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Erroneous Beliefs and Unauthorised Rites

In this article first published in The Tablet 14th April 1973 Fr Bede criticises attitudes that non-Christian religions as ‘erroneous’, and the theology that rejects the principles of inter-faith dialogue based on mutual acceptance. The article is followed by correspondence to the editor that shows the difficulties Fr Bede faced at this time from some parts of the Catholic church.


In a recent article in The Tablet (24 February) on the validity of sacraments Bishop Butler referred in passing to ‘followers of false philosophies and non-Christian religions’. And their, ‘adherence to erroneous beliefs and unauthorised rites.’ Later in the same article he spoke specifically of a ‘sincere, though erroneous faith in the Buddha as Saviour.’ This kind of language was common in the past, but it is strange to hear it today from the pen of a theologian of Bishop Buter’s standing.

What I wish to argue is that there is no real theological justification for this attitude of mind. Theologians have long since given up the idea that other religions belong to the sphere of ‘natural religion’ of which man is the author and that only the Jewish and Christians religions can claim to be revealed. It is now generally recognised that there is an element of revelation in all genuine religion, that is to say, the initiative in all genuine religions comes from God and not from man. This applies to all religion from the most primitive African tribal religions or that of that Australian Aborigines to the most advanced and highly developed like Buddhism or Hinduism. If we wish to place this in the perspective of biblical revelation, we can say that all these religions stem from the cosmic revelation which God makes to all men through nature and conscience. In the Old Testament the classic types of this religion are the patriarchs, Abel, Seth, Lot, Melchisedech, Job, and above all Noah, with who, it is recorded that God made a specific covenant. All these people are ‘pagans’ outside the Covenant which God made with Israel, yet all are recognised as holy men with whom God has entered into a relationship involving revelation and grace.

This biblical perspective enables us to see this cosmic revelation and cosmic covenant as extending to all men and to all peoples. Every genuine religion stems from this cosmic covenant and in a way by which God reveals himself and offers himself to man for his salvation. In other words, they are ways of salvation willed by God. The content of this revelation is the knowledge of God which comes from nature and conscience, but this does not mean, as was erroneously held in the past, that it is no more than a ‘natural religion.’ It means that the grace of God is offered to all men through the knowledge which they can have of him through nature and conscience. But for most people in the past the knowledge of God and the moral law has invariably come through their traditional religion. This still holds good for the majority of people in Asia and Africa today. Thus the traditional religions are the normal channel for salvation for man and have been so throughout human history.

This means that the followers of the traditional religions, either the more primitive religions of Africa or Australia or of the American Indians, or the more advanced religions of Asia – Hindus or Buddhists, Taoists or Confucians, Shintoists in Japan – are not outside the plan of salvation. On the contrary, they are all included in the universal covenant of grace. A Christian may believe that it was the plan of God ‘in the fulness of time’ – that is not at the beginning but at the end of time – to ‘bring all things to a head in Christ’. Christ is God’s final and definitive self-revelation and self-giving to man and I fully agree with Bishop Butler when he says that the ‘redemptive dimension’ of existence extending from Calvary goes beyond the limits of time and space, so that we can speak of Christ as the universal redeemer. But does this not mean that the beliefs of other religions are thereby rendered ‘erroneous’ or their rites’ unauthorised’. The divine Truth is present in some measure in every religion and every authentic religious rite has some validity. This may be defective in some respects, as were also the Jewish beliefs and practices of the Old Testament, but they all embody is some measure the truth of divine revelation.

To put it in more general terms, there is one, eternal, infinite, transcendent wisdom or Truth, which has been revealing itself to man from the beginning of history. It is this one Truth which is the source of all genuine religion. But this Truth transcends all words and all thought. It cannot properly be named or expressed. Every religion seeks to express this one Truth by means of signs and symbols in the form of beliefs and rituals and paths of ascetic and moral life. In all alike the divine Wisdom is at work, shaping the evolution of humanity. Each religion through its system of symbols offers a unique insight into the divine mystery, which is the object of all religious belief. Christ did not come to destroy but to fulfil this cosmic covenant. Was he not named in the Bible itself a ‘priest for ever in the line’ (not of Aaron and the Jewish Covenant, but) ‘of Melchisedech’; the priest of the cosmic covenant? It is therefore as misleading to dismiss the beliefs and practices of the cosmic religion as ‘erroneous’ and ‘unauthorised’ as it would be to dismiss the beliefs and practices of Israel in the same way.

But does this mean that the religions of the cosmic covenant are to be regarded only as preparations for Christianity like Judaism, and destined to pass away? Here a distinction must be made. We believe that Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of all religion, the final and definitive Word of God but the same cannot be said of Christianity. Christianity, as an organised religion seeking to express the mystery of Christ, the divine Word, in human terms, suffers from the same defects as other religions. Though always preserving the essential faith of its message, it is conditioned in its expression of it by time, space and history, and subject to the same vicissitudes of human language, culture and philosophy. The original message was given in terms of Jewish religion and of the Aramaic language. Very soon it was translated into Greek and subjected to the cultural influences of Greece and Rome. As it has developed in history it is a predominantly western religion, lacking many of the deeper insights of eastern religion. We have to face the fact that, in the concrete, Hinduism and Buddhism are in many respects better religions that our current Catholicism or any form of Western Christianity. For a devout and educated Hindu or Buddhist to become a Christian would often mean a descent and not an ascent in the scale of spiritual life. He would often meet with a philosophy less profound, a spirituality less demanding, a piety less intense, a morality less pure. In most cases it would mean the loss of all the treasures of wisdom and grace which he has known in his own religious tradition.

I do not think, therefore, that we can say without reserve, as Bishop Butler does, that God wills that ‘all men should recognise this objective redemption (in Christ) by an act of explicit faith in it.’ Until the mystery of Christ has been presented to them in terms which are meaningful to them in the light of their own religious tradition (which is scarcely ever done), there is no reason to suppose that God wills the conversion of people of other religions. The purpose of God is ‘to bring all things to a head in Christ.’ This means that all the treasures of wisdom and grace and charity which are to be found in other religions have to be brought into the fullness of Christ, and merely to convert them to our present very imperfect system of religion would serve very little purpose at all. What we have to envisage is not so much a conversion from one religion to another as a meeting of religions in which each religion will bring its own unique insights into the divine mystery and its own understanding of the way of salvation, and Christ will finally be revealed as the supreme Wisdom of God embracing all truth and bring all men to salvation. But this may well not take place till the end of time. Certainly, for us, the first need is to recognise the grace and wisdom and holiness which God has manifested in other religions, and to be willing to learn from them a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christ.


Correspondence in The Tablet following the publication of this article. This correspondence is interesting as it illustrates the opposition to Fr Bede’s views from conservative Catholic clergy.

The Tablet 12 May 1973 Letter from the Reverend Patrick O’Connor

Sir, Dom Bede Griffiths although laudably anxious to recognise the good elements in non-Christian religions (14 April) seems to lean over backwards and lose balance.

Of course he is correct in saying that the ‘followers of the traditional religions are not outside the plan of salvation.’ No human being, during his earthly pilgrimage, is outside that plan or excluded from God’s grace.

It is quite a different proposition, however, to say, as Dom Bede does, that non-Christian religions, ‘genuine’ or ‘traditional’ (what are the criteria?), are ‘ways of salvation willed by God’ and that they ‘are normal channels for salvation for man.’ This idea, in circulation for some years, cannot be sound. There must be errors somewhere in religions that contradict each other and contradict the Christian revelation. God cannot be said to ‘will’ error. The fact that people in error may also be in good faith does not turn their error into divinely endorsed doctrine. Furthermore, there are practices in some religions that cannot be reconciled with Judaeo-Christian morality. God cannot be said to authorise these.

It is sound and ancient doctrine that ‘to him who does what in him lies. God does not deny grace.’ Thus anyone sincerely following any religion will be offered divine aid towards his salvation. But because his sincerity is divinely rewarded, his religion is not therefore divinely instituted or willed. Elements in it may indeed be helpful to him, even though the religion is erroneous or deficient in other respects.

One may well say, as Dom Bede does, that ‘the divine Truth is present in some measure (my italics) in every religion.’ That presence, however, does not exclude erroneous beliefs or unauthorised rites, nor could it suffice to make a non-Christian religion as salutary as Christianity.

Certainly those who believe in Christianity suffer from human defects and often fail to correspond with the great graces offered to them. Some Christians may thus be less virtuous than some Hindus or Buddhists. That does not warrant such statements as: ‘Christianity as an organised religion, seeking to express the mystery of Christ, the divine Word, suffers from the same defects as other religions…In the concrete, Hinduism and Buddhism are in many respects better religions that our current Catholicism or any form of Western Christianity’. Probably the writer does not intend all that those sentences would mean for the ordinary reader.

The teachings of Vatican II are clear. For instance: ‘The Catholic Church rejects none of the elements that are true and holy in these religions’ (Nostra Aetate, 2). ‘It is through Christ’s Church alone, which is the general aid to salvation, that all the fullness of the means of salvation can be attained’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). ‘This pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation. For Christ, made present to us in his Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and way of salvation” (Lumen Gentium, 14). ‘The Church includes within herself the totality or fullness of the means of salvation” (Ad Gentes, 6).

Those inculpably unaware of the credentials of the Church can and do belong to it by implied desire and intention, when they truly wish to conform to God’s will. But in this association with the Church they do not have the same degree of spiritual security that they would have in full membership, since they do not profit by many of the spiritual treasures at the disposal of those inside the Church. This doctrine was authoritatively expounded by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Mystici Corporis (1943). It was reasserted in a letter issued by the Holy Office on 8 August 1949. Citing Mystici Corporis, the Holy Office said that in it the Pope disapproves both of ‘those who excluded from eternal salvation all who adhere to the Church only by implied desire, and also for those who falsely assert that men have equal possibility of salvation in every religion.’  The letter continued: “Nor must it be thought that any desire of entering the Church suffices for a man’s salvation. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be formed by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire have this effect unless the person has supernatural faith.’

It is clear, then, that one can do a grave disservice to a non-Christian by encouraging him to remain outside the Church. And, as Pope Pius XI taught in his mission encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae (1926), the greatest of all acts of charity is to help someone to embrace the Christian faith.

Navan, Ireland Patrick O’Connor


Letter from Bede Griffiths

The Tablet 2 June 1973

Sir, In his letter to the Tablet (12 May) Fr Patrick O’Connor in criticising my article speaks of the Church in the terms of an abstract and essentialist theology, which I would have thought belongs rather to the period before the Second Vatican Council, whereas I was thinking in terms of a concrete and existential theology. If you think of a religion as a system of abstract statements about God and man expressed in logical terms, then it may be meaningful to label one religion as ‘false’ and another as ‘true.’ But if, as I suggested, you think of a religion as a system of symbols, through which the divine mystery (which is also the mystery of human existence), itself beyond language and thought, discloses itself to man, then the question of ‘error’ is less important. In Christianity itself it is not abstract statements about God, Christ and the Church which are of primary importance, but the words and the actions of Christ, all of them deeply symbolic – above all the great symbol of his death and resurrection represented in the symbolic action of the Eucharist.

Of course, there are ‘errors’ and also immoral practices in all religions, but this applies also to Judaism and Christianity. No one questions that there were grave defects both in the faith and the practice of the religion of Israel, yet we do not question that it was a channel of revelation and grace. The Church in the Middle Ages believed that the world was created in the year 5005 BC – a fact which was solemnly proclaimed every year until recently in the Roman Martyrology – and that man was created at the same time from the ‘dust of the earth.’ These were ‘erroneous beliefs’, which were to have a very damaging effect on the Church in modern times. The medieval Church was also guilty of grave immorality in the persecution of Jews, ‘pagans’ and heretics by the Inquisition, and if one wants a modern instance, one has only to think of what is happening in Northern Ireland at the present time as an example of Christian immorality, which is especially shocking to the Hindu-Buddhist mind.

It is true that the Church ‘contains within herself the totality or fulness of the means of salvation’, as Fr O’Connor quotes from the Constitution on the Church, but this is true of the Church in principle and essence. The Church as the mystical body of Christ is the ‘sacrament’ of Christ, the efficacious sign of God’s saving purpose for mankind in Christ and is therefore essentially holy. But the Church as a sociological reality, the Church today in Ireland, South America, South Africa or India, is conditioned, as I said, by time, space and history. When I said that ‘in the concrete’ Hinduism and Buddhism may be better forms of religion than Christianity, I meant that in a given human situation the faith and practice of a Hindu or Buddhist community may be of a higher standard of religion and morality than that of a given Christian community. To give a concrete example, in an Indian village where there is a Brahmin community and a community of Hindu devotees (bhaktas) and a Christian community, it may well be (and often is so in fact) that the moral and religious standards – that is the actual faith and practice – of the Christian community may be much lower than that of the Hindu communities. Fr O’Connor says that one may do a great disservice to a non-Christian by encouraging him to remain outside the Church, but he does not seem to realise that for a Hindu to become a Christian, that is to pass from his own community with its own standards of religion and morality, to a Christian community might be a disaster, both morally and spiritually.

The quotations which Fr O’Connor gives from Popes Pius XI and XII seem to me to be expressed in terms of a theology which the Church has now outgrown and to be largely irrelevant. The Second Vatican Council has given us a new understanding of the relation of the Church to other religions. The full theology of revelation and grace in other religions has still to be developed, but I would think that the lines which I suggested would be accepted by many theologians today. This is not merely a matter of speculative theology, but of practical concern. If the Church is ever to enter into a genuine dialogue with other religions, it must be on the basis of an adequate theology, whereas the theology which Fr O’Connor outlined, and that which I criticised in Bishop Butler’s article, seems to be to be totally inadequate. I would suggest that the books published by the Secretariat for non-Christians on Religions, and on ‘Dialogue with Hinduism’ and the ‘Meeting with Buddhism’ express very well the mind of the Church on this subject today.

India   Bede Griffiths


The Tablet 16 June 1973

Sir, In the view of Dom Bede Griffiths (2 June) I speak ‘in the terms of an abstract and essentialist theology’. Whether one uses abstract or concrete terminology, doctrinal truth and divine credentials are of paramount importance in regard to the Church, before or after Vatican II. It is indeed true that ‘the divine mystery’ cannot be adequately expressed in human language or thought – not even in Beatific vision. But inadequacy is not inaccuracy. The Incarnation means not only redemption but also a divine revelation adapted to grace-aided human capacity.

Dom Bede gives examples of erroneous beliefs and wrong doings in ‘The Church’. Such errors and misdeeds of Christians, clerical and lay, are not part of the Christian religion, or intrinsic to the Church. An estimate of the date of creation in the Roman Martyrology or elsewhere can only be an exercise in chronology, not theology. That man was made from ‘the dust of the earth’ is a biblical statement in ordinary, accepted parlance. Neither the Bible nor the Church pretends to teach biochemistry.

One could go on interminably contrasting the virtues and vices of people in this or that Asian village. But theology and experience point clearly to the fact that the doctrines, the sacrifice, the sacraments and the moral discipline inculcated in the church offer far greater spiritual aid that is ordinarily accessible in other religions. Nobody can be well provided for, spiritually, outside Christ’s Church as he would be inside it. Whatever the faults of delinquent Christians, the visible fruits of those Christians who live up to their religion are unequalled. The charitable, social and educational contribution – especially in self-sacrificing personal service – of Christianity in Asia and Africa is a massive example, ‘in the concrete’ of a ‘higher standard’.

Elsewhere Dom Bede has written that modern Hinduism, having ‘reacted’ against various abuses listed by him, today presents, ‘the most profound praeparati Evangelica’ (New Catholic Encyclopaedia, VI, p. 1136). Surely one most infer that the Evangelium is an advance, an improvement, on the praeparatio. Regarding Buddhism, one must remember that it is not theist. It does not affirm or deny the existence of God – though the rank and file have deified Buddha, who never claimed to be God or to know anything about him.

To Dom Bede it appears that my quotations from Popes Pius XI and CII express a ‘theology which the Church has outgrown’. The metaphor is hardly appropriate. Teaching of the magisterium may be developed, may unfold more amply. They are not outgrown like garments that are discarded. ‘The Second Vatican Council has given us a new understanding of the relation of the Church to other religions’, Dom Bede remarks. I should prefer to say, ‘a clearer understanding.’ And Vatican II also called attention, in official footnotes, to the documents I quoted from Popes Pius XI and XII, and it repeatedly echoed the teachings of these and earlier Popes.

Navan             Patrick O’Connor


The Tablet 7 July 1973

Sir: I don’t want to prolong this correspondence unnecessarily, but perhaps I may be allowed to answer the points raised by Fr O’Connor in his letter (The Tablet 16 June), as they seem to be of some importance.

(1) I don’t think that it is fair to say that the beliefs of the medieval Church which I mentioned, on the creation of the world and of man are ‘not theology. They were held to be of divine authority, because they were derived from the Bible, and it was this conviction which was the cause of the intense opposition to the theory of evolution in the 19th century. In the same way the Inquisition was an organ of the Church acting with the full authority of the Pope and the bishops and from the conviction that heresy was a danger to society and must therefore be suppressed.

(2) That the ‘charitable, social and educational contribution’ of Christianity in Asia and Africa is a ‘massive example’ of the value of Christian religion, I fully agree, but this is also problematic. Most Hindus look upon the Church as essentially a charitable organisation. They regard Christianity as a religion of ‘works’ (karma). But in the sphere of devotion and the love of God (Bhakti) and wisdom and the knowledge of God (jnana) they think that Hinduism is preeminent. This may not be altogether true, but many Catholics would agree that there is some truth in it as regards the Church in India today.

