A Monk’s New Year’s Wish for the World


Br. David Steindl-Rast has been a Benedictine monk since 1953. In his 90s, he’s been around long enough that he attended a religious conference with Thomas Merton in northern California in the summer of 1968, only weeks before Merton left on his fateful Asian Journey. Like Merton, Br. David became interested in Buddhist-Christian dialogue in the mid-1960s. Br. David is also a prolific writer, social justice activist, and founder of Gratefulness.org. In 2018, he “retired” (as much as a monk retires) from his active life and returned to Austria, where he was born and raised, so that he could enjoy more time to work on his own writing projects. Br. David earned his MA at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and his PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Vienna. Like many people during the holidays, he sent out a letter to relatives and friends wishing them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. But unlike most such letters, his letter was less about himself and more about his wish for the world. Br. David kindly agreed to let me share his letter.  -JS

Br David

(Br. David Steindl-Rast in monastery in Austria, 2018)

Isn’t Hope the annual theme at this season, when we light candles in the darkness and hope for a happy new year? But this year, the darkness seems deeper than ever before. “I want to share how terrified I am,” writes one friend among many. “The stress is high with no ending.” And therefore, the request, “Write something, this Christmas time, to all of us in our helplessness.”

What shall i write? We’ve all heard the quip about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” i will try to say something to comfort the afflicted (myself included), but i must start by afflicting the comfortable – sorry, you might be one of them. Look around, right now, and count the light bulbs you have left burning unnecessarily, maybe in an empty room. That waste of energy provides an excuse for nuclear power plants, behind which hide atomic bombs. Or take climate change: What is more grotesque, a President who denies its existence, or we, who know what we can do against it – and do nothing? How much of meat or dairy products will you be consuming, during these holidays? Are you really ignorant of the fact that animal husbandry causes more greenhouse gases than all land, water and air traffic together – apart from the suffering of animals and the damage to your own health?   If you seriously want to do something against climate change, you can start today.  “Never ever depend on governments or institutions to solve any major problems,” said cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. “All social change comes from the passion of individuals.”


Passion for change – that’s what i wish each one of you for 2020. (And here begins the comforting part of this message.) We can overcome our sense of helplessness by turning it into passion for change. Only two things are needed: 1 - Inform yourself; 2 - resist lazy excuses. Both have helped me. I’m a slow learner, but now i am ashamed of the excuses i used to find. The Rule of St. Benedict strictly forbids monks to eat meat. Yet, many of us who solemnly vow to keep that Rule still find excuses. Kind people, whose kindness i strive to imitate, act, nevertheless, like sleepwalkers in the face of the world’s crisis. Our current catastrophe has not been caused by monsters, but by sleepwalkers.

“Wake up, wake up from sleep!” The sacred songs of this season keep repeating this wake-up call. And they sing of a child who will save us. One wide awake child is Gretawaking up many, these days: Greta Thunberg spoke up – kind, peaceful, and with passion – and in a short time millions of others have rallied behind her. To quote Margaret Mead once more: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” There is our hope. We need to support that hope, till it hurts. We need to pray for it awake and with passion. And we need to remember that Hope is an attitude different from our hopes. When all our hopes are shattered, Hope remains as radical openness for surprise. It is that Hope i wish you.  – Your brother David

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