On Tuesday the 18th of August the Spiritual Reading Group read some of the work of Dom Bede Griffiths in the Carmelite Library. The evening was presented by Jenny Raper. Here is Jenny’s introductory paper.
What was he thinking....?
Well, what was I thinking when I said I thought I could trace his life backwards? It was just that, a good thought. However, it proved to be impossible for me. Maybe I should have taken the Oriental route – the circular path. With my Western rational thought processes, this too proved impossible. So, I am going to take the usual route and move from the beginning to the end of his wondrous life.
He was born Alan Griffith in 1906 in England, the fourth child of a middle-class couple who became somewhat impoverished. The family were Church of England and attended the local church each Sunday. The children grew up in a village, living a rather simple and carefree existence. He was an intelligent child and attended a secondary boarding school in London through a scholarship scheme. He entered Oxford also on a scholarship, reading the Classics. In his second year, he transferred to Literature.
When he was in his last year of school he had a seminal experience of the numinous.
'I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song, which can only be heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. …..As I walked on I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and ...I thought that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before....A lark rose suddenly from the ground … and poured out its song over my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything then drew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.’ (The Golden String, p. 9)
This telling of his experience has been retold by all his biographers; it was definitely the start of his journey; it seems he was always seeking to have this experience again.
He and two close Oxford friends became enthralled with the ideas of living a simple rural life, with few possessions and no technology. This they achieved and during that time they also started to read the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Alan became more and more attracted to living a life of prayer and meditation.
After he and his friends went their own ways he tried living the life of a lone ascetic. He sought the Church of England, even considered the Anglican priesthood. As a result, he went to work in the slums of London where he had another agonising and life-changing experience. He had sought more and more to become a contemplative in the midst of the frenetic pace of London. He spent hours in church, in his rooms praying, fasting and meditating and finally came to the point where he went through his 'dark night of the soul' – when out of the darkness he felt a voice saying: “You must go to a retreat.” This, his conversion to Christianity was painful, yet it was also very intellectual.
During this period he kept up his reading of the English writers and poets as well as the Bible, which he was now reading more critically and questioningly. He was attracted especially to the so-called Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular. He was deeply moved by their experiences of the numinous in nature. He also read some theology, especially some of the ancient works of the church fathers.
It was his reading of John Henry Newman which convinced him that the Roman Catholic Church was the true church of the early fathers and Scriptures. Newman helped him rationalise the foundation of Christianity with the ‘vast elaboration of dogma and ritual and what looked like mythology in the Middle Ages with the original Gospel.’ ‘Newman described the Church as a living organism , beginning like a seed in the New Testament and gradually developing according to specific laws until it reached its full stature.’ (The Golden String, p. 108)
Alan went on from that new knowledge to convert to Roman Catholicism, joining a Benedictine Order and becoming a priest in that order. He was given the religious name of 'Bede', probably after the Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English people had been read by Alan at Oxford. The monastic life suited him – the simplicity of life, the rule, the physical labour, the hospitality and the regular liturgical cycle of the day. As in the New Testament, ‘All things were held in common and no one presumed to call anything he possessed his own....and distribution was made to each according as he had need.’ He became devoted to Christ in whom he believed all things came together. Christ was his “Golden String”, as he called it, following the lines of the poet William Blake:
I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.
When he was priested he aspired to make the 'most symbolic gesture of all. He was offering himself as a living sacrifice to God.’ (The Golden String, p.126) All this he did in the name of love. Along with Plato and many other philosophers and theologians, his question was 'How can this ideal love be translated into human terms?'
He served in the Benedictine order for about 22 years in two monasteries, taking on many roles, including a stint as Prior. This did not work out well and he was relieved of this position after quite a short period. He kept up with his reading of Literature and Theology – and although he lived a deeply spiritual monastic life, he was still searching, intellectually for deeper understanding of how to live as authentic a Christian life as possible. He was becoming critical of the Church of Rome and its belief that it alone held all the truths of religion.