(3) Fr O’Connor thinks that the attitude of the Church today towards other religions is a case of ‘clearer understanding’ rather than a ‘new understanding’. But until recently Catholics in India were taught that Hinduism was idolatrous and superstitious and the work of the devil. (St Francis Xavier – the patron of Catholic missions – believed that all brahmins were ‘devil-worshippers’). It was considered a ‘mortal sin’ to enter a Hindu temple, to take part in a Hindu ceremony or to read the Hindu scriptures. Can we really say that there has not been a radical change in the attitude of the Church today? This seems to me important, because unless the mistakes of the past are candidly acknowledged, there will never take place that radical change of heart in the Church which is required today.

(4) As regards Buddhism, it is true that the Buddhist does not believe in ‘God’, but he does believe in an infinite, eternal, transcendent Reality, which is characterised by wisdom and compassion, and what else do we mean by ‘God’

Finally, I would say that I believe that the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, the sphere of God’s redemptive activity in Christ is the ‘fulfilment’ of Hinduism and Buddhism, as of all religion; but my point was to distinguish the Church in this sense from the historical and sociological reality of the Church, which may be in some respects actually inferior in its standards of belief and behaviour to other religions.

India   Bede Griffiths


The Tablet 28 July 1973

Sir: Dom Bede Griffiths (7 July) does not answer all the points raised in my letters. Whether the answers he does give are conclusive, your readers will judge. But some comments I must make to complete my contribution.

(1) I cannot accept a chronological item in the old Roman Martyrology as a statement of Catholic doctrine. On theories (my plural) of evolution the Church owes no apologies to anyone. Her attitude has been far more judicious than that of some evolutionists. The ‘intense opposition’ of Catholic and Protestant writers in the 19thcentury was provoked by supporters of evolution who inserted atheism and materialism into their biological hypotheses. And whatever the harsh measures taken, heresy, especially in medieval society, was harmful to the common good.

(2) Dom Bede objected first that I used abstract terminology while he was thinking in ‘concrete’ terms. Thereupon I cited the massive example of Christian service to people in Asia and Africa as something concrete. He recognises this but objects that Hindus regard Christianity – unfavourable, he implies – as a religion of ‘works’, and sees the Church as ‘essentially a charitable organisation’. They think that Hinduism is preeminent in devotion and the love of God. (Should love of God not express itself in service to one’s fellow-man?) So after all it is not religion ‘in the concrete’ that would decide the issue.

(3) That Catholics in India were taught to stay aloof from Hindu ceremonies should surprise nobody. I do not see how a Catholic could take part in any specifically non-Catholic religious rites without being guilty of hypocrisy and insincerity in one direction or the other.

On Hinduism let me quote Dom Bede himself: ‘Hinduism’s rootedness in mythology can easily resolute in an unworthy conception of the divine nature and a practical polytheism. The caste system also with its concept of untouchability, child marriage and polygamy, the cult of images which may easily lead to idolatry, and such customs as ritual prostitution and the burning of widows (sati) have in practice often led to degradation. (New Catholic Encyclopaedia vi, p. 1136). True, he adds: ‘Modern Hinduism has reacted against such abuses’ Yes, but one cannot blame those who reacted by teaching India Catholics to go their own way, in charity and neighbourliness but without compromise.

(4) I cherish the thought that my Buddhist friends have an implicit belief in God, but it is not part of their Buddhism. An atheist can be a Buddhist, and a Buddhist an atheist.

(5) While believing that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, Dom Bede would ‘distinguish the Church in this sense from the historical and sociological reality of the Church’. But that reality is the mystical body. It is in history and in human society that this mystical body of Christ lives and acts, by divine authority and with divine aid. One must deplore the lapses of individual members, as the Church itself does (Vatican II, Guadiam et Spes, 43) but this Church, this historical, sociological reality, is ‘indefectibly holy’ (Lumen Gentium, 39). Failure to recognise the unique credentials, salvific resources, manifold holiness and religious achievements of the Church in the world would be failing in the recognition due to her divine founder. This I know, is far from Dom Bede’s intention.

Anything that would deter a non-Christian from entering the Church would be contrary to Christian principles enunciated consistently from the New Testament down to Vatican II. There can be no greater exercise in charity than to lead people to the incomparable benefits of the Christian faith, sacraments and sacrifice.

Navan, Ireland          Patrick O’Connor


The Tablet 1 September 1973

Sir: I don’t think that any useful purpose would be served by answering Fr O’Connor’s letter in detail. May I simply say that when I criticised Bishop Butler’s article, it was because, as one concerned with dialogue with Hinduism, I felt that his theology of the relation of the Church to other religions was quite inadequate. The view which I put forward may have been defective in some respects, but it was a serious attempt to formulate a theology of dialogue along the lines followed by others who have the same concern. Fr O’Connor’s attitude to the Church and other religions, on the other hand, seems to me to make all dialogue impossible. Fr O’Connor may reply that he is a missionary and is not concerned with dialogue, but this will hardly be accepted today, since mission and evangelisation are now conceived in terms of dialogue. You cannot expect the Christian message to obtain a hearing, unless you are prepared first to listen to what others have to say, whether they are Hindus or Buddhists or Moslems or atheists or agnostics. Fr O’Connor says that anything that would deter a non-Christian from entering the Church would be contrary to Christian principles. May I say in all sincerity that after 18 years in India I cannot conceive of anything better calculated to deter a non-Christian from entering the Church than the kind of apologetics which Fr O’Connor upholds.

S India            Bede Griffiths




Discovering the Inner Mystery

Fr Bede at St James, Piccadilly Monday 13th April 1992*

Bede Griffiths addressed the largest audience ever to gather at the Monday night Alternatives Programme at St. James’s, Piccadilly. an audience of about 700 people.

I would like to begin this talk with a Sanskrit chant if you don’t mind. In India we normally begin any religious talk or serious talk with this chant and it puts us in touch with ancient India, ancient humanity. And I think we want to tune ourselves in with the past where we are one with humanity through the ages. Sanskrit has the power to open up that whole horizon. Roughly the translation is:”Let us share together. Let us enjoy together. Let us strive together. Let us shine together. Let there be no quarrelling among us.”

Sahanau bhunakthu

Sahaviryam Karavavahai

Tejasvina Vadith amastu

Ma vidvishavahai

Om Shanti shanti shanti

I think it’s appropriate to begin with this chant to link us up with ancient India because today we live in one world where we are aware, as we were not before, that we have an inheritance from the past -the ancient world of India, the world of China, of the East -it’s no longer strange to us – there’s Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims living among us and we’re all beginning to realize that we share, and we can’t stand isolated any longer. And this is particularly meaningful for Christians (most of us have a Christian background of some kind) and, you see, our churches all derive from the 2nd century. The 1st century church grew up in Palestine and then in the 2nd century it was moving out all the time and got established in the Roman Empire and we developed all these Graeco-Roman western structures, and our religion is a Graeco-Roman western structure of religion. And many times we forget that. And in Asia, and in a great part of Africa also, and elsewhere, it has very little meaning. And today we must go beyond these limited cultural structures which limit our religion and become aware of its relationship with other religious traditions. And that I think is urgent for all of us. 

Some, I know, resist it very strongly, but I see no other way, because, you see, we live in this fragmented universe with these terrible divisions among us. Christians are divided into innumerable churches and sects, and they all quarrel with one another. And again, Christians arc divided from other religions. And then, beyond religion, differences of race, differences of economic and political structures, and so on. We live in a divided world, and I think today we’re being challenged and we’re learning how to get beyond these divisions. And the divisions ultimately go back to the fact that we arc centred on a separated self. We all believe in a separated self – I am separate from you. you from the other, and so on. That is an illusion. There are no separated selves. We create this image of a separate self and then we begin to quarrel and to fight with one another. Behind all these separated selves there is a transcendent self. And in India, from the earliest times, they have always recognised that there is a transcendent self.

We distinguish three levels, you see. There is the physical level, and today we realise that we are all united on the physical level. Modern science is showing us that we are all members, parts of the cosmic whole. And we’re all united in this basic, physical universe for which we are responsible and of course which we are destroying with our technology and so on. We are faced with this danger of destroying our environment which should be sustaining us. And we are all separated psychologically. We are all separated selves. Behind the separated selves is the common psychic unity. Jung talks of the collective unconscious behind these conscious minds, the racial mind, and we go right back to the beginning of humanity. All of us have that part of humanity within us. That’s why, as I say, I like to do a Sanskrit chant, because it’s in all of us. It’s not something foreign to us here. We belong to one race, one people. So behind the separated selves we have a psychological unity.

But now beyond the physical and the psychological there is a third dimension, and for many people that scarcely exists. The problem of our whole civilisation is that we’ve almost eliminated this third dimension of the Spirit, the Pneuma, or the Atman. And in the Hindu tradition, the Indian tradition, there was a breakthrough, you know, in the 5th century before Christ. People were living until that time in this kind of mythological universe – a deep psychic unity. People felt a deep psychic unity, the tribal unity, the blood unity with the ancestors and so on. There was a wonderful sort of tribal unity but it was still immersed in matter, in life, in imagery. They hadn’t come to full consciousness. In the first millenium before Christ, mainly 500- 600 BC, in India, a breakthrough took place, and beyond the physical world, beyond the psychological world, they opened themselves to this mystery of the Atman – the Spirit, the Brahman, the One Reality. And that one reality unites the whole creation, unites every level of being.

They are not really independent. There is no physical world out there at all. That is an illusion that, you see, [he laughs] that was created in the 17th century by Descartes and others. There is no physical world outside us. The physical world is inside us. I always like to quote the wonderful saying of the Chandogya Upanishad. It’s very famous: In this castle of the body there is a little shrine. And in that shrine there is a lotus. And in that lotus there is a little space. What is it that lives in that little space in the heart of the lotus? That is what we have to find.

[He laughs] And then they say the whole universe is in that little space because the Creator, the Source of all, is in the heart of each one of us – beyond our body with all its limitations, beyond our psyche with all its limitations, each one of us is, in the depth of our being one with this transcendent mystery from which the whole universe comes. That was a breakthrough in the Upanishads in the 5th– 6th century. That is what we have to recover. I don’t think that anyone today who is seriously searching for truth and reality can ignore the Upanishads. They are very easily available. We have a beautiful translation by Juan Mascaro in the Penguin classics. I think we all need some measure of those insights. And then of course the Buddha took a step further and he gave another profound insight. And it’s very significant today -Buddhism is spreading all over the world – I am sure all of you know. Buddhism has got something to give to us, you see.

The Buddha broke through. Whereas the Upanishads and the Hindus discovered the Brahman, the Atman the Supreme Reality, and opened themselves to that, the Buddha took the negative course, simply dismissing the whole universe – he said the whole universe is Anicca – impermanent. It has no constancy: it is passing away. And scientifically, of course, the whole universe is passing away, of course the whole time. And then he said it is dukka – unsatisfactory, sorrow. You don’t get any final satisfaction from the world of the senses. And thirdly it has no substance. It has nothing behind it.

And this is a profound scientific insight, you see, that the world is simply, as we understand today, a field of energies, energies working at different frequencies, and we’re all parts of this vibrating universe, always changing, everything is changing at every moment. The Buddha said it’s totally impermanent. Nothing is permanent, you see, and he saw through all this changing universe and its impermanence, to the reality behind it. He called it Nirvana and when you have broken through the outer universe, the outer appearances, (and it’s all appearances) you go behind the appearances, and you discover this hidden mystery. And he wouldn’t give it a name. He wouldn’t call it God, or even a Soul – he simply called it Nirvana, the going out, the end of becoming and change, which is bliss.

Many of you know the Dhammapada, the great Buddhist classic, and again and again it says: ‘In joy we live, in bliss we live’. When you’ve got over all this terrible conflict on the surface of life which engages us all, you get beyond it and you find this inner joy, this inner peace, inner grace. It’s a wonderful breakthrough that took place with the Buddha. And don’t forget it spread from India all over Asia for over 2000 years. And so we inherit this past of Asia, you see.

Today we know that Europe is simply a part of the world and Asia is simply another part of the same world. We belong to one another. We cannot ignore the Hindu and the Buddhist and the Asian world as a whole, or of course, the African world. It is so important that we realise that we’ve all lived on an island, and [he laughs] particularly in Britain, and we think we are a little world in ourselves. We have our own little religion which we think it is the religion of everybody and we cling to this little world, this little religion. And I’m sorry, you know, but if you look at Christianity, if you look at the history of the world, the Australian Aborigines have been in Australia for 40,000 years. And where was Christianity then? They hadn’t heard of Jesus Christ till 1900. And God was there among the Australians. It was wonderful, you know. They found God there in the earth, in the trees, in the ancestors. It was a wonderful cosmic religion they had. And you find it also among the native Americans, much studied today. And it is a wonderful religion – this sense of the spirit of the universe. I am sure you all know the wonderful talk of Chief Seattle, how the American government wanted them to sell the land, to buy their land, and Chief Seattle says: ‘This land is sacred to us. We don’t own the land. The land owns us’. It is a beautiful world that we inherit, you see, and we cherish that world of our inheritance. If you’re going to care for this land and cherish it then you can share it with us, but one cannot sell the land. It’s not yours to sell! It’s the universal gift which we all share.

So the native Americans, the Australian Aborigines, African tribal people, everywhere there is this sense of a divine power and presence in the whole creation – in all matter, in all life, in all human beings, their recognise this hidden power. And that’s the source of all religion, practically. And we have to recognise the depths of these ancient religions, which are still alive today. Of course, it’s wonderful, what they have discovered. 

I call this the cosmic revelation. It’s the presence of God, of Truth, of Reality, whatever name we give it, which permeates the universe. What Matthew Fox calls pan-en-theism. God in everything. The ancient religion really. And that is what, of course, came into, and still remains the background in India today. In India the world is still sacred. The earth is sacred. And water is sacred. Take a bath in the morning, they go down to the river and sprinkle the water and consciously think the water comes down from heaven, and Shiva, the god receives it on his head and distributes it through all the rivers of India. So you are receiving this water from heaven, you are washing yourself in this heavenly water. It’s a wonderful ritual and many Brahmins still do it today, you know.

Also, very interestingly, when you eat food, it’s something sacred, you know. For us it’s very profane: you just take it and cook it and eat it. For them, it’s always a sacred ritual. And normally the correct ritual is, you take a banana leaf, (you don’t take a tin plate or anything like that) and you put your rice and your vegetables on it, sprinkle water round it, making a sacred space. This food is taken out of nature, and it’s God’s gift to you, and it’s something sacred, and you have to offer it to God. So you make the offering of your food, and the Lord consumes it in the stomach. In the ashram we always chant the verse from the Bhagavad Gita…which means, “I. the Lord, seated in the body, consume the four kinds of food”. God himself is immanent, present in the whole creation, present in all matter, present in this food, and you take the food and in the stomach, you offer the food to the Lord, and it’s consecrated. It becomes something sacred. So your daily food is a sacrament, really. It’s wonderful. Mind you, India’s losing this all the time, just as we are. We are all becoming secularised, and so on, and as profane as can be. But the ancient tradition is still there. The earth is sacred, the water, the food and the body is sacred.

That’s another thing, you see. We tend to think of the body as a chemical substance, and you put medicines into it and you operate on it, and it’s a mechanism to us. For Indians, for the ancient tradition, the body is the image of God. The body is something sacred, you see. And, you know, they say all the senses are God’s. The part that sees, the part that hears, the part that touches – it’s a divine power by which we see and hear and touch. There is a sacredness of the body-always made sacred because it is the dwelling place of the divine mystery of Brahmin

Brahman is a word you cannot translate; it simply signifies the divine power present in the whole creation. present in all humanity and present particularly in the sacrifice [. . .] now that’s another thing we’ve lost. You see, in the ancient world, whenever you took food, or whenever you did anything of importance you offered it in sacrifice. Sacrifice –sacrum facere, is to make a thing sacred. You surrender it to the Lord, you see. And, it’s very interesting in India today, when we plant a paddy field, or start building a house, the workmen will come along and will ask me to come along, and consecrate the first seeds you plant there or the first bricks you put there. Every action has to be consecrated; it’s not simply a human thing that you do on your own. you are part of a cosmic whole, and you are offering this to the source of all, the cosmic source, so it becomes again something sacred. Well, I think we have to try to recover this sacred world and we can do it in our own lives, you know, if we begin to see the sacredness of our bodies, and the sacredness of the water and the food, and so on. We needn’t treat it all as profane. 

Now we come to the scientific aspect of it. One of the greatest revelations today is that western science, having built up this terrible mechanistic universe, that human beings are neatly separated from the external world, has moved beyond that, the whole universe of Descartes and Newton, and discovered that the whole physical universe is a field of energy, a vibrating field of energy, and it’s totally interdependent. Fritjof Capra said the universe is a complicated web of interdependent relationships. That’s how we see the universe today. And so we are all part of this. And there is no part of the world which is not in touch with every other part. There is a poem, I think it’s by Francis Thompson, I’m not sure,

Move but a wing,

and disturb a star

So that each time a butterfly moves it’s wings here, it disturbs a star, Nothing is unconnected. It’s all interrelated. It’s a wonderful universe, and western science has come round to this now. And we are discovering, you see, it is a total unity. The person who I think has brought this fully into consciousness is David Bohm. I am sure you know his “Wholeness and the lmplicate Ordcr’. It’s a wonderful discovery he’s made. He says what we perceive, the whole world around us, is explicated, unfolded. But it’s all unfolding from an original unity, and out of that unity come the galaxies, come the stars, the sun and the moon and the planets, the earth, and all of us, we all come, unfolding from this unity but the unity remains behind all the unfolding, the implicate behind the explicate, the unfolded from the unfolded. So the whole divine reality is present, here and now, and in every place.

