A Modern Catholic Mystic

When I first tried to locate the Catholic monk David Steindl-Rast in late 1999, I was told he was living as a hermit now; no one knew exactly where. I plugged his name into an internet search engine, and it came up associated with a monastery in western New York called Mount Saviour. When I contacted the monastery, a monk told me that Brother David visited now and then but no longer lived there; he was living in seclusion in another town. The monk gave me a fax number that Brother David sometimes responded to.

I faxed a letter to the number telling Steindl-Rast about my mysticism-book project and asking for an interview. No response. I faxed him again. Nothing. Finally I sent another, longer letter. I said that after reading his works, I thought he might be able to help me come to terms with some questions I’d been wrestling with—namely, why, if God exists, has He created such a painful world? About an hour later, I received a hand-written fax from "Your brother David." After thanking me for my "gentle persistence," he said, "At this time in my life, I live in seclusion. An interview will not work."

He offered to answer a few "strongly focused" questions by email, however. He gave me an email address whose tag was "hermit," and we began a sporadic electronic communication. Steindl-Rast eventually agreed to meet me after all—not at his hermitage but at Mount Saviour, which he planned to visit for the Feast of the Pentecost.

Thus did I finally arrange to meet the elusive Brother David. Born and raised in Austria, he emigrated to the United States in 1952 and joined the Benedictine order shortly thereafter. He came to be seen as a successor to the Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton. Like Merton, Steindl-Rast sought to revive interest in prayer and contemplation as ways to arouse spiritual awareness. He also participated in exchange programs between Catholic and Buddhist monks.

Steindl-Rast seems to impress all who encounter him. Both the transpersonal psychologist Francis Vaughan and the human potential guru Jean Houston told me that Steindl-Rast impressed them as a true mystic, and one of the most saintly people they had ever met. Frank Geer, an Episcopalian minister in my home town, remembered vividly a workshop he took with Steindl-Rast in the 1970’s; Steindl-Rast had been wise, warm, funny, everything one could want in a spiritual teacher. I heard similar stories from others.

Reading Steindl-Rast’s books, I could see why people found him so appealing. His was a path of the heart more than the intellect. His spirituality consisted of two qualities, wonder and gratitude.

Our amazement that anything exists at all is the wellspring of philosophy, science, and spirituality, Steindl-Rast said. "What catapults our awareness to a higher level," he wrote, "is our capacity for surprise." He summed up this view with the phrase, "God is surprise." Life is also a gift, Steindl-Rast said, for which we should be profoundly grateful. He suggested daily exercises for nurturing our spiritual amazement and gratitude: reading and pondering one poem a day; focusing on one of the senses; giving thanks each day for at least one thing you have not been grateful for before.

Steindl-Rast did not shy away from the problems posed by a spirituality founded on gratitude. How can we be grateful, he asked, when there are so many wrongs in the world? When people are being massacred in Africa and going hungry in India? When companies are polluting the environment? One answer, he suggested, is that we can be grateful for the opportunity to do something about these problems.

Also, we should be grateful not just for the good in our own lives—or in life in general--but for the bad as well. This is a truly spiritual gratitude, which affirms all aspects of life. "To give thanks even when we cannot see the goodness of the Giver--to learn this is to find the path to peace of heart. For happiness is not what makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy." If we can be grateful even when things seem bleakest, then we may know true joy, "a happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens."

There are dark notes in Steindl-Rast’s writings that keep it from slipping into sentimentality. In Music of Silence, he mentioned the Biblical story of Jacob, who was both blessed and crippled by his encounter with an angel. "There is a mysterious woundedness that somehow goes with great blessing," Steindl-Rast wrote. "When we truly encounter the night in all its beauty and terror, we have no assurance whatsoever that we are going to come out unscathed."

Steindl-Rast questioned whether it is possible to extinguish all pain and be "fully alive and present in the now." He told a tale about a young monk who travels into the desert to seek out a revered old master. The young monk finally finds the master and asks for advice on how to achieve permanent peace of mind. The old man answers, "I have worn this habit for seventy years and not on a single day have I found peace."

I traveled to meet Brother David on a sultry Saturday in June 2000. After crossing the Hudson River, I drove west for three hours to Elmira, New York. Turning onto the monastery road just beyond the town, I drove past a sloping pasture dotted with sheep (the monastery sells lamb wool and meat) to a compound of white-painted buildings.

