Fr Bede and Swami Abhishiktananda in the 21st Century
One of the things that became clear in Shantivanam during the course of 2010—a year bookended by conferences for the centenary of Swami Abhishiktananda (9-15 Jan 2010 and 14-17 Dec 2010)—was the value and increasing relevance today of Fr. Bede’s and Sw. Abhishiktananda’s work. Rather than trailing off and fading away with the passage of the decades since their deaths, what we seemed to be seeing this year and in recent years is a growing attraction to the teaching these founders imparted through their combined literary corpus and by the example of their respective monastic careers. One indication of this increased interest is simply the swelling guest ministry at the Ashram over the last couple of years. The 2010-11 season, for example, was booked throughout (and bookings for 2011-12 are filling up)—a happy problem that hasn’t been there since Bede’s time. Many who are coming are pilgrimage groups from the West. Some are Church groups, such as Patrick Woodhouse’s group from Well’s Cathedral, an annual pilgrimage made by a vital group composed largely of Anglican clergy from Wells Cathedral and surrounding dioceses. Other groups include students such as the Chigwell School which comes each February or the young Danish student group last January, among them a number of aspiring comparative religion students. Russell and Asha’s group brings forty or more each season. Doctoral students of theology and Catholic and Anglican religious are finding their way to Shantivanam in increasing numbers by way of Bede’s and Abhishiktananda’s writings. 2010-11 also saw two separate French film crews (headed by Vincent Lauth), one doing a documentary on Abhishiktananda’s life (not to be confused with the 2006-7 German film crew led by Gunter Franke) and a second, filming a documentary on Christian Ashrams for French national television (France 2). An ecumenical interfaith dialogue center of prayer in South Africa which has taken Shantivanam’s namesake (calling itself Sat Chit Anand), regularly includes in its newsletters reflections inspired by Bede’s books and Br Martin’s talks.
But 2010-11 brought not only an increase in numbers at the Ashram, but seemed to engender a qualitative shift, a synergy of presence and an intensity of purpose among those gathered that was not there before. So why all this sudden interest in Shantivanam, Fr. Bede, Swami Abhishiktananda and the East-West encounter?
Perhaps it is several things. To be sure the conferences last year, drawing sincere dedicated scholars, writers, priests, pundits, monks and nuns from all over the world, came as a fresh breeze inspiring we India-based participants and nudging us back to the work that had brought us down this path in the first place. It was an eye-opener and pointed to a vital dimension of Shantivanam’s growing ministry—one that is yet to be fully exploited: Shantivanam’s role as a convener, hub and headquarters for ongoing research in the East/West dialogue and the Christian Ashram experiment. But the trend of the 2010 conference year was already in place before the year began. Indeed Br. Martin’s ministry in Europe has been growing year by year in recent years and many who have the chance to see him in Europe are drawn to visit the Ashram. Camaldolese oblates from Italy and the US are learning of Bede and Shantivanam through their contacts with the Camaldolese. Cyprian’s world-wide music and teaching ministry has raised awareness about East-West dialogue and Fr Bede in remote regions of the world, and his Santa Cruz-based Bede Sangha (which recently did a benefit concert in Santa Cruz for Bless School [situated near Shantivanam]) made a pilgrimage to Shantivanam a few years ago, inspiring numerous follow-up visits by its members. The Bede Sangha in the UK and their outreach work in Tannirpalli has raised interest at home and brought their own groups to Shantivanam.
The gradual dissemination of information about the mission of Shantivanam spreads with new publications, elevating Shantivanam’s profile in other countries, e.g., Shirley Du Boulay’s biographies of Bede and Abhishiktananda, Medio Media’s reprinting Bede’s books with worldwide distribution, and ongoing translation of Abhishiktananda’s writings into various languages. But if Fr Bede’s and Swami Abhishiktananda’s ideas are propagating and reaching larger audiences, still the question remains, why only now?
Arguably the social changes we are seeing globally are playing a part. The increasing interculturation in Western societies, for example, has lent a sense of immediacy to the language of accommodation and interfaith bridge-building across religious and ethno-cultural lines. Since Bede and Abhishiktananda’s time, history has made ecumenism not just a good idea but essential, even inevitable. If no man is an island, then in this age of globalization, no religion is either, and the need for mutual understanding—if not mutual interpenetration bridging denominational divides—is proving indispensable. To be sure, as Fr Bede would have been quick to point out, this work can only be effective in the context of an authentic appreciation of one’s own tradition and knowing how to place oneself and one’s tradition within the overall scheme of a radically and rapidly changing globalised social and theological landscape. But as the ground shifts beneath our feet and the very fabric of individual and collective spiritual psychologies and modes of articulation undergo a dramatic reordering, we as Christians seem to be pining for prophetic voices and the theoretical footing from which to gain a purchase on the slippery slopes of contemporary religious life. Could it be that the subtle forces at work in the interior lives of Fr Bede Griffiths and Dom Henri Le Saux, compelling them to take the radical steps they did more than a half a century ago, are the very forces operative in the lives of thousands, or perhaps even millions of Catholics around the world today? Could it be that it is theirs and other similarly prophetic interventions that offer one of the keys to the current crisis in religion today? Could it be, ironically, if not providentially, that the unfamiliar epistemologies and theologies of other faiths, while, in one way of looking, present challenges to the Christian ethos, might also be the very remedy by which we as Christians (in the West, at least) could reinvigorate, inspire and recover our own spiritual vitality and deepen the Christian experience? If so, could we undertake such an endeavor without betraying the spirit of our own heritage? Speaking as a monk, Merton offers this response:
“I think we have now reached a stage of (long-overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience. I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken within the Western Church” (Asian Journals, p. 313).
It is fascinating to hear how similar the stories told by pilgrims of various Christian denominations from diverse parts of the world are. What we hear each year from seekers coming to Tamil Nadu is an intense longing to explore the deeper questions of life and faith, and to heed the call of the ‘inner’ monk or nun that invariably dwells within each us. As lay monasticism continues to grow—expressed in increasing oblate membership rolls in various communities around the world, not least of all, at Shantivanam—what we see in seekers today is a sense of urgency, a healthy desperation and quiet yearning to find solid and committed faith communities engaged in the genuine search for spiritual wholeness. Where, they implore, is truth beyond the sham consumer humdrum that floods and saturates the planet’s life-world on a daily basis? Where and how in an increasingly desacralized info-saturated consumer world is one to encounter silence and the Sacred?
A stream of refugees appears each year in South India, perhaps with slightly romanticized expectations as to what is to be found here and yet, with an unquestioned sincerity. What a blessing and joyful surprise it is for them to discover that not only are they not alone in their quest but that others—Fr. Bede and Sw. Abhishiktananda not least of all among them—have marked the way. Nearly twenty years after Father Bede’s passing and almost forty years after that of Swami Abhishiktananda, the social, theological, and liturgical experiments these two monks initiated more than a half a century ago offer encouragement and orientation in an increasingly complex, centrifugal postmodern world. It is perhaps only now that the insights and ideas of these towering figures are coming into their own, finding a sympathetic listening and the broader audience they so deserve, and thus are finally attaining fulfillment in the promise of serving this and future generations of seekers and believers.