Taken from The Golden String Vol. 13 No. 2 BULLETIN OF THE BEDE GRIFFITHS TRUST Winter 2006-2007 

with kind permission Fr. Cyprian Consiglio



Cyprian Consiglio

 The Bede Griffiths Centenary Celebration at Shantivanam began on Thursday the 14th of December, though many began to gather already Wednesday night. There were approximately 80 persons in attendance. A large pavilion had been set up with chairs next to the tea gathering spot for the presentations. The temple was full and the dining hall was filled to overflowing, with many eating in the tea circle. (The delicious food was prepared across the street at Ananda Ashram by a caterer from Kulithalai.) About half the crowd were Indians, and the other half European, mostly English (from the Bede Griffiths Sangha) and German (a group brought by Christian Hackbarth-Johnson), plus a Canadian, a Frenchman, and an American. All the rooms at Shantivanam were full, and Ananda Ashram was also nearly full, housing many of the women religious. Many of the Indian men introduced themselves as sannyasis or as “Swami” and were clad in various shades of khavi. Many of the sisters also described themselves as having been initiated into sannyasa by Fr Bede, and quite a few of them have been brought under the mantle of the Camaldolese under Madre Michela of San Antonio in Rome. It seems that the ashram movement in India is alive and well.

There were eight presentations a day, two at a time. They were largely non-academic, and each presenter had been asked to stay within a half hour. Those who have failed to do so were often coupled with those who only spoke for ten minutes or so. Fr George and Bro Martin mainly asked people to speak about their personal experiences with Fr Bede and what impact he had on their lives. That could have been tedious—so many tributes and confessionals–– but it wasn’t. Many folks delighted in telling about what their lives are like now as a result of their contact with Bede. Only a few spoke mainly from a more academic vantage point, which provided some welcome variety.

The first two speakers seemed to typify the kind of people outside of India that Fr Bede touched. The first was a German man who had been outside the church, a follower of yoga and zen, very put off by “institutional religion,” but Bede somehow made it all make sense to him with his teaching about the sanatana dharma––the eternal religion, and his references to the nirguna Brahman, the Godhead behind all name, form and historical conditioning. The most beautiful thing that he said was that at one point he discovered that God was also the spirit in the heart, and that this spirit was love, and so suddenly he could pray “thy will be done,” because that meant surrendering to the love inside of him rather than the God outside. A Swede now living in Australia presented his academic research on Bede’s impact on that continent. Bede had been there twice, once in 1982 and again in 1991. The speaker spoke especially about the growth of small Christian contemplative communities.

A handful of sisters spoke, many with virtually the same story, that they had been members of active religious congregations and had experienced some kind of spiritual awakening specifically to the wisdom of their own Indian spiritual tradition either through Fr Bede or guided by him. They then wanted to live an eremitic-ashram life and had battled with their congregations and sometimes local bishops, before finally getting settled in some place. Many of them report having taken sannyasa diksha from Fr Bede.

One sister, a fiery little 77 year-old, wanted to move back to Kerala, her native state. The bishop told her no, that he did not want her their living that kind of life. (India is very conservative when it comes to women being that independent, she told me later, especially in Kerala.) She said, “I told him as respectfully as possible, ‘I understand your feelings, my Lord, but perhaps you have not read the constitutions of our country? I am a citizen of India and I can live wherever I choose.’” Another sister told of returning to her convent after a year at Shantivanam, whereupon another sister, with whom she had had some problems, challenged her, saying, “So you have been in the ashram for a year. I do not see any halo around you!” And the first sister answered, “Ah, but there is a change. Now I can see the halo around you!” Sr. Stephany has an ashram nearby and is a good friend of Shantivanam. She has been raising a now five-year old girl since she was nine months old that all the young monks here treat like a little sister. She too put herself under Bede after she discovered a new depth to her spirituality by reading the sruti–sacred texts of other traditions. She had been raised in Burma so had already been exposed to Buddhism from a young age. Her foundational experience came from the teaching about meditation from the Mundaka Upanishad (II-ii-4):

                    OM is the bow;

                    the soul is the arrow;

                    and Brahman is its target.

                    It is to be hit by those who are unerring.

                    One should become one with It just like an arrow.

This teaching led her to spend five years in silence under Bede’s guidance before beginning her ashram. She has now taught this “bow meditation” to countless numbers of other religious sisters and retreatants.

It was amazing to learn how many Indian sisters came to spend time here to learn from Fr Bede a new way to be, a new spirituality. He was very careful that they first get permission from their immediate superiors, but was also not afraid to bend a few rules.

There was a major presentation by a Swami Satchitananda Bharati, a former high-ranking officer in the Indian Air Force, now a high-ranking sannyasi in India, doing marvellous work all over the country with something he calls the National Regeneration Movement. He too was outside the church before putting himself under Bede’s guidance, and was later baptized. He is very sophisticated and articulate and told some marvelous stories. He also sang an introductory chant before his talk, a little snippet of the Svetasvatara Upanishad that was a favored text of both Abhishiktananda and Bede. Many will recognize it from the back of the postcard with Bede’s picture along with the Colossians canticle and from the final quote in the Abhishiktananda movie “An Interior Journey”:

                    Vedahametam Purusham mahantam

                    Aditya varnam Tamasaparastat

                    Tameva viditratrumrityameti

                    Nanya pantha vita tayanaya.

                    I know the Great Person of the color of the sun beyond darkness.

                    Only by knowing that one do we overcome death.

                    There is no other way to go.