And don’t forget this is a very traditional Catholic doctrine. St Thomas Aquinas asked the question, in what way is God in everything? And he says, first of all, God is in everything by his power. Without the power of God. the source of all. nothing exists. That power sustains the universe. Then he says that God is not exercising that power at a distance, because there is no distance in God. He is in everything by his presence. God is present in everything by his power sustaining the universe. Then Aquinas says he is not present by part of himself because there are no parts in God -the divine essence is totally present in every particle of matter in the whole universe -the Divine Essence itself, the Holy Trinity (if you believe in the Christian tradition) is wholly present in everybody and in everything. It’s wonderful, you know, when you begin to realize what a world we live in, and it all gets covered up by the daily routine and managing of practical affairs and getting caught up in the whole system and you lose sight of the reality. In a real sense you know all the outer world is … a kind of illusion, it’s a projection. You see. We know now that the universe is this field of energies. We construct. within that field of energies these separate bodies, separate elements, separate existence. We form these systems. And it’s perfectly valid. It’s a way of perceiving the universe, but it’s terribly inadequate, and its really ultimately illusory. There is no world outside us, as I said. The whole universe, we project outside through our senses, through our instruments, through our minds. You see our minds project this universe. We see space and time and cause and effect and all the rest of it, we construct this universe, but we know behind all our constructions, behind all this explicate world, is the hidden presence, the divine mystery. 

There is a nice story in the Upanishads where the teacher tells the pupil “go and get a fruit from that tree” and the pupil brings the fruit and the teacher says, “break it open, what do you see” and he says, “I see a lot of seeds” and the teacher says, “break open one of the seeds and tell me what you see”. “I see nothing” replies the pupil. He says, “It is from that nothing which you cannot see that the whole of this tree comes into being.” There is a hidden source behind the tree and the fruit and the seed and it’s marvellous when you think of it. In India, you plant a coconut, and this marvellous tree comes up with the branches and the coconuts on top, and so on. It’s a miracle really, isn’t it, that this little seed has this power in it. And that power, of course, is that power which is the power behind the universe. And the culmination of that story is [… ] it’s one of the great sayings from the Upanishads, that the same power that brings that seed to birth and brings forth the tree is in you and is bringing you to birth and is bringing your mind to consciousness. Your consciousness is one with that power. The Brahman and the Atman are one. Brahman is the reality of the universe. Atman is the power in the human being, in human consciousness. So, beyond our bodies and our psyche with all its differences is the pneuma the atman, and there we enjoy already this unity. If we can learn how to calm our minds and get beyond all these multiple ideas in our heads and open ourselves to the inner mystery, we discover this unity.

And we use meditation. I expect many of you do too. I have now been into it for many years. We use meditation with a mantra. There are different ways. Buddhists use, rather, observing the breath simply, and that’s a very effective way. Others use a mantra together with the breath. The whole point is how to stop the mind. You see. particularly with us in the west, our minds are trained from the age of 3 or 4 to think and think and think – dividing the world into all these multiple particles and so on. And we have to learn to stop the mind. And the way is to sit first of all, relax – we’re all in tension, you see, and you must learn to relax. And when the muscles are relaxed, then you breathe quietly and regularly, let the breath flow. They say the breath is the link between the body and the mind. When your breath is flowing evenly and calmly, your mind begins to become calm and so you open yourself to the mind, you begin to observe your thoughts, and this observing the thoughts is very important and not only your thoughts but your sensations, your feelings – you learn to observe yourself. You see, most of all, we take for granted our breathing or our thinking, but sit still, relax, breathe and observe your breathing, observe your sensations, observe the thoughts as they come and go, and you gain control over them. You can control the breathing, control your thoughts, and you can control your sensations. And so, you become integrated. You see we are all disintegrated, living from different parts of our being, and when we sit and meditate, we gradually bring it all together and centre ourselves; they call this ‘centering prayer’. And then, in the silence, in the stillness, when you have brought yourself to the still point you become aware of the transcendent, of that which is beyond.

The difficulty, you know, is that you can’t name that which is beyond. Some people call it God, but God is only a name for some people for this divine mystery. And there’s no name for it. And again, the tradition is as strong as can be. I always like to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, who said God has no name. No one can say “Quid est Deus?” (What is God?). He is totally beyond every name, every word and thought, the transcendent mystery, and we’re all in the presence of that mystery. It is always there, but we simply don’t know it, we are so occupied with our senses, above all with our minds, and all our projects and thoughts and desires, that we simply ignore the presence of the mystery. And honestly, I think that this is what everyone of us today has to strive to do, to become aware of the presence of the mystery. At our Ashram we have people coming from all over the world. It’s fascinating, from all five continents, and almost without exception they are seeking to discover this inner centre, the centre of the divine, of the transcendent which sets them free from all this complication of life and all the pressures around. It sets you free and you become aware in the depths of your own being of the hidden mystery itself, the divine mystery present in every human being, without any exception. Some may ignore it and know nothing about it, but it’s there.

You know, when you die, what happens? Well first of all the body begins to disintegrate, to separate from the soul. And then the psyche or soul goes on for a time […] there are many who have had this after- death experience, where people go into a subtle body, as they call it, and they had this experience of being drawn towards the light. There are many evidences today of this subtle body. And in India, from ancient times, they always thought of a gross body and a subtle body or psychic body. But that is only a secondary stage. That also disintegrates, has no permanence. There is no permanence in the body, no permanence in the psyche. You then pass into your Atman, your spirit, the eternal reality which is in you all the time. Beyond the body and the soul, the eternal reality, the divine, God, whatever name you like to give it, is always present. We can only gain this with control over our senses, over our minds, become still, become aware of that presence. So I recommend everybody to do half an hour meditation morning and evening. There are simple practical methods that anybody can follow – transcendental meditation (Maharishi Yogi) is a very good method. But all the methods really arc intended to bring you to that point of stillness, to that inner centre, so that you can become aware of the deeper reality of life behind all this. I mean, many people today feel totally frustrated with all the tragedies which arc happening-you had this bomb going off in the city of London a day or two ago, and children being killed like that. It’s horrible, you see, and it’s happening all over the world, this killing and destroying. It’s all going on. And people can despair. And if you are going to live on that level you will despair in the end. But behind all this conflict, this violence, and all these changes, is the presence of a hidden mystery. When you become aware of that you don’t lose the tragedies that are there, but you are no longer affected in the same way, you know. You see, when you lose a child, or a wife […] I always think now [of] people have cancer, or Aids, or something. You lose a child or a wife or you have an accident, these are times for a breakthrough. Again it’s just the moment when you get beyond your ego consciousness, and discover something beyond, the deeper meaning of life. You see, I never think these accidents and so on are only negative. They always have a positive value. And 1 am told by people in the hospice movement helping people to die… that it’s a crucial […] that at first you get very angry and resentful – why does God permit this?” and “What did I do to deserve this?” and so on, and you feel very miserable and full of self-pity. And the moment you let go of all that, let go of your ego, surrender, a wonderful peace comes. You discover there is something deep in you which can sustain you and leading you to a deep inner peace. 

I’ll tell you the wonderful story of Ramana Maharshi. He was a holy man, who lived at an ashram about a hundred miles from us. He was a boy in a city in south India, in about 1880,1think, he was born. And he was a Brahmin boy, quite normal, intelligent, devout, but nothing special. And when he was about 17 he suddenly had an overwhelming conviction that he was going to die. It was quite irrational from an ordinary point of view. But it was so powerful, he surrendered to death. And he lay down on the floor (he lived in a house near the temple, I visited it once) and let his body become stiff, and stop breathing, and he said to himself, “Now this body is dead. Am I dead?” And at that moment he underwent a mystical death. He realised totally and completely, “I am not this body. 1am an eternal spirit”. And from that moment, he never lost the sense of “I am not this body. I am an eternal spirit”. And he was a most holy man. We regard him as the greatest saint and seer in India. He died in 1950, of cancer. He had cancer in the arm, and he was completely detached from it. But he suffered, and he used to groan at night, and they used to commiserate with him “sorry you’re suffering” and he would say, “I am not suffering. My body is suffering.” You can learn to detach from the body, detach from the senses, detach from the mind, above all. You become aware that there is something within you that is not disturbed by all that. You suffer, you feel it, and so on, and you can be confused in many ways. But you always have a centre of inner peace, of inner unity, of inner bliss. In Sanskrit they call it sat-chit-ananda: being-consciousness-and-bliss. At the heart of the universe is this sat, this being, this source of all. And this being is consciousness. 

There is a great controversy going on amongst scientists. I was talking to Rupert Sheldrake this afternoon, and many scientists are still clinging to a materialistic philosophy, and trying to prove that the universe is not conscious, that consciousness is an accident of the brain or something like that. Of course it’s nonsense. The whole physical universe is pervaded by consciousness, by intelligence, you see, and in us that consciousness which was latent in matter, latent in life and animals, is coming into actual consciousness. It’s latent in all and is coming actual in us. And our challenge today is to allow that consciousness to grow so that we are no longer confined to the physical consciousness or psychological consciousness and become aware of the transcendent consciousness, which is always there, from which the whole universe comes. And that’s what happened in India in the 4th-6th century B.C., and its gone on ever since.

You see, you discover that you are living in the outer world, and you are living a life of illusion, and you feel you must get away from it and go to the Himalayas to discover the reality. Well, you don’t have to go to the Himalayas. You can break through in so many ways. I like to tell the story, you know, of myself. I had a stroke in 1989, three years ago, and it was a wonderful event – I was ‘hit on the head’ [presumably referring to Zen Buddhism. The audience laugh] like a sledge­hammer and I was absolutely knocked out, and crawled onto the bed, and everybody thought I was dying – I think I was, and I didn’t speak for a week apparently. After the week 1 began to come round, and a complete change had taken place. And this rational, analytical, scientific, logical mind had been knocked down, and the deeper, intuitive, creative, ‘inner’ mind began to emerge. And it still keeps coming up all the time. It’s there in all of us. 

[…] And that was one of my discoveries, you know. The masculine mind was dominating and not the feminine, as with most of us, being suppressed. Knocking down the rational opened up the feminine, and there was a tremendous wave of love, actually, a sort of feminine [love]. I don’t know how to describe it. It simply came over me. I think this is in everybody. We’ve got this rational mind controlling everything, dominating our society. When we let go of it, we discover the depths of love, intimacy and joy and peace – all the opposite. It’s all there, in all of us, if we can find it, you see. But you have to break through, you have to let go at some time and it can happen anytime. 

So it’s in us all. everybody has within them this deep source of inner joy, of inner peace and love. And you know, [reading] the Dhammapada – it’s wonderful what they feel, what peace has come to them. It’s a […] experience. And we can all experience it. We are conditioned by our science and technology, […] the whole of our social and political […], we are conditioned by that and I’m afraid, that we’re conditioned by our religious system. And this is a big problem.

You see, the Hebrew tradition of the Bible is dualistic. God is separate from the world. God is separate from humanity and beings are separate from God, from one another, from the world, everything is separate. And separation means conflict. So you’re in conflict with God, you’re in conflict with the world around. And that is the state of man, if you like. Now within the biblical tradition, there is a constant movement to go beyond this duality – the idea of return to unity. You see, paradise is the time when we we all one in total one-ness. In the mother’s womb, we were all one with nature, one with life, with the whole creation, you know. Floating in the amniotic fluid was bliss, and we all come out that bliss, and then we come into the world, there’s the pain and struggle, and we begin to ask and consciousness comes, and then all the tensions come and we get divided and in conflict, [but]we have the memory of this unity. We all come from this unity, and we long to return, to return to paradise. And in the idea of the new law. The law was given [commandments] – don’t do this, don’t do that, and we are under the law, the moral law putting you down all the time. And that, as St. Paul recognised, is […] of misery, this moral law all the time. But you have to go through it. You have to go through the law, but you must go beyond it. It’s no good stopping there. You have to become conscious, and you mustn’t stop at the state of the moral law or the rational mind. You’ve got to get beyond it. 

The biblical tradition is taking you to the new covenant, the new creation, and I think Jesus in the New Testament is taking humanity out of this dualistic universe and He does it, you know, by going beyond the law al1 the time, beyond the teaching on the Sabbath and calling people sinners, and wonderfully, working with women. Jesus’ relation with women was extraordinary, you know. Freely associating, he had deep friendships with women, talking to this Samaritan woman – she was a heretic, an outcast, and he should have nothing to do with her. And he talks to her in public, and reveals himself to her, you see. Jesus was breaking through the whole of this moral, legal tradition. And Paul himself, realised that you’ve got to get beyond the law. We are under the law still, and we’ve got to get beyond the law. Jesus, at the end surrenders everything on the cross, and makes a total self-surrender, and when you totally surrender your ego, your self, your whole being, you open up to the infinite, eternal reality, which is eternal love. And so He’s taking humanity beyond all the conflict and the law into this eternal reality, where we should be moving. But the Christian churches tend to get stuck with the law again. It’s difficult, because you can’t do without the law. You’ve got to have some law – laws of traffic and so on. Society has to have its laws. But it’s no good trying to live by the law. The laws are necessary as a stage and a means, but you have to go beyond the law to the mystery of love.

Love is beyond the law. And St. Paul, you know (he’s very wonderful in this) realised he had been a Pharisee and living under the law and it stunted his growth, you see, and he was able to break away from the law, and to realise the mystery of grace. And grace is simply pure gift. You are not saved by being good and being charitable and all that (even though it’s very good to be good and charitable), but it doesn’t save you. You are saved by the pure gift of love, a transcendent, unconditional love, which opens itself to you when you open yourself to it. And so, that’s the challenge, to get beyond the ego, beyond the limitation of the rational mind, and be open to this hidden mystery which is calling all of us. Behind all the limitations of our human life is this call to the beyond, to the divine mystery which is calling us there. And, as I say, when you die, your body and your soul both disintegrate, and the eternal spirit in you returns to the eternal spirit. You are one with that eternal spirit. You realise who you are. In India they say “Who am I? Am I this body sitting here, and you sitting there? Am I this psyche, this soul, thinking, talking, (as 1 am doing now, you see)?”. They are both limited expressions of myself but beyond my body and my soul is my Atman, my inner spirit, and there I am one with God. In the depths of my being I am one with the Eternal, the Infinite, the One Reality. And that discovery has been made again and again in history, and I think today ordinary people are making this discovery. Wherever you go, people are discovering there’s something beyond all this conflict we’re living in; there is an eternal reality. Many do it through meditation, there are other methods also, but an awakening is taking place, 1 believe all over the world, and I think all you, gathering here tonight, are examples of this search to get beyond our conflict and confusion of the present life, to discover the hidden mystery. And, of course, it’s not easy. There are many snags on the way. It’s a very painful and difficult journey, but allow it to take over – you can’t do it yourself, you see, and the ego gets in and you want to get God, get spiritual experience. All that has to go. And then the divine mystery itself takes over and transforms you. And I think it’s the hope of the future of the world. If we go on as we are now, in conflict and violence, we are going to destroy ourselves and the planet. But if, and I believe it’s happening, we learn to go beyond this dualism, this state of conflict, and this egoism, and open ourselves to the hidden mystery in whatever way it comes to us, and it comes in different ways to different people. When we open ourselves to that then this trans­ formation takes place and it goes from one individual to another and spreads like waves- it’s marvellous how it can spread, and it can change the world, you see. 

Let’s say, if you all gathered here this evening, if you’re all on this path and all in search of that deeper reality and you’re really open to the divine mystery, allowing it to enter your life, you can change the world. You’re 700 people here, is it. Well, 700 people can change the world. Because you each one of course has innumerable contact with others and have that possibility.

I am very grateful for your attending here, and listening to me, but the message really is that you have it in your own power to transcend the suffering and the frustration of your lives, and of the present world, and discover this hidden mystery which is there, everywhere. It’s in all religions, and it’s outside all religions. You don’t have to have a religion – people who are atheists or agnostic can make this discovery. Religions help us, no doubt and Christianity has a unique message to give in that and does open us up in a wonderful way to the ultimate truth, but it’s open to everybody. But it does demand something. You have to give up the ego, your separated self. When that goes, then everything can change. But as long as your ego is active and it can be very active in the spiritual life. I remember one Hindu, saying of another, “he’s ego from top to toe” [laughter] and it can happen, you know. It’s a difficulty. But if we can let go the ego and gain this inner freedom it spreads to others you see. It becomes a ferment that can change the world. So that’s my message to you this evening, that you all of you have it in your power to change yourselves and to change the world and that is the hope of the future. And I hope that God will help you all to find that way.

Questions and Answers

Do you believe in Reincarnation?

Many ask that question? I don’t think it’s very important, you know. You see, to me reincarnation belongs to the sphere of the psyche —you get the body, the soma and then you have the psyche (the soul). And what exactly happens to the psyche after death – I don’t know I think reincarnation may be one way of explaining it. In the Catholic tradition we have purgatory —a world of uncertainty. And it doesn’t really matter, you see, what happens to the psyche, because you are not your body, and you are not your soul, (psyche). You are an eternal spirit, and you must get beyond all these reincarnations and find your eternal reality. And Ramana Maharshi would have said exactly the same thing. He would say it’s your spiritual reality, that is what matters. Don’t get occupied with the adventures of the psyche in the past or the present, that’s what 1 would say.

What then is the purpose of having a body and a psyche?

