By Luis S. R. Vas
Several contemporary christian thinkers have delved deep into spirituality, often dialoguing with other faiths and imbibing from the indian heritage
Anthony De Mello
When Bombay-born Fr. Anthony de Mello died of a heart attack at Fordham University, USA, at the start of a lecture trip across the US in 1987 at the age of 56, his numerous admirers were stunned and aghast. De Mello was at the height of his powers. Readers were lapping up his books which straddled eastern and western spirituality for the first time in a way that was accessible to people everywhere. Sadhana, a virtual transcript of a workshop on vipassana meditation, was his enduring best seller. His other books included The Song of the Bird, One Minute Wisdom and Wellsprings. The first two were collections of transformative stories and the last a collection of exercises in the mould of Sadhana.
De Mello’s admirers were somewhat relieved when they learnt that he had left with his publishers Gujarat Sahitya Prakash a manuscript collection of more stories which were later published as The Prayer of the Frog in two volumes. Later two more manuscripts surfaced: Contact with God ( a collection of conferences), One Minute Nonsense (some more stories) and The Call to Love.
As Fr de Mello’s popularity mounted, 10 years after his death the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) woke up and issued a notification warning of the dangers of de Mello’s work which it declared “incompatible with the Catholic faith” and a cause of “grave harm”.
Fr. David Toolan S.J., a Jesuit editor, wrote: “In my judgment, Father de Mello’s Sadhana remains the best Catholic ‘how to’ book for someone looking for instruction in methods of prayer. Some of de Mello’s early texts, the CDF acknowledges, ‘can be helpful in achieving self-mastery, in breaking the bonds and feelings that keep us from being free, and in approaching with serenity the various vicissitudes of life’. But overall de Mello’s writings are said to exhibit a ‘progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith’. Particularly objectionable, it is alleged, are his concept of the unknowability and cosmic impersonality of God, his sense of Jesus ‘as a master alongside others’, a preference for ‘enlightenment’, criticism of the church, and an excessive focus on this life rather than life after death. Bishops were ordered to ensure that the offending texts are withdrawn from sale and not reprinted.”
Fr. Toolan goes on: “The Vatican is bewildered by de Mello’s emphasis on ‘awareness’ and ‘interior enlightenment’ over against Scripture, doctrine, and belief—and puts the worst possible construction on de Mello’s awkward formulations. His stress on awareness, I would say, tries to get at the difference between theory and experience, external conformity and interiorised faith, or the letter of the law versus the spirit. The Vatican complains of ‘ambiguity’ and ‘perplexity’ in interpretation.
“But of course. De Mello was not writing theology; he was a collector of parables, and loved to shake people up, get them thinking or reimagining. Above all, he was an artist in helping people to reimagine God—as much greater and more giving than they had dreamed… De Mello used an odd principle to get at the unfathomable goodness of God—the idea that God couldn’t be worse than you and I, but had to be at least as good as we are at our best. What came out of that pedestrian principle was a radical doctrine of divine abundance and grace.”
“He loved stories,” says Fr. Joseph Brown, a Jesuit priest who coordinated de Mello’s workshops in St. Louis, USA. “He was an entertainer, a storyteller and a challenger. He blows your mind. He is one of the most powerful speakers I have ever heard. He makes you see things in different ways. He was a genius of devising exercises for people to get in touch with themselves and to pray out of that experience.”
Joanne Callahan, a pastoral minister, says her friendship with de Mello had helped her in her work with the dying. “His exercises put us in the presence of our own death and our own feelings about that,” she says.
Sadhana Institute was founded in Pune by Tony de Mello in 1973 (later relocated to Lonavla) as a centre for spirituality for the training of spiritual guides and retreat masters.
Today it has evolved as an institute that attempts to integrate psychology and spirituality in an experiential way. From the very beginning there was a definite emphasis on the integration of the different aspects of the human person such as the emotional, intellectual and the spiritual. And there was also an emphasis on the integration of Christian spirituality with the Indian heritage.
It offers courses that provide the flavour of the de Mello approach and point to his surviving legacy, despite CDF’s strictures which have been largely ignored. The courses are: Midi Sadhana (a retreat), Human Sexuality and Affectivity, Vipassana Retreat, Chetana: A Journey into Light, Breath and Spirit, Gita Sadhana: A Spirituality for Today, Breath & Spirit and Spiritual Emergencies, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)—Basic and Advanced, Intensive Journal and Process Meditation and Mini Sadhana.
