Inspiration of the Founders of Shantivanam

The recent meeting of the Oblates of Shantivanam that took place at the ashram before Christmas was a memorable event for all of us who participated in it. For some of us it was re-living the memories of the days we spent with Fr. Bede at Shantivanam. We were meeting together after a lapse of several years. Nevertheless we were able to share together memories of those days vividly. It helped everyone assembled to be reminded of the values that the founders of Shantivanam had incorporated into the life of the ashram. The ashram began with Fr. Monchanin and Swami Abhishiktananda in 1950 and had its Epiphany in the hands of Fr. Bede Griffiths a few years later. These three Western men of enormous intellectual calibre and spiritual vitality left behind a legacy that those who have become Oblates and friends of Shantivanam cherish deeply and wish earnestly to keep it alive in their lives. I am giving below the gist of what I had shared with the group on that occasion.

The three founders were led by their unquenchable thirst for God and kept their quest for the Absolute alive by adopting the means that the culture of India offered because all the three were drawn to India to give expression to their call. They understood right from the outset that in order to pursue a life of interiority as envisaged by the contemplative life, it was absolutely essential to adopt a simple form of life. The Indian Sannyasis and Sages had been following this path since centuries. Hence our founders chose simple housing, plain dressing and ordinary means of travel for themselves and demonstrated it to be the indispensable way open to any seeker. All those who met Fr. Monchanin or Swami Abhishiktananda or Fr. Bede saw it evident in their lives before they heard it from their mouths. It was not because they were unable to collect funds to construct better houses for themselves that they opted to live in plain huts after the manner of poor people in Tamil Nadu. They realized the validity of simplicity adopted by Christ himself and followed by men and women of the spirit in every part of the world. This had been compromised with in the Western world even in monasteries and convents that were expected to be centres of spirituality. The founders of Shantivanam wanted to ensure that they lived their life faithful to the life of simplicity that was part of the spiritual heritage of India. It implies that one does not compromise with the spirit of the world and settle for conveniences and comforts in their life that are not strictly necessary for plain living.

Another value the founders have bequeathed to us is the authenticity of their spiritual quest. Fr. Monchanin was a man of great intellect and a reputed theologian in France but he left all that name and fame to pursue the call he heard within his heart for the Absolute. The same was true for Swami Abhishiktananda who was a fervent Benedictine monk in France and Fr. Bede the guest master of a monastery in England. The tiny room in which Fr.Monchanin lived formed part of the hut in which Fr. Bede lived later. We have all read and seen photographs of the kutir of Swami Abhishiktananda in the Himalayas. Fr. Bede refused to have an electric fan installed in his hut saying that the poor around did not have it in their homes. It has been reported about Fr. Monchanin that once he had to borrow 50 paise from his cook to pay his bus fare to Trichy. And Swami Abhishitananda travelled only by third class on trains. Our founders were authentic to the core in the way they lived.

The means the founders adopted in order to live a life of interiority was silence. It helped them to enter into their being and contemplate the presence of God there. Their priority was their being before their doings. I remember distinctly Fr. Bede insisting time and again to maintain an atmosphere of silence at the ashram at all times. There was to be no shouting about or loud talking any time so as to help those who might be engaged in serious reading or prayer. The silence the founders encouraged was not an empty one but filled with the richness of one’s being. It was an antidote against any type of feverish activity pursued by people in order to avoid facing themselves. They practiced meditation and lectio divina following Benedictine tradition during periods of silence. The founders shared the fruit of their meditation in the books they wrote. Community prayer at the ashram has always been held three times daily. I can vouch for the fact that Fr. Bede never missed any of these common practices when he was present at the ashram and in good health. The cook of Fr. Monchanin testified that he always saw him praying. Those familiar with the writings of Swami Abhishiktananda know very well to what length he went to enter into the advaita experience of India. Swamiji was indefatigable in his pursuit after the purpose for which he had come to India. I recall Sr. Sara Grant mentioning how enthusiastic Swamiji was in sharing his Indian experience of spirituality with everyone.

Another outstanding trait shared by all the three founders was their spirit of acceptance of all beyond distinctions in religion, caste or gender. What motivated them to this was their outgoing compassion towards all which looked beyond the exterior appearances of persons. However, they remained rooted in the Christian faith while adopting cultural elements from other religions in the manner of praying. Their ultimate aim was to meet everyone at the core of their heart. Indeed, authentic spirituality goes beyond the parameters of religion.

What was distinctly visible in the three founders was their absolute fidelity to their call till the end of their life. They refused to be swayed into making compromises with what they had valued as genuine in the pursuit of holiness. It is then incumbent on us who have been given the grace to appreciate the legacy left behind by them to implement it as our life’s program, each according to his or her situation in life. May the Founders of Shantivanam bless our endeavour and make it fruitful so that true holiness of life, as laid down by Christ in the gospels and exposed to us by them in the context of India, may find takers all over the world.

Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt                                                     

Tiruvannamalai, India                                                                                                                             


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