I think it is vital to remember that Bede Griffiths was a child during World War I and grew up in an England that had had its traditional faith challenged. Then, as the country endured the economic depression, industrial strife of the 1920s and 1930s and the horrors of World War II people were less and less inclined towards blind belief, as required by the Church of England, the Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
It was during this period that he wrote his autobiography, which was an immediate success, The Golden String. (Published 1954) His quest, however, was not over. He started to read about Buddhism, Hinduism and Lao-Tse, finding in them great wisdom. He questioned whether or not it was not 'urgent' that Judaism and Christianity sought to understand them better. He also came across a translation done by the poet William Yeats, with the help of an Indian Swami, of the Upanishads. He thought these Eastern religions ‘to have seen that beneath all the flux of phenomena there is one infinite, unchanging reality.” (Letter to a friend, 1946)
So, given the scientific and technological advances in the Western world during the 40s and 50s, and his aversion to the effects of this on daily life in England, it is not surprising that his mind turned towards the East, as were many other Western people. It appeared to him that the peoples of the East, Buddhist and Hindu in particular, could live more simply and thus a split between living the rational life and living a spiritual life was not so pronounced. The relationship between rational thought and spiritual contemplation was to remain a struggle for him almost to the end of his life.
In 1954, a wonderful opportunity arose for Dom Bede. A fellow Benedictine, Father Benedict Alapatt, who felt called to India to establish a monastery, invited Dom Bede to travel with him. This opportunity came at the right time for him, ‘.... a new vision of how if we can see the Hindu Atman (Hindi – to breathe , so soul or self) in Christ, uniting God with Man.’
Vedantic philosophy can be seen to provide a basis for a Christian way of life. Again, he observed how the Chinese idea of the Tao means simply the way – meaning the Way of Heaven. Dom Bede saw this as a possible translation for the Greek The Word. He wanted to go to India for his own spiritual development and felt any sacrifice was worth it. Even so, his vow of obedience meant, for him, that he had to await the decision of his superiors. This came eventually and he sailed to India in 1955.
Dom Bede was enchanted by all he saw in India and immediately began travelling and studying Sanskrit. The Hindu idea of the cosmic relationship and sacredness of all things was fulfilled for him in all he saw and experienced. He drew the parallel with the old Celtic Christianity which held to this belief, where prayers were offered for all their daily events and work, even to prayers before milking their cow. In his initial enthusiasm he had only one criticism of Hinduism and that was the idea that the material world is an illusion. Guided by educated Hindus he had found in their scriptures that all of creation is both transcendent and immanent.
The two monks finally found a home for their monastery – which was not a mission – but rather an ashram where he hoped the two faiths could learn from each other at a profound level. He contended:
“....the perception of reality revealed in mystical experience is the same for all human beings; that through the symbols of different religions it is one reality that is perceived, independent of culture and faith.” ( de Boulay, p. 115)
He also wrote on the key issue of how Christian ritual could be performed within a Hindu culture; for example, a Mass containing parts common to all religions yet maintaining parts, such as the offertory, the consecration and the communion in the Roman Catholic tradition.
For reasons of Church bureaucracy, Dom Bede found himself invited to a Cistercian foundation in Kerala – perhaps the most ancient site of Christianity in India – where it is believed St Thomas of the Gospels travelled, bringing the Gospel. The rites used there were the ancient Syrian Rite. Dom Bede and a Belgian Cistercian, Father Francis were finally given permission to build an ashram on a hundred acres of land on a holy mountain. Was this to be the place where his dreams could come true?
Here they crossed several boundaries – living the Cistercian style of the Benedictine rule, using the liturgy of the Syrian Rite and honouring the ancient tradition of the sannyasi. (The name for a holy man who has renounced the world). True to their vision, they took on the kavi the saffron robe of the sannyasi (given to them by the Syrian Metropolitan) went barefoot, sat and slept on mats, took vegetarian meals using their hands.
The centre of their lives was the prayer of the Church, the celebration of the feasts and mysteries. They were not looking for a dilution of any one faith, rather they were seeking a new synthesis (du Bourlay, p. 127). This exploration actually began in the seventeenth-century with a Jesuit missionary, Robert de Nobili. Now they had to find a way to help the poor of India, which was 'missionary' work. Their dairy farm helped with employment and training . Also, they opened an ashram. An ashram is not a monastery rather it is a hermitage (I think it goes back to ancient times when much of India was forested and men would take on the life of sannyasi in the winter.) Today's ashrams offer a place of peace and beauty with yoga, music, study and religious rituals. Each Ashram has a guru.