A monk at the reception desk showed me to my room in a guest house. The room was spartan: bed, chair, writing desk. On the desk was a note: "Welcome, John, and blessings on your stay here. See you at supper. David." I had more than an hour to kill. Wandering down the hall from the room, I found a roomed lined with books on theology. One caught my eye: The Problem of Evil, volume 20 of the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Flipping it open, I read: "For every thinking and reflecting man the existence of evil is a riddle he cannot escape." Although the world seems to be designed by a "wonderful intelligence," the existence of so much suffering and cruelty makes us ask, "How can God allow this?"

The author proposed a "provisional, but valid and complete, solution to this problem." Without pain and evil, we would not know the rapture of being saved by God. This notion is expressed by a passage sung by the deacon during the Easter vigil: "O happy fault to win for us so great and so mighty a Redeemer." In other words, evil is a necessary evil. The author rejected the suggestion of Marxists and scientists that material progress will eventually eradicate evil. Evil "will persist throughout eternity," he declared cheerfully, so God can keep saving us.

When I entered the monastery’s dining hall, along with eight other lay male guests, nine monks were already taking their seats. I recognized Steindl-Rast from his photographs. He was standing behind his chair, his eyes downcast. I approached him with my hand outstretched, identifying myself and expressing delight at finally meeting him. He shook my hand and smiled but said nothing. He seemed half embarrassed, half amused. Another monk took me firmly by the arm and steered me to the other side of the room, where the guests sat.

We sat in silence, monks on one side of the room, lay men on the other. The monks came in all ages and sizes. They ranged from a painfully thin, sallow young fellow to an obese old man wearing an eye patch and slouching in a wheelchair. The male guests were similarly varied. On one side of me was a 20-ish, goateed hipster, on the other a fit, crewcutted gent who looked like a retired military officer. A grizzled monk in a green apron wheeled out a food-laden cart and served us dinner: chowder, pineapple, bread, milk and apple juice. As we ate, silverware scraping against our metal bowls and plates, a monk in a pulpit at the other end of the hall droningly read snippets from the Bible and other religious texts.

At the end of the meal, Steindl-Rast approached me and asked if I minded helping out with the dishes. Not at all, I replied. When the dishes were washed, Steindl-Rast led me outside to the cross-shaped chapel that was the compound’s centerpiece. We sat in two rusty metal chairs just outside the chapel, looking out across a dusky landscape of woods and fields. In a German-accented voice Steindl-Rast told me that he always marveled at how much this landscape had changed since he first arrived here in 1953. He and his fellow monks had planted almost all the trees before us, about 50,000 trees in all. How big they had grown!

He was lean, almost gaunt, with close-cropped hair and beard. Thick black eyebrows hung like awnings over his eyes. He gave off an aura of calm and repose tinged with mischief. As he spoke, his hands emerged from his black over-robe, fluttered and swooped before him like birds, and vanished beneath the robe again, as if resting. A ring of beads circled the middle finger of his right hand. The only part of him that looked his age, 75, were his battered, sandal-shod feet.

I spoke to Steindl-Rast for more than an hour that evening and again the following morning, in between several of the eight services that take place each day in the monastery chapel. He told me that he had been 12 when Germany usurped Austria. He was forced to serve in the German Army during the war but never saw combat. Just before the war ended, he deserted and made his way home, and his mother hid him for several months before Germany surrendered. After the war, he had friends, a girlfriend, a wonderful life.

"Everything was just absolutely perfect," he said. "It was at that point, when I was happiest of all my life so to speak, at least up to then, that I realized that from here on it could only go downhill—unless I kept death before my eyes."

I looked at him, puzzled, and he explained that the phrase "keep death at all times before your eyes" came from Saint Benedict, the founder of his order. Steindl-Rast first encountered Benedict’s teachings toward the end of the war, when he started frequenting a Benedictine church. Steindl-Rast realized that his sense of death’s nearness during the war had made him truly appreciate life. Many of his closest friends had been killed, and Steindl-Rast had not expected to see his twentieth birthday, but even in the worst of times he was strangely happy, even joyful.

When the war ended, he became convinced that if he did not sustain his awareness of death, the rest of his life would be anti-climactic. One day in church he had an epiphany in which he realized that monasticism was his destiny; after all, the purpose of monasticism is to cultivate a heightened awareness of death and life. He resisted his calling for another seven years, during which he obtained a doctorate in child psychology.