Fr. Raimon Panikkar is to Fr. Tony de Mello what J. Krishnamurti is to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, that is cerebral to the experiential, but no more of a conformist.
The son of a Catalan Catholic mother and an Indian Hindu father, Raimon Panikkar was born in Barcelona (1918) and has pioneered a spirituality of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. His interdisciplinary approach was aided by his three doctorates in philosophy, chemistry and theology. In the 1940s, Panikkar became a Catholic priest and in the early fifties come to India for the first time where he studied Indian philosophy and religion (University of Mysore and Varanasi). During the next half century Panikkar held professorships in various European, Indian and US universities. Panikkar is currently Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but lives in Tavertet, outside Barcelona, where he maintains a rigorous regimen of study, prayer and writing. He has also married (at 70), remains a ministering Catholic priest, but regards himself as a monk.
Among Panikkar’s numerous books, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism; The Trinity and Religious Experience; Worship and Secular Man; The Vedic Experience; Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics, The Intra-religious Dialogue and The Cosmotheandric Experience qualify him as a major religious thinker. Notable collections of his essays include The Invisible Harmony and A Dwelling Place for Wisdom. The Rhythm of Being, based on his 1989 Gifford Lectures, is billed to be his “ultimate word”. One of them carries a statement that characterises his whole approach to spirituality and dialogue: “I left [Europe] as a Christian; found myself a Hindu; and I return as a Buddhist, without having ceased to be a Christian.”
He bases his spirituality on a cosmotheandric principle which could be stated by saying that the divine, the human and the earthly—however we may prefer to call them—are the three irreducible dimensions which constitute the real.
Three assumptions lie behind Panikkar’s cosmotheandric vision. The first is that reality is ultimately
harmonious. It is neither a monolithic unity nor sheer diversity and multiplicity. Second, reality is radically relational and interdependent so that every reality is constitutively connected to all other realities. Third, reality is symbolic, both pointing to and participating in something beyond itself. For Panikkar, all cultures, religions and peoples are relationally and symbolically entwined with each other, with the world in which we live, and with an ultimate divine reality.
Tony de Mello and Raimon Panikkar have followed in the tracks of pioneering spiritual dialoguers like Fr. Hugo Enomiya Lassalle, Bede Griffiths and Thomas Merton.
Hugo Enomiya Lassalle
Hugo Lassalle (1898-1990) was a German Jesuit running his mission in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped there. Later he created a Catholic zendo (meditation centre) called the Cave of Divine Darkness near Tokyo. He was probably the first serious Catholic practitioner of Zen in Japan. He studied under Yamada Roshi for many years, and was allowed to teach.
In his book Living in the New Consciousness he writes that the content of enlightenment is the “experience of undivided, absolute reality. This reality can be experienced either as personal or impersonal… Genuine mystical experience resists all attempts at conceptual expression. This means that anyone who attempts to do so will utilise the categories available, although this by its very nature can easily lead to misunderstandings… In enlightenment, the Buddhist experiences his deepest self as one with absolute existence, and is strengthened as a result in his faith in the nonduality of all existence. The Christian and anyone who believes in a personal God experiences the self not only in himself, but also in his relationship to an absolute personal reality.”
He wrote a book Zen: A Way to Enlightenment, which became a classic and was immensely influential to other Christians attempting to dialogue with Buddhists like Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk whose writings include such classics as The Seven Storey Mountain, Mystics and Zen Masters and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. He died by electrocution when he touched a faulty fan in his hotel room in Bangkok during a trip to Asia.
“The seeds that would grow and propel Merton into being an advocate for interreligious dialogue, especially between Buddhists and Christians, were planted before Merton’s conversion at the age of 23 to Roman Catholicism,” writes Alan Altany, a professor of religious studies at Marshall University, USA. “He had met a Hindu monk named Bramachari who advised Merton, to his surprise, not to read Hindu scriptures, but some of the Christian mystical literature, especially Augustine’s Confessions and the medieval devotional work by Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. “Being told by a Hindu monk to look—or re-look—into the Christian spiritual tradition of his own culture made a profound impression upon Merton… But in the 1950s… [he] came into contact with D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966). They would correspond and some of their writings would become the essay collection Zen and the Birds of Appetite, a discussion of the similarities and differences between Zen Buddhism and Christianity…
“Gandhi was also influential upon Merton in saying that one can find the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition by becoming immersed in other religions—and then returning ‘home’ to see one’s own heritage in a transformed way, with a transformed consciousness. In Zen he felt he had found a way to see the Christian faith in its original spirit, before the theological formulations based upon Hellenistic philosophy became central.”