Residents and visitors lived in small huts situated around the grounds, usually eating and performing rituals in community, especially meditation and contemplation. Visitors were often expected to work at building, gardening, teaching, etc. In many ways it is similar to a present-day Christian centre of spirituality. Mass was celebrated in the traditional way, but Bede would use readings from both Christian and Hindu scriptures, prayers and hymns from both traditions. However, the core elements of the Mass were retained.
People started to visit the Ashram, both locals and visitors. The success of his book, The Golden String meant Dom Bede had worldwide recognition. He accepted an invitation to America to receive an award for his work on an ecumenical approach to non-Christian cultures. His response to the American way of life was mixed – he perceived an emptiness and meaningless in the people, and yet saw how technology benefitted their lives. It was efficient, yet the society was, he felt, unstable.
Due to personality conflicts, Bede was given the chance to take over a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu called Shantivanam – meaning Forest of Peace. This place delighted him, but attracting brothers and keeping them was difficult. He experienced loneliness even though he was busy organising ways for the Ashram to pay for itself and building a library and a meditation centre. However, when in England, he confessed he had learnt to 'surrender' - 'that is the secret'. So, after two lonely years, he finally attracted some young monks who shared his vision and he was able to respond to the growing number of people, many of them young and from the West, who were genuinely seeking God. They were attracted to Indian spirituality and its interiority and to the Christian life and liturgy. Whilst the Benedictine Rule was followed, there was more time for private prayer and meditation. Lives were balanced between community and privacy; monks living in separate huts in the forest; communal meals in the refectory.
The ways of doing the liturgy changed – sitting on the floor, shoes at the door, no vestments. Prayers and the Bible were read in English, but readings came from the Indian classic scriptures and chanting from Sanskrit and Tamil verses. Bede was always sure that symbols were vital in worship, so to help create his Indian way of being Christian he used Hindu symbols such as the Cross resting on a lotus,
The Hindu Godhead – Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva – The Creator, Preserver and Destroyer – the Cross of Christ enclosed in a circle symbolising the wheel of the law of Buddhist and Hindu traditions, at the centre of the Cross is the word om – the word from which all creation comes; a fitting symbol for Christ, the Word of God.
All of this was vital to Bede's understanding of the commonality of the two traditions. And within the Mass he used the offertory to bring the four elements of the Hindu tradition – earth, air, fire and water - as sign that the whole creation is offered to God through Christ. The priest purifies himself with water and then offers the fruits of the earth – bread and wine and eight flowers to symbolise the centre at the heart of the universe. In this way, Bede sought to offer a cosmic sacrifice offered through Christ to God. Some found these symbolic acts took away from Christianity, others found this way drew them deeper into the mystery. This caused some difficulty for the Catholic Church and for the laity.
Bede Griffiths and his ideas became more and more famous during the 1960s, especially following the Second Vatican Council in 1963 when it seems the whole Christian world was seeking new ways of being the Church. Various arms of the Catholic Church came out with matters of law and structure that he was challenging. Yet he continued to make his work known worldwide. His book Return to the Centre was published in 1976, again expressing his idea that we must seek the Truth in all religions and find recognition of this truth in all religion. The Church did not denounce it, but Catholic reviewers in Catholic papers gave it 'shattering reviews'. The Times in London, however, described it as a 'modern classic'
About this time, he became interested in Transcendental Meditation of the Maharishi Mehesh Yogi; he also came in contact with John Main, founder of the World Community of Christian Meditation. In many ways, he was always searching for the experience he had had as a young man and he concentrated on meditation as a way to attain this.
“All meditation should lead into silence, into the world of 'non-duality', when all the differences and conflicts in this world are transcended – not that they are simply annulled, but that they are taken up into a deeper unity of being in which all conflicts are resolved.....” (de Bourlay, p. 175)
During the 1970s and 1980s his life at Shantivanam was busy – he was the prior, the guest master, giving daily talks, preaching, attending to a worldwide correspondence and speaking individually with visitors who came to him for spiritual counselling. He still led an ascetic life, eating lightly, owning nothing and no luxuries, such as a fan! However, someone divulged he liked an occasional glass of sherry. His staff reported that he could be irritable, especially if things were out of place or untidy, but mostly he was calm and radiated simplicity and gentleness. He kept up his lifetime love of reading covering literature, theology, philosophy, and publishing his own writings.