This is very important, but I think I should have made it clear. I have given the impression that there are three things, the body, the psyche and the spirit. And that is illusion, of course. You see the spirit integrates, unifies the whole personality of course, the body and the soul.  Actually at death you go beyond your present body and your present psyche, but you integrate all your experiences in the body and the soul which are taken up into the life of the spirit. So the spirit is the principle which integrates the whole physical universe and the whole psychological universe and brings them all to unity. We have this terrible habit of separating everything. You see we must separate the soul and ourselves from others but that is a disease of dualism – separating – which we have to overcome. And this is very important, you see. In non-duality we don’t lose the reality of this world, we don’t lose our individual personality. The whole of the samsara, as they call it, the passing world, is taken up into the divine world and is transfigured. It’s very clear in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan, there is form that says you let go the body, or let go the soul and you become pure spirit. But that is a very limited form. And in the deeper vision they say Nirvana and Samsara are the same. You see Samsara is the changing world, of body and soul, and nirvana is the passing beyond. But they say that ultimately all the experiences of the present world are taken up into that transcendent world and transfigured. There is a transformation. And that is resurrection. You don’t lose your body/soul. You lose the present limited condition of the body/soul, and they are discovered in their integrity in the spiritual body and the spiritual soul. The whole thing is transformed. And that’s what happened to Jesus at the resurrection. His body and soul were taken up into the life of the spirit, and totally transformed. So they are no longer visible, you see. They don’t belong to this world of matter and so on. But they are eternally present in the divine reality. And that is our destiny. Our body/soul taken up into the life of the spirit – not lost but transcended and sharing the divine life itself.

What then is the point of trying to relieve suffering if it doesn’t really matter?

It’s a good point. You see I think we’d have to help out one another on this level of the body and the soul. And when people suffer, we have to try and relieve their suffering. But it’s a mistake to think that this is all-important. The person is suffering and by all means I must relieve their suffering. The suffering can be a great blessing, you see, and so you have to discern always. There is suffering which can be removed and which can help the person. But there is also suffering which is necessary. I remember Jung said once that of all the people to came to him in the 40s with a breakdown, a very large percentage were suffering now because they refused to suffer in the past. You keep avoiding suffering, putting it away m and then it becomes too much for you.

Everybody has to learn to suffer, you know, but we should relieve suffering, but we shouldn’t think we must abolish it. It’s part of our human existence, really, and suffering is a blessing. As I say, I thank God for the stroke I had. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, I think. [he laughs]

What do you think about the fact that so many children suffer world-wide, especially in India?

You see I think if we take individuals, there is no real answer to why the child is suffering and so on. We always have to remember we’re not isolated individuals, particularly children. They have not yet acquired this separate individuality. We are members of one another. And I think we all sustain one another. And we also do the opposite. We can destroy one another, but if we have a deep sympathy and understanding in our hearts we sustain one another and, I think, the whole universe is sustained by a power of love. I really believe that Jesus on the cross released a tremendous power of love in the whole creation. If we allow ourselves to be aware of it, we don’t see these children suffering as isolated individuals but as part of a whole cosmic process. We can’t understand it at the time, but we can see that it can be understood as part of a whole which is beyond our comprehension. The universe, you see, is a mystery, how it all works, what is behind it and so on. You know. Adam is ‘humanity’ (Adam is the Hebrew for man or mankind – i.e.  humankind). When Adam sins he falls from that unity, he falls into disintegration and division, and that’s where we all are. But behind all the division there is a unity of humanity. Jesus assumed that broken humanity and reunited it and united it with God and therefore that compassion and love is present in the whole. And when children suffer and so on, they are not isolated. There is a divine compassion which is at work behind it. But I firmly believe that the power of redemptive love is present behind the universe and behind every human being.

The Upanishads seem to indicate that there is only the Self. And the separated self is an illusion. An intellectual question that always trips me up is: ‘What gain is there to the Self when an illusory ego disperses into the Self. It’s a very complicated question. i.e. Only the Self exists…the ego is illusory?

I wouldn’t say that. You see the ego is necessary. The child must develop an ego. It’s got to become a separate person, develop his individuality. But then it has to transcend it. It’s when you stick with your separated ego that is when all the trouble begins. If you allow the ego to grow, it transcends its limits and then it unites with the supreme, you see.

You have said that modern humans think too much – don’t you think there is also a sanger of receding too far into the spiritual and contemplative life. Someone who spends 50 years on the Himalayas is really of no use to anyone except themselves. Is such a person not just narcissistic and useless?

Quite true. There is an equal danger really. You can get centred on your ego. I think the problem is a real problem in India. Many people give up their jobs, give up the world, their riches and so on and go to the Himalayas and they may get some profound experience, but they have not integrated their personality. And many who go to a guru who surrender to a guru become immature. They don’t mature as persons. It’s quite true. You have to learn to integrate your personal being, your ego, your self, into the divine being and this idea comes out in Ken Wilber’s writings. He makes it very clear that as you go beyond one level of consciousness you must integrate the other. When you go beyond sense consciousness to the mental…it’s no good becoming purely mental you see. You’ve to integrate your sense experience in your mind. And then mental experience must be integrated into the spiritual. You must integrate the mental experience and scientific knowledge with the divine. So it’s integration of the whole person in the divine you see – that’s the goal.

Do you see sin largely as egotism then?

Yes, very much. In fact, sin is the fall from the spirit into the psyche. If we remain in the spirit, the body and the soul are guided by the spirit and then keep open to God and the whole human person grows. But if we fall from the centre in the spirit to a centre in the psyche and the ego then we create this tremendous conflict in ourselves and around. So, for me, original sin is this fall from the spirit into the ego consciousness and the ego consciousness is the essence of sin. I like to quote a Muslim saying: “Your own existence is your greatest sin”. It means that your separate existence is your greatest sin. That you separate yourself from God and others. When you realise your unity, you have freed yourself from you sin.

Would you say something more about sacrifice?

As I said, sacrifice, sacrum facere, is to make a thing over to God. Everything in the universe is interdependent, interrelated, and when we discover this cosmic unity, this cosmic harmony, we realise that all individuals in nature and all individual human beings are interrelated. And when they surrender their separate selves and open to the supreme self, this reconciliation, this forgiveness takes place.

I think really the death of Jesus was a tremendous power. You see, he really made total surrender, body and soul, into the life of the spirit, on behalf of all humanity, and through that we also can sacrifice ourselves, surrender our ego particularly, to God. He takes us through death to the resurrection, to the new life. Jesus really went to the depths of human suffering, and I think to the depths of the unconscious, you know. He descended into hell and I interpret that he descended into the depths of the unconscious, and all those conflicting forces in nature, in the unconscious. He faced them all and then, by facing them he accepted them all. All the suffering of humanity which he took into himself, surrendered it to God and then redeems it. And when we surrender what we are to God, that is sacrifice. That is giving ourselves. It’s not a negative thing really – it’s love. It is simply surrender in love. So I think Jesus is the model for us all.

*The source of this transcription is a transcription published in a magazine. (source unknown by possibly Scientific and Medical Network)

A New Vision of Reality

A Talk given to the Bede Griffiths Sangha (by Zoom)

16th May 2021

Adrian Rance-McGregor


In 1989 Bede Griffiths published ‘‘A New Vision of Reality’. The book was dictated onto tapes which were then transcribed and edited by Professor Felicity Edwards of Rhodes University in South Africa. The book is the culmination of a long search to find meaning in the New Testament vision of a ‘New Heaven and New Earth’ which goes back at least to Bede’s time in Pluscarden Priory in Scotland where in 1952 he started writing a book on ‘The New Creation’ which was to be a study of the seven sacraments of the Church. A far cry from the book he eventually created in India thirty-seven years later. What I would like to do is to give a flavour of what this vision of a new reality is all about and how the different themes developed over Bede’s life.

The essence of Bede’s New Vision of Reality is a working out of the mystical experiences he had as a young man which he recorded in his autobiography The Golden String (1956). Bede was convinced that the problems of the modern era, the problems of materialism, individualism and exploitation of the natural environment arise in great part from a loss of what Aldous Huxley called the ‘Perennial Philosophy’, a philosophy which underpinned all the great religious movements of the world and which formed the basis of the religious understanding of mankind from the earliest pre-historic times and which is found in the religious beliefs of all indigenous peoples. The essence of the Perennial Philosophy is the experience of the world as three integrated worlds – the physical, the psychological and the spiritual; an experience that was lost at the Renaissance in Europe and which was replaced by a vision of the world as solely physical and material after the scientific discoveries of the Age of Enlightenment. Bede’s book and his enthusiasm for what he saw as a new era in human development grew out of his encounter with new scientific paradigms that seem to make it possible to re-integrate scientific understanding once more in a vision of the universe that brought together the physical, the psychological and the spiritual. He saw that the evolution of human consciousness which is becoming more open to the ‘supraconscious’ open to the transcendent reality, makes it possible move towards a new world, the ‘New Heaven and the New Earth’ of the early Christian experience.

Bede saw that the world is entering a new era, an era in which the evolution of human consciousness will “converge on an ‘ultimate reality’ a Supreme Being”. It will be an era in which all that which tends to fragment humanity would tend towards unity; an era in which religions would be able to relate their own experience to the experience of other religions which would be seen as complimentary; an era in which the dualistic paradigm of the cosmos being made out of individual particles or bodies from the atomic to the celestial, a paradigm which grew out of the insights of Newton and the Age of Enlightenment would be replaced by the modern understanding of the cosmos being a web of interdependent relationships, an era in which matter and consciousness are seen to be aspects of the same reality. It would be an era in which rational scientific understanding and spiritual understanding would converge as the universe and humanity return to the divine unity in which creation is restored and renewed.

To read the whole of this talk please click here

On Meditation

On Meditation

Bede Griffiths

This article is a transcript of a talk given by Fr Bede in Perth, Australia in 1985. It was first published in the Sangha Newsletter in March 1998.

What people today are seeking above everything else is a practical method of prayer and meditation.  That’s why thousands and thousands of people come to India every year in search of mediation, a way to God you could say.  One of the distressing facts that we find day by day that I would say almost 60% of the people who come to our ashram are Catholics or other Christians who have left the Church.  They leave the Church to find God.  It’s a paradox today.  Somehow the way the faith that is presented to them in their schools and parish churches and so on doesn’t answer their need.  Again and again they tell me ‘Until I was 15 or 16 I went to Mass regularly and to confession – I did all the right things, then I gave the whole thing up’.  Not for any solid reason, but dissatisfaction.  It didn’t answer the need of the growing person.

What people today seek is something beyond the reason and the will.  I put it like this: the palm of the hand – fingers represent the faculties, the senses, the feelings, the imagination, reason and will, and we are exercising all the faculties day by day in work, and in prayer.  But meditation in the Indian sense is as the fingers spring from the palm of the hand, all the faculties spring from the centre of the soul, and mediation is to find your centre, your inner person, and that’s what appeals to people today, and appeals to people who have lost their religion or who never had any religion.  The word God is very suspect for many people today.  And Christ also, there’s so much controversy around, so many different views, that people get disillusioned.  But everybody wants to find his real self, to find his identity.

The method of meditation is to teach you ‘Who Am I?’ That is the great Hindu method.  As Christians we have to be aware of this.  They’re not so much interested in talking.  Sometimes they do talk, quite a lot, but really they teach by silence.  People think ‘I am this body’ but then you reflect a little on it, and you realise that this is not the real ‘I’.  You’ve got your inner person, your psyche, your desires and fears and for most people that is a; there is, there is the body and the psyche.  For the Hindu, beyond the body and the psyche, is the spirit or the atman or the pneuma of St Paul.  St Paul says the soma is body, the psyche is soul and the pneuma is spirit, and the spirit is the point where you go beyond your body and your mind and thoughts and you’re open to the spirit of God – and that is meditation and that is what people come to India for.

There are so many methods, but I would say that almost every valid method is to bring you from your faculties, your thoughts, your feelings, your desires, your will into your centre to experience the reality within.  They call is Brahman or Atman.  It cannot be named.  You go beyond words. You encounter the spirit of God.  I always quote St Paul – ‘the spirit of God bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God.’ At that point our spirit, which is the fine point of the soul, where the soul comes to a point, a still point.  And at that point the Holy Spirit meets our spirit and we encounter God.

I think today people are seeking that encounter, external ritual doesn’t mean very much to them.  And a great deal of the doctrine doesn’t mean very much – of course ritual can mean everything and so can doctrine.  But for so many people it doesn’t strike them and they want to experience the reality. something which changes you from within. We get wonderful experiences at the ashram.  People come and are totally transformed.  Once they open themselves to this kind of prayer and meditation.  I’ve seen total transformation and they come right back to the faith, to the mass, to the bible and to a genuine spiritual life.  I think there’s a world hunger.  People come from all 5 continents and at least 50 different countries, all seeking the same thing.  It’s a wave.  It’s going all over the world.  People seeking this experience of God, self-realisation, God-realisation.  Some are simply vaguely seeking, they don’t know what, but sometimes they begin to see a direction in their lives.  They begin to see there’s a guidance in their lives.  There’s an awakening to the spiritual life, where there’s no longer accidents, but you realise everything has meaning.  It’s universal.  First it was the young people, but now it’s all ages.  Something is awakening all over the world, leading people to this deeper experience of God.  That is what people are looking for.

And now you have to teach them a method.  There are several centres now where they are teaching.  Many of you will know Father Basis Pennington at Spencer Abbey, Massachusetts.  Interestingly, they took a course on Transcendental Meditation and developed that into Centering Prayer, as they call it.  Another one that’s not so well known is Father John Main.  He was a Benedictine monk of Ealing.  They he began Christian meditation using a mantra – his mantra is maranatha.  Lord, come in Aramaic.  He built at whole meditative process round the mantra.  It’s extremely effective.  He writes from very deep experience.

In our ashram we practice Christian yogic meditation.  To simplify it very much, traditional yoga has three aspects.  The first is asana, that is sitting.  This is a revolution for most Christians, we don’t know how to sit.  The position of the body.  But for a Hindu, or for almost any oriental, sitting is the main thing.  If you can sit properly, you will meditation properly, they say, because the body affects the mind.  If your body is in tension your mind will be in tension; if your body is relaxed and is physically in harmony, it will help the mind be relaxed and in harmony.  So first of all they teach a method of sitting.  The position should be relaxed and firm – they always emphasis relation.  One of the best asanas is simply to lie on the floor and consciously relax every muscle of the body.  That is very effective.  Yoga is a wonderful discipline of the body.  You never force anything.  It’s very sustained, quiet, rhythmical movement.  The minimum of effort, the maximum effect – gradually, you can relax all the muscles.  Yoga exercise can help you get a good position for prayer and meditation.  Sitting upright on a chair is perfectly alright; you don’t have to sit on the floor.

The next thing is the breathing, the pranayama.  There are two ways of dealing with breathing.  The yogic method is to control the breathing.  Most people don’t breathe properly – they breath from the chest and you breathe from the abdomen, the lower lung.  You can test it by putting the hand and breathing our and you feel it expanding.  The whole lung has to be filled.  Physically it’s very healthy, but psychologically it opens up the whole rhythm of the body.  Many people do five minutes pranayama before they meditate – it’s part of meditation.

The Buddhist method, which many people do, Vipassana, particularly is simply to observe your breathing.  You just watch your breathing.  It sounds rather foolish, but is has wonderful effects.  There’s a Burmese who gives Vipassana courses and I think it’s 60,000 people he has trained, many priests and sisters and brothers have been and found it very helpful.  It’s very strenuous. You have 10 days, 10 hours meditation a day, and you mustn’t smoke or drink or read or write, or do anything else but meditate.  But everybody says gradually, it calms the body and stops the mind.  For all Orientals it is stopping the mind that is so important. Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind.  Your mind wanders all over the place and you keep coming back to your breathing until everything gets still and quiet.  And everyone says you get a wonderful inner peace, it’s a psychological thing really.  Very profound in its way.  So the second thing is breathing.

Now the third thing, which is the key to the whole, is the mantra, the sacred word.  We use the Jesus Prayer, the traditional Christian prayer of the Orthodox Church, which is now spreading everywhere.  In its traditional form it is Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  Some people find it too long and you can adjust it, but it’s really raising the heart and mind to God.  Father Amaldas has developed his own mantra, which is Jesu Abba – Jesu and you breathe in, Abba – Father – as you breathe out.  You breathe in everybody and everything and all the pains and troubles then your surrender it all the Father.  So you sit, you breath and you quietly repeat the mantra.  Your thoughts begin to wander, then you come back to the mantra; they wander again, and you come back to the mantra, until gradually the stillness comes, the mind becomes still.  And when the mind is still the deepest centre emerges.  You can’t produce it.  This is contemplation really.  You can’t prepare yourself, but you have to get to the point of the spirit, when you are open to God.  So you stop your thoughts, and stop your ego.  The centre of the psyche is the ego.  We organise our whole life from childhood onwards from the ego.  You have to do so, but then you have to go beyond it.  But most people don’t, they stop with the ego.  All the conflicts arise from the conflict of egos.  Contemplation is to go beyond the ego, to let the ego die, if you like.  It opens up to the Holy Spirit, to God.

I am not fully human, I am not what I’m called to be, except in God, in Christ.  It’s an illusion that a human being is just a body-soul.  The body and the soul are instruments totally under the guidance of the spirit within.  It is in mediation and genuine prayer that we come to that inner person, that inner reality, and are open to the transcendent.  Many people come to our ashram. Some are agnostic, I think, some even atheist, but they are al looking for a deeper meaning in life, and they discover it when they discover this centre.  This has a universal message, how to discover your deep inner reality, the ‘I’ which is beyond the ego.

So we sit, we breathe, we repeat the mantra, till the mind becomes still and we become aware of the presence of God.  I call this practice of the presence of God and the value of it particularly is this; that you can’t be praying with words all day, and you can’t be thinking specifically about God all day, but you can be aware of the presence of God whatever you’re doing.  It’s not easy in every situation, but it’s possible in every situation, so this is a fundamental for Christian life.

As we open ourselves to this inner reality, we open ourselves to God – and this is where I see the difference.  A Hindu will enter into that inner centre and he will discover his atman, his spirit within.  It’s a very deep experience.  He may call it Brahman, where he realises that the spirit in you is one with the spirit which is in the whole universe, that’s the great insight of the Upanishads, this spirit in man is one with the spirit in the universe.  My ‘I’ in the deepest depth of my being is one with the Brahman, the reality behind the whole universe, so it’s an experience of God in that sense.  A Buddhist won’t use the name God, or the soul.  The Buddha didn’t want to talk about God, he thought once you begin to talk you begin to argue and to discuss, and you miss the reality, and you are all involved in talk.  And so he said ‘Follow the 8-fold noble path, this way of right knowledge and right action and right thought and right livelihood and right meditation and right contemplation and this takes you the whole way.  Follow that and you’ll know then from within, without talking about it.  He simply calls it Nirvana. The later Buddhists call it the void, the Sunyata, the emptiness, the beyond.

