by Michael Goater
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018
First published in hardback in 2016, this paperback edition offers a series of meditations on themes which will be familiar to readers of Br David Steindl-Rast's earlier books and, increasingly of late, to followers of his work on the internet, including a number of his conferences.
Here eleven short chapters, each prefaced by a quotation from other books by Br David (notably Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer (1984), A Listening Heart (1999) and Music of Silence (2001)) centre, as the title of this volume implies, on 'the way of silence', a discipline of contemplative prayer, which begins, continues and end in 'obedience'.
By 'obedience', as befits a good Benedictine monk, the author intends a 'thorough listening' with the 'heart', entailing a dedication of the whole of one's being, an openness and self-giving, to whatever is. Indeed, a favourite quotation of Br David's, from Galway Kinnell's Prayer, runs -
Whatever happens. Whatever
What is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
This stance towards life is one of 'gratefulness', a quality strongly associated with the author through the organization gratefulness.org, to which he is senior adviser, which is here also glossed as mindfulness, whole-heartedness, openness to meaning, vital awareness, recollectedness, or T.S. Eliot's 'concentration without elimination'.
In the titles of the book's chapters and their prefatory quotations we have reflected a number of aspects of this welcome and wakefulness to the haecceity of things: 'Our Quest for Ultimate Meaning', 'The Mystical Core of Organized Religion', 'Encountering God through the Senses', 'The Mystic in All of Us', 'Cultivating Grateful Joy', 'The Homing Instinct of the Human Heart', 'Standing on Holy Ground', and in this latter vein, a meditation with which the book concludes, 'One Is the Human Spirit', delivered at the United Nations on its thirtieth anniversary in 1975.
Not everyone will be comfortable with Br David's syncretism (though he is an engaging apologist for it and deeply involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue and Zen practices), his panentheism, the strong influence of nineteenth century Transcendentalism on his work, nor with the penchant for quietism to which such writing is so often prone (but which he would most certainly not endorse). His rootedness in Christianity, and more particularly the Benedictine tradition, cannot be doubted, however, nor his deep affinity with forms of Christian spirituality at least as old as the lilies of Christ's field in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 6.
Here, as so often in his writing and discourses, David Steindl-Rast offers his insights courteously, with charm and wit, with helpful analogies (drawing on our experience of music, for example), and with a lifetime's learning (he is now 92) and wide reading lightly worn. The core of the book lies perhaps in the third chapter ('The Mystic in All of Us'), which, besides presenting much of the argument with a limpid clarity, models also a fruitful way in which The Way of
Silence may be read. In this Br David invites us to 'a special kind of yes', that openness to what lies before us which is intimately related to obedience, to listening.
We 'stand under' the text that we may understand, not instrumentally, grasping after its meaning, but attentively - as the author would say, heeding it with the heart.
Canon Michael Goater is a retired priest in the Diocese of Salisbury with an interest in Christian Spirituality.