John Man was born in London into an Irish family in 1926. He served in the army at the end of the war and then studied in Rome for two years. After a degree in law at Trinity College, Dublin, John Main learned Chinese and was posted to Malaya. There he was introduced to a simple form of meditation by an Indian monk, Swami Satyananda, which became the contemplative foundation of his Christian life.
On his return to the West he taught International Law and then joined the English Benedictine Order in London and was ordained in 1963. As headmaster of a Benedictine school in the US he discovered, in his study of Cassian, the connection between Christian monastic spirituality and the ‘meditation’ he had first practised in the East. “The bridge was the calm, continuous repetition of a single word during meditation as a way to bring the chronically distracted human mind to attention in God and the craving ego to poverty of spirit.”
John Main’s perception was into the essential unity underlying the ‘mantra’ of the East, the ‘formula’ of Cassian and the ‘monologistos’ of early Christian prayer.
John Main now dedicated his time to teaching meditation in the Christian tradition to people of all walks of life. In 1977 he was invited to start a small Benedictine community in Canada where he died in 1982.
“John Main’s contribution to the modern contemplative tradition is manifold,” wrote Fr. Laurence Freeman, his successor at the World Community for Christian Meditation. “He taught how the solitude and silence of deep prayer are creative of community. Contemplation belongs at the heart of the church not on its fringes, and is a dimension of Christian life which must be recovered if the church and her sacramental life is to be renewed. He taught from a praying theology of the indwelling spirit and the inner Christ which opens a new possibility for prayer in the era of secularism.”
Fr. Bede Griffiths
Father Bede Griffiths, who died in 1993, barefoot and ochre-robed in his thatched hut at Shantivanam in South India, tried to relate to Hinduism as others before him had tried to engage with Buddhism.
Griffiths, born in 1906, studied under C.S. Lewis and the two became friends, searching together for the Ultimate. He decided to convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism in 1931. In December 1932 he was inducted as a Benedictine Novice.
Posted at Farnborough, Bede met Fr. Benedict Alapott, an Indian priest determined to start a foundation in India. His Abbot transferred Bede to India, but made him subject to an Indian bishop. In 1955, Fr. Bede and Fr. Benedict sailed to Bombay and settled in Kengeri, Bangalore, but only until 1958 when Fr. Bede joined Fr. Francis Acharya in Kurisumala for 10 years.
Kurisumala Ashram was located on 100 acres of donated land in Kerala. Wanting to enter into the tradition of Indian sanyas and to establish a Christian ashram, they dressed in orange robes, and Fr. Bede took the Sanskrit name, Dhayananda. He wrote Christ in India and studied the religions and culture of India.
Shantivanam, the ashram in Tamil Nadu, had been founded in 1950 by two French priests: Fr. Jules Monchanin, a Diocesan missionary, and Fr. Henry leSaux (Abhishiktananda) from the Abbey of Kergonan.
In 1968, Fr. Bede arrived at Shantivanam with two other monks, again immersing himself in the study of Indian thought, trying to relate it to Christian theology. Shantivanam thus became a centre of contemplative life, inculturation, and inter-religious dialogue. In 1973 he published Vedanta and the Christian Faith. His complete commentary on the Bhagavad Gita appeared in 1987 under the title, Rivers of Compassion. By 1989 Fr. Bede had completed another volume called The New Vision of Reality.
In January 1990 he suffered a stroke. Struggling with death and divine love, he was cured, experiencing it as an intense mystical experience. He later gave the John Main Lectures at New Harmony, USA, later published as The New Creation in Christ. In 1991, he had a series of strokes which finally brought him to his Mahasamadhi.
“I believe that from the time of his first stroke in l990 until his death, Father was contemplatively undergoing this struggle of the coincidence of opposites. The mystical language he uses speaks of the profound depth of this integration, and also the fact that this coincidence comes in the form of the Cross,” writes Sr. Pascaline Coff, the founder of Osage Monastery in the US.
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One can find the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition by becoming immersed in other religions—and then returning ‘home’ to see one’s own heritage in a transformed way, with a transformed consciousness.