PRAYER: Contemplation And Leisure—Responding From The Heart by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Contemplation And Leisure—Purpose And Meaning by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer



(ideal) (give)
Vision (order) Meaning (yourself) Play
(practical) (take)
Action (realization) Purpose (in hand) Work

As we recover this comprehensive sense of the term contemplation, we are restoring a key term of Christian spirituality to its full significance.  But we are doing much more.  We are rescuing contemplation from specialists and returning it to all those to whom it belongs as their birthright, to every human being.

Far too long has contemplation been regarded as the private domain of contemplatives.  Contemplatives in this impoverished sense were only those who were preoccupied with the vision of meaning and withdrew from purpose and action.  They often set an example for the intensity with which we must attune ourselves to the meaning of life, for the courage we need to expose ourselves to the demands of our heart’s vision.  Yet only the greatest among them have become examples of the dedication necessary to translate this vision into action.  Maybe it is too much to expect excellence in both respects from any but the greatest among us.  But all of us must strive to cultivate both, or else we grow lopsided.  Only by cultivating a contemplative attitude can we become harmonious human beings.  How, then, could we leave contemplation to the contemplatives?  We must not allow the fancy word “contemplation” to frighten us.  If it means life in the creative tension of purpose and meaning, who could escape its challenge?  As we rise to that challenge of contemplation, we begin to discover the fullness of life for which our human heart longs.

Each of the previous chapters of this book dealt with a particular aspect of the contemplative tension.  As we glance back at them from the vantage point we have reached, our key terms fall into place.



(looking with)
Wonderment (the heart) Heart-vision All is gratuitous
(centering in)
Concentration (the heart) Purpose Total response

When we spoke of the prayerfulness that makes our whole life prayer, we found that it implies concentration and wonderment.  Looking back now, we become aware that these two components of prayerful recollectedness point in two directions: toward purpose and toward meaning.  There can be no purposeful action without concentration, and wonderment stands precisely for that wide vision that sees things related to their horizon of meaning.

To look with wonderment means looking with the eyes of the heart.  And concentration in prayer is a centering in the heart.  The heart is central in every respect.  In our perspective, the heart connects prayerfulness and gratefulness, for the fullness of these two is the fullness the heart stands for.  Heart vision perceives with surprise that the whole world and all we find within it is ultimately gratuitous.  We live in a “given” world.  To this gift character of all there is the heart gives its full response in thanks and praise and blessing.

Blessing, too, is an aspect of gratefulness.  But what we mean by blessing is less clear than what we mean by thanks and praise.  In my own struggle to understand blessing correctly, I came up against two difficult questions.  The first one puzzled me in my early school days; with the second one I am still grappling.

At school we would sing songs like “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.”  I had no problems with that.  God was somehow high above us and blessing was flowing down on us like sunlight or spring rain.  But then I stumbled onto verses like “Bless the Lord, O my soul” and “Wild beasts and tame, O bless the Lord!”  This seemed upside down.  Was I to bless God?  Were not all blessings flowing from God?  Were even tigers and poodles invited to do what I thought only God could do – bless!

I must have carried this question around with me for some time.  But one day the answer literally popped out of the ground.  It was on my way home from school one afternoon in early spring.  The sun had licked up all the snow on the country road.  All chances of catching a ride home by jumping a horse sleigh were gone, so we took the shortcut along the brook, testing the thin ice in spots as we ambled along.  If ever one feels what a blessing warm sunshine can be, it is after a long winter in the Austrian Alps.  Every foot of ground seemed to feel that blessing.  And there, stomping through a soggy bottom, suddenly we children stood before the first flowers.  Hundreds of coltsfoot blossoms were pushing through dead leaves.  The whole bank was golden yellow.

