Women of Shantivanam - Sr Marie Louise

Sr. Marie Louise interviewed by Jill Hemmings

 (this article was published in 2011 in the Bede Griffiths Sangha Newsletter Winter 2011   Vol 12 Issue 3 and presented here with kind permission Jill Hemmings)


“You see as a young girl I always knew I didn’t want to get married, I would be traumatised by the bondage of marriage, I knew it wouldn’t give me the space I needed to fulfil my potential. So at the age of 20, I entered a convent in Mangalore with a community of French Sisters knowing that I could widen my horizons and hopefully go to France to train as a nurse. I can’t honestly say I entered because I had a passion for God, rather a low voltage yearning. I suppose I became a nun as a means to an end. There were very few opportunities for young girls growing up India in the 1930’s other than marriage and I never wanted to be a second class citizen to men!”

Sr Marie Louise Coutina had generously agreed to tell me her story. I was eager to hear a woman’s story as so often it seems to be men who are written about. As many of you know Sr Marie Louise  lives in Ananda Ashram her home for 35 years, the Women’s ashram over the road from Shantivanam. You will see her at every office in the temple sitting quietly to one side in her own small chair dressed in light brown occasionally reading a lesson. So what is her story? Sitting on her delightful, neat veranda surrounded by her garden and her community, sipping fresh lemon juice, she began to talk about her long and fascinating journey. In fact we met three times and to her surprise she really began to enjoy the process of reassessing her life and making connections. Of course at the age of 79 she has a long, rich and varied story, a story of determination and commitment to her own truth, of suffering, of struggle, uncertainty, of falling in love with Fr Bede and the Hindu Christian vision of Shantivanam. Of gradually discovering her love for God and an intimacy with the Divine that she found difficult to water and nurture, then her fulfilment and joy in rediscovering her Hindu roots in the company of Fr Bede, of hard work ,service and passion for her people in the villages. And much, much more. This short piece is in truth merely a glimpse into Sister’s fascinating life. Sr Marie Louise came from a good Catholic family in Mysore, Karnataka. Her great, great granny was the co-foundress of the first foundation of cloistered Carmelites in India in the mid- nineteenth century. As a child Marie Louise would visit her grandfather’s sister, who was also a Carmelite nun and be very concerned that she was always behind bars. “When can she come out?” Not a life Marie Louise wanted to emulate!

Her uncle was a Jesuit priest. Marie Louise was a very sociable girl and having entered the convent in Mangalore she was delighted to be chosen to go to France to train as a nurse but she spoke no French. Showing her usual determination to do things properly she stayed silent for 2 years simply listening to French before she felt ready to speak perfectly! She wasn’t going to make mistakes!! She says she thrived on the wider vision she found in France and enjoyed her vocation there and when the time came for her to leave she was loathe to return to India where spiritually she had felt very confused and full of conflict. She didn’t know why, but the Christianity she experienced in her community in Bangalore didn’t sit easily with her. She was very unhappy. But God was looking out for her and eventually she was “punched by the spirit” to explore more deeply this spiritual dissatisfaction, and a breakthrough came one day when a Fr Bede Griffiths gave a day of reflection in Salem. For some reason Marie Louise asked if she could go and she found herself sitting in the front row. She couldn’t understand Fr Bede’s English, his appearance wasn’t good and he talked so much about other religions yet he was a Roman Catholic priest and a monk? Marie Louise was fascinated! “I felt an energy, like that of a gazelle passing through me”. She decided this was a sign that she had to make some changes somehow, but where to go and how? In France she had read a book by a Fr Jules Monchanin writing about Shantivanam so she decided to visit! She ignored a cable from her superiors telling her not to leave Bangalore and travelled to Shantivanam where she found Fr Bede not Fr Monchanin! Fr Bede was confused “Are you a religious? Why are you wearing a saree? I usually get a letter of introduction when a religious comes to visit!”

It was 10 years before she told him that she had been refused permission to visit! He gave her a small hut near him but she could only stay for few days. She returned to her community but wrote to him asking “If I could stay for a month?” He replied “No, this place is for men and you are the first woman here, but of course it depends on your need.” Then he wrote asking when she was coming back because we need someone like you!