In Christian mediation we enter that point of the spirit, and we encounter the Holy Spirit, and that is rather different.  As St Paul says, ‘The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given us.’  The Holy Spirit is poured into the heart and it is the spirit of love, that is rather distinctive.  It is not that love is absent from the Hindu or the Buddhist; they vary in their different schools.  But the Christian experience is essentially this experience of agape, of love in the depths of the heart: not an emotional love or any external form, but the love rising in the inner depths, beyond your ego in the depths of your being.  That love and the Holy Spirit come to us through Christ, so as you awake to the presence of the Holy Spirit you wake to the whole mystery of Christ, your membership of the body of Christ, and your relation with others.

Now this is important.  Some people think that it is all very selfish to go away and meditation alone or go to an ashram and leave everybody behind, and you’re trying to get your own salvation.  The fact is, of course, that the more you discover your own inner depth, the more your open to the depths in others.  You begin to relation to others in a new way – instead of on the surface, as we often do, physically, externally, psychologically, may be with friendship or affection.  It’s all wonderful in its way, but you go beyond that, you relate to the depth of the other person – you awaken to the depth in them.  That is the secret, hidden in everybody – that if you have opened it in yourself, you can help others to discover it for themselves.  So you awaken to the presence of the Holy Spirit and you awake to the whole mystery of Christ, and your relationship with others, and your membership of the body of Christ, and I like to think also that the body of Christ extends to all humanity.

Love is relationship; you cannot have love in a pure identity.  It leads us into the depth of the Godhead and to that communion of love.  And that’s the last thing I want to point out.  As we go into meditation in the spirit through Christ to the Father, the more you become open to humanity as a whole.  Authentic meditation and contemplation does not separate you.  And Jesus himself is the model.  He is totally open to the Father, totally surrendered.  The Son does nothing but what he sees the Father doing, but at the same time he is totally open to humanity, he gave his life for the world.  And that is the model, the total openness to the beyond, total giving, so this kind of contemplation can lead you to your deepest centre into daily life and into what you have to do.  And the Church should have that message to help anybody, an atheist, agnostic, to help open himself, to discover his true being.  And once you have got to that depth, you can’t avoid God, you are just exposed to the reality of God.



The Stages of Life

Old Age and the Stages of Life

Bede Griffiths

This article is a transcript of a talk given at Osage Monastery U.S.A. in 1992

I’ve been asked to speak about old age, and as I’m now 86,1think I’m qualified to speak about it. And I should say to begin with, that the last twenty years of my life have been probably the most creative and most enriching of all. And so, perhaps this will be an important message, because many people seem to think that old age is a falling away, a gradual breaking down, but as for me it’s been a continual renewal.

I like to think of human existence in three stages: the first stage, called the stage of adolescence, is the gradual growth of physical maturity for the first twenty years and during that time the mind and the character are beginning to develop, sexual desires are awakening and the person comes to the border of maturity. The next twenty years, 20 – 40, are the stages of psychological maturity; the capacities which have been developing in adolescence come to flower, and normally the person marries, has a family, they take work, find a profession and they develop all their different powers for sport, for arts and poetry and all the different aspects of life.

Now most people think that is the end of life and the aim is to prolong that period as long as possible into the fifties or the sixties. And when that begins to decline, your faculties begin to decline, you can’t do what you did before, you begin to think you’re failing, and so old age is a gradual senescence, a gradual loss of power. And I want to suggest the opposite, that the third stage of life should normally begin in the forties. That 20 – 40 yrs. is an intermediate period, it’s not final, and that the final period begins more or less in the forties so it’s been prepared before when not merely the physical and psychological, but the spiritual powers begin to develop, and for many people today this dimension has been lost—that beyond the physical and psychological there’s nothing to expect. But the spiritual is precisely the part which transcends the physical and psychological and opens us to the eternal, so as we enter into the third phase, we begin to discover the transcendent capacities in our nature—that we’re capable of transcending the body and transcending the mind and discovering the deep source of all reality.

I like to think of the first millennium, 500 – 600 B.C., as a time in human history when humanity awoke fully to this dimension. It’s been present before, from the beginning actually, it slowly emerges in the first stage and it begins to emerge properly in the second, but only in the third stage, which it dramatically reached in the first millennium, does it break through. So everybody should, in the forties, begin to break through to this third phase, where the spirit is open to the transcendent, the infinite, the eternal, the one reality, whatever name we like to give to it.

So old age should be the flowering of the whole personality, and in a deep sense, I think I could say, we’re not fully human persons until we enter into the third phase, the phase of the spirit. And everything indicates that at that phase we go beyond space and time. The first stage, the physical, we’re growing in space and developing the body; the second phase we’re growing in time and developing the various faculties of the mind and so on; in the third stage, we’re transcending space and time, discovering the whole order of eternity and infinity and the whole which embraces all these other parts and other elements in our lives.

So the real aim of life is to prepare for the third stage, for the awakening of the spirit, which can, mind you, that was present, mind you, in the very earliest stage and can flower at an earlier stage. Some people at a very young age awake to the spirit, others during the more mature period discover something of it, but for everybody I feel, the possibility is there of discovering it in the third stage. And that is where mystical experience begins, but not only mystical experience, but a whole way of seeing life, of seeing yourself, of seeing your whole existence in a new concept, in the light of a whole which embraces all your previous experience.

So that really opens up hope to people because many people seem to be hopeless, that in old age there’s nothing more to expect except the gradual decline. But the shedding of the body which takes place at the end of the third stage, is simply the final stage; the body has grown and matured, it’s come to its fulfilment and now it’s ready to go. And when the body is shed then the soul, the psyche, has a greater freedom, and is able to unite with the spirit in a more meaningful way, and the whole personality, the whole being finally passes and reaches its fulfilment, not in this world of space and time, but in the eternal world which is the world of reality. So that’s the hope of the future.




Unified Consciousness

Unified Consciousness

Bede Griffiths

I believe humanity began with a unitary consciousness, and we all come out of it.  When we were in the womb of our mothers, we were in that unitary consciousness, totally one with nature, one with humanity, one with the Supreme Spirit.  Every night we go back into that consciousness, we return to the Source.  The next stage is the dream consciousness of the myth and folklore and finally we come into the mental consciousness where we are all living.

The first millennium before Christ saw the awakening of mental consciousness.  It came in India with the Upanishads and the Buddha, in China with Lao-Tsu, is Persia with Zoroaster, in Greece with the Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates, and it came with the Hebrew prophets.  With the mental consciousness you begin to divide and it is a necessary stage.  You have to awaken to discriminative consciousness, and all our science is simply and extreme development of this mental consciousness.

Today the mental consciousness has reached its absolute limits.  Science has gone beyond anything anyone could imagine before and our whole rational society is divided at every level – in religion, in philosophy, in race and language and in personal self-consciousness.  We now have to go beyond this mental consciousness: that is our calling today.  But we have to realise how far it has taken us.

There is something is us which is urging us to return to the One, to the unity.  In the Middle Ages there was an extraordinary growth of this unitive consciousness, not only in Christianity, but also in Islam, with the Sufis, in the Jewish tradition and in India and China.  So everywhere the mental consciousness evolved but it was preserved within a unitive consciousness.  The great cultures of the world, the Indian, the Chinese, the Greek, the Medieval and the Islamic, all developed mental consciousness, great philosophical systems, unified in contemplative awareness, a spiritual awareness.

At the Renaissance in Europe there was a tremendous reaction.  Of course many superstitions belonged to the consciousness of the Middle Ages, and there were tremendous problems.  The whole thing was breaking down and humanity had to break out of that.  We then began this scientific revolution, and that is the point at which mental consciousness finally took over.

All the great scientists were theists, they believed in God, whoever they were, Newton or Descartes.  But they went on from that to study the physical universe around us in the light of mathematical law and they developed this wonderful system of mathematical science which we have inherited today.  This is the mental consciousness taken to its limit.  The great dividing point is with Descartes with whom the split between the conscious human being and the physical universe became final.  It was present before, and people had learnt to distinguish themselves from the world around them, but there always had been a certain unity.  But Descartes broke that up.  For him the physical universe was ‘extended matter’ outside yourself, and science consists in the thinking mind examining this ‘dead’ matter.  That is how science began.  It is the extreme limit of this divisive consciousness, man separated from the physical world.  And we have all inherited that.

Newton brought that to perfection with his wonderful system of mathematical law governing the whole universe. But Newton was an extraordinary and interesting person.  He left a lot of writing, I believe they are unpublished, mostly in the occult.  He believed that God was the source of time and space.  So there was something very profound behind Newton, but his followers left out God and simply concentrated on the physical universe and its mathematical laws, and that has gone on to the present day.  But we cannot stope with that divisive, mental, abstract, scientific consciousness.  It was to be transcended.

No human being can simply live on the scientific level.  We have this inheritance now of a mental consciousness, developed to this absolute extreme.  And when you reach an extreme, you are always on the way back.  The Chinese were speaking of the yang and the yin; the yang is the masculine, analytical, light consciousness, and that’s developed to the limit.  The moment you reach that, the yin, which is the dark, intuitive, imaginative consciousness, begins to take over.  And we are in that state now.

I know very little of science personally, except what I learnt from Capra’s Tao of Physics which had a very deep impression on me, and more recently David Bohm’s Wholeism – The Implicate Order.  It strikes me as something immensely profound.  What has happened is that scientists divided everything and got everything down to atoms, and atoms could not be split.  Those are the building blocks of the universe and it is all mathematically ordered.  Then came the splitting of the atom, the discovery of particles, electrons and protons, in the atom.  And finally came the breakthrough with quantum physics where they discovered that the particles dissolved into waves.  This is where we are now.

We now longer believe that there are simply solid particles of matter in space and time.  The universe is a field of energies and within that field are all these different structures.  David Bohm has this wonderful understanding that the universe we observe scientifically is the explicate, the unfolding, but behind the unfolding is the implicate, the original unity.  We structure all these different aspects of the universe in our minds; we can no longer separate the human mind, the observer, from the matter that he is observing.  We only see the nature of the universe, that which is accessible to our senses, our instruments and our mental consciousness.

I like to use this concept of a symbol.  All human knowledge is symbolic.  A symbol is a sign by which reality becomes present to human consciousness.  We never know the reality, we know it through the symbols, through the signs.  All scientific theories are symbolic structures by which we organise our experience of the universe.  And it gets more and more elaborate and more and more profound, but is always remains a symbolic structure; we never know the reality.  The same applies to our art, our poetry; we create symbolic forms to interpret the universe around us.  All our theological systems, and our religious beliefs are symbolic structures.  No one can say what God is; God is beyond all our symbols and structures.  These systems point towards reality and they open our minds to the reality, but God always remains beyond.

We are all dominated today by this mental understanding of the universe but it is very limited.  We need to learn now how to go beyond.  In our human nature there is a longing for that original unity, we are all longing to be back in Eden, in Paradise.  People take short cuts with alcohol, drugs, sex, the occult, and all these are developing because people in this multiple universe, which is in conflict and confusion, want to get back to the unity.  In the book of Genesis it says, “An angel with a flaming sword was placed at the Garden of Eden”.  You cannot get back there, you see, by any other means. You have to go forward.  We have to find a way to transcend our divisive, mental, scientific, rational, logical and analytical consciousness.

Of course poetry, music, drama, dance are ways in which the intuitive mind begins to recover the unity.  The right brain sees the whole but not the difference, the left brain sees the differences but not the whole, and the two have to work together.  So we are being challenged today to go beyond the multiplicity of the universe.  We have to recover the unitive consciousnesses, not in an undifferentiated state as before, but in a differentiated state.

We now have to go beyond the psyche to the pneuma, the spirit, the atman, and this is the challenge of the 20th century or the 21st century, to transcend the psychological ego consciousness.  Once you get beyond your ego, something breaks through in your life and extraordinary things happen.  It is what Jung called synchronicity.  You meet people apparently accidentally and it’s just the person you needed at the time and it changed your life.  Or you read a book or you come to some place.  Then the transformation takes place.

So we are all open to this transformation, at any time it can take you.  I would like to mention that I had a stroke three years ago, in 1989. I was completely knocked out.  I was sitting meditation, in the usual way, when something hit me on the head like a sledgehammer.  I went absolutely dizzy, I crawled onto the bed and I thought I was dying.  I think I was.  After a week I began slowly to recover.  It was an extraordinary experience.  I found that this analytical mind had been knocked down, and a deeper intuitive, contemplative mind had emerged. It is still going on, it is not complete at all, but it is there.  And I felt that an accident like that, a stroke, or cancer, or Aids, or a motor accident, or the death of a child or of a wife, all these that seem tragedies are a means for breakthrough, an opportunity to go beyond your limited human ego to a real consciousness.

Everybody in some way or other is called to go beyond this ego consciousness.  It comes to all of us in some way, maybe simply through death.  Death is a wonderful thing; you cannot take your ego beyond death.  I think there is an intermediate state; you don’t enter simply into the divine.  You have got to be freed from attachments, and there are powers in the after-life which can set you free, then you enter into the divine life, the divine light, pure love.

The other experience I would like to share is that I thought I was going to die.  I was quite prepared for it, which is very important.  We should be prepared to die any day; it is going to come for all of us some time.  But if we are ready for it, that makes all the difference.  Well, I was ready to die but it didn’t come!  So I felt rather restless and something said to me, “Surrender to the Mother”.  It came out of the blue.  I see now that it was the feminine.  I’m like most intellectuals, I’m all in the mind, and the feminine, intuitive, feeling, anima had been pushed down.  Now she came up and a flood of love came over me.  It was the unconscious which opened and the whole feminine love and surrender absorbed me.  It was amazing.

Today we are moving from a patriarchal consciousness to a feminine.  It is going to be the meeting of the male and the female.  But we cannot go on with this patriarchy. Israel and the whole of the Jewish culture was patriarchal, and the Muslim world is patriarchal, and in the Christian world we have only got male gods: God the Father, God the Son and even the Holy Spirit is male.  There is no female!  It is extraordinary when you think of it.  We’ve simply pushed the female down and we’ve let the male consciousness dominate.  That is the rational, scientific consciousness.  But the feminine consciousness, the intuitive, poetic, emotional, sympathetic, cooperative consciousness is latent in all of us.

Every human being is male and female.  The marriage has to take place within.  So we are being challenged to go beyond this masculine, male dominated consciousness and open ourselves to the feminine and become whole persons.  Whole in mind, body and spirit.  And the spirit integrates the physical and the psychological.  We transcend the limits of the body and the soul and we become aware of this divine light, this divine life, this divine love.  Beyond all pain, suffering and death there is this unconditional love.  This is the ultimate.

We must always be aware of the transcendent, of this contemplative spirit which unified the whole.  It’s only in the death of the ego that the whole person can unify and that the person is unified with others.  We are not separated individuals, we are persons and a person is a being in relationship.  An individual is shut up in himself and divided.  A person is being in relationship, being in love actually.

That is our real calling, to become fully human persons, beings in love.  And the ultimate truth is that God himself, or whatever name you give the Supreme, is being in relationship, being in love, and that’s the best way to describe God, or whatever name you give to the Ultimate.  It is being in love, and that is what we are all being called to do.  We must enter into that being in love, into that interpersonal relationship of love.

It’s urgent.  We must get beyond these terrible divisions which are destroying humanity.  We are destroying the universe around us, the whole planet, and we’re destroying it psychologically.  We are killing one another.  We can never get over it as long as we remain in the physical or the psychological level, but when we open ourselves to the transcendent, to the spirit, then the healing process begins and humanity can be healed.

This talk was given by Father Bede at the Scientists and Mystics Conference held at Winchester, UK, in April 1992

Sin and the Unconscious

Sin, Repentance and the Unconscious

Bede Griffiths

This article is a compilation from letters written by Bede Griffiths to his friend Dr Mary Allen in the 1960s. The originals are in the Bede Griffiths Collection in the archive at Douai Abbey

Now I must tell you something about prayer and the great ‘revelation’ which has been made to me.  During all this past year I have been going through an extraordinary experience, which is summed up in the need for repentance. I believe that this is what is lacking in our prayers and in our life – the lack of awareness of the depth of sin.  It is not a question of conscious sin so much as of sin in the unconscious.  I want very much to know what you think of this.  I believe that in the depths of our unconscious lie the root of all sin, and it is because we fail to recognise this that we make no progress in prayer.  It represents an insuperable obstacle to union with God.  For convenience I divide these roots of sin into seven. 1) Greed – the desire for the satisfaction of our appetites.  This is very subtle and needs great discretion, but I believe it is fundamental.  Unless we are radically detached from food and drink, we are always bound down to the body. 2) Sloth.  The desire for rest and ease, avoiding difficulties, labour etc.  I think that this also goes very deep, 3) Lust. I have found in myself, the most appalling capacity for sheer physical lust.  I believe that this exists in all of us, and prevents our love being given to God. 4) Anger. In myself it takes the form of impatience chiefly with myself.  But it is a strong passion, often deeply concealed. 5) self-love.  This is really at the root of all these passions.  It is theoriginal sin – the turning upon the self – unconsciously seeking oneself – one’s pleasure in everything (particularly religion). 6) Pride.  This is my besetting sin – especially pride of intellect – again largely unconscious. 7) Self-will.  The desire to rule oneself (and others), making oneself the centre of everything.

