This website explores ways of coming more fully alive.  Self-fulfillment is a value of which we are conscious today.  But we sometimes fail to notice that people who live fulfilled lives are surprisingly selfless.  At moments when we experience life in fullness, we are, if not selfless, at least self-forgetful.  Don’t we all know this from experience?

The fullness for which the human heart longs is always available.  But we cannot lay hold of it.  We cannot grasp it.  Fullness flows into us in the measure in which we become empty.  T.S. Eliot states:

In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you
are not.

Our web-pages speak of gratefulness, faithfulness, prayerfulness, and other aspects of life in fullness. But for fullness in all its forms, emptiness is the necessary condition.  With this in mind, I have collected here some key words and commented on them briefly. The list is designed to aid your memory; but here and there it may go further and point beyond any fullness words can convey to an emptiness you can only savor in silence.

— Your Brother David


The fact that you are not yet dead is not sufficient proof that you are alive.  It takes more than that.  It takes courage – above all, the courage to face death.  Only one who is alive can die.  Aliveness is measured by the ability to die.  In peak moments of aliveness we are reconciled with death.  Deep down within us something tells us that we would die the moment our life reached fulfillment.  It is fear of death that prevents us from coming fully alive.


For a long time now, our society seems to have had a blind spot regarding authority.  We blindly assume that human beings are by nature resistant against external authority.  The opposite is true.  The average person is excessively prone to yield to the pressure of external authority, even when it conflicts with the inner authority of one’s conscience.  Examples are the atrocities committed by ordinary citizens in dictatorships, or the widespread submission to peer pressure in every society.  Given this human weakness, the task of external authority is not to entrench and enforce itself, but rather to build up the inner authority responsible by constantly encouraging those subject to it to stand on their own two feet.  Putting words in print gives them an appearance of authority.  This book appeals to one authority only:  the reader’s own experience.  And since it deals with experiences of the heart, it appeals to the authority of the heart.  This appeal is a twofold one. It is a question and a challenge.  The question is:  Does this ring true to your heart’s experience?  The challenge is:  Wake up and allow your heart to experience the full range of reality.


All we know of being is becoming.  Being alive, being grateful, means becoming alive, becoming grateful.  Being human means becoming what we are.  If you stop becoming you cease to be what you were.  T.S. Eliot says:

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are.

The movement of life is the process of becoming.  Yet, in this process being and non-being, fullness and emptiness are inextricably one.  Remembering this may save us from speaking too glibly about fullness of life.


That we belong is a given fact.  This means that it is both fact and gift.  Belonging is the basic fact.  All other facts rest on belonging.  And it is the basic gift.  Every other gift celebrates, in its own way, belonging.  Belonging is mutual and all-inclusive.  Whatever there is belongs to whatever else there is.  Every longing somehow longs to realize belonging more fully and thus more fully to be.  Because belonging is a fact, we are at home in the world, wherever we may find ourselves.  And because belonging is a gift, gratefulness is the right response to life, whatever happens.


We know that communication broadens and deepens communion:  mutual understanding, a sense of community, common action.  What we tend to forget is that communication also presupposes communion.  We need at least the basics of a common language before we can begin to communicate.  There can be no communication across the gap of an absolute vacuum.  Fortunately, there is no such gap anywhere.  At heart, everything hangs together with everything.  All communication is rooted in this most basic communion.  This insight becomes relevant when we conceive of prayer as communication with God.  If there is a gap, God is on our side before we ever start to bridge it.  Or, as Thomas Merton put it, prayer does not consist in an effort to get across to God, but in opening our eyes to see that we are already there.


The root meaning of TEMP is measure or measuring.  The ending of the wordcontemplation indicates an ongoing process. And the prefix (con=cum=with) tells us that this is a process of measuring two things against each other, pairing them up, putting them together.  Thus, contemplation, rightly understood, puts together above and below, seeing and doing.  Contemplation translates vision into action, on earth as it is in heaven.  Action without vision would be confused action.  Vision without action would be barren vision.  Contemplative vision takes its measure from above.  Contemplative action puts order into the chaos below.  If we don’t want to lose our way, we must keep our eyes on the stars and our feet on the ground.  That means we must all be contemplatives.