He continued to travel widely and in Milan he addressed 100,000 at a Catholic vigil for young people and met with Pope John Paul. He travelled widely in America and Australia where he spoke to 'packed audiences' in the major cities. He was interviewed in the press and on radio and television and found that generally the Australians were drawn to his conviction that all faiths are manifestations of one fundamental truth. It was said he loved the Australians, but not their technology. ‘No-one is really happy – there is a tension everywhere and a feeling of insecurity.’
After this last long trip he decided not to travel again. He became more outspoken about the Catholic Church, which he loved. He argued that the Papacy was a medieval concept – 'fatally flawed’. He singled out Cardinal Ratzinger for special criticism as being 'scandalously optimistic' when he was observing the collapse of the old system. He chided the Church, publicly, for its acceptance of the nuclear deterrent, for its sexist language in the liturgy and the universal catechism, which he thought denied the mystery at the heart of Christianity. He was not silenced or even warned by Rome. His critics came from many sources but because he was not a theologian or a philosopher they found his synthesis difficult to criticize under Church law.
Indian critics were more hurtful to him. Some said he had allowed the Hindu influence too deeply; others that he was elitist, preferring the Brahamic tradition of the elite to the local and tribal expressions. His work with the poor in his neighbourhood was not mentioned. He was aware of the tension between the Brahmans and the village traditions but saw it rather as a balance between social activity and interiority – 'a question of balance'. (du Bourlay, p. 210) He also disagreed that village culture was untouched by the Sanskrit culture, in that millions visit their temple daily.
After a serious stroke in 1990 he found himself physically vulnerable – he had to be cared for in every way. Bede described this period as his Dark Night of the Soul. He said ‘The ego has collapsed.’ He also found himself drawn to the image of the Black Madonna and the Christ crucified. He said the Madonna was not the Our Lady but the feminine in all creation. “She is cruel and destructive, but also deeply loving and, nourishing and protecting.” The crucified Christ was the Christ on the Cross, surrendering everything, entering the abyss “Only then could He be one with the darkness, the void, the dark Mother, who is love itself.” (du Bourlay, p. 228)
He had another mystical experience which he described in detail. He heard words: “Surrender to the Mother” - then a feeling of overwhelming love. He also felt a blow to the left side of his head which he interpreted as the rational (masculine) side of his brain being knocked down and the right side (the feminine) being opened up. This was quite different to his early experience of God in nature. He said the process went on for months – his masculine mind dissolving and uniting with his feminine intuitive mind. He became more aware of Mary and prayed the Hail Mary constantly.
He knew he had had a stroke, he knew he had a psychological experience, but the spiritual impression left a feeling of transcendence and true knowledge of non-duality.
Following his recovery, he retired as Prior and he undertook a long, international journey to all parts of the world. In America, staying with dearly loved friends, he even joined in an embryonic community they were trying to establish in Vermont. Again he visited Australia where he addressed very many large groups of people anxious to hear his words and be in his presence. His main message was that we, the human race, are evolving: ‘The divisions have never been greater and the desire for unity has never been stronger, so now we are striving for a conscious unity of creation, of humanity.’ (du Bourlay, p. 253) On his return to Shantivanum an Australian film crew arrived to make a film of his life A Human Search, which is available in video and print versions.
When he died at 86 years of age in 1993, following several strokes, the images of him remind me of an icon. He looks ethereal – not of this earth. He suffered greatly and allowed himself to be cared for with great peace and gratitude. He stayed in his hut at his Ashram – Shantivarnum – his last words were: “God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, I surrender unto you.” At the same time his friends were chanting in Sanskrit.
His final teaching for the world was:
‘I have tried to show how all the main traditions …..all converge on advaita, on non-duality, as the ultimate truth and reality. ….in other words the end of all Christians and of all human existence is to participate in the divine life, which Jesus shares with the Father and communicates to us in the spirit. Everything has to be seen in this context.’
Beyond the Darkness, a biography of Bede Griffiths, by Shirley Du Boulay
The Golden String, by Bede Griffiths
Bede Griffiths, Essential Writings, selected by Thomas Matus
Bede Griffiths: a life in dialogue, by Judson B. Trapnell
A Human Search: Bede Griffiths reflects on his life. Edited by John Swindells