Christian yogi Bede Griffiths
By Arthur Jones, National Catholic Reporter
This man, Bede Griffiths, is dangerous. That the Benedictine monk died at his Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) ashram in India in 1993 at the fine age of 86 does not alter the fact — except to the extent his death intensifies our understanding of our own situation.
Griffiths, this Hindu sannyasi (ascetic), a Catholic priest, elegant in his writing, in person charming, in death could too easily be diminished into icon-only status. His is a pleasing lithograph of shoulder-length flowing hair, neatly trimmed swami beard, handsome face, kindly if penetrating eyes bordered by haloes and swirling smoke of incense.
His writings belie the image. They are danger-daring prods, cautions, lures, inducements, challenges, barbs, warnings and reassurances from a man who found nature first, and through nature God, and through God Catholicism, and through Catholicism Benedictinism, and through the monastic life, Eastern mysticism.
All blend in his person and words, not into a homogenized spiritual glop, but concentrated as a beam of light capable of penetrating the darkest corners of early 21st-century decadence and blindness to the future. How, why, did Griffiths come to journey East and write to the West?
It does well to begin at the beginning. Here again is the famous passage from his autobiography, The Golden String, as he discovers nature in his native England:
“One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song, which can only be heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. I remember now the shock of surprise with which the sound broke in my ears. It seemed to me that I had never heard the birds singing before and I wondered whether they sang like this all the year round and I had never noticed it.
“As I walked on I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again I thought that I had never ever seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before. If I had been brought suddenly among the trees of the Garden of Paradise and heard a choir of angels singing I could not have been more surprised.
“I came then to where the sun was setting over the playing fields.
“A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song above my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.”
His generation had matured, dispirited, despairing into the wasteland of post-World War I. Griffiths found hope in religion. Others of his years found it in Marxism and became spies for Moscow; still more in the hedonism that horrified the young novelist Evelyn Waugh.
Griffiths, immersed in Eastern contemplation, was not lulled into a false optimism. Some 70 years beyond his school days he wrote in his 1982 book, The Marriage of East and West:
“There is a general feeling today that we are at the end of an age, an age which began three centuries ago with the discoveries of Galileo and Newton and resulted in the gradual development of a materialist philosophy and a mechanistic model of our whole society. The present industrial system and modern technology are the direct result of this mechanistic concept of the universe. The whole social, political and economic system of the West is governed by it, even art, morality and religion are affected by it. So we live in a world which came into being in the last three centuries, and had come to a head in the last century.
“It is possible that the transition from a mechanistic to an organic society will come about gradually, without too much conflict. But it is more likely that there will be a general catastrophe, as the economic, social and political structures of the present civilization break down.
“We must remember — and this is important — that the conflicts of the present world do not derive merely from human failing and miscalculations.
“There has been a reversal of human values, a spiritual breakdown, which has brought into play forces beyond the material and the human. The present crisis has been prepared by the whole system of science and philosophy, affecting religion and leading to atheism. This is a systemic [breakdown that] has released forces beyond the material and the human.”
Bede Griffiths: Essential Writing, published by Orbis, contains this and many other selections from Griffith’s work. It includes an extensive introduction by the Benedictine Camaldolese monk Thomas Matus.
The Other Half of My Soul: Bede Griffiths and the Hindu-Christian Dialogue, compiled by Beatrice Bruteau, provides a précised biography, and much else of considerable worth.
Alan Griffiths was born in 1906 in England, educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, was a friend of C.S. Lewis, and after Oxford found simple living with a few friends in a Cotswolds village. The “experiment in common life,” his deep reading in the Bible and elsewhere, led him to the sacraments of the Anglican church of his childhood and, in time, at age 27, to Catholicism and on to the Benedictines.
Encouraged by a friend, he studied widely in the Eastern scriptures during his 24 purely English Benedictine years. In 1955, he accepted an invitation from Indian Benedictine Fr. Benedict Alapatt to travel to India to found a monastery. In time, and for a quarter-century, his home became the Shantivanam ashram, near Trichy, in Tamil Nadu state.
Did some of his Benedictine confreres snicker at his saffron robe ambitions? Particularly when he so looked the part? Quite possibly. One forgets how recent the acceptance of the East has been.
