Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Passage to India

In the May 19, 2006 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, Paul Wilkes has a fascinating account of his and and his wife's stay at the Kurisumala Ashram.

Located in southern India, the Kurisumala Ashram was founded in 1958 by Belgium Cistercian, John Mahieu, and Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine. Both men, says Wilkes, dreamed of forging a bond between East and West by “creating a community that would live the simplicity and poverty of primitive monasticism, while expressing the universality of monastic life by rooting the community in Hindu culture.”

I read Wilke’s article aboard a Northwest flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles – the first of three flights that would take me from Minnesota to my parents’ home in Port Macquarie, Australia. Tom Roberts, the editor of NCR notes in his editorial that Wilkes’s feature article is a “delicious read and no conventional tale.” He also recommends that one “find some quiet and some time to sit with it.” My flight from the Twin Cities to the West coast was a perfect time to read and reflect upon Wilke’s experiences in India.

One of the parts of the article that I found most interesting was the overview Wilkes provides of the history of Christianity in India. Following are excerpts from that particular section:

The Christian roots of this part of India go deep, far deeper than in some areas of the world more often considered ‘Christian.’ Tradition has it that the apostle St. Thomas established churches on the eastern and western coasts of Southern India in the year 52, at a time when Europe only knew primitive religions. A unique church developed, for centuries largely ignored by the West. The church in India owed more to the traditions, liturgies and customs of Syria and Persia than to the 'Latinizing' influences that helped regularize a fragmented Europe, a Western orientation that would eventually be transplanted to the Americas.

With the Portuguese colonization of the 17th and 18th centuries came one of the darker periods in Indian church history, when missionaries and bishops, with the tacit approval of Rome, preached and enforced European Catholicism, ruthlessly trying to root out rituals and practices considered much too native an expression of the ‘one, true faith.’ With the growing sense of ecumenism in the 1920s and 1930s, the Catholic Malankara Syrian church was again unified with Rome, its practices still warily regarded by many within the church.

On visits to India, Western monks and priests with an openness to probing different approaches to spirituality found a deep and ancient tradition of Hindu monasticism alongside a Christian liturgical and ritual life that burst the boundaries of anything they had experienced before. India was a cradle of monasticism, predating Christian monasticism by 1,000 years. Christian liturgies here offered rich evocations of both the temporal and the divine, using the familiar vernacular not the distancing Latin that was standard at the time. Pioneers like the French missionary Abbé J. Monchanin, and the French Benedictine Henri Le Saux established the Sachidananda Ashram, or Shantivanam, as it was popularly known in Southern India. It was here that Kurisumala’s founder, Mahieu, already formed through 20 years of monastic life at the Trappist abbey of Scourmont in Belgium, first glimpsed the possibility of a new kind of monastery, embedding a Cistercian way of life within the rich and ancient culture of India. Kurisumala – a combination of cruz, the Portuguese word for cross, and mala, the Dravidian word for mountain – was born.

Griffiths joined Mahieu at Kurisumala’s founding, but left after a few years to be the superior at Shantivanam. Mahieu would eventually take on the monastic name of Francis and the Hindu approbation of Acharya – meaning a spiritual mentor or master, akin to our ‘Reverend Father.’ The early years were trying as the first few aspirants at Kurisumala weathered monsoon rains in palm frond huts and tried to eke a living out of the mountaintop soil. They began to terrace the land to make it more productive, plant crops and dig a reservoir to irrigate during the dry season. Francis, who had met Gandhi years before in London, was determined to employ Gandhi’s imperative to make cows – sacred to the Hindus, but, as they aged and wandered freely, often a liability within this fragile economy – a useful asset. Kurisumala brought over two Jersey bulls from England and the ashram gradually developed into a model dairy farm and agricultural center, drawing into a cooperative local farmers and the poor and landless who came to settle nearby.

The community eventually grew to about 20, and that has been its approximate size throughout much of its life.

Although he had been given permission to leave his Belgian monastery, Father Francis was so far out of the mainstream of monastic and Indian life that he was free to shape a kind of community unknown and untried. Although the Trappist General Chapter had refused to sanction or even acknowledge Father Francis’ experimental community, he was determined to weave three seemingly disparate strands, a classic Benedictine-Cistercian spirituality, a simple Indian monastic lifestyle, and the rich Eastern liturgy he had come to appreciate. Many missionaries before him ‘adapted’ to local customs while retaining elements of Western lifestyle. Francis was determined to be fully inculturated, to live, think, and worship as an Indian, while retaining his Christian framework.

Another part of the article that I found particularly insightful was Wilkes’ concluding comments on his experiences at the Kurisumala Ashram.

For me, Kurisumala registered not so much as a demanding goal to be continually struggled for, but as a quiet standard to live by. Of how abundance – of affection, of worship, of community, of kindness – can, in the midst of seeming poverty and utter simplicity, prevail. Of the power of finding more by having less. Of deep happiness in both the most profound and the most mundane daily activities.

These monks, from a culture so different from ours, showed [my wife] Tracy and me that God continually infuses our lives with his presence – we only need to put aside our preconceptions and our alleged intellectual sophistication to experience it; that God speaks to us in mysterious ways at unexpected times in our lives; that God expresses [God]self with palpable, physical signs; and that holiness is so recklessly pervasive, so very, very ordinary.

To visit the Kurisumala web site, click here.

Above: Brother John, one of the monks at the Kurisumala
in Southern India. (Photo by Paul Wilkes)

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