In death, two events happen at once:  being killed and dying.  Nothing is more passive than being killed, even if it’s merely old age that kills one.  But nothing is more active than dying.  The verb “dying” does not even have a passive voice.  I can say “I’m being killed,” but I can’t say “I’m being died.”  Being dyed would make me colorful, not dead.  Dying is something I must do.  It can’t happen unless I give myself willingly to change.  I die to what I was and come alive to what I will be.  Every moment is, in this sense, a dying into life.  Being afraid of death would mean being afraid of life.  Learning to die means learning to live.

Divine Life

To speak of divine life as something we know from experience may seem presumptuous.  But it would be even more presumptuous to speak about it without knowing it.  We either know something by experience, or we do not really know it.  There are moments when, altogether gratuitously, we get an inkling of the ground of our being.  We realize that we are both at home there and on the way there.  Some are bold enough to call this starting point and goal of our heart’s journey “God.”  Nothing else deserves this name.  We can call the two poles of this experience God’s immanence (closer to me than I am to myself) and God’s transcendence (beyond the beyond).  If God were merely transcendent, it would indeed be presumptuous to claim any knowledge of God.  But a transcendence worthy of God must be so transcendent that it transcends our logical limits of transcendence and is, therefore, perfectly compatible with God’s immanence.  Would it not be presumptuous to deny this?  The fact that I am not simply God needs little proof.  And yet, according to Piet Hein,

Who am I
to deny
That, maybe
God is me?


A good many people are afraid of their emotions, especially in their life of prayer.  Emotionalism is indeed a danger, but hardly ever for those who recognize it as a danger.  If you are one of those, you may, in fact, need encouragement to give free rein to your feelings.  Most of us are apt to repress our emotions.  Our upbringing, our social customs, even our teachings on prayer, lead us to distrust our emotions or at least to hide them.  That is why people whose emotions flow freely strike us as over-emotional.  Emotionalism in prayer is an imbalance that results not from too much feeling, but from too little else.  The balance is not redressed by curtailing the emotions, but rather by adding to them our intellectual and moral energy.  All we have must go into our prayer.  (Note that this includes tact and good taste, two ingredients that will go a long way in keeping the expression of our emotions from disturbing others.)


To have faith does not primarily mean believing something, but rather believing in someone.  Faith is trust.  It takes courage to trust.  The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but distrust, fear.  Fear makes us cling to anything within reach.  Fear clings even to beliefs.  Thus, beliefs can even get in the way of faith.  In genuine faith we hold our beliefs firmly, but lightly.  We trust in God, not in our particular understanding of God.  That is why people of deep faith are one at heart, even though their beliefs may differ widely.  When beliefs become more important than faith, even small differences created insurmountable barriers.  When we grow in gratefulness, we grow in faith.  Gratefulness implies trust in the giver.  A grateful person says “Thank you!” and only afterward checks what’s inside the gift-wrapping.  Faith is the courage to respond gratefully to every given situation, out of trust in the Giver.


Whenever things go wrong in society, in a person’s psyche, or in one’s spiritual life, we may be sure that fear in one form or another lies at the root of the trouble.  Most of us are fear-ridden people.  All of us live in a fear-ridden society.  But nothing is gained by this discovery if in addition to all our other fears we now begin to fear fear.  Why not rather look at fear as the necessary condition for courage?  Piet Hein writes:

To be brave is to behave
Bravely when your heart is faint.
So you can be really brave
Only when you really ain’t.

Give and Take

“And” is the decisive word in give-and-take. Mere giving is as lifeless as mere taking. If you merely take a breath and stop there, you are dead. And when you merely breathe out and stop there, you are also dead. Life is not giving or taking, but give-and-take. Breathing is an obvious example, but the same give-and-take can be found wherever there is life. It is the dynamic expression of universal belonging.