Coltsfoot gets its name from the shape of its leaves, resembling a hoof print.  But there were no leaves as yet, only the blossoms, more and more of them as we ran and looked.  This was spring.  Oh yes, there had been hellebores even in mid-winter.  Christmas roses, we called them.  When, on a sunny day between snowstorms, dry patches appeared on the southern slopes, we’d look and find them right under the snow, moon-white blooms.  Sometimes one was tinged with light green or with a rosy flush like a cloud at dawn.  Those winter roses, five pale petals and a tiny crown at the center, were stars from a world without seasons.  But this was spring now.  And these golden suns, no bigger than a nickel, each on its own sturdy stem, were the blessing Earth sent up in answer to the blessing coming down from the sun.  No other flower of the year, not even the huge sunflowers in September, would ever resemble the sun more closely than these very first blessings of spring.

There was my answer.  No need to reason it out.  I simply walked into it, saw it, became it, as my eyes blessed God and I knew what that meant.  Blessing echoes blessing.  That is the deep meaning of contemplation.  The notion of blessing connects the temple above and the temple below.  Our heart’s most comprehensive vision shows us that all is gift – blessing.  And, in response, our heart’s most spontaneous action is thanksgiving – blessing.

But here my second question arises.  What if I cannot recognize the given as a blessing?  What if it is not sunshine that pours down on us, but hailstones like hammer-blows?  What if it is acid rain?  Here again, the gift within the gift is opportunity.  I have the opportunity, for example, to do something about that acid rain, face the facts, inform myself about the causes, go to their roots, alert others, band together with them for self-help, for protest.  By taking each opportunity as it is offered, I show myself grateful.  But my response will not be full unless I respond also to the ever-present opportunity to praise.

W. H. Auden has helped me see this by his poem, “Precious Five,” especially by its last stanza.  “I could,” says Auden there,

Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

To bless whatever there is, and for no other reason but simply because it is – that is our raison d’être; that is what we are made for as human beings.  This singular command is engraved in our heart.  Whether we understand this or not matters little.  Whether we agree or disagree makes no difference.  And in our heart of hearts we know it.

No matter how hard you strike a bell, it will ring.  What else is it made for?  Even under the hammer blows of fate the heart rings true.  The human heart is made for universal praise.  As long as we pick and choose, making praise depends on our approval, we are not yet responding from the heart.  When we find our heart, we find that core of our being that is attuned to reality.  And reality is praiseworthy.  With clear vision the heart sees the ultimate meaning of all: blessing.  And with clear intent the heart responds with the ultimate purpose of life: blessing.

“Praising, that’s it,” Rilke exclaims, in his Sonnets to Orpheus.  And he presents Orpheus, the prototype of the poet, the human being at its most divine, as “one appointed to praise.”  “As one appointed to praise / he came forth like one from the stone’s / silence.”  The image suggests bell-metal.  In a different image, his heart is a wine press.  The grapes are trod at one passing season.  The wine, however, lasts.  Not even the mold in the tombs of kings gives the lie to his song of praise.  His is a message that lasts.  And far into the doors of the dead he holds bowls with offerings, fruit of praise.

Of the human heart Rilke says in his Duino Elegies:

Between hammers endures
our heart, as the tongue
endures between teeth
and still remains praising.

Thanksgiving, blessing, praise, all three belong to gratefulness.  Each has its shortcomings.  Praise may sound too formal for everyday living.  Many may find the sound of blessing too churchly to feel at ease.  Thanksgiving, in turn, tends to suggest a polite convention rather than the universal attitude toward life which we mean here.  But each of the three terms adds to gratefulness an aspect that the other two fail to emphasize.  Praise stresses a value-response.  Blessing resonates with religious undertones.  Thanksgiving implies deep personal engagement.  All three together make gratefulness full.

Suddenly everything is simple.  We can drop all the big, cumbersome terms.  Gratefulness says it all.  And gratefulness is something all of us know from experience.  Can the spiritual life be that simple?  Yes, what we secretly hoped is true: it is all that simple.  It is this very simplicity, in fact, that we find most difficult.  But why not drop the complications we put in our own way?  What brings fulfillment is gratefulness, the simple response of our heart to this given life in all its fullness.


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