The swami said that he and Fr Bede used to sing this together all the time. Another discovery was from a sister who introduced us to Abhishiktananda’s Sanskrit version of the Jesus Prayer, which she also sang. It’s slightly different than the original Russian one:

                    Pahimam Ishaputra Prabhu Yeshu

                    Mrtyum Jaya Satpurusha

                    He pahiman Papatmanam

                    Save me, O Son of God, Lord Jesus,

                    Conqueror of Death, True Purusha

                    Save me, a sinner.

Speaking of the Jesus Prayer, Sr Mary Louise of Ananda, who nursed Bede in his last days, told this story from the time during which she attended him near his death:

           … we all know that Bede prayed the Jesus Prayer for over 40 years, but none of us heard him formulate it. Well,   this was the moment. All of a sudden I heard “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (pause) and the right hand beating the chest “a sinner…” and from that day onwards, each time I saw the prophet, in tears––struggling––nervous–– exhausted in that bed, I would just pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (pause). I would remain silent and Bede beating his chest would say “a sinner.” Everything would settle for some moments and then all had to begin anew.

A Fr. Selvaraj, a rather well known teacher here in India, gave a long, wonderful sharing. His was probably the best talk, at least for me. He is a Tamilian priest who started out a theology professor, having done his dissertation on Gandhi. At some point in his career as a formator while introducing his young charges to life with the poor, he himself had a conversion experience and started advocating for and working with the poor, which lost him his good standing in church and society. When everything finally fell apart he came to the ashram for a year, and after having been a theologian and a leading member and teacher in the Charismatic Renewal, suddenly realized that he had no idea how to pray. He said about himself, “What I thought was prayer was not really prayer. My prayer had become a confession of my inability to pray.” And so Bede taught him how to pray, and seemed to do so by first deconstructing him before building him up again. The things he shared that Bede had taught him were incredible:

          “You must go beyond words! You are living too much in the office! Come home!” “You have fabricated an idol who is an object! God is not an object, and you are not the subject. The subject of prayer is God who prays in Jesus in the Spirit.” “You must not make an effort to make contact with God in prayer; you must strive to remove everything that prevents you from listening to God speaking in you.” And this on the “self”: “We are all fragmented and disintegrated. The real self is God with Christ in the Spirit. When we say “I” it is a self fabricated by social conventions and compulsions, a big balloon that needs to be punctured.”

Bro Martin gave the last long presentation. Before going into the content of his presentation, he talked about his experience of meeting Fr Bede, coming from a poor family, searching for truth, studying all the philosophers and theologians he could find when he was in seminary, and then finally meeting Fr Bede who assured him that everything was okay, that he was not crazy for what he was thinking, and invited him to come to the ashram.

Then Fr George, in his closing remarks, told of his first meeting Fr Bede when he was five years old and went with his family to visit his uncle, Amaldas, while the latter was still a monk with Fr Bede at Kurisamala. Sr. Mary Louise said afterward what many were probably thinking: humble as he is, no one ever knew that about George.

Each evening we were treated to something special. The first night there was a concert by three of the monks; the second night Bro. John Robert premiered a Powerpoint presentation on the life of Fr Bede; and the third night there was a performance of Indian classical dance by a troupe from Kali Kauvery music school in Trichy.

Since Fr Bede’s birthday, December 17th, fell on a Sunday the Mass was doing double duty — Mass for the regular Tamil-speaking villagers who come as well as the conclusion of our centenary celebration. What a crowd! And what decorations! The dirt paths were all painted with more kolam–chalk designs than usual, the temple itself was garlanded with flowers everywhere, and the graves of the three founders were covered with flowers as well. Just to give a quick idea of the beautiful mixture of languages and styles: we started with the Sanskrit mantras, then instead of a reading from one of the usual sources of Universal Wisdom there was a long reading from The Golden String, on Fr Bede’s experience of discovering God in nature. The psalms plus the Benedictus were in Tamil, then Mass proper started with another Tamil hymn from a new book that Bro. Pinto had put together of Tamil religious hymns. Then he and I intoned (and a good number of the assembly answered!) the Kyrie from the Mass ‘of the Angels’ followed by the Glory to God sung in Tamil. There is a specific beautiful melodic formula that everyone seems to know, for the opening greeting, to introduce the Gospel, and for blessings, etc. Another beautiful moment was provided by a swami who was playing a set of finger cymbals all through Mass for virtually every piece of music, only not really in the same tala–rhythm as anything he was accompanying! But during communion he sat on the ground and broke into a beautiful bhajan of his own that many knew how to answer. Mass went on like that with a great mixture of languages and songs, and then a big procession to the graves to sing another bhajan––Jaya Guru Deva–– and to spread more flowers, to light candles.

Everyone was invited for breakfast, so we were about 150. And then preparations began in earnest for lunch. It was estimated that 1000 came, as the tradition is to feed all the villagers on Fr. Bede’s birthday. Tables were set up all over the compound, piles of banana leaves to eat from, and buckets and buckets of food. People poured in from the village and others came from as far as Trichy. We monks and guests did most of the serving ourselves, which we all enjoyed immensely.

What was so interesting about the stories from the Indians is how many of them re-discovered their own tradition through Fr Bede. It is not only Westerners; it is Indians themselves who had never been exposed to anything other than a Western approach to Christianity. If it is possible to understand more, then those of us from the West who were visiting understand more what this man meant to Indians. He was indeed their guru, their father and, as some said, their mother, their spiritual guide and inspiration, and they were and are hopelessly devoted to him. Fr George and Bro Martin should be and are rightly proud of the centenary celebration. They intuitively knew what they were doing and the whole thing unfolded gracefully and then gently closed back up again like a beautiful flower.


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