Given Reality

We speak of a given moment, of given facts, of all reality as given.  The appropriate response to a given world is thanksgiving.  This has weighty implications.  To understand it and to draw the consequences leads to grateful living.  And this, in turn, is the key to finding joy.


The Ibo in Nigeria have a proverb that says, “It is the heart that gives; the fingers just let go.”  Giving is something only the heart can do.  And this is true not only of gift-giving, but of all forms of giving.  There are three preeminent forms:  giving up, thanksgiving, and forgiving.  The heart knows that all belongs to all.  And so, when we live from the heart, we are free to give up without fearful clinging.  The heart is at home in belonging.  And so, when we live from the heart, we celebrate the bond of mutual give-and-take through thanksgiving in all we do.  The heart fully affirms that all belong to all. And so, when we live from the heart, we forgive from the heart, from that center where offender and offended are one, where healing has its roots.  Forgiving is the perfection of giving.


God comes in as basic to everyone’s experience, and only under this aspect.  “Restless is our heart.”  This is a basic fact of human experience.  St. Augustine continues the sentence:  “Restless is our heart until it rests in God.”  But this does not mean that we first know God, so that our thirst for God is one among various things worth mentioning.  Rather, all we know at first is the restlessness of our heart.  And to the direction of our restless yearning, we give the name God.  By pooling insights gained by the heart, we can come to know a little bit about God, especially when we listen to great explorers into God.  Yet, what matters is never knowledge about God, but knowledge of God – as the magnetic North of the human heart.


[quote text=”The universe may Be as great as they say. But it wouldn’t be missed If it didn’t exist. “]

With a disarming smile, this little jingle by Piet Hein lays bare the gratuitousness of absolutely everything.  The universe is gratis.  It cannot be earned, nor need it be earned.  From this simple fact of experience springs grateful living, grace-filled living.  Gratefulness is the heart’s full response to the gratuitousness of all that exists.  And gratefulness makes us graceful in a double sense.  In gratefulness we open ourselves to this gratuitous universe and so we become fully graced with it.  And in doing so we learn to move gracefully with its flow, as in a universal dance.


Whenever we speak of the heart, we mean the whole person.  Only at heart are we whole.  The heart stands for that center of our being where we are one with ourselves, one with all others, one with God.  The heart is ever restless in its quest for God, and yet, deep down, it is ever at home in God.  To live from the heart means to live out of the fullness of this longing and belonging.  And that means to live fully.


There is a close connection between hope and hopes, but we must not confuse the two.  We set our hopes on something we can imagine.  But hope is open for the unimaginable.  The opposite of hopes is hopelessness.  The opposite of hope is despair.  But even in a hopeless situation hope remains open to surprise.  Surprise links hope with gratefulness.  To the grateful heart every gift is surprising.  Hope is openness for surprise.


Today, humility is not a popular virtue, but only because it is misunderstood.  Many think that humility is a pious lie committed by people who claim to be worse than they know themselves to be, so that they can secretly pride themselves in being so humble.  In truth, however, to be humble means simply to be earthy.  The word “humble” is related to “humus,” the vegetable mold of top soil. It is also related to human and humor.  If we accept and embrace the earthiness of our human condition (and a bit of humor helps) we shall find ourselves doing so with humble pride.  In our best moments, humility is simply pride that is too grateful to look down on anyone.


It is no mere coincidence that the personal pronoun “I” in the English language cannot be distinguished by its sound from the word “eye” for the organ of sight.  This adds an additional layer of meaning to the English version of Meister Eckhardt’s saying, “The eye by which I see God is the very eye by which God sees me.”  When we understand our I in this sense, we give it its deepest meaning and escape from the prison of the individualistic little self.


It is necessary to distinguish clearly between individual and person.  We are individuals by being separate and distinct from others.  We become persons by relating to others.  Born as so many human individuals, we grow up to become human persons.  In order to accomplish this, we need others.  Individuals differ in the degree to which they have become persons because their relationships to others differ in complexity and intensity.  As our relationships to others unfold and change, they influence our relationship to God and self.  Overemphasis on individuality leads to alienation by denying our deep mutual interdependence.   As one becomes a person, individuality is at one and the same time enhanced and transcended.