In 1952, he emigrated with his mother and two brothers to the United States. Soon after his arrival he heard about a Benedictine monastery that had just been founded in western New York, near the town of Elmira. Steindl-Rast took a bus to the new-born Mount Saviour monastery and immediately felt that he belonged there. Many monks-in-training agonize over whether to embrace monasticism. Not Steindl-Rast. "I liked everything about it from the very first day."

In the 1960’s, at the urging of his prior, Steindl-Rast began leaving the monastery to give talks on monastic life at universities and other locales. He participated in the so-called "house of prayer" movement, in which Catholics sought to renew their faith through prayer and other spiritual practices. He traveled around the world giving lectures on spirituality, and for several years he taught at Esalen.

I told Steindl-Rast that it sounded like a concept for a television sit-com: a celibate monk teaching at Esalen, ground zero of the sexual revolution. Smiling, he replied that he applauded the exploration of sexuality that occurred at Esalen. He even taught a workshop called "The Pleasure of Touching and the Joy of Being Touched." True spirituality, he said, embraces sensuality. Although monasticism is usually seen as anti-sensual, Steindl-Rast added, it actually enhances our sensuality. Just as food tastes better to a hungry man, so does the monk have a heightened appreciation of reality.

During this period Steindl-Rast tried psychedelics, or entheogens, as he preferred to called them. For the most part, his entheogenic experiences merely reinforced perceptions and insights he had already gleaned from his contemplative practice. "It wasn’t this world-shaking experience." What a friend once said of psychedelics held for him too: "I don’t need for the rocks to yell at me. I always speak with them anyway." He nonetheless concluded that entheogens can be helpful, particularly for those whose spirituality is too intellectual. "If you always read about swimming, it’s a good idea to jump into the water once in a while. There is something you just can’t get out of books, not even out of the Bible."

It was obvious by this point that Steindl-Rast is not a conventional Catholic. He excoriated the Catholic church, calling it too centralized, authoritarian, sexist, "the last absolute monarchy left in the world." The church in its present incarnation is "doomed to die" as a result of its rigidity.

Steindl-Rast chose not to become an ordained priest in part so that he would not be part of the church hierarchy; as a monk with no flock, he is freer to speak his mind.

He hoped the church would soon allow women to serve as priests. But ultimately, Catholics should not require churches, priests or any of the institutional trappings of worship. Steindl-Rast recalled Jesus’s declaration that "wherever two or three are together in my name, I am in the midst of them." He envisioned a day when Catholics celebrate mass, carry out baptisms and marry in their own homes.

I asked why we need Catholicism or any religion to sustain our spirituality. Can’t art serve the same function in a more benign fashion? Steindl-Rast gave me the same response to this question that Huston Smith did. Art is a vital component of Catholicism, Steindl-Rast pointed out. "Look at the cathedrals! Look at the liturgy! I feel like an opera singer who has the privilege to sing every day, and dance. It’s not elaborate, but it’s real dancing and singing. This is art." Those who want to reform the church should emphasize these elements rather than theological doctrine. "That is what we should focus on and should cultivate and develop into the future."

Steindl-Rast seemed more personally committed to monasticism than to Catholicism per se. When Steindl-Rast first met Buddhist monks, he said, he felt an instant bond with them. Eventually, with the permission of the Vatican, he left his monastery to spend time at Zen monasteries in New York City, California and elsewhere. He felt as at home in these Zendos as he had at Mount Savior. "Sometimes I had to almost pull my ear to become aware that I was not in a Christian monastery," he said. "It was just another way of doing the same thing, being in an environment where everything is geared toward mindfulness."
Theology was another matter. When a Zen monk spent several days at Mount Savior, he and the Christian monks could find no common theological ground. "Every time he opened his mouth he put his foot in it," Steindl-Rast said. smiling. But monastic life is about spirituality rather than theology, "so we met on the level of spirituality, not theology." Monastic spirituality is a gem, he said, that can shine in many different settings.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Christian and Buddhist monasticism is the attitude toward mystical experience. Christian monasticism has traditionally paid little attention to mystical states. When Steindl-Rast became a monk in the 1950’s, "if you had said you had had a mystic experience, they would have kicked you out immediately," he said, laughing. "The rumor would have gotten around, and you wouldn’t have gotten into any other monastery either." Buddhism inspired Christian monks such as Thomas Merton and Steindl-Rast to pay closer attention to their subjective experiences.

