If we speak about the spiritual work of our time, there are three questions I would like to ask. What characterizes our time? What is the spiritual work for our time? And, how are we to go about it? Of course, each of these questions could be answered in a great variety of ways. I am under no illusion that my way of answering them is the only one, but at least it might work to prime the pump and help your own ideas come forth.

What characterizes our time?

If we ask what characterizes our time, what is typical for our time in contrast to other epochs in history, I offer one word: uprootedness. It’s a very negative aspect, but I’m afraid we’ll have to look at the negative ones in order to see the task, and after all, we are concerned with the spiritual work for our time.

Think, for instance, of the uprootedness that comes as a by-product of mobility. Now, mobility in itself is quite positive – it is very good that we can move quickly and easily from place to place. But there are families in the United States who move more than 20 times while their children are growing up. Think of our uprootedness from our families – how blessed people are nowadays when they still know their grandparents. There are many people who have had little or no contact with their grandparents, who hardly know their names.

Or think of our uprootedness from the Earth. Do you know the garden from which your fruits and vegetables come? How many people in the world know the well from which their water comes? They never give a thought to it, yet this used to be rather important.

We are also uprooted from animals. As children, most of us had very different attitudes towards animals than we do now. In a test recently, children were asked what a world would be like in which there were no people, only animals. The small children didn’t understand the question – for them, animals are people; we all belong together. As adults we have lost that understanding.

Think of our uprootedness from our bodies and what it takes to experience our bodies as the embodiment of spirit and of our lives and to experience ourselves as body-spirits, not spirits or souls that are caught in a body or, as Christopher Fry puts it, “half-witted angels strapped to the back of a mule.”

How many of us can say with conviction that we are really rooted in a tradition, rooted in the sense of getting nourishment from it? Up to now, religious tradition and the forms it brought forth supported faith. In our time, faith supports the religious forms, bears with them. If you have enough faith, you’ll put up with the religion that you belong to. Now we must be rooted in something else in order to support these religious forms.

We are speaking of our time. How rooted are we in time at all? Most of the time, 48 percent of us is clinging to the past, 51 percent is stretching out frantically towards the future and 1 percent is left to be present where we are in this moment. So, even time isn’t ours; it’s just passing us by while we are busy with nostalgic memories or impatient fantasies.

How can we root ourselves in time? By facing, first of all, the problem of our uprootedness; facing the challenge that emerges from it; and therefore facing the task. The task is re-rooting ourselves – in a place, in social structures, in this Earth, in our body, in tradition, in time.

What is the spiritual work for our time?

That brings us to the second question: What is the spiritual work for our time? I have already said it: re-rooting ourselves. When people say “spiritual” they mean a great variety of things, so we ought to ask ourselves what we mean by spiritual. Since it comes out of the biblical vocabulary, going back to spiritus in Latin and pneuma in Greek and ruah in Hebrew, we ought to ask ourselves what it means in a western context. It means aliveness. Spiritual means alive – super-alive, if you want.

The opposite of spirit is not matter. Absolutely not. We may choose to use it so, but we ought to be clear that at that moment we have left the biblical tradition. I could give you many examples – St Paul for instance speaks of a “spiritual rock.” If a rock can be spiritual, almost anything can be spiritual – and he means literally a rock. He refers to the legend about a rock that followed the Israelites through the desert and wherever they camped, that rock followed them and gushed out water. That rock was a spiritual rock and it was super-real, more rock than any other rock.

The opposition between spirit and body actually comes from a misunderstanding of biblical language. The Bible opposes spirit and flesh; that is the only appropriate opposition in the Bible. Most unfortunately flesh got confused with body, but they are totally different things.

The point of the opposition between spirit and flesh is based on an everyday experience. Spirit was “breath” and as long as something was breathing, it was alive. What made it alive was breath, so breath stood for life. When the breath went out, all that was left was a lump of meat. That’s flesh. And particularly in the near East in the time before refrigeration, it very soon started smelling and crawling.

The whole idea of flesh has nothing to do with body or matter; it has to do with decay. Spirit means life-giving and alive, and flesh means death-bound, decaying, life-denying, that which undoes itself. Therefore when Paul lists the sins of the flesh, very few of them have anything to do with the body. They are all things like back-biting, envy and factions. That’s decay: the decay of a society, the decay of a community. So when you read “flesh,” think decay, and when you read “spirit,” think of life or super-life.