For example, in 1955, the year Griffiths left for India, had I told my darts-playing pals I was teaching myself yoga in my bedroom from a poorly written, badly printed 16-page booklet from India, I’d have been laughed out of the village pub. Twenty years later, things hadn’t changed much when U.S. Jesuit Daniel O’Hanlon’s series on Asian monasticism appeared in NCR (July 18-Sept. 19, 1975). Some of his California confreres dubbed the articles “the Saffron Capers.”
In his midlife during the 1960s, Griffith was not yet the revered mystic — despite the popularity of his autobiography, published in 1954. For many he was still an exotic novelty. The Beatles hadn’t gone Eastern, yoga was still a fad, and the sound/word/symbol Om was a sure-fire laugh-getter from comedians on black-and-white television whenever the name Alan Watts (1915-73), an early Western proponent of Zen Buddhism, could be worked into their routine.
If Griffiths still did not have a lot going for him in the West of the ’60s (or in the Vatican in the 1980s when it investigated him), in India he had found his anchorage. His immersion into the Eastern mysticism that he melded into his Benedictine monasticism bolstered his personal footings as bridge between East and West.
In the excellent Other Half of My Soul, Wayne Teasdale, one of the book’s two-dozen essayists, describes what Griffiths experienced.
“Mysticism has but one goal: total transformation into love, or deification of the individual and the ecclesial community. In Christian terms, this means entrance into the fullness of Christ. In Hinduism and Buddhism the goal is moksha, or liberation from the chains of illusion that bind us to the realm of becoming, of suffering and striving. Liberation happens through the process of enlightenment. Whether understood as liberation or salvation, mysticism at once frees us from the constraints of mere social expectation and imposes on us a profound and personal responsibility for others in love and compassion.”
Griffiths wanted no less from the Catholic church. Griffiths wrote of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) opening up the Catholic church to other religions and bringing it into contact with other traditions in a way that was changing the church. Projecting from Griffiths’ optimism a decade after his death, it is reasonable to counter that in fact during this pontificate the Catholic church has rejected the possibility that other religious traditions might legitimately help transform it, just as it has set out to punish those Catholics best equipped to bridge the gap — Griffiths included.
In 1990 he was obliged to defend himself before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, could not have been comfortable with Griffiths’ views: “If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should simply fold up and go out of business” (Matthew Fox quoting Griffiths in Other Half of My Soul).
In the 1990s, Griffiths, still energetic, still traveling, though slowed by two strokes before a third killed him, would have understood what Michael von Brück was implying when he wrote in Other Half of My Soul that world religions “seem to be in a painful stalemate in dialogical progress. … Spectacular dialogical events are held from time to time — the Assisi Peace Prayer. But some of the people/religious leaders who participate tend to use them as a chance to show their worldwide and social and ecological engagement, while at the same time running their own religious affairs with poor dialogical attitudes.”
The Vatican prefers display to deep engagement; it still silences the messengers. There are few of them left.
Von Brück argues for a sober and truthful analysis of the present state of interreligious affairs. Griffiths could have candidly provided it.
As it is, we have his writings, thanks to Templegate and, thanks to Quest Books, an imprint of the Theosophical Publishing House, the words of the scholars around him who hope to shore up the eroded dialogical dream.
In an age when religious fundamentalism has taken on the role of the Goths, when the new Dark Ages of the Cartesian mechanistic model exalt materialism and acquisition above all else, when religion in the Catholic church means obedience without question, when politics in the United States has turned to a less-than-latent fascism coupled with the global capitalism that gobbles up the earth’s remaining resources, when — to quote Thomas Cahill out of context — “the living civilization dies,” we have only Bede Griffiths and his like, those working for a new dawning.
That dawn’s sun would be a shining seriousness toward, and respect for, the other. It would mean a willingness to absorb what is worthy of incorporation from the other, rather than a tendentious insistence on primacy among those who are, in mystic ways and many traditions, equals before God.
Bede Griffiths confronts the West. The Western church. The Cartesians. His honesty makes him dangerous. His simplicity means he will last. This compendium of volumes — and, surely, more commentaries to come — ensures he will be understood.
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