Ordinary happiness depends on happenstance.  Joy is that extraordinary happiness that is independent of what happens to us.  Good luck can make us happy, but it cannot give us lasting joy.  The root of joy is gratefulness.  We tend to misunderstand the link between joy and gratefulness.  We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy.  But the reverse is true:  their joy springs from gratefulness.  If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy.  Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it.  We hold the key to lasting happiness in our own hands.  For it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.


“Knowledge is power,” we say.  And we think of it as power we can wield to achieve our purpose.  Wisdom, in contrast, ripens only when we are gradually overpowered by meaning.  In the biblical notion of “knowing” these two are reconciled.  In the give-and-take of sexual knowledge, which provides the biblical metaphor for knowing, we are both empowered and overpowered; we come to know by being known.  This give-and-take can be understood as a giving and receiving of thanks.  The bond that unites giver and thanksgiver is one of deep mutual recognition.


We tend to think of leisure as the privilege of those who can afford to take time off. But leisure is a virtue, not a luxury.  Leisure is the virtue of those who take their time in order to give to each task as much time as it deserves to take.  Giving and taking, play and work, meaning and purpose are perfectly balanced in leisure.  We learn to live fully in the measure in which we learn to live leisurely.


We allow the experience of falling in love to shape our concept of love in general.  This puts us on the wrong track.  Passionate attraction – which is indeed an important instance of love – is far too specific a type of loving to serve as model for love in general.

When we ask for characteristics of love that apply to each and all of its forms, we find at least two:  a sense of belonging and wholehearted acceptance of that belonging with all its implications.  These two characteristics fit every kind of love, from love of one’s country to love of one’s pets, while passionate attraction is typical only of falling in love.  Love is a wholehearted “yes” to belonging.  When we fall in love, our sense of belonging is overpowering, our ”yes” is spontaneous and blissful.  Falling in love challenges us to rise in love.  We can broaden the scope of our “yes,” say it under less favorable conditions, and draw out its consequences all the way to love for our enemies.  Since August 6, 1945, no one can deny that all of us belong together in this spaceship Earth.  “When you are in the same boat with your worst enemy, will you drill a hole into his side of the boat?” asks Elissa Melame.


We humans cannot find peace of heart unless we find meaning in life.  Meaning is that in which our hearts find rest.  We never achieve meaning as one achieves a purpose by hard work.  It is always received as pure gift.  And yet we must give meaning to our lives.  How can we do this?  Through gratefulness.  Gratefulness is the inner gesture of givingmeaning to our life by receiving life as a gift.  The deepest meaning of any given moment lies in the fact that it is given.  Gratefulness recognizes, acknowledges, and celebrates this meaning.

Mystic Experience

If we think of mystic experience as an experience of communion with Ultimate Reality, we have a fair working definition.  We will do well not to introduce the term “God” into our definition.  Not all people feel comfortable calling Ultimate Reality “God.”  But all of us, regardless of terminology, can experience moments of overwhelming, limitless belonging, moments of universal communion.  Those are our own mystical moments.  The men and women we call mystics differ from the rest of us merely by giving these experiences the place they deserve in everyone’s life.  What counts is not the frequency or intensity of mystic experiences, but the influence we allow them to have on our life.  By accepting our mystic moments with all they offer and demand, we become the mystics we are meant to be. After all, a mystic is not a special kind of human being, but every human being is a special kind of mystic.


The distinction between natural and supernatural is valid.  Yet no one can separate the two; no one can draw a line between them.  Nature and supernature are not two different realms of reality, two different layers of the universe.  One and the same reality will be natural or supernatural, depending on how we approach it.  What we take hold of, physically or intellectually, will always be the natural.  By taking hold of it, we limit it.  The supernatural is limitless. We must let it take hold of us.   A bucket full of water from the river is not a bucket full of river, no matter how much water it may hold.  But by diving off the bank into the water, we dive into the river, no matter how far that spot may be from the source.  No matter where we immerse ourselves in the stream of reality, we will be in touch with the supernatural source of all that is natural.


