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It has seemed to me that Fr Bede influenced Christian monasticism in at least two very different ways.  There is first of all his influence on regular observance Benedictine monasticism, that is, on those monks and nuns, as well as to some extent other religious, who have found their observance effected and/or changed in some way by their contact with Fr Bede’s life and teaching.  Then there are those who have either left the fold of regular observance monasticism or other types religious life, or have chosen never to enter it at all but are nonetheless living a certain rule and way of life inspired and informed by Fr Bede.  I shall treat the former first, and to be most honest, I should say that I write this from a personal viewpoint, as a professed monk of the Camaldolese congregation. And so I am writing about how Fr Bede has influenced this Christian monk’s life and practice.  I name mainly three areas: meditation, lectio, asceticism.


Fr Bede was undoubtably steeped in classic western scholastic Roman Catholic theology and English Benedictine monasticism.  While at times being critical of both, there is little evidence that he doubted their efficacy.  At the same time, perhaps the overarching theme of his influence was his recognition of a universal monasticism.  I say this with due regard for Dr Pannikar’s writings on the monastic archtype and Abhishiktananda’s writings on the acosmic ‘order’ of monks, and in tandem with Bede’s own teaching to all groups, lay and religious, about the universal call to contemplation.  It is from out of this last theme, the universal call to contemplation, that Bede’s first concrete influence on regular observance Christian monasticism comes: a re-articulation of the primacy of contemplation, specifically through the practice of meditation, as the heart of Christian spirituality and therefore monastic spirituality.  Perhaps the emphasis had never been completely lost for some of the stricter orders and congregations, at least in theory, but undoubtably regular observance monasticism often needs a budge to reposition the mystical life as the source and summit, the beginning and end of all activity, scholary, professional or ministerial.

Bede's emphasis certainly challenges even the post-Vatican II understanding of the Catholic Church, the liturgy is the source and summit of the whole of the life of a Christian.  While never denying the efficacy of liturgy and indeed never ceasing to celebrate daily eucharist his whole life, Fr Bede obviously approves when he says, for example that John Main's great insight was that liturgy such as the Divine Office, for instance, could be a preparation for contemplative prayer and also an overflow from it, "but that it needed to lead to pure prayer.  This is to change the focus of Christian prayer from the Divine Office, the prayer of monks and religious, to the pure prayer of self-surrender. … For me the focus has changed; it is now on pure prayer, contemplative prayer, and the divine office is an overflow from it."  According to Fr Bede this emphasis on meditation deepens the prayer of monks and nuns "so that they can enter into the silence and solitude of 'being alone with God' while they keep open to the Church and humanity" through participation in the liturgy.

Fr Bede’s personal practice of, emphasis on and propogation of meditation as pure apophatic prayer, as exemplfied by the practices he instituted at Shantivanam, was undoubtably influenced by his immersion in the Upanishadic and Yogic way, and gave him leave and authority to explore, dialogue with and draw from other contemplative traditions as well, such as Zen Buddhism and Tibetan dzogchen, for example.  I learn from Bede to put meditation at the heart of my day, to prepare for and continue my participation in liturgical or private prayer, to carry the apophatic depth into all my activity.

As for a second influence—I have not heard or seen anyone else articulate it in this way before—Bede’s emphasis on reading sacred texts of other traditions has had a profound influence on my own practice of lectio divina.  Fr Bede not only read and studied texts from other traditions (indeed the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads in Sanskrit), he, as his predecessors at Shantivanam, had sacred texts from traditions other than the Judeo-Christianity proclaimed as part of the regular three daily samdhyas at the ashram, a pracice that continues to this day.  This kind of reverence has a two-fold reciprocal effect.  On the one hand, I learn to view these writings not merely as interesting comparative literature, but as themselves being divinely inspired and containing spritual benefits that have been elucidated and articulated in ways that they have not been in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  This is of course in keeping with Vatican II’s teaching from Nostra Aetate (section 2) that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religions, but rather looks with respect upon those teachings “which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.”  Conversely, when I place the Bible along side scriptures of other traditons, while recognizing the pride of place given to the Hebrew scriptures and the primacy of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I also come to see the Bible in the context of universal wisdom, which does not diminish its efficacy but rather enriches its context and authority. 