In his autobiography, Merton recalled that while crossing a street in Louisville, Kentucky, he felt a visceral connection to all the men and women around him. Steindl-Rast had a similar Thou-art-that epiphany while he was living in New York City. Walking down the street, he looked in the faces of people passing by him and thought, "That’s me, that’s me, that’s me." The sense of recognition was uncannily similar to what he felt when he spotted himself in a group photograph.
Although experiences like these fade in intensity and immediacy, the insights they yield remain. "Once you have seen that, you can’t deny it any more." But monastic life involves not mystical experiences per se, Steindl-Rast emphasized, but "keeping your mind on essential things, and not just your mind but your heart."

For the past several years, Steindl-Rast had been living alone in a cottage on a Quaker retreat. After so many years of traveling, he felt that he needed to catch up on his solitude. He hoped to stay in touch with the world through an interactive website that would encourage people from any and all faiths to explore the spiritual benefits of cultivating gratefulness. The theme of his site would be that "it doesn’t make a difference whether you are Christian or Buddhist or Hindu or Sufi. Whatever you are, gratefulness is at the root of your spirituality." The website’s address would be gratefulness.org, Steindl-Rast said, his smile acknowledging the incongruity of it all.

I told Steindl-Rast about my reluctance to thank or even acknowledge the existence of a God that allows innocent people to suffer so much. Steindl-Rast admitted that he was stumped by that ancient theological conundrum too. "That is a question one really has to grapple with," he said. "I do not know the answer. I wish I knew it."

Steindl-Rast said that a passage in the Hebrew Bible suggests one possible theodicy. In this passage, God declared, "I am with you in your troubles." That line, Steindl-Rast suggested, could be interpreted to mean that God is not an omnipotent savior, who at any moment can deliver us from the plight that He has put us into; in some way God shares our suffering and our struggles. "God is in trouble," Steindl-Rast said. "And we don’t like that very much. We want to have at least somebody who is not in trouble."

But Steindl-Rast seemed reluctant to dwell on the imperfections of God or His creation. He told me a story in which Saint Anthony asked God why He permitted so much suffering. God replied, "Let me take care of that. You take care of Anthony." The story expresses the faith that "if God is God, then probably She knows better," Steindl-Rast explained, lifting his eyebrows and smiling as he said "she."

Rather than despairing at the world’s pain and injustice, Steindl-Rast said, we should be grateful that we have the opportunity to make the world better. "Then you are doing what you can do, and what more do you want? Set yourself up as a judge of life, that it should be better? If you are grateful, that’s a different attitude." This Catholic monk was telling me the same thing that the neurologist and Zen Buddhist James Austin did: Forget all this theology. Yes, the world is unjust and painful, but there is much we can do to reduce the pain and injustice. At the very least, we can offer each other compassion.

But as painful as existence is, he said, it also offers much to be grateful for. The best way to overcome our despair over the inevitability of suffering and death is to give thanks for all that is good in life. Gratefulness "fills this whole present moment. And then comes the next moment, and that process fills the next moment. You don’t have time, so to say, to think, ‘What if there is no next moment?’"

Steindl-Rast said he did not have much interest in life after death. "I feel more comfortable thinking of death as that after which by definition there is nothing, there is no ‘after.’" In fact, the knowledge that one day his life would end filled him with relief rather than dread. "I am very happy not to have to think of more time after that, just as I am very happy when my day is done and I can go to bed and that day is over," he said. "I am not too eager to have somebody tell me that some other thing is coming after and after and after." Steindl-Rast viewed heaven and hell not as places we go after death but as states that we dwell in here on earth. If heaven means embracing life and being embraced by it, hell is alienation from life.

"One example that I’ve used, and that many people can identify with, is the childrens’ party where you find yourself sulking in a corner. Everybody is having a great time; only you don’t. And you have forgotten how you ever got in this corner, but you don’t want to come out. Somehow you are saving face by not coming out. And finally somebody cracks a joke and makes you spray your cocoa and makes it come out your nose. And all of a sudden you are laughing and back in with the rest of them. That state was a hellish state, because, as C.S. Lewis says, ‘God doesn’t lock anybody up in hell. The doors of hell are locked up on the inside.’"
Our alienation from life may take more extreme forms, Steindl-Rast acknowledged. "I have a very close friend who always says, ‘Don’t forget the nadir experiences.’ They are also peaks, but upside-down peaks."