Whatever we encounter is either thing or nothing.  In his poem “The Snow Man,” Wallace Stevens distinguishes between “the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.”  Meaning is “the nothing that is.”  Meaning is no thing.  And yet the nothing that is meaning is far more important to us humans than all things taken together.


Observing the way an anemone opens to the morning light, Rilke asks:  “And we, when are we ever fully open to receive?”  Openness in this sense stands for a basic attitude towards life, for a readiness to receive life in fullness.  But is openness in itself fullness or emptiness?  Think, for example, of hope’s openness for surprise.  Hope is fully open only when it is drained empty of all hopes.  Even the shape of the letter O, the initial of openness, is ambiguous:  The empty circle is the symbol of fullness.  The interplay between fullness and emptiness pivots on openness.


Until we recognize the pre-eminent role that opportunity plays in the scheme of things, our notion of gratefulness must remain deficient.  Whatever exists within this given world is gift.  But the gift within every gift is opportunity.  Most of the time, this means opportunity to enjoy.  Sometimes it means opportunity to labor, to suffer, even to die.  Unless we wake up to the countless opportunities to enjoy life, how can we expect to be awake when the opportunity comes to serve life?  Those who realize that the gift within every gift is opportunity will not think of gratitude as passive.  Gratefulness is the gallantry of a heart ready to rise to the opportunity a given moment offers.


Nicholas of Cusa expressed what the human heart had always surmised:  All opposites coincide in God.  This insight has weighty implications for any attempt to speak about divine realities.  The closer we come to saying something worthwhile, the more likely that paradox will be the only way to express it.  “When am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).  “In losing one’s life one will find it” (Matthew 10:39).  “In spite of that, we call this Friday good” (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets).

Peak Experiences

Abraham Maslow, who put the Peak Experience on the map of psychology, insisted that it could in no way be distinguished from mystic experience as described by the mystics.  And yet, most (if not all) of us have Peak Experiences, moments in which we are overwhelmed by a sense of belonging, of universal wholeness and holiness, moments in which everything makes sense.  Acceptance is a word often used in describing Peak Experiences.  From a moment that seems outside time, we feel fully accepted and can fully accept all that is.  Gratefulness pervades every aspect of these peaks.  The religiousness at the core of a person’s religion is fueled by those moments of overwhelming gratefulness.  One’s religion is seen as valid in the light of those experiences of heightened awareness.  It is measured by standards glimpsed from those peaks of grateful acceptance.  That is why we can call gratefulness the root of religion.


We must distinguish prayer from prayers.  Saying prayers is one activity among others.  But prayer is an attitude of the heart that can transform every activity.  We cannot say prayers at all times, but we ought to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).  That means we ought to keep our heart open for the meaning of life.  Gratefulness does this, moment by moment.  Gratefulness is, therefore, prayerfulness.  Moments in which we drink deeply from the source of meaning are moments of prayer, whether we call them so or not.  There is no human heart hat does not pray, at least in deep dreams that nourish life with meaning.  What matters is prayer, not prayers.  But prayers are the poetry of prayerful living.  Just as poetry gives expression to one’s aliveness and makes one more alive, so prayers give expression to one’s prayerfulness and make one more prayerful.


To prevent questions from weighing us down we must raise them.  The longer we wait, the heavier they get, like a thatched roof in the rain.  People who are afraid of raising questions run the risk of getting crushed under them.  When we raise a question all the way, we find that the answer to every “Why?” is “Yes!”  This sets us free.  But even the raising of questions to lesser degrees is freeing.  Questions can free us, e.g., from misconceptions, above all from the misconception that we can know anything unquestioningly.  For this reason, we have made an effort in these pages to question basic terms for what they really mean – terms like communication, belonging, or meaning.  Basic terms are the foundation on which logical reason rests.  When the foundations are slightly off, the superstructure may suddenly topple over. Keen questioning is no luxury.


