When a word is being tossed around as much as “ecumenism” is being tossed around today, it is often helpful to look for its roots. The word “ecumenical” is rooted in the Greek word for “house.” This is also true for the words “economy” and “ecology”. All three terms point to a reality which Gary Snyder calls “Earth Household.” As we become aware that our earth is one great household, we must face the challenge to live accordingly. This demands a new relationship to our environment based on reverence and frugality; it demands what Fritz Schumacher calls “economics as if people mattered” (Small is Beautiful); and it will make us raise the basic question of ecumenism: What kind of world-wide house could possibly accommodate all those who, in so many different ways, want to worship God?

The answer I would like to suggest is this: Our house of world-wide worship will have to be a house of hope. Only hope can build that house, because only hope, rightly understood, can hold together the paradox of religion. Being religious means both that we find a home for the heart and that, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “We shall not cease from exploration” (Four Quartets4:5:239). St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died for the truth that God does not dwell in houses built by human hands (Acts 7:48 ff). “’What house will you build for Me?’ says the Lord,” Stephen quoted from the Old Testament (I Kings 17:24), before he died as witness that being religious means being on the move.

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
or a further union, a deeper
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation

– T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 2:5:204-207

And yet, when in the midst of that empty desolation we catch a glimpse of the Divine Light, our heart cries out, like Peter on Mount Tabor, “How good it is for us to be here!” (Matthew7:4). And the very next thought is “let us build here!” In the Old Testament, too, Jacob calls out: “How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 29:17). He, too, immediately thinks of building. He sets up the stone which was his pillow while he had the dream vision, and says, “This stone, which I have set up as a monument, shall be God’s house” (Genesis 28:22).

If we look closely, these two Bible stories express an insight that belongs to all religious traditions: Only hope can build God’s house. Jacob sets up a milestone on the road, as it were, and calls it “Bethel,” the House of God. And the three tabernacles which Peter offers to build on Mount Tabor are sukkoth, wayfarers’ tents, which faithful Jews still build year after year to remember the time of their wilderness wandering, when in the midst of the “dark cold and the empty desolation” God’s Presence was closer than ever. The house which hope builds combines in a unique way the security of love and the adventure of faith.

This theme is expressed with great tenderness in the traditional rule for building the sukkoth,that little booth adorned with fruit and branches, where a Jewish family will eat and drink and sing together for nine days each year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. Even the poorest will build that little festive tent. They will build it on the landing of some fire escape, if they have no other space, in the crowded tenement houses of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And this is the rule for building it: Make the walls not too dense; you should still be able to look through to see your neighbor. And make the roof loose enough to look through to the stars.

True Hope shines bright as a star above a shipwreck after all our other hopes have sunk.

Two opposing tendencies within us make us want to break these simple rules: our tendency to drift – for the drifter doesn’t build at all – and our tendency to entrench ourselves firmly behind solid walls. Both are forms of fear in disguise. We fear to be still, and we fear to be “still and still moving”. Hope alone “moves perpetually in its stillness” (Four Quartets 1:5:43). Hope is the daughter of a twofold courage, the courage to build and the courage to build lightly. Hope will build a roof without losing sight of the stars; hope will build walls without losing sight of our neighbors. That is why hope alone is able to build the house of ecumenism, where God truly dwells with us, because we truly dwell together.

Drifters cannot build. They lack the anchorage one needs to be creative. True hope is so firmly anchored in the courage and trust of faith that it will set afloat a whole fleet of new hopes each time old hopes go down. But drifters don’t have the courage to give shape to their dreams, to build as they travel. They may spend the night under a roof that is not their own, but when the morning comes they will drift on, fearful to commit themselves.

And there are others who will indeed build. Fearful of being on the way, they entrench themselves. They clearly shape their hopes but, clinging desperately to these very hopes, in the end they lose all hope. True Hope shines bright as a star above a shipwreck after all our other hopes have sunk. If we confuse our transient hopes with the real Hope, we build so tight a roof that we can no longer see the stars. God’s mercy will have to break up that roof above us.

When I meet drifters, I admire in them the courage it takes to keep moving. When I see builders, even the builders of far too-solid walls, I admire their courage to build. Isn’t it asking too much that one should have the courage for both? Yet, nothing short of it will do for men and women of hope.

That is what we must do if the whole earth is to become “a house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalms 127:1), and the plans of the Divine Architect are as far beyond all our planning as True Hope is beyond our ordinary hopes.

Reprinted from Integral Yoga, August 1979, Vol. X, #4, pp. 10-11 and 25.

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.