Born in Vienna, where he studied art and psychology, Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk who has been regarded as Thomas Merton's successor in the Christian contemplative tradition. He has spent the last thirty-five years in both Eastern and Western monasteries pursuing his interest in the roots of mysticism. In the following excerpt from a dialogue which took place in Big Sur, California, he explains Jesus Christ's revolutionary teaching on the true nature of spiritual authority.
WIE: These days there is a wary climate regarding people who hold themselves out as spiritual authorities. There is a tendency to be very skeptical about the possibility that someone could be a genuine authority. Yet traditionally it's been fairly common for people to seek out a spiritual teacher for guidance, and to commit themselves to that teacher. What are your thoughts on this?
Brother David Steindl-Rast
Some twenty years ago, there was a much greater openness to making anybody who came along and seemed to have some great credentials for teaching your guru. Nowadays many people have been burnt and they will look twice. That is skepticism, and it can easily become cynicism, which isn't very healthy. But it also has its healthy aspect because people are less gullible and teachers have to prove themselves. On the other hand, our time is so frightening, there are so many things going on that frighten us, that many people want security at any price. They will let themselves be put down, be abused and become dependent on a teacher just in order to have a sense of security, to feel that they know everything. No questions asked, you just do what you're told, this sort of thing. That is always a great danger in times of fear. And our time is a fear-inspiring time. I understand when you say that many people are more skeptical, but there are also many people who want just this kind of security at any price, and are willing to be put down and pay that price.
There is just one great spiritual teacher, and that is the Divine Spirit in your heart. What any spiritual teacher on the outside can do, at best, is to always lead you back to that teacher in your heart. But the key word here is "authority." We have a very impoverished and actually strongly warped notion of authority nowadays, and we think that authority is the power to command. Well, that's wrong. That's a derived meaning of authority. Originally authority means: a firm basis for knowing and acting. If you want to know what to do in a given case you will go to a book that is an authoritative book, or you will go to a person who is an authority in his or her field, and so forth. So that's the original meaning of authority. However, because people who provide a firm basis for knowing and acting for others are few and far between, you put them in a position
of authority, which means you give them power to command. But the more power somebody has, the greater the danger of corruption. This is where some spiritual teachers then go off the deep end. This is where the question of the proper use of authority comes in.
Jesus Christ brought a complete revolution of the understanding of authority. This is, I think, the Christian tradition's most central insight and potentially its greatest contribution to spirituality in the world. It occurred in two ways. First, Jesus placed the authority of God, which was always seen as external, in the very hearts of his hearers. The core teaching of Jesus is not, "I am going to tell
you all," or anything like that. No, he presupposes you know
it all. "Don't you know it? I'll remind you of it. You know it all." This is his typical voice. This question opens many of the parables, "Who of you doesn't know this already?" It's not sufficiently emphasized nowadays in Christian teaching, but the moment you are alerted to it you see it.
So, one of the really dramatic events that happened in history—and that's why the world is still reeling with what happened in the life of Jesus—is that with Jesus, the Divine authority was squarely placed in the hearts of every human being. That was a tremendous revolution. The immanence of God and the Divine in the human heart was stressed. And it was probably necessary that this should happen in a setting in which duality was stronger than anywhere else: "Holy" in the Hebrew Bible means "the altogether other." So God was the absolutely other. Then Jesus comes and maintains that, doesn't deny it in any way, but also says that the absolutely other is closer to you than you are to yourself. So that was the first part of the revolution of authority, that the Divine authority is placed in the heart of the earth.
The second aspect is best expressed in the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and saying, essentially, "You call me Lord and Master. In other words, you call me an authority. You are right, that's what I am. But in the world, those who have power lord it over others. With you it should be different. The greatest among you, the one who has the most power, should be the servant of all. And that is what I show you because I am washing your feet." So that is the answer to the question, What is authority good for? Authority must be used, but there is only one legitimate use for it, and that is to empower those who are under authority. One of the most important things about Jesus is that he apparently had great authority but did not fall prey to its power. He even emphatically told his followers that that's not what you do—you turn this upside down and become the servant of all. First divine authority was placed in the hearts of everyone. Then human authority was given a task, namely, not to put those down that are under authority, but to build them up and empower them.
This also gives us a pretty good test for looking at spiritual teachers, and seeing which ones are authentic and which ones are not. Do they use their power to empower others? There may be a phase where a person has to be carried like a child. There may be a phase of dependency that one may have to go through. But you have to look at the whole picture. With any teacher you will see, by looking at that teacher's accomplished students, what it is leading to. When you see that this teacher makes them stand on their own feet, then that's authentic. When you see that this teacher makes them more and more dependent, then that's hands off, that's dangerous.