Bede was particularly impressed with Carl Jaspers' theory of the axial period, fifth century before Christ when there was a breakthrough in human history.  During this axial period humanity as a whole, in various parts of the world––in Israel with the late prophets as well as in Greece, India, China, Persia––began to move beyond gods and goddesses and broke through to the infinite trascendent reality and truth.  All the major religions of the world stem from this time, and Bede thought that to begin one's prayer and meditation in reading texts from these traditions links us with this world movement, with this breakthrough to infinite transcendence.
A third influence is a bit more subtle but allow me to articulate it as it has occurred to me on several occasions: Fr Bede, again as le Saux and Monchanin before him, had a certain authority, moral and otherwise, based on the integrity of his own asceticism. While perhaps tossing out some of the old ways (see quote) he embraced the challenge of a new asceticism.  Even such simple things as wearing his khavi robes wherever he went, embracing and insisting on for others a simplicity of life at the ashram, and own his personal discipline gaave a great example to people of an age which often tends toward a revisionism that tosses out the old without accepting the challenge of the new.  At the same time, Fr Bede was able to approach asceticism in a psychologically balanced and non-dualistic way, based on his own understanding of human anthropology—spirit, soul and body.  This understanding of the human person was the center of his teaching in his later years, and was again undoubtably influenced in turn by his immersion in the anthropology of Yoga. So I have learned from Fr Bede a new approach to and appreciation for asceticism.

quotes from eros article on ascetism of the desert and Thomas a Kepis

Perhaps the majority of monastics and other religious that Bede exerted influence on simply carried on their lives without any major practical change or outer manifestation.  Some monks and nuns have even gone so far as to take sannyasa diksha under Bede and merely fold back into their respective communities afterwards.  However—and perhaps this will be a bridge between this first part and the next in which I will discuss new forms of monasticism—there are some monastics who, while remaining firmly of the Order of St Benedict, have developed a form of Benedictine monasticism based on Bede’s model of grafting the branch of Benedictinism onto the vine of the Hindu monastic tradition.

The best example of course is the ashram at Shantivanam itself, which continues the emphasis on meditation, continues to study and proclaim texts from other traditions and maintains a certain simplicity of lifestyle.  Another example here in the West, that went so far as to embrace the ashram model, is Osage+Monastery Forest of Peace in Oklahoma, where many of these same practices continue in a western context.  Osage, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in June of 2005, is a foundation of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri. It was founded by five sisters who wanted to "return to the sources and the sacred earth”.  One of the sisters, Pascaline Coff, OSB, had spent a year at Shantivanam under the guidance of Fr.Bede who himself later came to visit both before and after the construction of the main house and individual cabins. Sr Pascaline tells the story of how Fr Bede offered Eucharist on the forest floor there; and as he rose up to elevate the gifts of bread and wine he “prayed for all who were entering into the ancient practice of forest dwellers and for all who would ever come to O+M.”  Fr. Bede affectionately referred to Osage as the "Shantivanam of the West" and wrote back after his last visit in September of 1992: "This is the most peaceful place I have ever been".

A New Monasticism

Some controversy has surrounded Fr Bede's adoption of the sannyasa model as a new form of Christian monasticism.  It is safe to say that he and his
predecessors assumed that they as Christian monks were parallel to
Hindu sannyasin, and so adopted the khavi robes and many of the other
customs of traditional Hindu sannyasa, such as vegetarian eating.  This was
not done lightly or without real knowledge and authority (see for example
Jesu Rajan's book Bede Griffiths and Sannyasa, as well as Abhishiktananda's
seminal text The Further Shore.)  One of our friends has recently photocopied and distributed copies of the record book from Shantivanam (available in the Bede Griffiths Archives at the GTU, Berkeley) in which Fr. Bede recorded the names of those who followed in the Christian sannyasi lineage.  Up until his late years Fr Bede recorded the names and personal history of many of those he initiated.  All the monks who joined Shantivanam during those years were first initiated into the training period through a sadhaka diksha.  Those who went into solemn vows then went through the sannyasa diksha as well.  In addition, a handful of Benedictine monks and nuns received sannaysa diksha from Fr Bede.  This latter is interesting to note, since Fr Bede, as his predecessors, saw no need of a further initiation. (A question might be asked in the future, what difference would it make for a monk in solemn vows to take sannyasa?)  Some of these, as already mentioned, merely folded back into their respective communities; some went on to found alternative communities, such as ashrams in India and in the West, as in the case of Sr Pascaline at Osage.  Some left their communities and began to live their lives on their own, as Christian sannyasis.

