Obituary: Dom Bede Griffiths
Saturday 15 May 1993
IN HIS autobiography The Golden String, published at the midpoint of his life in 1954, Bede Griffiths describes his attempt to live a life of radical simplicity with two companions in a Cotswolds cottage after they left Oxford in 1929. It led him to a spiritual and psychological crisis which in turn led from a worship of Romance and Reason to an experience of God, to becoming a Roman Catholic and in 1933 to entering Prinknash Abbey as a Benedictine monk.
The last years of his long life were lived in a simple hut beside the River Cauvery, the sacred river of South India, in his Benedictine ashram of Shantivanam. In a way his life had come full circle. The ideal of a small self-sufficient contemplative community had been realised but it had also become one of the world's great centres of inter-faith dialogue and prayer.
Bede Griffiths could be compared in influence to the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The difference between them is the difference between their autobiographies, the American and English forms of self-revelation. What they share is the sign of 20th-century monastic life still having the potential to form monks of intellect and spiritual experience whose message transcends the monastic institution and reaches into the minds and hearts of their contemporaries right across the social and religious spectrum.
For 15 years after entering Prinknash, Bede Griffiths hardly left the monastery. He was deeply content with the quiet round of life, never quite so quiet or apolitical as it is made to appear from the outside. He watched the German bombers flying over the monastery to devastate Coventry and as guestmaster encountered the anxiety and spiritual confusion of people in the post-war world. He was already studying Indian philosophy and brought to it incisive powers of scholarship and the ability to master new realms of knowledge.
At Oxford as an undergraduate he formed a 40-year friendship with CS Lewis who said of him that he was 'one of the toughest dialecticians of my acquaintance'. The friendship survived Griffiths' entry into Catholicism which Lewis could acccept but not condone. The way the friendship survived, by correspondence and occasional visits, shows to what a degree Griffiths lived the life of the intellect as well as that of the spirit.
After a short period as superior of a new monastic foundation at Farnborough, where he recognised his own lack of administrative talent, he requested permission in 1955 to go to India to live a Christian monastic life there. His inspiration came from two French priests, Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux OSB, who had struggled with prophetic intensity to form an Indian Christianity rooted and nourished in the Indian monastic tradition of sannyasa - the life of utter poverty and abandonment to the spirit of which Francis of Assisi is the must famous Western exemplar.
Griffiths said he went to India to find the other half of his soul. He will be remembered for the way he was absorbed into India, learning its philosophy and its sacred language, Sanskrit, but without losing his intellectual objectivity, his Christianity or indeed his English accent and Oxford manners. After a few years he adopted Indian customs, wearing the saffron kavi robe of the sannyasi, walking barefoot, sitting on the floor and eating with his hands.
The villagers of Tannirpalli, close to the ashram, recognised 'Bedeeji' as a guru as naturally as they would an Indian holy man. When they came to his hut to touch his feet he would reverently accept their homage while remarking with a smile to a surprised Western visitor that it was, of course, God not the individual they were worshipping. He has a place to be written into the long history of the English in India.
To some people, indeed, his penetration into the true spiritual heart of India and his balanced integration of two great mystical religious traditions redeems with meaning some of the more senseless offences of the Raj.
In joining the West Syrian Malankara rite which originated, it is claimed by Syrian Indian Christians, with the Apostle Thomas, Griffiths found an oriental form of Christianity which he saw as a symbol of a more interior and less institutionally centralised church of the future. This truly Indian Christian character of life and worship at first provoked suspicion and hostility from some quarters of the highly Westernised church in India. This was especially true after Indian customs were adopted as the way of life at the then failing ashram of Shantivanam which Fr Bede took over from Fr Le Saux in 1968. But he did not lack support for his vision among his monastic brethren in the West and even from the more enlightened parts of the Roman hierarchy.
From his ashram and through extensive travels in America, Europe and Australia in his later years, Fr Bede developed the vision of modern life and religion which is his abiding legacy. He saw the modern world at a crossroads comparable to only two or three such epochs in human history. And he saw the recovery of a spiritual vision as an essential means for its survival. The exclusive claims and dualistic thinking of the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which had been responsible for so many wars and so much hatred, needed, he believed, to be touched by the advaita or non-dualism and the contemplative priority of experience of the Asian religions. This idea was developed brilliantly in his book A Marriage of East and West (1982).
Fr Bede's study of modern science, through his mentors David Bohm and Fritjof Kapra, reinforced both this vision of a need for a more spiritual basis for religion and his distrust of modern technological society which he thought too full of self-contradictions to survive in its present form. His book A New Vision of Reality (1990) is an important contribution to the reunion of science and religion, so long and disastrously divorced in the Western mind.
The deepest source of his vision was his own meditation. From the 1940s he practised the Jesus Prayer, a form of the interior and non-discursive prayer of the heart which he saw as an essential complement to all the forms of external worship. In the teachings of the Christian tradition of meditation by his fellow Benedictine John Main he discovered meditation by the way of a mantra as an essential bridge between East and West. At the John Main Seminar which he led at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1991 he used Main's thought to crystallise his own vision of prayer, contemporary spiritual needs, particularly the need for community.
These seminar talks were published as A New Creation in Christ (1992) and show how profoundly his sense of the crisis facing modern humanity combines with a sense of hope, humour and purpose.
Bede Griffiths was one of the great religious prophets of modern times. His influence will continue to be felt not only in those he has inspired but through the writings he has left to be published after his death. He testified to the possibility, rarely achieved in a sceptical age, of uniting intellect with spirit and of their integration in a human nature of great sweetness and profound compassion for others, through all the adventures of a long life of seeking and sharing God.
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