Marie Louise returned immediately to Shantivanam and never went back to Bangalore! She had found her spiritual home at last at the age of 40. She is still very grateful to her Mother Superior and her Sisters for their generosity. They didn’t create any difficulties and gave her plenty of support on her unusual journey. It was post Vatican 2 so maybe they felt some sympathy for this path. So what did Marie Louise find in Fr Bede? She found a soul mate for her spiritual yearnings.

“You see I had always felt conflict within me. A loneliness and inconsistency in the Christian teachings that I didn’t understand within my heart. My name is Coutina, not Indian but a Portuguese name. My ancestors had been converted from Hinduism maybe 400 years ago. The Christian missionaries were very cruel and demanded a high price. Our family lost everything, its name, its status as Brahmins, its home, all its possessions and professions but they realised they had found a pearl of great price in the Christic charisma. We became  Christians and found freedom but for myself I had at some level retained the Hindu sensibilities and consciousness of my ancestors.

The problem was that I was not aware of this but when I met Fr Bede, a man who embraced the beauty and the wisdom in Hinduism while remaining a Christian, I could at last open myself to my soul’s hidden yearning. I could embrace my roots at last without shame or fear. I could become spiritually whole and acknowledge my love of Hindu practices, the pujas, the richness and variety of the Hindu deities, the wonderful wisdom of the Veda’s while continuing to love the teachings of my Christian church. I had come home. I remember weeping with relief. To my surprise for the first year I found I was quite resistant to Fr Bede. He was a white European male all too reminiscent of the Portuguese missionaries but I began to see that he was quite different. He loved my Hindu heritage, he walked barefoot, ate with his hands, he had come to learn and Inculturate, not to dominate or convert. He too loved his Christianity but it was not an exclusive love, he was free in the way that I had always yearned to be open and free. What a wonderful gift he was to me”

So how did this courageous woman manage to stay in a male monastery? Well she didn’t for long. Fr Bede let her stay a short while and then encouraged her “to go over the road” to the vacant forest land where she should build a small mud hut .On Easter Sunday 35 years ago Fr Bede blessed her simple kutir with “tears streaming down his face” and welcomed Sr Marie Louise as the first woman to the community! But wasn’t she scared living alone in the bush? No there was a Burmese family living nearby and Shantivanam always sustained her! She said she had made an offering of her life and could not have been happier. (One day after Fr Bede had had his stroke, he was lying on his bed on his veranda, Sr Marie Louise, as usual at his side, he told her “that letting Marie Louise stay at Shantivanam was one of the best decisions I ever made. Of course there was some resistance you know but...” and his eyes twinkled with pleasure and love for her. Marie Louise tells the story of Fr Bede’s love and concern for her when in 1977 the sacred Cauvery river flooded and her hut had completely collapsed. Bede arrived with a torch at 5am to rescue her! She left with what she stood up in and never went back. When the flood subsided she built a small hut and for “ten years lived like a Bohemian! Sustained at home by Shantivanam” and I guess by the proximity of Fr Bede!

Over time Marie Louise managed to buy, register and fence Ananda Ashram, 8 ½ acres of good land. They cut down Mango trees taking them to Trichy to sell to buy and plant banana and coconut trees to create a sustainable small business. Buildings went up, individual Kutirs for visitors built, a more substantial home for Sister and shelters for the young girls she sponsored over the years. A herd of cows came providing milk for Ananda and the villagers and Ananda is now a veritable paradise of order and beauty, still sustained and nourished by and nourishing its brother Ashram Shantivanam over the track, watched over with love and creativity by its loving Mataji, Sr Marie Louise and Senthil her manager.

“I had come home. I  remember weeping with relief.”

...that letting Marie Louise stay at Shantivanam was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

 So Sr Marie Louise, did you fulfil your potential, have you felt a second class citizen to men? “I am perfectly satisfied, I found my spiritual roots, I am at home and I never want to leave here. Life with the men hasn’t always been easy but Fr Bede’s wisdom and the spirit have sustained me throughout and I thank God for the path He showed me. I feel the Divine presence so strongly here at Shantivanam. I take all the beautiful visitors and put them at the feet of the Trinity, which is so important for me. The echo of the Trinity resonates in the entire universe, absorbs everything sacred in every being, and offers itself to everyone. The omniscience of all creation.”



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