Thanksgiving -- Gratitude
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Issue Date:  November 23, 2007

Always be surprised

Br. David Steindl-Rast was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1926 and joined Mount Savior Monastery, a newly founded Benedictine community in Elmira, N.Y., in 1953. After 12 years of monastic training and studies, Steindl-Rast was sent by his abbot to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogues. He later studied with several Zen master teachers. In 1968, he cofounded the Center for Spiritual Studies. He has written a number of books, including Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer; A Listening Heart; Music of Silence and most recently Words of Common Sense for Mind, Body, and Soul.

The following is an abridged transcription of a Thomas C. Fox interview with Steindl-Rast. The full interview can be found at

NCR: You’ve written that gratefulness is a spiritual practice. Explain.
Steindl-Rast: Gratefulness itself is a real practice. It’s just as valid as say, yoga, Zen, Sufi dancing or any other practice. It begins with surprise. You may not even feel that you can be grateful, or you may feel that you are inadequately grateful, but stop and be surprised. Everybody can do that.

Before you open your eyes in the morning, you can stop and be surprised that you have eyes to open, because there are, I understand, more than 40 million people in the world who do not have eyes or cannot see with them. You can go through your day and moment by moment be surprised at anything, everything.

That is the beginning of being grateful because then the next consideration is: “Well, how come I have this? How come this is given to me?”

Once you start with having something given to you and do not always think of earning it, buying it or achieving it in some way, once you start realizing that everything is given to you, well, then, we are already on the road toward giving thanks. After all, we live in a given world. This is a given moment, a given situation. If it’s given, what is more appropriate than to be grateful for it?

But normally, many people, most people I’m afraid, go through life without ever stopping to be surprised at anything and therefore, not even realizing that everything is a gift.

Is there a path toward deeper gratefulness?
If we practice a little bit of introspection, we will find that there are two phases to gratefulness, to gratitude.

The first phase is that our heart is filled with what? Amazement. There is this little moment before I say “thank you” in which my heart is full -- before it overflows in thanks -- and this little phase of gratitude, which I call gratefulness, is very important because it is the full response to the gratuitously given.

The image is that of a vessel filling up, filling up, and then it overflows. One aspect of this image is that if you make the vessel small enough, it will overflow sooner, and instead what we are doing is always making it bigger and bigger. Just at the moment when our heart is so filled with gratefulness and wants to overflow into thanks, somebody tells us, “But there is more that you need.”

It’s now all taken for granted. The affluent society makes the vessel bigger and bigger and that is why you find among poor people everywhere in the world, in our own country and in other parts of the world, that they are so much more grateful than the rich, who expect to have everything.

Should we then be trying to make our vessels smaller?
Yes. Yes, we can do that by living frugally, by asking, “What do we really need,” by distinguishing our needs from our wants. That is one of the outcomes of practicing gratefulness, and it is a very important one because in the world in which we live, we in this part of the world cannot just go on taking so much more than our own share.

For most people, simply making up your mind: “I will live gratefully,” that is the best and quickest practice. “I will allow this feeling of gratefulness to well up in my heart.” It’s more than a feeling -- it will become very soon an attitude toward life, and the moment you have that, you will be happy. If you practice yoga, you have to do very painful exercises and so forth. But if you are grateful, you can do whatever you did yesterday -- just continue doing it -- but remind yourself to be surprised and be grateful.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2007

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