The various religions are so many ways of being religious.  It is this underlying religiousness we have in mind when we speak of religion as distinct from the religions.  We would need an action word, a verb, to express what religion is all about.  But, while we have “religion, religious, and religiously,” we cannot say that someone is “religioning.”  Praying is the verb that goes with religion.  Praying (in the widest sense) is what keeps religious experience from drying up into nothing but religious structures.  Experience is the starting point of religion.  Inevitably, intellect, will, and emotions grapple, each in its own way, with the experience of ultimate belonging.  The intellect interprets the experience, and so we get religious doctrine.
The will acknowledges the implications, and that accounts for the ethical side of religion.  The emotions celebrate the experience by means of ritual.  But a religion is not automatically religious.  Those three main areas of every religion are always prone to shrivel up into dogmatism, legalism, and ritualism unless they are continually rerooted in live experience.  This process is prayer.  Prayer puts religion into the religions.


There is a negative meaning to silence and a positive one.  Negatively, silence means the absence of sound or word.  In these pages we focus on its positive meaning.  Silence is the matrix from which word is born, the home to which word returns through understanding.  Word (in contrast to chatter) does not break the silence.  In a genuine word, silence comes to word.  In genuine understanding, word comes home into silence.  For those who know only the world of words, silence is mere emptiness.  But our silent heart knows the paradox:  The emptiness of silence is inexhaustibly rich; all the words in the world are merely a trickle of its fullness.


In our day and age, the word “sin” is so prone to be misunderstood that it has become quite useless.  The reality once called sin is still with us, however, and so our time had to find its own term for it.  What other ages called sin, we call alienation.  Living language hit upon an apt word here.  Alienation suggests an uprootedness from one’s true self, from others, from God (or whatever else ultimately matters), and all this with one word.  The word “sin,” too, suggests uprooting and separation.  It is related to the word “asunder.”  Sin tears asunder the wholeness in which all belongs together.  Sin alienates.  An action is sinful to the degree to which it causes alienation.  Without alienation there is no sin.  Drawing the consequences could prove liberating for many, indicting for others.  It could mean a significant shift of emphasis in ethics from a pre-occupation with private perfection to social responsibility.  It could help us to see that in our time “working out our salvation” means overcoming alienation in all its forms.  The contemporary term for salvation is belonging.  The path from alienation to belonging is the path from sin to salvation.


For Plato, philosophy was a loving dedication to wisdom.  Hence, surprise and the ability to be surprised were for him the beginning of philosophy.  It is through the capacity for surprise that wisdom surpasses cleverness.  Cleverness is prepared and will not be surprised by the unexpected.  But wisdom, as Piet Hein sees it, is prepared to be surprised even by the expected.

Half a truth is often aired
And often proved correct:
It’s sensible to be prepared
For what you don’t expect.

The other half is minimized
Or totally neglected:
It’s wiser still to be surprised
By what you most expected.

To recognize that everything is surprising is the first step toward recognizing that everything is gift.  The wisdom that begins with surprise is the wisdom of a grateful heart.


On a superficial level, the giving of thanks is merely a social convention.  Its forms vary greatly.  In some societies the absence of all verbal expressions of thanks indicates not a lack of gratitude, but rather a deeper awareness of mutual belonging than our society has.  To the people in question, an expression like “thank you” would seem as inappropriate as tipping family members would seem to us.  The more we lose the sense of all of us belonging to one big family, the more we must explicitly express that belonging when it is actualized in some give-and-take.  To give thanks means to give expression to mutual belonging.  Genuine thanksgiving comes from the heart where we are rooted in universal belonging.

Wholehearted thanksgiving engages the whole person.  The intellect recognizes a gift as gift.  Thanksgiving presupposes thinking.  The will, in its turn, acknowledges the interdependence of the giver and thanksgiver.  And the emotions celebrate the joy of that mutual belonging.  Only when intellect, will, and emotions join together does thanksgiving become genuine, that is, wholehearted.