This is only to give you a rough idea of what we have to look for.  What is the remedy?  In the final place repentance – i.e. change of mind (metanoia).  We must consciously face these sins.  It seems to me that prayer should always begin with this confession of sin.  The point is that though these sins are largely unconscious our will has consented tot hem.  This is the mystery of original sin.  The will has been dragged down to consent to sin and we have to force ourselves to acknowledge our sin and to repent of it.

This leads to the second point – abandonment to God.  As soon as we realise the depth of sin, we realise that we can do nothing about it.  It is we ourselves who are sinful – only the total rejection of self – of all that we are – and total abandonment to God can save us. (This links with Hindu and Buddhist dictums that the ‘ego’ must be totally transcended, if we are to find our true Self).  I can go more into this, I am still working at it.  But do read, if you have it, the Early Fathers from the Philocalia (Faber) especially Isaac the Syrian.  This is their way of prayer – everything begins with repentance and tears of compunction.  This is also St Benedict’s way – ‘let him pray with purity of heart and tears of compunction’.  If you haven’t got the Early Fathers, you ought to get it: it is a necessary book.  I do believe that this is the authentic tradition of Christian prayer, and this is what we have to learn.  In regard to you own experience, it seems to me that you were shown in a vision, as it were, the state of your soul, but you now have to labour at this transformation.  The Golden Flower does not open automatically – the unconscious has to be cleansed by repentance – by deliberate sorrow for sin and hatred of oneself – only then can the life of the unconscious – Kundalini – be set free.”

“I am sure that it is a question of coming to terms with the unconscious (the Hindu lives from the unconscious) but I don’t see it exactly as you do.  What I have been learning recently is the tremendous need for the purification of the unconscious.  The unconscious is full of demons and daemonic powers which seek to ‘possess’ us, as you say.  Many people do not ‘come up against’ these powers, no doubt, consciously, but they are nevertheless possessed by them.  This is the meaning of original sin.  We are all by nature under the power of these forces of the unconscious – the apparently harmonious type which you mention do less than the others, though it may be less evident.  These forces may be kept down to some extent – a kind of balance established – and that is the normal human condition, but it is very inadequate.  In some people, on the other hand, and this leads to madness, there is only one way out of this condition.  The unconscious has to be purified – the daemonic forces which are hostile to life subdued, and the healing powers released.  I think that all religions from the most primitive to the most advanced have for their purpose this purification of the unconscious – to se the soul free from the daemonic powers and allow it to be transformed by the powers of good.  Of course, there are debased forms of religion which lead to possession by daemonic powers but this is not normal.

Hinduism is a wonderful example of this cleansing of the unconscious – forms of incredible beauty, expressions of love and grace, have been evolved from the unconscious.  But at the same time the daemonic powers have not been altogether subdued.  There is evil in Hinduism and in all Hindu society.  To some extent I feel that all Hindus are still under the power of the unconscious – whether for good or for evil.  They have not yet been set free.

I believe that it is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious.  Baptism is a descent beneath the waters, a conflict with Satan (in which the soul is mystically identified with Christ) in which the daemonic powers are defeated and the healing powers of the unconscious are realised to give birth to a new life.  But this new life is not simply a transformation of the unconscious.  It is a new power of life beyond nature, something divine which enters into the unconscious and transfigures it.  This is what should happen in our Christian life.  The Holy Spirit should penetrate to the depths of the unconscious, to the ultimate root of being, and transform us.

But this, of course, is exactly what does not happen.  The average Christian simply represses the unconscious like everyone else and lives from his will and reason.  This is why his life is so un-inspiring.  On the other hand, the Hindu, I think, lives much more from the unconscious, but he is subject to both the good and evil forces in it.  That is why there is no much immorality in India – he has not learned to control his imagination and the passions that govern it.  But this is really only a description of our human stage.  We either give way to the forces of the (unpurified) unconscious and become slaves to passion, or we repress these forces as much as we can and are controlled by the unconsciously. ‘Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’  I am sure that the secret is humility and repentance.  Repression arises when the ego tries to suppress the instincts and establish the mastery.  But the ego itself is a more dangerous enemy that instinct.  The ego has to be submitted to God – it has to die – and this is the real difficulty.  When the ego that is the fallen image which has come under the powers of Satan, dies, then the true Self appears.  The Holy spirit transforms the soul and a new control comes into play.  This control does not repress the unconscious – it penetrates and transforms it.  It brings about a marriage between conscious and unconscious, male and female, animus and anima, in which the values of each are preserved.  This is the re-integration of our being in Christ.

For me Hinduism seems to act as a means for regaining contact with the unconscious, but it must be Hinduism transformed by Christ.  Hinduism by itself will not do – it still belongs to nature.  Only the grace which comes from above – the free gift of God in Christ can really transform us.  But how difficult it is!  To submit one’s who conscious being to God, so as to separate from the unconscious, is incredibly hard – this is repentance in the deepest sense…

I don’t think you have understood what I am trying to say about repentance.  The whole point is that one must learn to repent of what is unconscious – totally unconscious. We have to repent not only of what we have said and done and thought and felt, but of what we are – i.e. of original sin.  You remember that I described in the golden String how I felt called to repent, but did not know of what I had to repent. I am convinced now that it was this – I had to repent of what I was – of my ego.  I believe that this is the most profound psychological experience and it enables us to penetrate to the root of sin – of cosmic sin, and to realise the sin of mankind.  I can’t tell you of what I have experienced lately – and I don’t think it would do any good – but I believe that I have been going through something of this. I begin to see what is meant by the ‘dissolution of the menes in the buddhi’.  But it is deeper than this.  It is the dissolution of the ego.  If one could do right through this, then all repressions would be eliminated.  But it is very hard and I have felt very near to a breakdown at times, but I seem to have come out into a more settled state.  Undoubtedly the physical austerity of this life imposes a great strain, but I am learning to adjust to it, and I can see that one must go through it.  The supernatural world becomes more real but at the same time the natural world has to find its reality – I am beginning to see how the Buddhist and Hindu denial of reality can be reconciled with the Christian view of the reality of all things in Christ – which is their only final reality.

… I don’t think you have understood what I am trying to say about repentance.  The whole point is that one must learn to repent of what is unconscious – totally unconscious. We have to repent not only of what we have said and done and thought and felt, but of what we are – i.e. of original sin.  You remember that I described in the golden String how I felt called to repent, but did not know of what I had to repent. I am convinced now that it was this – I had to repent of what I was – of my ego.  I believe that this si the most profound psychological experience and it enables us to penetrate to the root of sin – of cosmic sin, and to realise the sin of mankind.  I can’t tell you of what I have experienced lately – and I don’t think it would do any good – but I believe that I have been going through something of this. I begin to see what is meant by the ‘dissolution of the menes in the buddhi’.  But it is deeper than this.  It is the dissolution of the ego.  If one could do right through this, then all repressions would be eliminated.  But it is very hard and I have felt very near to a breakdown at times, but I seem to have come out into a more settled state.  Undoubtedly the physical austerity of this life imposes a great strain, but I am learning to adjust to it, and I can see that one must go through it.  The supernatural world becomes more real but at the same time the natural world has to find its reality – I am beginning to see how the Buddhist and Hindu denial of reality can be reconciled with the Christian view of the reality of all things in Christ – which is their only final reality.

… Now about Christ and the unconscious .  You say that baptism doesn’t cast out the devil, but I am not so sure.  In the ancient church, as you know (it survives in the present Roman rite), there were several exorcisms in the baptismal service, and the idea was definitely that the devil was cast out and Christ took possession of the soul.  Today we may think of it rather differently.  Would say that in the unconscious there are powers of evil which owing to original sin, have power over the soul.. In baptism a new power of grace is implanted in the soul, which is able to overcome the power of evil and to reform the soul in the image of Christ.  But the power of grace is like a seed – it has to grow before it can take possession and transform the soul, and this growth depends on our own co-operation and our external circumstances.

Now, as you say, if this power of grace does not take possession of the soul, it is because we fail, – ‘we cannot receive it’.  Could one put it like this?  The power of grace enters the soul, but it meets with a tremendous resistance from the unconscious, particularly as our coconscious is so largely split off from the conscious.  People are Christian in their conscious mind and want to be kind and charitable etc, but the intention never penetrates the unconscious because so much in it is deeply repressed. The whole problem is how to open the unconscious to this power of grace, which means, of course, also how to bring the unconscious again into vital relation with the conscious.  But this seems to be so incredibly hard.

I think that behind all this there is a hard core of pride and self-will which we fail to surrender and which prevents the opening of the unconscious.  I am feeling that this hard core in me is gradually melting – but I have been going through a terribly difficult period of frustration and conflict.  Now my mind seems to be expanding and I feel that the repression is being dispelled  .  I find that I must do without any images – the images of Christ is a great obstacle.  The only way I can find out is to consider that on the cross Christ died to this world and disappeared.  After the resurrection he no longer belongs to this world.  We have to pass out with him to the Father, to lose ourselves completely.  I can only think of God as Nothing and myself as nothing.  Do you remember that Augustine Baker described the mystical union as the union ‘of the nothing with the nothing’?  This seems to be exactly true.

This was first published in the Sangha Newsletter March 2005


The Church

The Church and the New Humanity

Bede Griffiths

Today I would like to talk about the Church and I would like to begin with the quotation which I wrote in my book Marriage of East and West.  From the Pastor of Hermas, the Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian writing in the 2nd century, where the writer has a vision where the church appears to him as an old woman.  And he asks ‘why the old woman?@ and he is told, because she was from the beginning and for her the world was created.  The church is from the beginning, for her the world was created.  And this is how one wants to see the church, as the community of redeemed mankind, the community of the saints, the community of mankind fulfilling itself.  And that is the basic vision that we want.

And then of course it has to work itself out in the history and it is very different, the way it works in history, but behind is this great vision of humanity united in God.

Humanity united in God is the church, and that leads to the second point.  Karl Rahner, every human being has an openness to God, there in the depth of every person, this point of the spirit, where he is open to the transcendent, to the spirit.  So in a genuine sense everyone is open to God, to the Transcendent and is called to this eternal life, to this divine life..  so there is an absolute universality in it.  Incidentally it was brought out in the constitution on the church, the famous second chapter.  The Constitution of the Church is one of the turning points of the Vatican Council.  They were all prepared by the Roman Curia – they had their idea of church.  And the first chapter, I think, on the mystery of the church is quite good, and the second chapter was to be on hierarchy of the church, pope, bishops, priests, people.  And there was a great intervention from the bishops of central Europe, a great debate and the whole thing was changed. And the second chapter was introduced on the people of God.  Instead of the pope and hierarchy you have the laity, the people of God, as constituting the church.  And the point was made that to this people belong not only all Catholics, all Christians, but all people are called to the same end, which is divine, to be in union with God.  So the whole of humanity is called to this fulfilment.  And we must not let the historical conditioning blind us to the vision of the whole, the ultimate.

So there we have our basis, so when we come to the historical conditioning, we know from the very beginning human beings always organise themselves in community and in fact one must go beyond that and say that the earliest man was not aware of himself as individual, that is quite certain, he was aware of primary and essentially a member of a community and that is still true of tribal communities.  It was true in India to a large extent, and is probably true in many communities in India today.  You don’t think of yourself an individual but as a member of a group, a tribe or community or a caste, whatever.  But furthermore he was not only aware of himself as a member of a community but also as a member of the cosmos, the cosmic whole.  The earliest man was a part of nature, this is very important.  He felt himself to be a part of the whole cosmic order.  And this comes out in all the ancient myths and stories and the whole attitude to life you get among the American Indians today, this sense that you are the part of the great cosmic order, which is manifesting in the whole creation and in your own tribe, your own people, your own family and so on.  So you are a part of the cosmic order, part of the human community, and it is all held together in the supreme mystery which is holding it all together.  That is the basic view of life which you find among most primitive peoples.  So they have this deep sense of community with nature and a community with one another and God is always envisaged in the terms of that community, in its experience.  And every community, tribe or people has its own form of God.  We were mentioning the forms of God but God himself  is without form, but human beings need to express their understanding of the mystery in human terms, and therefore they form an image of God, namely of many Gods – Gods of the world around them, Gods of the tribe, and the people, and usually one supreme God, one supreme spirit who is lord of all.

So this conception of God always arises within the community  and expresses itself in the language and the rituals.  A tribe is held together by rituals and people today don’t understand ritual, through gesture.  Language came in rather late (we believe that language began to develop seriously only about 5000 BC and language in the full sense probably considerably later).  And so it is not through language but through signs, symbols, that man communicates and ritual is symbolic language.  And then of course words are introduced into it and the words and the symbols expressed your relation to the world around you and to the human community and to the God you worship.

So all ancient religion grew up around ritual and myth, which is the symbolic language about the Gods, God’s creation, about the world. And the ritual and the myth hold the community together.  Every child when be came of age was initiated into the myth and ritual and then became a member of your tribe, and you knew where you were in the universe, and that is why those communities had such stability, and they could go on for hundreds and thousands of years.

On the other hand once that myth and ritual are disturbed they simply disintegrate (that is what is happening in Africa today).  It is a tragic scene.  A great friend who knew Africa extremely well and he was saying that all African tradition was based on tribal religion and within that you were perfectly safe.  You knew where you were in the whole world around you (in the world of the Gods and spirits), your ancestors, family, tribe, chief, etc).  But once you get out of your tribal religion into the cities everything disintegrates, there is nothing left.  Psychologically they are completely disintegrated.

So all ancient religion grew up on that way and this is the way and the lasted for hundreds and thousands of years.  There are tribes in India today and elsewhere which are still living in the same myth and ritual which has come down from 1000’s of years in the past.  And then of course you move from tribal religion to the wider religion and this took place very late – about 2000 years BC – It is when the cities begin to appear.  It is all very recent – Babylonia, Syrian, Egypt, cities begin to appear with larger groups of people, and there you get a sort of pantheon.  All the tribes bring their religions to the city, and you get different Gods and Goddesses and you get a whole pantheon created.  And that is how Hinduism developed.  The Aryan invaders came into India in the second millennium and bought with them Sanskrit culture and mythology and the yagna (sacrifice) ritual and they settled here and then they began to integrate the different tribal people and religious communities of India.  As they spread south all the different communities were brought in and those were the origins of the castes, largely Hinduism is simply integrated different tribal religions and with their Gods, their rituals and their myths and they were all integrated into this cast system of Hinduism.  Take for instance Murugan, he is the great God of Tamil Nadu.  He is a young boy, a beautiful figure, and he was simply a tribal god in Tamil Nadu and he is made into a son of Shiva, so he is called Subramaniam.  Or take Ayappan in Kerala.  There is this famous pilgrimage – 3 million people went last year – Saharisimala – and he was obviously simply a tribal god in Kerala, gradually he is taken into the Hindu pantheon and now he is part of the whole system.  So it’s a marvellous way in which they have integrated all these different Gods.  That is why Hinduism is divided into all these castes.  Of course there are other sources of castes, maybe due to trade or other practice but religion was one of the greater ones.  So then you begin to form these wider communities and Hinduism is really held together by caste.  That is its great problem.  It has no central community.  As a Hindu you have to belong to a caste.  All your ritual, myth or God (ritual particularly) come in through your caste, and that is how you become a Hindu.  We have given the name Hinduism but it is a conglomeration of particular ways of caste and so on.

On the other hand now the newer religions, tend to construct a community.  Buddhism is the best example.  Buddha broke away from Hinduism, from caste, ritual and myth, the whole system, and formed his now community based on the eight-fold path and the four noble truths, and he formed the Sangha.  You need a core community in a religion.  Tribal people have it in the tribe, Hinduism in the caste, the Buddha made it in the monks and Buddhism is a monastic religion.  And so the core community of Buddhism is always the monks.  And then In Islam, Mohammed created this religion with a very simple ritual.  He has got the four things – simple belief in one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet, and then prayers five times a day – simple and short but very effective prayer.  Thirdly the fast, once a year for a month, and finally the pilgrimage.  It is very simply constructed and has a tremendous sense of brotherhood.  It is total equality in Islam, and its one thing that gets over caste in India.  Christians all keep up the caste but the Muslims get rid of it with their sense of brotherhood.

Now we come round to the Hebrews.  They were originally an Aramaic tribe.  Your father was a wandering Aramerie (Abraham) and one of these Aramaic tribes were wandering around in the Middle East and finally settled down in Palestine.  They had their own God, the ‘El’ to begin with and eventually the name ‘Yahweh’ under Moses, and their law, the 10 commandments which were elaborated into the whole code of conduct and their ritual and the Torah gives you the God, the Law and the ritual, and they constitute your religion.  And that made Israel into a community, a congregation.  So this is very important, that religion is normally structured as a community.

Today we don’t think like that,  Most people say religion is my own and it was like that for two or three centuries.  It was never heard of before.  It depends on the whole organisation of today of course, but in the past it could never be and therefore every religion had its own structure of community.  So Israel grows up with that structure and in the course of time centres on Jerusalem and on the temple of Jerusalem.  Israel was originally a group of tribes, they came up out of Egypt and now they think that they are a very loose group of tribes who come together into Palestine and gradually organised themselves there with a centre and that is how the God of Yahweh became the God of the 12 tribes.  They believed in the one God that is why they were violently against any other God who split the whole people.

The next great reform under Deuteronomy in the time of Isaiah, in the 7th century, was that only worship could be made in Jerusalem at the Temple.  Before this they offered sacrifice in the hills in Samaria, but when you come to the time of Hosea then the temple in Jerusalem is the only place where you came worship Yahweh.  So the religion was centred on the one God, Yahweh , one place, Jerusalem where he can be worshipped and one ritual and priesthood.  Everything is organised, and all this is normal.  We don’t realise this but human beings until recently were such an odd people.  We are the most odd people that ever existed really – that is 20thcentury man, and before that everyone belonged to the community.