That’s what we are dealing with. The spiritual work of our time is the task of making things alive, of rerooting – because if something is cut off from its roots, it will sooner or later die. That’s the image of flesh – something that’s cut off from its life, its roots.

[quote text=”If we live and work in a leisurely manner life becomes so much richer.”]

Just as we have misunderstandings with regard to spirit, we consider work and leisure opposites. But we all know that the best work is leisurely work, and if you don’t work leisurely, you’re in danger of knocking over with one hand what you’re building up with the other.

What is the real opposite of work? Play. We have basically two kinds of activities, work and play. Work and play. Work has a clear purpose in mind, a goal, and when that purpose is achieved, the work as work is ended. In certain cases you cannot even continue; the very activity comes to an end when the purpose is achieved. For instance, when you are sewing on a button the purpose is to get it on to where you want. When it is sewn on, you can’t sew it on more.

Other activities are work and can continue after the purpose is achieved. For instance, vacuuming. The floor can look absolutely spotless, but say there is still a little spot somewhere and you vacuum again and then again. Sooner or later somebody’s going to say, “Why are you playing around with this vacuum cleaner?” So from work, it turns into play—that kind of activity that doesn’t need a purpose. It has all its meaning within itself and you can do it as long as you find it meaningful. If you answer, “It’s very meaningful to me. I always dance with the vacuum cleaner on Monday nights,” it may raise some eyebrows, but it’s perfectly all right. Play does not have to achieve any purpose whatsoever.

So now we have purpose and meaning, two totally different things which we also get mixed up. Purpose is something that you manipulate your activity in order to achieve. Meaning gives itself to you. You would never say, “I took things in hand, kept them nicely under control, and achieved meaning.” You don’t achieve meaning that way; you achieve your purpose. When something becomes profoundly meaningful, you say, “It really did something to me, it grabbed me, it swept me off my feet, it knocked me over.” Whatever it does to you, the more it does it, the more meaningful it is.

Where does leisure come in? It is the balance between work and play. Good work is playful work – work to which you have added what is best in play, namely doing it for its own sake and opening yourself so that meaning can flow into your activities. If we live and work in a leisurely manner life becomes so much richer.

Pick from your various daily or weekly activities one that you usually do just to get it over with. That’s terrible – to do things just to get them over with – but most of us do. Then take that particular activity and do it playfully, enjoy it.

Some people, for instance, don’t like washing dishes, but when they absolutely can’t help it any more and the sink is filled to the brim, they get it over with. Millions of people in Japan go through courses every year to learn the Japanese tea ceremony, a very simple ritual which is basically preparing a cup of tea, serving it to a guest and then washing the dishes in their presence, very simply and beautifully. One of the things they learn about washing dishes is to lift all the light things – like the tiny little bamboo spoon for dishing out the tea – as if they were very heavy, and to lift all the heavy things, like the big kettle, as if they were featherweight. Now try that sometime when you are washing the dishes: lift all the little spoons as if they weigh a ton. I guarantee you that it will be an unforgettable experience. And you’ll come alive. It will be a totally different experience and that’s what we’re after.

Leisurely living, even lifting things up in a mindful way, makes you mindful; and every activity becomes full of presence. Mindfulness leads immediately to gratefulness. Before you are leisurely, you can never be mindful. You’re just running around like a chicken without a head. We do this most of the time; we’re so busy, we don’t have the time to breathe. But the moment we become leisurely, we allow ourselves the luxury of balancing work and play.

Balancing, by the way, means doing it at the same time. If you don’t work leisurely, you can’t spend your free time leisurely either. These days people have more and more free time and less and less leisure, because when their free time comes they are either so exhausted from their work that they simply collapse, or they are so in the groove of working that the only thing they can think of is giving themselves an hour workout. The leisure never comes.

We are talking about a balance that is built in, balance between the clear purpose you are achieving and the meaning you are receiving. To the degree that you become mindful you recognize that you are not doing so much but that it is all given to you.