Let us deal then with those who have either left organized monastic-religious life directly as a result of meeting Fr Bede, those who have left organized religious life but continued to live a different form of religious vocation based on Fr Bede's influence or example, and those who chosen never to enter organized religious life and yet still consider themselves to be "monks in the world", disciples and initiates of Fr Bede. Perhaps the most well known sannyasi in this line is our good friend Wayne Teasdale, who was a disciple of Fr Bede and took sannyasa diksha at Shantivanam, as recorded in the book, ________.  Wayne has gone on to become an internationally known teacher and promoter of dialogue among the world's religions, and the author of several popular books on "interspirituality"such as A Monk in the World and The Mystic Heart.  Wayne lives a solitary life on Chicago's south side, on the campus of the Chicago Theological Union where he serves as an adjunct lecturer.  His vocation has been embraced by Cardinal Francis George, under whom he took private vows last year.

Another example are the Hermits of Peace at Sky Farm, Br. Francis Ali
(Shanti Das) and Sr. Michaela Terrio (Priya).  Francis had been a Camaldolese monk of Big Sur for eight years.  Toward the end of that time he was allowed to spend six months at Shantivanam with Fr Bede, at the end of which he received sannyasa diksha from him in the River Kavery.  Francis
then returned to New Camaldoli but ultimately decided not to remain with the community there.  After leaving he returned to Shantivanam to spend another period with Fr Bede; he considered remaining in India but Fr Bede urged him to return to the West and live out his vocation as a Christian sannyasi there. He then lived as a hermit in the hills of Corralitos, California for 13 years.  Michaela, on the other hand, had been a Poor Clare nun for 17
years. She, too, came under the influence of Fr Bede and Abhishiktananda and upon leaving the Poor Clares she also proceeded to spend an extended period at Shantivanam, at the end of which she too received sannyasa diksha from Fr Bede, and was likewise advised to return to the west to live out her
vocation.  Michaela spent the next years living a semi-eremitical life while
running a retreat center in Santa Cruz, and then serving on the staff of San
Damiano Franciscan retreat center in Danville.  Fr. Bede encouraged them and hoped that an eremitical foundation of Christian Sannyasin would be
established in the West. They kept this vision alive and it finally came to
pass in the summer of 2003 when they moved to Sky Farm Hermitage.

Sky Farm is a hermitage in the Hesychast tradition of silence and solitude,
founded in austere solitude of the Sonoma Hills by the Benedictine hermit,
Fr. Dunstan Morrissey in 1975.  He also created a few hermitages for guests,
which he offered generously to those who visited, sharing also the wisdom
flowing from his practice of stillness and solitude.  When Fr Dunstan went
into retirement he handed over the trusteeship of Sky Farm (a non-profit
organization) to Br. David Steindl-Rast, Br. Francis, and  Sr. Michaela.

Among the many guests that had visited Sky Farm was Fr Bede, who spent two weeks there in 1991 when he himself was exploring the possibility of a
contemplative community in the West.  As a matter of fact, while he was
visiting Sky Farm Fr. Bede dedicated the newly built chapel, which is a
source of great joy to Francis and Michaela.  As these two "Hermits of
Peace" describe their life, they "live the eremitical life in the Hesychast
tradition, and at the same time drink deep at the inexhaustible sources of
the sannyasa ideal of renunciation and a life devoted to God alone."  Their
life is also guided and inspired by Br. David, who is a monastic pioneer in
the East/West dialogue, and whose spiritual presence and affiliation with
Sky Farm they count as a source of great blessings.

These are only a few examples, not hypothetical, of people living a new form of Christian monasticism that grew out of Fr Bede's influence and
inspiration.  There are quite a few others who have become forest dwellers
in their own way, as well as a number of new people on the sannyasa path,
one of whom was initiated at Sky Farm in December 2003; and another young man training under Wayne who has taken temporary vows while studying theology and teaching meditation, particularly in prisons.  Will a new "order" of Christian sannyasin rise up, inspired by the "three wise men from the West"? The next years, the next generation will be the test to see what permanent influence Bede will have on Christian monasticism, and what, if any, permanent new forms live on inspired by the life of our great teacher.

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