Recently, I relistened to a series of CDs by the poet David Whyte. Titled Clear Mind Wild Heart: Finding Courage & Clarity Through Poetry, the audiobook has become something of a spiritual mentor for me, and I find I listen to it when I’m at some moment of challenge or transition or expectancy in my life.
At one point, Whyte describes a moment in his own life when, utterly exhausted from his work with a nonprofit, he seeks advice from friend and spiritual mentor Br. David Steindl-Rast. The Benedictine monk, 30 years Whyte’s senior, advises that the antidote to such exhaustion is not necessarily rest, but rather wholeheartedness.
Not familiar with Steindl-Rast and intrigued by his advice to Whyte, I Googled him. I’ve since read a number of articles written about the monk and interfaith scholar, as well as several essays written by him. I’ve listened to a podcast interview he gave with contemporary religious influencer Krista Tippett for The On Being Project (Tippett has also interviewed Whyte), as well as to a TED talk Steindl-Rast presented in 2013.
At age 92, the scholarly monk has been shaped by nearly a century of history and many personal influences. Among the latter, the late-Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968) stands out, reinforcing and informing Steindl-Rast’s abiding interest in Zen Buddhism.
Merton’s influences, in turn, include Eastern religious traditions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc.) and their spiritual leaders, among them His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
My point in citing a few of the trace lines of formation and inspiration for Whyte, Steindl-Rast, and Merton is to suggest the richness of knowledge, influence, and connection these three individuals represent. My concern is that as society becomes increasingly secularized, a trend represented in part by the accelerating disaffiliation of young people from religious institutions, exposure to such deeply informed and wise influences will diminish as well.
It is worth noting the wide net cast by these three in suggesting the value religiously and spiritually informed and formed people bring to the larger society.
Whyte in his work and art addresses readers, listeners, and leaders in areas from literature to theology, the world of work to organizational leadership. Steindl-Rast’s message—and in particular his wisdom regarding the importance of grateful living—is spread worldwide, including through Network for Grateful Living and an interactive website that involves more than 240 countries and territories. (That TED talk he presented six years ago? Seven million views and counting.) Merton inspired his generation, and the generations that followed, well beyond Catholic circles with his contributions as a writer, mystic, social activist, and interfaith scholar.
American sociologist Mark Granovetter coined a theory called “the strength of weak ties.” Granovetter refers to friends as strong ties, acquaintances as weak ties. Although weak ties do not represent a strong personal connection, through them we become acquainted with the strong ties in their lives.
I would suggest that through listening to and reading individuals such as Whyte, Steindl-Rast, and Merton, we become acquainted—directly or indirectly—with the influences that informed and shaped their lives. Something similar happens, at a more immediate level, in the strong and weak ties that are formed in families and neighborhoods, within parishes, synagogues, and mosques, in our participation in religiously sponsored educational and nonprofit institutions, and within a religiously and spiritually informed society as a whole.
With accelerating religious disaffiliation and secularization, what are we losing? And how do we preserve that which we value? We can be grateful to Tippett for disseminating the deep wisdom of contemporary influencers at “the intersection of spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, community, poetry, and the arts,” and to such wisdom-sharing movements as Nuns & Nones, “an unlikely alliance across communities of spirit.”
With accelerating religious disaffiliation and secularization, what are we losing? And how do we preserve that which we value?
It is incumbent on all those who value these religious and spiritual influences to ensure they remain available and continue to inform and inspire society at large. This is not about catechesis, evangelization, or proselytizing, as the work of Whyte, Steindl-Rast, and Merton demonstrate. This is about ensuring, within our families, neighborhoods, and society at large, that an ancient and spring-fed well does not run dry from neglect.
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research