[quote text=”Gratefulness is the great task, the how of our spiritual work, because, rightly understood, it re-roots us.”]

That is how you become grateful. You suddenly recognize every moment as a given moment and every situation as a given situation and you realize that we live in what we call a given world. We usually only call it given when we don’t like it much; we say, “Well, we just have to deal with this given situation.” At least at those moments we remind ourselves that it is given, because it is given. You haven’t made it, you haven’t earned it, you haven’t brought it about in any other way; everything is given. The only appropriate response is gratefulness.

How are we go about our spiritual work?

Gratefulness is the great task, the how of our spiritual work, because, rightly understood, it re-roots us. Think a little bit about your moments of gratefulness, about how you act when you are grateful. Think what is involved when you simply say, “Thank you,” and mean it. We are not talking about big events, where you are almost drowning and somebody pulls you out. We are talking about when you are carrying five packages and somebody holds the door open and you really mean it when you thank them. Or when somebody gives you a present and you say thank you.

The first thing is that you trust the giver. You trust that they didn’t hold the door open for you because they have some hidden agenda. You trust that this little package, although it is the right size and weight, isn’t a little time bomb. When we say thank you, we usually think we are expressing our appreciation for the gift, but that is not true because we haven’t seen the gift yet. We trust it is a good gift.

So the expression of thanks is really an expression of trust, and that trust roots us in religion, in that religion which underlies all the religions and alone makes those religions religious. That religion has to do with trust and faith. Faith is not beliefs. Beliefs can even get in the way of our faith. Faith is first and foremost trust: trust in the giver – and even before we think of a giver, trust in life. Religious beliefs are not the measure of our religiousness; trust is – deep existential trust in life. That roots us in the spirit.

There’s another aspect to gratefulness. In order to be grateful, to say “thank you” and mean it, you have to be open for a surprise. Surprise is almost a synonym for a present. I gave her a present; I gave her a surprise. Even if she knows what she is going to get, it’s still a surprise that she gets it.

Life itself is always surprising. The only thing that we know for sure about reality is that it is surprising. If it isn’t surprising, it isn’t real or true, it’s just make-believe. And so that aspect of gratefulness which has opened us for surprise, roots us in reality.

The religious term for openness for surprise is hope. Hope does not mean that we are absolutely sure that the best is going to happen. Rather, much more than that, it means that the worst that we could imagine will be the best. That will be the surprise. Openness to surprise is not only an openness to reality but also to the source of all reality, the Divine. Surprise may be the only appropriate name for God. Every other name boxes God in, but if you call God “surprise”…

[quote text=”If we say thank you and really mean it, we have said yes to our belonging together.”]

The third element – the most important one – about being grateful is: a joyful acceptance of the bond established between the giver and the thanksgiver. In tribal societies, when you bring presents to the head of the village, it’s a very important ritual. It is an attempt to establish bonds. The exciting moment is when you come with your gift: Will they accept it or not? From the moment your gift is accepted there is a bond. You are a guest and no longer a stranger.

Bonds are established when you say thank you. You enter into obligation. Nowadays we don’t like obligations. When I learned English 35 years or so ago one could still say “very much obliged” instead of “thank you.” In America you can’t say “very much obliged” because nobody wants to be very much obliged. When people move into a new neighborhood they say “Let’s not start gift-giving with our neighbors, it just creates obligations,” as if this were something unpleasant.

If we say thank you and really mean it, we have said yes to our belonging together. We have said yes to the fact that we are receiving something which under no circumstances can we give ourselves – a present. It’s always another from whom I receive. When we cultivate that gratefulness to life, we not only cultivate trust in life and openness for surprise, we practice again and again saying yes to our limitless belonging to this great Earth household. That roots us and makes us at home; it gives us that great at-homeness.

Therefore, we can say that the great spiritual work for our time, in the sense of re-rooting us in life and aliveness, is learning to be grateful. It is cultivating surprise not only with unexpected things, but all the more with expected things. It is cultivating that trust and that yes to our obligations where each one is obliged to every other and the world is a network, a great Earth-household in which all belong together.

Reprinted from One Earth (Findhorn Foundation): March/April 1986
(Vol. 5, #3, pp. 6-9).

Br. David Steindl-Rast Trust
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.