The regular SF Gate feature, this time with Brother David Steindl-Rast, known for his books on gratitude.
Tell me a bit about your personal story. Why did you become a monk? Have you always felt that calling?
When I lived as a teenager in Austria under Nazi occupation, I never expected to reach the age of 20. Friends and schoolmates a few years older were drafted, and a year later they were dead. The draft age was set lower and lower, and I was coming closer and closer to it. But then the war was over, and life stretched out before me like a mountain meadow full of flowers.
Just as I was having a great time with a girlfriend, music, dancing, hiking and even a little more food than is necessary to survive, a realization suddenly hit me. It hinged on a passage from the Rule of St. Benedict, a sixth century classic. It simply said, "To have death at all times before one's eyes."
I had been living like this for years -- with death before my eyes -- and now, in a flash, I realized that this was the reason why my life had been a happy one in spite of all dangers and hardships: Against the background of death, I had clearly seen life as the gift it was.
It was clear to me now that things could only go downhill from here unless I continued to live with death before my eyes. Since I had come across the idea in a book that inspired 1,500 years of monastic life in the West, I concluded that I would have to become a monk to be truly happy.
After more than half a century as a Benedictine monk, I'm glad to say that I was right. My intuition was also correct: Having death at all times before your eyes is central to the life of monks -- not only in the West but also in the East, as later I found out. Having death before our eyes never allows us to take life for granted. And so you could say that the essence of monastic life, of spiritual life in general, is gratefulness.