What our heart longs for is truth, but what we can express are merely truths.  Truth is one.  But its countless aspects can be expressed in conflicting truths.  Their limitations bring them into conflict.  All we can grasp of the truth is limited truths.  But grasping is not the only attitude we can adopt toward truth.  Instead of grasping for truths, we can allow the truth to grasp us.  It is one thing to take a bucket full of water out of the ocean.  To swim in the ocean is quite a different thing.  The truths we can grasp are necessarily limited as our grasp is limited.  But the truth to which we give ourselves is limitless and one.  The truths tend to divide us, but the truth that upholds us unites.


It is through understanding that we find meaning.  In every meaningful situation there must be something that has meaning.  Word is the broadest sense.  There must also be Silence, the horizon of Word, the mysterious matrix from which Word emerges.  And there must be Understanding or else the meaning never arrives.  Word, Silence, and Understanding are the three dimensions of meaning as it were.  But what happens when we understand?  We give ourselves to the Word so wholeheartedly that it can take hold of us.  When the Word takes us home into the Silence from where it has come, we understand.  But going along with the Word is something that requires effort.  It means doing what the Word sends us to do.  When we listen so deeply that we hear where the Word sends us and fulfill that mission, we understand.  Anything else is not understanding, but at best an attempt to overstand.  It is not possible to understand swimming unless we get wet.  If we want to understand life, we must live.


Quite unawares, one can get trapped in a world in which only the useful counts.  The life expectancy of people who make usefulness their highest value drops abruptly after retirement.  Common sense tells us that aliveness in not measured in degrees of usefulness but of enjoyment.  Yet public opinion tries to persuade us that we do not need what is of no use.  The contrary is true.  What we need most urgently is not what we can use, but what we can enjoy.  This distinction is crucial.  Our deepest need is not use but enjoyment.  The most enjoyable things in life are superfluous – music, for instance, or mountain climbing, or a kiss.  “Superfluity,” as the word suggests, is an abounding overflow after the vessel of mere utility has been filled to the brim (like the stone vessels at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee – John 2:8).  In the word “affluence” the same idea of flowing is present, but only influx is what counts.  In a utilitarian society there is only usefulness and more usefulness without the sparkling overflow that keeps it from getting stagnant.  Enjoyment is not measured by what flows in, but by what flows over.  The smaller we make the vessel of our need for use, the sooner we get the overflow we need for delight.  This was well understood by the beggar who said, “Two coppers I had; for one I bought me a bun, for one daffodils.”


If it were not for vacations, our schools would hardly deserve to be called schools.  Traced back to its Greek origin, the term “school” means a place of leisure.  Nowadays, this sounds like a joke.  But the joke is on us.  Originally, schools were conceived as places where people had leisure enough to find themselves.  In our time, many young people need to take a year off from the rat-race of school in order to find themselves.  Schools are now geared toward purpose rather than meaning, toward know-how rather than wisdom.  What enriched your own life more, the useful things you did at school or the enjoyable things you did on vacation?  For most of us, vacation means fullness of life.  Yet the word is relegated to vacuum and vacancy.  Here, too, fullness and emptiness are closely related.  “Be still and see that I am God!” (Ps 46:10).  In the emptiness of silence you will find My fullness.  Instead of “Be still,” St. Jerome translates, “Make a vacation!”

WayIn the earliest days, men and women who believed in Jesus Christ were simply known as followers of the Way (Acts 9:2).  Only later were they labeled Christians (Acts 11:26).  To escape being paralyzed by labels, one must continually trust the dynamic experience of being on the way.  When Jesus says, “I am the Way” (John 14:6) we would limit his claim pitifully by thinking of one way among a thousand others.  This cannot be the meaning of his word.  Rather, whosoever is “on the way” to God is on the way of Jesus whose name means “God saves.”  And whoever follows the deepest longing of the human heart is “on the way.”  It matters little what label we give to that way.  Holding on to the sign post does not mean “being on the way,” even if that street sign bears the right label.  What matters is walking.  All those who move forward are on the way.  But this means finding one’s way by leaving the way behind with every step forward.


G.K. Chesterton reminds us in one of his puns that wonders will never be lacking in this world of ours; what is lacking is wonderment.  We need not look beyond natural laws for wonders.  Natural laws themselves are wonderful enough and worth wondering.  Piet Hein writes:

We glibly talk of nature’s laws
But do things have a natural cause?
Black earth becoming yellow crocus
Is undiluted hocus-pocus.

