Beyond the experience of duality

A Benedictine Ashram

First Published in Saccidananda Garland of Letters (Saccidananda Ashram 1988)

The two founders of Shantivanam Ashram, Jules Monchanin (Swami Paramarubi Ananda) and Henri le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda), called it a Benedictine ashram, thus showing from the beginning that it was their purpose to unite the tradition of ashram life in India with the monastic tradition of the West, as it came to be organised by St Benedict. Among the reforms of the monastic order in the Middle Ages, while St Bruno and the Carthusians developed the solitary life and St Bernard and the Cistercians organised the common life, St Romuald, the founder of the Camaldoli, combined both the community and the solitary life and even added a third stage, that of evangelisation. When in 1980 the ashram was received into the Camaldolese Congregation of the Benedictine Order, the way was opened to uniting our Indian ashram way of life with the pure contemplative tradition of monastic life in the West.

The tradition of Camaldoli is thus open to difference expressions of the monastic ideal. The Community life, following the Rule of St Benedict remains fundamental. This is shown in the place which is given to the liturgy as a public act of divine worship, which in our ashram is celebrated three times a day. At the same time the liturgy has been adapted to the cultural tradition of India, so that in addition to psalms and Bible readings, we have readings from the different Scriptures of India, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, and Bhajan songs in the different Indian languages. The liturgy always begins with Sanskrit chanting which links us with the ancient tradition of the Vedas and ends with Arati, the waving of lights before the blessed Sacrament, in the traditional manner of worship in a Hindu temple. Each day also begins and ends with nama japa, the chanting of the divine name.

The common life also brings us together in our work and meals together, but the solitary life is emphasised by each member of the ashram having a small, thatched hut which gives scope for silence and solitude. This in turn leads to the emphasis on contemplative prayer, the prayer of silence beyond word and thought. In our meditation we seek to go beyond the words of the Bible to the Word of God of which they are the imperfect expression, and beyond the signs of the liturgy to the hidden presence, the Reality which all signs and sacraments seek to make present. This silent meditation, or prayer of the heart, is assisted by the practice of Yoga, learning to harmonise the body and the breath, and to bring the thoughts into the still point of the spirit, where the human spirit is open to the Spirit of God. We have found Father John Main’s method of meditation with a mantra, a sacred word quietly repeated, the most effective way of bringing the thoughts into harmony and focussing them on the present of Christ within.

While centering on the life of prayer fostered both by community prayer and meditation in solitude, it is a distinctive feature of Camaldoli that it remains open at all times to hospitality. We have visitors coming to our ashram from all over the world and from many parts of India and all are in search of a deeper life of prayer and a way of life which can integrate the personality and give a meaning and direction to one’s life. There is a movement all over the world today drawing people to meditation and the inner life of prayer. Many make use of Hindu and Buddhist methods such as Yoga, Vipassana and Zen, and we seek to integrate these methods in a Christian life of prayer. Many Indian Christians also are discovering the value of Indian culture and tradition and seek to deepen their prayer life by yoga and meditation. Perhaps the greatest need of the Church in India today is to discover this contemplative depth in Christian life.

It is in this context that we consider the ‘option for the poor’ of the Church today. Poverty in the Gospel is always understood as poverty of spirit, as St Matthew’s gospel interprets it. In other words it is openness to God. The poor man is blessed because he has no reason to be satisfied but is compelled to depend on God. Of course, a poor man can refuse this dependence like a rich man, but his circumstances drive him to it, while riches present an almost insuperable obstacle. Of course, with God all things are possible, but it is very hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. We therefore see it as the call of a monk to accept a radical simplicity in his way of life and so to align himself with the poor. In our ashram we try to keep as near as possible to the style of life on an Indian village, so that a poor man can always feel at home in the ashram. Poverty is thus an essential aspect of contemplative life. It consists in a radical openness to God, a freedom from all the bonds of attachment, a surrender of one’s whole being to God so as to become totally empty of oneself and therefore open to God. Jesus himself is the perfect example of the poor man, not destitute, not belonging to any particular social class, but totally detached and surrendered to God. Gautama Buddha, the son of a royal family, was another example of such a perfectly poor man.