So Israel has its law, its people, its temple, its worship, its one God.  Then we must always remember that at the heart of Israel there was always the belief that this one God, Yahweh, although he was the God of Israel, the tribal God to begin with, he was only ruling over Israel and its own territory, gradually under the prophets, this one God was seen to be the god of the whole creation.  One creator of the world, the lord, the one judge, a wonderful conception of the one supreme God involved with the prophets and the belief was held that eventually all people would come to serve Yahweh.  You get it in the 2nd chapter of Isaiahm, where it says, “In the last days it will come to pass, that all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem.  Let us go to the mountain of the Lord, he will give us his law and we will obey his words”.  So the vision was that Yahweh who had established his Kingdom is Israel and was worshipped  and all the nations of the world would flow into it.  Great vision of the Gentiles.  So you got in the prophets of Israel the vision of a universal religion. And Islam owes a lot to that.  Mohammed had the same vision, and was probably profoundly influenced by the Bible.  He probably read the Bible, it was not certain that he could read at all.  But there were many Christians and many Jews in Arabia and he was in constant contact with them, and the Quran is full of references to the Jewish and Christian beliefs.  Jesus and Mary play and important part in the Quran, and still more Moses, Noah, Abraham and all the prophets.  So you get this one supreme God and this universal religion conceived by the prophets.

And that is the world into which Jesus comes.  The world of the one supreme God and with its worship in Jerusalem and its law given by Yahweh and this is where the great crisis came in Christianity.  Jesus came up against this because the idea was that eventually all the nations would come to serve God, but by the time of Jesus the trouble was this.  After the exile in the 6th century.  Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians, the king and the people were taken captive and then the returned again to rebuild the temple, but they never reconstituted the kingship again. They were under oppressive regimes, first the Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans.  So they were fighting for their religion all this time and the one thing that held them together was the worship of Yahweh, the temple and the synagogue which grew up in the exile (the meeting together on Saturday to read the law and the prophets and to share together).  The synagogue became the centre after the exile when they were no longer centred in Jerusalem.  So you get this religion centred on Yahweh, with the temple, the synagogue, and strict obedience to the law, rejecting all contamination with others nations.  That was the problem, that Israel narrowed itself very much at that time.  For Jews to associate with a Gentile was to become impure (just as for a Brahmin in India) and these are the same principles at work.  It is a ritual purity.  Why untouchability is so strong in India is because of ritual purity.  You become impure.  A ritual is a sacred rite and to perform it one has to eliminate all that is profane and not sacred.  All rites are like that.  You make a sacred place and within that sacred space you make your offerings and the whole thing becomes holy, consecrated to God.  You are keeping out all the hostile influences, the negative forces, And then certain people become holy because they are consecrated to God in a particular way, and then other people become holy because they are doing things contrary to this.  And so you get the idea of ritual purity.  The kitchen for instance is a place for ritual purity for a Hindu – the food must be pure and so on – and no stranger may come into the kitchen to defile the good.

I always tell this story – I think it is a true one.  There was a marriage feast and they were preparing the good and all the women were working and it was nearly completed (Indian marriages have huge feasts). There was a foreigner who was visiting the family and he did not know anything about the rules and he put his foot in the kitchen and all the food had to be scrapped being all polluted now and they had to start all over again.  They were very strict about ritual purity.

The Jews had the same.  If the Jew came into close contact with a Gentile. He had to go and wash himself and purify himself – just as a Brahmin.  He has regularly to wash himself, purify himself.  And if a Brahmin went abroad to mix with foreigners he had to have a special ritual to purify himself when he came back.  The reason for all this is to keep your holy people, your sacred structures, a holy place, a holy way of life.  And if you allow these things to come in they disintegrate – as with the African tribes

So Israel had the same structure but it was terribly limiting by the time of Jesus.  He was faced with this religion of the one God worshipped only in Jerusalem and confined to the Jews and he tried to break this bondage.  All though the gospel you see this constant conflict with the Pharisees, the religious people.  They separated themselves from the Gentiles to observe the law more strictly.  They were very good people, they tried to observe the law and be faithful to Yahweh, and to keep others out.  And Jesus came to open this to others and again and again he goes against all their ideals.  He is constantly going against the reituals and legal prescriptions of Israel.

In the gospel of Like there is the account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth when he says, ‘there were many widows in the time of Elija but it was the widow in the time of …..that Eliza was sent and there were many lepers in Jerusalem at the time of Eliza but it was Naman the Syrian that Eliza was sent.  In other words Elija and Eliza, the prophets went to non-Jews. And they were so furious with him that they wanted to kill him, because he was trying to tell them that these foreigners and people were as good as they were and so they wanted to throw him down from the cliff.

In the story of the good Samaritan, you see, the Samaritab was a person who was separated from orthodox Judaism, like a Protestant to a Roman Catholic.  He was a very hated person and no Jew would go through Samaria.  It was taboo for him altogether. And Jesus went and talked to this Samaritan woman.  He tells this story of a man down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was set upon my robbers and lay by the wayside.  A priest went by and passed on without looking at him, and then a Levite went by and he passed on and finally a Samaritan, one of these hated foreigners came and took hold of him , dressed his wounds and provided for him.  So he is trying to open religion first to the Samaritans, then to the Gentiles, and the whole of humanity.  That is where the break with Judaism came.  It was tragic.  Israel was indeed intended for all humanity.

But Jesus found it impossible to work within those limits and tried to open the religion to the whole of humanity (to the Samaritan and the Gentiles) and freedom from the law.  It was a very difficult problem.  The law was given originally to Moses, came down through the centuries and was all intended to help people to serve God, and it has its value like that.  People who need rules and regulations make themselves into a people.  You want to be a people living together in harmony, so you have got to have a rule and law to guide you.  And so it served its purpose.  But also law always tends to construct you and bind you and that is the danger of it.  And that is what happened to Israel.  It became more binding and constructing  and eventually the church had to make that very difficult decision to be free from the law.  It only came when the Gentiles came into the church.  St Peter and the first apostles they go on keeping the law; they went on worshiping in Jerusalem, going to the synagogues.  Only when the Gentiles came in came the question – had the Gentiles to be circumcised to keep the law of Moses. Or was it sufficient simply to believe in Christ.  The whole of St Paul’s life was fighting for that principle.  In the letter to the Galatians when a group of Jewish Christians wanted to insist on keeping the law, then you have left Christ, going on keeping the law then you are not Christians).  So it was a tremendous fight to keep free from the bondage of Judaism at that time, but don’t forget there were tremendous deep values in Judaism which remain to this day and the Jew still lived by the deep principles of truth which are in the whole Old Testament and Hebrew religion, but at that time and place it had become very rigid and made it very difficult.

So Jesus had to break with these and the Christian Church, to break with this bondage with the law and set people free.

Now did Jesus found a church?  In a sense yes. Because as I said, there was this congregation of Israel and there doesn’t seem any doubt that he saw himself as the Messiah, the King of the new Israel.  And in those words to Peter, “thou art Peter on an this rock I will build by kwahaho – Aramaic for the congregation of Israel.  He was constituting a new Israel with 12 apostles representing the 12 tribes.  That is undoubtedly symbolic.  We know very little about the apostles apart from the legends that grew up about them, but symbolically they represented the new Israel.  So Jesus certainly intended to free Israel from the bondage of the law, to open their religion to the whole of humanity and to constitute a structure.  It was to be an organisation.  So it is very certain that Jesus himself founded this congregation that emerged with Peter and that is what we see at Pentecost.  After the resurrection Jesus ascends and the spirit descends upon the Church.  Because, as I said, Jesus is the new Adam who reconciles mankind with God and transcends the present world of time and space and then he sends the spirit at Pentecost and the church is constituted by this congregation of people upon whom the spirit descends at Pentecost. At firs it is a small ground and then 200, 3000 gather together.  That constitutes the visible church.

But I think we must make that distinction, that Jesus comes as the Messiah, the Son of Man, who is to reconcile humanity with God.  In him and through him the whole humanity is united with the course, the father.  It becomes one body in him.  Now St Paul had that very profound conception that the church is the body of Christ and it occurs in several of the letters to the Corinthians, Romans, where he compares the church to a body with many members.  I think that it is one of the most profound concepts of a human society.  It forms an organic whole.  That is what we understand society to be today.  Each is a member is like a cell or organ in the body – he is a member of the whole.  As he says, “the eye can’t saya to the ears I don’t need you or the foot can’t say to the hand”.  So each member has his place in the body and all are united in one organic whole.  That is St Paul’s vision of the church, and Jesus himself uses the illustration of the vine, “I am the vine, you are the branches”.  It is an extremely similar vision of organic unity.

I think we can say that the concept that Jesus founded, of the New Israel, is to be an organic whole. This brings us to another point that Israel and most ancient people had this profound sense of solidarity. Ancient man felt himself primarily has belonging to a community and to the cosmic whole and in Israel this was extremely strong.  The word Israel originally the name of Jacob and the people are called after Jacob, but in a sense all the people are one with Jacob; the founder of the race is one with the whole race.  It is the solidarity and they had this sense of so-operate personality.  It was extremely strong in the ancient world, you felt yourself to be part of a whole represented by some person.  That was the value of the king as I mentioned earlier.  He represented the people all were held together in the unity of the king.  So Israel had that sense that they were all members of Jacob.  It comes in the Psalms very much, e.g. 129 “Out of the depths I cry to the Oh Lord hear my voice”.  It sounds like an ordinary individual prayer but it ends up “He will redeem Israel in all its iniquities”.  He speaks as an individual but also in the name of the whole community.

And the same is the suffering servant of Isaiah.  He seems quite definitely to be an individual person. He’s chosen by God, “I called thee from the womb…” and so on, but suddenly he turns into Israel, the community.  So always the individual and the community are seen as inter-related and as one ultimately – and the same applies to mankind.

The deepest idea that St Paul brings out is that mankind is one in Adam (Adam in Hebrew means man), and all men are included in that man.  When man sins, that Adam, that, an, is divided, disintegrated.   St Augustine days – “His limbs were scattered over the earth”.  And then Christ comes to reintegrate that Adam, to draw all the scattered limbs together, to restore humanity, the new man.  As St Paul says, – “He broke down the wall of partition which existed in the temple between the Jews and the Gentiles.  He broke down the wall of partition making the two into one new man.

That is the idea of incarnation, to restore humanity to its original unity to make the new Adam, the new man.  And Jesus came precisely to do that and this core community is intended to be the nucleus of this new humanity where man is re-integrated and restored to unity with God.  And so both aspects have to be kept in mind – the universality of the church from the beginning.  I said every human being is open to this spirit, grace of God and is related to God in some way and through all these tribal communities, through all the larger communities, the Buddhist Sangha or the Muslim brother hood, and in Judaism you see a nucleus is formed which is intended to be a centre of the re-integration of humanity.  And when Jesus came to restore Israel to that centre, to the function in which humanity can be re-integrated with God to form this new humanity, like an organic whole.  Of all being inter-related.  So that is the vision of the whole we need to have.

But then it comes again into history, when you get this little community at Pentecost and it has to struggle its way through the secular world and all sorts of things happen to it on its journey and its not a very edifying history and in many parts we have to accept that.  But all the saints through all this journey through history and all its ups and downs, this idea remains.  Always this idea of a mystical body and unity of mankind restored in mankind.  This unity of God lies behind the whole.

The way it actually develops is important.  Jesus lays the foundation, the new congregation of Israel, the new Israel, the apostles and Peter and I think we can say he initiated the sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist.  In other words a ritual.  There is no religion without a ritual and undoubtedly John the Baptist was baptising Jesus himself was baptised and it does seem that he gave the apostles this mission to baptise.  First thing they do after Pentecost when the people say, -“What shall we do?”, they say . –“To be baptised in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.  So they are all baptised into the new life, the new congregation of Israel, the new humanity.  Secondly he gave the Eucharist. The night before he died he assembles the disciples together and celebrates this meal.  It was a sacred meal; it may have been a Passover, the most sacred of all, or it may have been one of the ritual meals that were regularly celebrated in which you took bread and wine, and you blessed the bread and the wine and shared it together.  And he  took the bread and wine and gave it this unique significance, “this is my body, this is my blood”.  So its does seem that he left the church with a structure of 12 apostles, with the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.  You have got your ritual, your doctrine and your community united in that way, and that is the nucleus of the church really.

Now everything beyond that is a historical development and its very important to see that that the papacy, the episcopacy and priesthood all developed in the second century.  There is no papacy in the 1st century, and there is no episcopacy in the proper sense.  The church came into the Graeco-Roman world and it had to organise itself and quite spontaneously these new functions appear in the church.  In the second century we have priests but there are no priests in the New Testament; there were presbyters, elders, and they administered the church and gradually they were seen as priests.  So by the second century you have a hierarchy; each church has its bishop, clergy and its people and is celebrating baptism and Eucharist and that constituted the church.  All these churches were related to one another – they were organically related and felt themselves to be part of a community.  Your local church was related to the other, Ephesus and Corinth, Phillippa, Rome and all the churches have a common bond in the baptism and in the Eucharist.  St Paul has a beautiful expression of what the church was where he says, “There is one Lord, one faith, one God in Father and all”.  And that really constituted the church.  The belief in the one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith in him, one baptism, one initiation into him and one God in Father in all.  This was the nucleus of the church and now this unity of the different churches in the second century already began to find its centre in Rome.  And you have this very interesting text of St Aromeus, He is a most interesting father of the second century, he was Asian from Asia-Minor who became a bishop in Gaul and who was in very close touch with the bishop in Rome.  So he was a very central figure and was a great theologian of that time. And he had a very interesting text where he says, “By that time there were many interesting churches growing up in opposition and you didn’t know which was the right church, and that is where the doctrine evolved.  If you want to know where the true church is you must find the churches which can trace their descent from the apostles, and he mentions Corinth from St Paul and Ephesus.  He sayd that if you want to be quite sure go to the church in Rome, that was founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, not Peter alone but Peter and Paul.  And then he says that in that church, because of its greater origin it is necessary that every church should, agree with that church or should come together.   It is clear that from the second century Christians converged on Rome as the centre of the empire and also the church of Peter and Paul, and in that the true faith is always preserved.  So that is how the centrality of Rome developed and after that it grew according to historical circumstances..  And that must happen if you are going to have a church in this world, or any organisation it will follow the pattern of the world around, and one need not be disturbed by that.  But on the other hand we don’t need to cling to all the outer forms and structures which the church evolved in the second century.

The Church is guided by the holy spirit. The holy spirit is always present in the church, but it is also conditioned by human, historical circumstances.  And we have reached a time today when this whole structure of Western Christendom is no longer adequate.  Asia has no part in this western church.  Not even 1 per cent of Asian is Christian and Asian will never become Christian as long as the Christian church remains a western structure.

I think one of the turning points of the church is now when it can free itself just as Israel had to free itself from the bondage of the law and open herself to humanity.

The church has to free herself from the limitations of the organisation, doctrines and the sacramental system and open herself to the whole wisdom of the east.  That is the future of the church, yet remaining true to the essential teaching, the essential organisation which is present in the New Testament.

It is just as essentially Christian and true but maybe different in its structures.  Asia would be different structures of the church that Europe would be, but here will still are living these western structures.

So that is how I see the hope of the church, that it will open itself to the East and now a new expression of Christian faith and worship based on the New Testament and equally true to it but expressing itself in the language, the symbols, the culture of all the forms of eastern life and eastern thought.  The same would apply to a large extent to Africa of course.  There is a great movement in Africa, African liturgies are evolving and African churches are very vital and so on.

So new movements are taking place everywhere and there is no doubt we are emerging into a new world.

As I say, we must keep the vision of the reality of the church that is behind all this historical development.  There is this movement towards reuniting humanity into one body, one organic whole through the power of the holy spirit, uniting through Jesus with the Supreme God, supreme reality – that is the destiny of humanity as a whole which embraces all these movements.  Tribal religion and every kind of religion will only be seen as it is on the last day when we go beyond time and space and the whole fullness in revealed.  Within that context is the historical development from Jerusalem, Pentecost, and through the Roman Empire and then Europe and America and now perhaps emerging into Asia.  This is all part of the historical development, but behind it is the essential truth of the gospel and of the church herself which is not limited by any of these structures or forms which have developed in the course of time.

This article is a transcript of a talk given at Shantivanam in April 1984. It was transcribed by the late Elizabeth Hayes, a Sangha member from Worthing. It was first published in the Sangha Newsletter December 2004

Purusha and the Son of Man

Purusha and the Son of Man

Bede Griffiths

We have followed the growth of understanding of God from the ground and origin of all things and from the Power behind the universe, to the wisdom and intelligence and then, finally, the understanding of God as love and compassion which develops in the later forms of religion.  Particularly in the Hebrew tradition we have seen the moral conception of God’s supreme holiness and righteousness, and sometimes God as mercy and love.

Now we want to go on to think of the personal aspect of God.  From the earliest times God is conceived in a personal manner that this is natural in one sense of course, because man sees the world in his own image to a large extent, for the way we see the world depends on the structure of our own mind.  And it is very interesting, you know, to look back and realise that human beings saw the world in a very different way to or three thousand years ago.  You see, we only have to reflect on all ancient religions that they were habitually communicating with God’s and Goddesses; the whole world was peopled with Gods.  It is an extraordinary thing, you see.  And what has happened in the last three hundred years or so is that we have been gradually educated in this rational system of mind, which has developed to its fullest extent in the 20th century.  We now see the whole world though this way of thinking – they call it a cultural grid – in which we see the world in rational scientific terms.  From infancy or from a very early age, we develop our outlook from the language that we use and the culture which we inherit.  Now we have practically lost the capacity to see the world in terms of God’s and spirits, but before this, and in India until recent times, in fact in many parts of India still today, people live in the world of the god’s and this is just as real as our world.