If you can’t wonder at what is natural, what would it take to make you wonder?  As long as you are full of yourself, you are incapable of wonderment, and life seems empty.  But in wonderment you lose yourself.  “Lost, all lost in wonder,” you are emptied of your little self, and suddenly you realize how wonderful everything is, how full of wonder, how full.


When we find something meaningful, we say it “speaks” to us; it has a message.  In this sense, any thing, person, or situation can be understood as word.  Karl Rahner, who has taught me by his writings, thinks of word as a sign that embodies its meaning.  Raimundo Panikkar, who has taught me not only by his writings but by his friendship, explores in his own way how word, silence, and understanding are related.  What most determines my use of “word” here is the basic biblical truth that “God speaks.”  If God speaks, the whole universe and everything in it is word.  This is the biblical way of saying that everything makes sense the moment we listen with the heart.  We will find this to be true if we have the courage to listen.  That courage is called faith.  The listening is called obedience.  That term comes from the Latin ob-audiens and means thoroughly listening.  Its opposite is ab-surdus, which means thoroughly deaf.  We can escape from absurdity by learning to listen to the word in everything we encounter.


Human activity is of two kinds: work and play.  We work in order to achieve some useful purpose.  But we play for mere enjoyment.  Play is meaningful in itself.  We can become so purpose-ridden in our work that even after work we can no longer play; we can at best give ourselves another work out.  Usefulness is crowding out enjoyment.  What a waste of time!  But we can rescue work from becoming mere drudgery.  We can learn to work playfully.  That means doing our work not only for its useful results, but also for the enjoyment we can find in it all along when we do it mindfully, gratefully.  Grateful work is playful work, leisurely work.  Only leisurely work is, in the long run, efficient.  Only when we work playfully are we fully alive.


Is it merely by chance that X has two contradictory functions?  X marks the spot, and X crosses out whatever is found on that spot.  With two strokes, X expresses the paradox contained in the word NOWHERE.  By simply making a little space inside of nowhere, we can transform it into NOW HERE.  X marks the spot where we find ourselves here and now in the midst of nowhere.  This puts us on the spot.  Or shall we say it puts us on the crossroads? X is a cross in disguise, a cross that stands on two legs, instead of one.  When we allow ourselves to be put on the spot, we stand at “the point of intersection of the timeless with time,” “at the still point of the turning world” (T.S. Eliot, Four Quarters) now here and nowhere.  X marks the spot where fullness and emptiness are one.


How often we say “Yes!” And yet most of the time we say a conditional “yes” – “yes, if . . .” or “yes, but . . . .”  Most of the time there are strings attached to our “yes.”  But now and then we get carried away like kites in a great wind and say an unconditional “yes.”  At that moment we realize that “yes” is the answer to every “why?” and suddenly everything makes sense.  When e.e. cummings thanks God “for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” he has this limitless affirmation in mind.  So does St. Paul, when he calls Jesus Christ the great Yes (2 Cor 1:20).  The “yes” of the human heart is our full response to the “faithfulness at the heart of all things.”  In saying this “yes,” we become what we are.  Our true Self is “Yes.”


The relationship between I and Thou has been brilliantly explored by Ferdinand Ebner and Martin Buber.  But it took them volumes to say what e.e. cummings sings in a single line of a love poem: “I am through You so I.”  (Not only am I through you so happy, so alive, but “so I.”)  In moments in which I can sing this line with conviction, I know that fulfillment is found when I am absolutely empty.


The very shape of zero, written as 0, expresses emptiness.  But the full circle also signifies fullness.  Zero stands for nothing, but by adding zero to a number we can multiply it tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousandfold.  Gratefulness gives fullness to life by adding nothing.  Understanding 0 by becoming 0 – that’s what gratefulness is all about.

From Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness (New York, Mahwah, New Jersey:  Paulist Press, 1984). All rights reserved.

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.