A Monk, Catholic and Hindu
Bede Griffiths – Interfaith's Interspiritual Pioneer
by Marcus Braybrooke
Brother Bede Griffith’s (1906-1993) life of physical and spiritual exploration has been important in the spiritual journeys of many, many people, including myself. He was one of the first spiritually resonant models for those of us engaged in interfaith activities more than 50 years ago. His life suggested that one could be spiritually grounded and thriving in more than one tradition at the same time. Multiple-religious identity as a subject today has a growing bibliography. But until late in the second half of the 20th century, it represented theological heresy for most Christians in the West. For many it still does, but Brother Bede Griffiths is a witness to the possibility.
Alan Griffiths was the fourth child of middle-class, church-going English parents. While attending Oxford University, he spent time studying Eastern religions and described his own religion as a “worship of nature,” resulting in a peak experience of knowing “that we belong to another world.”
After Oxford, Griffiths lived with two others in a very simple community – rejecting as far as possible the paraphernalia of modern civilization, with which he was always uneasy. When “a division began to take place among us,” he returned home and had plenty of time to read the Bible. This led him to enquire about ordination, but on being told he needed wider experience of life, he went to help at a mission in a poor part of London.
Becoming a Monk
Exhausted by fasting and long hours of prayer, he was advised to go on a retreat. There he said, “I felt that love had taken possession of my soul.” He soon felt called to join the Roman Catholic Church. In December 1932, a priest took him to visit Prinknash Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Gloucestershire. It was love at first sight. Griffiths quickly decided to become a monk and was ordained in 1940, taking the name Bede when he did so.
Often uneasy in his first years as a monk, he resumed his study of Eastern religions. Hearing that Fr. Benedict Alapatt, an Indian Benedictine, was returning to India to start a monastic community, Bede petitioned and was eventually allowed to join him. They formed a small monastic community following the Benedictine pattern with which they were familiar.
In 1956, Bede moved to a new community in Kerala which used the Syrian rite. He was there from 1956 to 1968, but his relationship with the prior there was never easy. The situation was resolved when Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973), the French monk originally known as Fr. Henri le Saux, decided to retire to the village of Shantivanam in the Himalayas. Bede joined him and lived there the rest of his life, although travelling widely in later years.
Shantivanam, which means ‘forest of peace,’ is a village in South India, near Tirachirapalli (Trichy). The village is on a busy main road. But going down the short lane to the ashram, with its mango trees and Palmyra palms and with the sacred river Cavery meandering along one boundary, elicits a deep sense of peace. It is where two French priests – Fr. Jules Monchanin, who became Swami Paramarubyananda (The Bliss of the Supreme Spirit), and Fr. Henri le Saux, or Swami Abhishikttananda (The Bliss of Christ) – settled in 1950 and created an ashram.
The two Frenchmen had adopted a simple Indian style of life. They wore the kavi habit of a Hindu sannyasi, slept on the ground, and ate with their fingers. Bede immediately felt at home in Shantivanam, although he did introduce some modern technology including installing electricity, running water, and lavatories. He also had some of the land cleared and planted more fruit trees and vegetables.
By the mid-seventies, after the publication of Return to the Centre (1976), one of 12 books he wrote about Hindu-Christian dialogue, Bede was becoming quite well known and attracting a growing number of visitors to the ashram. But he was also under attack from conservative Catholics who thought he was undermining the Church and from some Hindus who objected to his ‘deceitful’ borrowings from Hinduism.
A Heart Attack and Transformation
On January 25, 1990, Bede suffered from heart failure and a slight stroke. He described it as feeling like a blow from a sledge hammer that was accompanied by a deep spiritual experience, “in which the feminine came and hit me.” Two images appeared during his experience: Christ Crucified and the Black Madonna, who also reflected the Hindu goddess Shakti and the Earth Mother. “I feel it was this Power,” he wrote, “which struck me. She is cruel and destructive, but also deeply loving, nourishing and protecting.” The experience broke down all barriers he previously had to the feminine.
Initially after his recovery, Bede said he would not travel again but soon, "felt the call and the need.” The next two years were taken up by a hectic round of travel with annual visits to the U.S. and Europe, teaching, meeting the Dalai Lama, and being filmed. The experience changed him, and he described feeling he had grown more in two years after the stroke than in the previous 84 years of his life. Then in late 1992, he took ill and died in May 1993. His last words were ‘God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, I surrender to you.’ As he died, the disciples gathered round his bed and sang a Sanskrit chant that he loved: “Christa jaya jaya, Namo, Namo, Praise be to you, Oh Christ, Hail, Hail, Praise be to you, Oh Christ.”
In his teaching, Bede emphasized two sources of knowledge: contemplative or mystical, which he often called ‘intuition,’ and reason and the experience of the senses. Bede also referred to intuition as the feminine power of the mind, but argued for an eventual transcendence of male and female.
Bede’s personal journey of faith meant that he inevitably had to reflect on the relationship of Christianity to other world religions – a subject still much debated in the Church. He had no problem recognizing that there is a revelation of God in other religions and at first spoke of them finding their fulfilment in Christianity, which would not replace other religions, but potentially include them.
From Fulfillment to Complementarity
In his later years, as he opened himself to the Hindu Advaita (non-dualist) philosophy of Sankara, Bede moved from ‘fulfillment’ to ‘complementarity.’ This was reflected in how he designed his liturgies, which included readings from many scriptures. He wrote, “At the deepest level I don’t find anything incompatible. The deeper you go into Hinduism or Buddhism, the more you see how there’s a fundamental unity with Christianity.”
Bede has played an important part in my spiritual journey. A year’s study in 1962 in Madras both opened me to the mystical dimension and convinced me of God’s presence in all world religions; but many Christians told me this was a betrayal of Christ. I was therefore encouraged by reading in Bede’s early book, Christian Ashram (1966), “What we can say with certainty is that at all times and in all places God (and that means Christ) is soliciting the heart and mind of every person's reason and conscience alike and are to be judged by this hidden call of grace and their response to it.” Although quoting it in my thesis (later published as Together to the Truth (1971), I commented on the “The difficulty is in the little phrase ‘and that means Christ.’”
We had some correspondence and I met Bede at some conferences, but it was not until the eighties that I visited Shantivanam. Sadly, Bede was away. But I had an unforgettable spiritual experience as I meditated by the river Cauvery. And with my concern for interfaith prayers, the liturgy was an inspiration.
Over the years Bede’s growing sense of an emerging world religion has encouraged me in a similar journey. Bede hoped that the meeting in depth of the great religions would lead, “towards … that unity in truth, which is the ultimate goal of humankind.” He said in his introduction to Universal Wisdom (1994) that “This is the destiny of all humanity, to realize its essential unity in the Godhead, by whatever name it is known, to be one with the absolute Reality, the absolute Truth, the infinite, the eternal Life and Light.”
Such a view is often dismissed as a dream by those who speak of the irreconcilable differences between religions. But I believe these differences are at the intellectual, not the mystical level. As Bede said, “The concept of one world, one human race, and one religion based on the Universal Wisdom has acquired a new significance, as a way to escape from the disastrous conflicts which are driving the world today.”
Header Photo: Christopher Rose, C.c. 2.0 nc