When I asked if he had ever had experiences of this kind, Steindl-Rast told me in a surprisingly matter-of-fact manner that ever since his youth he had suffered from bouts of severe depression, which usually lasted no more than a few days. These episodes were so utterly unlike his ordinary states of mind that when they passed he had difficulty recalling their content. "You can only remember it was awful," he said.

These depressive episodes reminded him of beautiful beetles that he had found as a child in the Austrian Alps. When it was right-side up, the beetle looked like a living gem, with burnished golden-green wings. But flipped over it was a thicket of scrabbling black legs. In the same way, "this beautiful life here has an underside, and it’s pretty awful." He now took medication to treat his depression. The memory of better times also helped him through his darkest moments. "Even in these worst times, there is an underlying sense of everything is all right," he said, "which I trace back to those moments in which I knew that the last word is ‘yes’ and not ‘no.’" Steindl-Rast spoke very quietly, almost in a whisper.

Bats were flitting across the dimming sky when the chapel bell rang, calling us to Compline, the last service of the day. I followed Steindl-Rast into the chapel. He sat with the other monks on one side of the chapel. I sat on the other side with the lay visitors, including not only the men I had eaten with earlier but women and children, too. The prior rapped the side of his pew sharply. As one monk strummed a harp, the others sang a hymn. The combination of the harp and human voices and twilight atmosphere put me in a dreamy, trance-like mood.

After several songs, the prior rapped his pew again. He and the other monks rose and disappeared down a staircase. I and the other lay folk trooped after the monks, and we assembled in the basement of the chapel for what was a truly eerie scene. At the center of the chamber, surrounded by a ring of dark columns, stood an ancient, eroded statue of the Madonna cradling her child. The only illumination in this inner sanctum came from candles flickering at the feet of the Virgin Mary. For what seemed like a very long time, but was probably only a few minutes, all of us stood in silence around the statue.

Contempt, derision, revulsion welled up in me at this religious display. Here was the absurd superstition and idolatry that had driven me away from Catholicism as a youth. I could not help but think of cinematic scenes involving depraved, robed cultists in movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Eyes Wide Shut. I remembered what the German shaman Christian Ratsch had said about monks, that they were "incomplete," "crazy and weird."

I tried to suppress my emotions, to observe without judgement, like an anthropologist, or a monk practicing mindfulness. I reminded myself that this ritual is just another expression of the human yearning for solace and meaning. Who knows what wounds drove these robed men to follow this strange, constricted path? I should feel compassion for them, not disgust. At least one of them was a compassionate, gentle, good man. I looked across the room, trying to identify Steindl-Rast, but the faces of the monks were all indistinguishable. I saw only pale, featureless blurs hovering above the dark robes.

I awoke the next morning to the sound of a raven rasping outside my window. After breakfast the monks and lay folk assembled in the chapel for a full mass, which included holy communion. Monks and guests alike—everyone except for me--walked to the center of the chapel, opened their mouths and accepted a wafer from the priest. I kept sneaking glances at Steindl-Rast during the service. He kept his eyes downcast or closed. He seemed slighter, more frail, than he had a day earlier—or was I just projecting my knowledge of his struggle with depression onto him?

Toward the end of the service, the priest asked if anyone wanted to share a prayer with the rest of us. Guests prayed for loved ones who were ill, for parents struggling to raise children in these difficult times, for sons or daughters who were serving overseas in the armed forces. Steindl-Rast offered the final prayer, for "John, a journalist." "God have mercy," everyone intoned. While I had been worrying about Steindl-Rast, he had been worrying about me.

Selected Works

War
McSweeney's Books, paperback edition, 2014.
"Cross-check" (Scientific American blog), August 12, 2014.
Review of Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Slate, October 3, 2011
A rebuttal of the deep-roots theory of warfare. Discover, June 2012.
Drones may soon become ubiquitous in U.S. skies.
Brain and Mind
Don't hold your breath for the Singularity. IEEE Spectrum, June 2008.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Profile of Jose Delgado, pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
Investigation of controversial "grandmother-cell" hypothesis. Discover, June 2005.
Investigation of peyote use in Native American Church. Discover, February 2003.
Misc.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science. Discover, October 2006.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
New York Times, August 12, 2005
New York Times, December 12, 2004
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Rational Mysticism Outtakes
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?
Books