they ought to be. So opportunity is really the key when people ask, can you be grateful for everything? No, not for everything, but in every moment.

[music: “Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G Major, II. Allemande” by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Edgar Meyer]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today at the Gut Aich Priory in St. Gilgen, Austria, with Br. David Steindl-Rast.

MS. TIPPETT: And you are a Benedictine, and, it seems to me that the Psalms, in fact, provide such a rich demonstration of — gratitude is woven into almost every Psalm, in some way, right? But it is held together with an expression of every conceivable human emotion: anger, fury, murderous fury, a sense of injustice and unfairness, and despair, and sadness, and disappointment. And the gratitude is still there kind of as an insistence, but it’s more resilient than the circumstances of the moment, right? It’s not a reaction to their circumstances of the moment, but it’s an intention that is held. I don’t know, you …

BR. STEINDL-RAST: It’s not a …

MS. TIPPETT: What is it?

BR. STEINDL-RAST: You put it very well.


BR. STEINDL-RAST: It’s not a reaction to the present moment, because that would be something automatic. But it is a chosen…

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a choice, yes.

BR. STEINDL-RAST: …response. It’s a real response to every moment.

MS. TIPPETT: And I love — I think when you say, not just to what’s happened, but to the opportunity that you can discern, that has been presented.

BR. STEINDL-RAST: And that is why it really secures the kind of joy that us human beings look for. I always say joy is the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens. And, usually, we have the idea, well, when something nice happens, then I’m happy, and when something bad happens, of course I’m unhappy. Well, you can be unhappy, and yet joyful. We don’t think of that. But there is a deep inner peace and joy in the midst of sadness. If we feel our way into it, we know that. For instance, losing a friend, a dear friend under normal circumstances, not to an accident and so forth, but under normal circumstances, losing our grandparents, losing our parents when they get very old, there’s a deep sadness, but there is also a great joy…

MS. TIPPETT: A celebration.

BR. STEINDL-RAST: …a celebration, a joy for all the love that we received and gave, and that kind of joy is what we really want, because happiness is not steady. But joy can be steady. And that’s what we really want. We want the happiness that lasts.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. There’s also this — oh, I think, again, in the Psalms, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And then somewhere you — which is, again, kind of a choice to acknowledge that every day. Whatever happened yesterday, whatever you’re dreading today, but something — you quoted — you used some lines of Maya Angelou, which, to me, is a wonderful paraphrase of that, anyway. “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.”


MS. TIPPETT: Which is an orientation to the day, right?

BR. STEINDL-RAST: Yes. That uniqueness of every given moment of every day, to open your eyes and know another day. We can’t take it for granted. We can’t take it for granted. In my youth, we couldn’t take it for granted because every night the bombs fell. But if you maintained this attitude, it’s just as realistic. All sorts of reasons why you couldn’t see another day. And you do. And that’s a wonderful thing. It’s a wonderful thing.


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