We have simply composed a picture of the world, in our rational system, which is structured in the form of earth and trees, plants and animals and man. Earlier people did no see or experience in this way at all; they experienced it as powers surrounding them.  And these powers normally took a personal form, you see.   Take Agni, the God of fire.  The fire leaps up, you see, you light sticks and this God leaps up, this flaming God, with his tremendous power.  He can burn up the whole forest.  It is the same with the wind; this power suddenly sweeps down upon you.  We have this echoed in the Psalms; for instance. Psalm 29  contains a wonderful description of a thunderstorm, with the voice of the Lord, breaking the cedars of Lebanon, and so on.  So they were surrounded by these powers.

The concept of God is originally of a power, Sakti, that acts on the universe.  The power was seen manifesting in many forms, and so you have the Gods.  In the first millennium BC a comparatively rational view of the universe began to emerge.  The other went on of course, but today people think it is largely a question of the brain.  The right side of the brain is the intuitive side, and that is where we see Gods and so on; the left side is the rational side of the brain.  We have gone on developing the rational, the left side of the brain, almost exclusively – not quite so fortunately – and consequently we have this extraordinary rational and scientific view of the universe.  But ancient man had the right side of the brain marvellously developed and was aware of the other dimension of the reality.  We have simply lost one dimension – that is all.  Ancient man had not developed the other dimension and we have lost their dimension.  Even we see in the last century, Ramakrishna for instance is quite typical, when he was a boy he could see Krishna running about in the fields and so on.  He could see these Gods and the ancient people could see theirs and so on.  We think of fairies and the elves as fairy stories but they saw the fairies and the elves.  They were there.  It is simply the way in which you perceive these powers.  The powers are there and the way you perceive them depends on the mechanism of your senses, above all your conceptual framework.  That is how you see the world, you see.

Now these things go into the unconscious.  The rational mind suppresses them all and they come up in dreams and in psychoanalysis they allow things to come up and you know that Jung found many people dreamed the ancient myths.  The same Gods and Goddesses, and all these powers, come up in their dreams.  But in ancient times they came up regularly, and the dream was not separated from living in the waking world.  Many ancient people would live just as much in the dream world as in the waking world and often, if you had some serious problem to solve you would say I will go and dream about it.  And as you dream the right side of your brain would tell you things that the left side cannot do.

I was reading a story a day or two ago about a man who lived in a forest alone and had apparently grown up by himself and lived by himself, and he had the most extraordinary sort of intuitive understanding.  He was found and people tried to teach him letters and to think in a rational way and the more he learned to think and to read and to write, the more he gradually lost all these intuitive powers.  So there are these two faculties, and each is necessary, you see, and you cannot do without the rational side of your mind, but equally you cannot, as we are learning, do without the other side.

The reason why we are in such a terrible state today is because we have concentrated on the left side of the brain, and we see the rational, analytical scientific side of the brain instead of the intuitive, sympathetic, rather mystical understanding.  In the ancient world they were surrounded by all these powers, of the earth, the air and the sky, the sea and the water, the fire and so on.  And they were surrounded by human powers, and of course the human beings had much greater powers.  There is a word, mana that is used by the Pacific island people, which exactly signifies this power, which can be in the earth, or in a storm, in thunder and so on, and it can be in certain people, particularly a King, a priest or a prophet, you see.  Such people have mana, have power, and they would be conceived as God-like beings.  And in this way you have your Gods of nature, the powers of nature, and then you have the more personal God, and any heroic person, the founder of a tribe or so on, would in the course of time be seen to be a divine person.

In this way human Gods, or, if you like, personal Gods, gradually develop all over the world; and these were real, you see, they were not just imaginations but they were felt as powers, and eventually, don’t forget, I said they lived in the world of dreams and they also lived in the world of the dead. Ancient peoples never supposed the dead had departed; they merely had gone beyond the present sphere of nature, and were acting upon the tribe and the tribal consciousness from beyond..  In this way people were always in contact with the spirits of the dead and the spirits beyond, and don’t forget in our Christian tradition see, right all through the Middle Ages until the 17th century or so, people lived in the same world. They were always having visions of angels and saints, and at the mass you know, we have a beautiful description of this when we say in the preface, “now with all the saints, angels and all the company of heaven we sing your glory”  People used to be aware of all the saints and the angels around them in a tremendous way and they were filled with awe: it is extraordinary that we have lost all of it.

So we get the whole world of God’s in which people live and some of the Gods, obviously, are more powerful than others and always you get a hierarchy of Gods and the lesser spirits, the elves and the fairies and so on,  Then there are intermediate spirits and the greater ones, the heavenly spirits, the powers of heaven and usually, almost invariably, the supreme power above.

In the Bible, El is the name for this God, this spirit and in the multitude of these Els.  There is El Helion, the most high El, and don’t forget (it has suddenly occurred to me) when Jesus was on the cross he cried out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani”, that is, My El, my God, why have you forsaken me.  It is the same word.  You have the world of God and the supreme God above all.  In India, of course, we have the most wonderful fullness of the Indian mythology which has a continuous history of about 5000 years.

The Vedas were probably written down about 1500 years BC but they go back to about 3000 years, and we have a continuous history after that.  And we can see all these Gods in the Vedas; Agni the God of fire, and Usha the God of the Dawn and there is the Goddess of the night, and there were two Gods who were gradually assuming supreme power.  One was Varuna, maybe the God of heaven, but also associated with the waters, and there were many hymns addressed to him, in which he is becoming rather like Yahweh, a moral God and lord of the universe, and you express your sorrow for sin and ask for  forgiveness and so on.  A wonderful figure.  But he disappeared after a time, you see, then it was Vishwamithra, the old father and Prajapati the lord of creatures.  All these high God’s disappeared in Hinduism and it is interesting that instead of becoming dominant they disappeared, and two Gods, Vishnu and Shiva, emerged as the forms of the supreme God, and practically all Hindus are either Vishnavites or Shaivites, and whether you regard Vishnu as the name or the form of the supreme, or Shiva, you see they are obviously typical of these supreme powers.


And we were reading that hymn to Shiva today you see, their various attributes gradually grow in the course of time, and they seem to have all these powers over all creation and over all humanity, power over the mind and the body and everything.  So Vishnu and Shiva emerge as the personal God, the supreme power.  Now this is very important.  These Gods can be high above in heaven but they can also come down to earth and in Rama and Krishna you see have the two forms which Vishnu appeared on earth and that is a kind of incarnation.  The word avatara means a descent of God.  Rama is a great Kind and is seen as a model of righteousness, and Krishna is the great warrior in the Bhagavad-Gita.  But of course, more and more the personification of the divine in all his attributes, Krishna is said to be a purnam avatara, a full manifestation of God.  And in the Bhagavad-Gita , in the10th and 11th books, you get the supreme revelation, the great theophany where Krishna is seen as the Lord of the Universe, the whole creation is contained within himself..

So this is how the whole concept of God evolves.  You see it is a fascinating subject, and you see it is so important to realise  that they are real.  You see we think of it as fairy stories and myths or legends and so on, and we just read about them and dismiss them, and we forget that people lived in that world of the Gods.  These things are more real to them that are trees and earth and such like to us.

So that is our background theme.  Now we can go to the Old Testament and we can see the same process taking place.  The powers were seen collectively as the elohim.  A curious example of the elohim, you know is when Saul consults the witch of Endor and she calls up the ghost of Samuel and he says, I see an Elohim coming our of the earth.  You see a spirit coming out of the earth, and so you see the ghosts of the dead were among the Elohim.  The whole supernatural world are the Elohim, the spirits of the dead, the spirits of the earth, plants, animals, the spirits of sky and heaven, you see, all these are contained in the Elohim.

And then gradually the figure of Yahweh appears as the supreme God.  Nobody knows exactly what the origin was – it was a revelation to Moses when he had an overwhelming experience of God, or Yahweh, on Mount Sinai, and it obliterated everything else and became the supreme manifestation of God.

Out of this great theophany on Mount Sinai the figure of Yahweh appears and it is typical throughout the Old Testament.  He is a personal God and normally the personal God is seen in human form.  He says things such as my right hand shall overcome them, he flies on the wings of the wind and he walks with Adam in the garden.  It is all the divine seen in personal form.  But don’t forget these things are always evolving and whereas in early chapters of Genesis he is walking in the garden of Adam and he is much nearer to man.  He comes to Abraham and has along conversation with him about Sodom and about sparing the life of the people.  But that is more primitive way of speaking and gradually he becomes more remote, he is seen only beyond in heaven and as a religious develops he becomes more and more the absolute transcendent deity, “no man can see me and live”.  He is beyond everything and everybody, and he has his home in heaven.  So you have this figure of supreme God and he gradually acquires this totally moral character; total holiness, total righteousness and mercy.  This is the great evolution of the idea of God.  In human history there had been nothing that had been quite equal to that.

Now that was the world into which Jesus came.  He came into that world of Judaic religion with Yahweh as supreme God and elohim as another name for him.  And with the Angel, and that is another interesting thing. In the early stages god appeared on earth.  Three men appeared to Abraham.  They go out and prepare a meal for them, and then two of them go on and one remains and that one is Yahweh himself.  The angels are only appearances of God.  But as things develop and Yahweh was more and more transcendent in heaven, his appearances were given to angels and particularly after the captivity, probably through Persian influences, there was a tremendous development of the concept of angels in Israel.  And so you have the supreme God dwelling in heaven above and all the hosts of angels surrounding him.  That is what we have inherited.

Jesus, who has inherited that fully says (remember in the garden of Gethsemane) “Do you not think that if I were to ask, my Father would not send legions of angels”.  It is the same with demons, as the angels appear manifesting the power of God, so the demons appear the contrary forces, the hostile forces, which Sri Auribindo them.  In every religion inevitable when you see the world around you, you see all these powers, some of them are marvellous and good and are a blessing, while others are hostile, violent and dark.  In India we have the devas, the powers of light, and Asuras, the powers of darkness.  In Israel the angels are the heavenly messengers and the deamons, and eventually diabolus, that is the deceiver.   The devil is the deceiver.  It is very interesting in the book of Job, Satan is one of the sons of God, one of the angels, and God says what have you been doing Satan? He says, walking down up and down the earth.  He is going on harming people.  But that figure again, you see, from the more mythological appearance, gradually gathers a deeper meaning and becomes seen as the source of evil., of hostilities, of deceit, the great liar, the deceiver.  Jesus inherits that concept of Satan as the great deceiver.

Now we come to the important development in which the Gods tend to assume the personal form but equally as they become more transcendent, we get the idea that the descend to earth in a human form.  They are properly human forms in which God reveals himself and manifests himself.  In the Rig Veda you have this very interesting figure of the Purusha which means a man properly, and it is said of this man he has a thousand arms, a thousand eyes, a thousand faces.  A thousand is a number of completeness and totality and it means he is manifesting in all the arms, eyes and faces of the world.  He is the one person manifesting in all the persons of the world.  That is the great Purusha.  It is said of him that three-quarters of him is above in heaven and one quarter is here on earth.  So this man manifests in all the earth, all the peoples of the earth but he also transcends the whole creation and all people.  So he is transcendent and immanent, so it is a marvellous figure.

The whole Hindu concept of the personal God really centres around the concept of Purusha.  It comes very much in the Svetasvaka Upanishad which is fascinating from the point of view as personal God.  And in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna is reealed as Purshothama, the Supreme Person. So Hinduism arrives at this idea of the supereme person who manifests as a man.  Purusha is a man yet he is God.

Now we get the same figure, most interestingly in Buddhism.  The Buddha himself, so far as we know, discarded all these Gods, and the sacrifices and the rituals of the Vedas.  Buddhism is a philosophical system which is why it appeals to so many people today.  And it is a moral religion too.  He preached the moral way, the eightfold noble path and you get beyond all appearances, Gods, people and you reach to the absolute reality, Nirvana, they beyond. But as Buddhism develops, human beings felt the need for very few human beings can contemplate the absolute deity, pure nirvana, absolute being, transcendent reality.  It is too remote.  They need a figure, an image, a form.  That is why we get always these forms of God and in Buddhism we get gradually the form of Bodhisattva, one who realises Bodhi, enlightenment, the enlightened one.  There are many Buddhas, and we get the Tathagata, the one who is thus – literally one who has transcended the world and realised the fullness of reality.  The Buddhists say that in that form they have three bodies, the mismanakaya, the body by which he appears on earth, the sambogyakaya, the body by which he appears in heaven and the dhamakaya, the body, the absolute reality where he transcends everything.  In this way you have a personal God in Mahayana Buddhism.  First of all he discards all the Gods and had a very pure psychological and philosophical and moral religions, but gradually the human need is no great that these forms return and you get the Tathagata, with his dharmakaya, the supreme body of reality, which is almost a form of God.

Another most important one akin to this is the archetypal man of Islam.  Sufism is a mystical tradition, which grew up in the seventh or eighth century, and spread all over the Islamic world, conceived of the idea of archetypal man who is almost exactly the same as Purusha.  He is the man, the archetype of all men, and every man has within himself this archetypal form which is manifesting in all the different men, and in the whole creation.  The archetypal man is the summit of the whole creation. The whol creation comes together in man and man comes together in the universal man or archetypal man.  He is said to be the eye through which God sees the whole universe, and through which the world sees God. God is the mediator between God and the world.  It is a marvellous figure.  It is to be found in the writings of Ibn Al-Arabi.

So in these three religions we have this figure of the heavenly man, who is transcendent in heaven and yet manifesting on earth.  Purusha and Tathagata and the archetypal man.  Now when we come to Jesus in the New Testament, we see a similar development. First of all of course you have Yahweh as the supreme, as this expectation of a messiah, that is, of a king.  And the king was normally the representative of God and was often God himself.  In the ancient world the king is the supreme form in which God manifests himself and therefore the king is divine.  In all the ancient world the emperor was seen as a divine symbol, and in India all the rajas were divine beings and were very closely connected with the temple.  It is something we lost – all these prime ministers etc are very drab people.  But these rajas were wonderfully holy people; very immoral often, it is true, but still they have this dignity.

And so, in the time of Jesus, they had this figure of messiah, and he was to be the son. “Behold this day I have begotten thee”.  The king is raised and adopted by God and he becomes a representative of God on earth.  That is what they expected.  And you get other figures in the Old Testament, a great prophet, who is to come.  Moses says a great prophet like me will come, you have to listen to him.  You get this wonderful figure of the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the sins of the people.  Various figures emerged in Israel in these hopes and expectations.  But the most important of them is the Son of Man, Jesus spoke and thought of himself as the Son of Man habitually.  It has three senses: one is simply man, as mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel God says, “Son of Man stand on your feet”.  In the psalms it says, “what is man that thou art mindful of him, and son of man though visiteth him”.  It is simly a synonym for man.  Secondly in the Book of Daniel in chapter 7, he has a vision of one “Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven to him were given the power, the kingdom, the dominion”.  A sort of messianic figure appearing at the end of the clouds of heaven.  Jesus certainly identified with him.  When the High Priest asks him “Are you the Messiah?” he does not answer directly but says, “You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven in power and great glory.” So that is the figure of the son of Man coming at the end.  Thirdly, the son of man was also the primeval man, the primeval Adam, and this is where it links up with the archetypal man of Islam and the Purusha of Hinduism.  Adam was that man in whom God was manifesting and St Luke’s gospel traces the genealogy of Jesus to Adam.  He says that Adam was the Son of God.  So you have this primeval man, this primordial man.

There is no doubt that Jesus used the phrase the Son of Man in a sense which could include all these things.  It could be simply man, but it also looked forward to the coming of the end and looked backwards to the beginning.  Jesus could say, “Before Abraham was I am” because he is that primordial man, that Son of Man.

And so I think this is the key to understanding Jesus, who really is the Son of Man, who is man fully, who is to appear at the end as the judge of all, and who also goes back to the beginning.  He is the primordial man, and that primordial man is not temporal, but is the universal man who is in eternity and is manifesting in time.  So that was an ideal image which he could find for himself.  To me that is the most attractive approach to the understanding of Jesus because he is fully man and as he appears as a man at the same time he is beyond man.  This is where I find Karl Rahner has the most interesting understanding, and incidentally, Karl Rahner is the greatest living theologian., and he knows nothing about the oriental thought but he is so profound that he gives a sort of key, to my mind, to integrate the oriental thought with Christian.  And one of his most profound ideas is that human nature is constituted by the capacity for self transcendence.  We all have a limited human self – a body, soul and so on, but in every human being there is the capacity to transcend oneself, to go beyond and to become aware of what he calls the Holy mystery.  We are all in the presence of this mystery, this transcendent reality.  It is this that we find in all ancient history.  Ancient people were aware of this transcendent mystery, the world of God, angels, the saints, all these surround them, but it has no particular form, but is the holy mystery.

So we are open to the holy mystery, and this is the key to original sin.  That man is created wit the body, which is part of the whole physical organism, of nature, with the soul, part of the psychological organism, and beyond both of them is the spirit, pneuma, which is open to the transcendent.  If he lives by the spirit then the spirit guides the body and the soul, and his whole life is in harmony.  If he falls away from the spirit into the soul and body then he loses himself and that is the fall of man from the pneuma into the psyche and into the body, the soma., then to the matter of the world.  And St Paul beautifully distinguishes the anthropos pneumaticos and the anthropos pychicos, the man of the psyche, the soul, the natural man.  The pneumaticos is the spiritual man, man who is living from that spirit, united with the spirit of God.  So with the fall of man from the spirit, we are all living in the psyche and most people do not think beyond the psyche which is the sense of imagination, will, science, philosophy, theology.  But beyond this is the spirit, the experience of the transcendent mystery.  And in Rahner’s theology, you see, Jesus is the man in whom the gift of this spirit is restored.  He has a human body and human soul, but at the point of the spirit, instead of falling away from it as man has done, he is totally open to it; he receives the fullness of spirit into himself. In him dwells the fullness of the Godhead and in this way he transcends humanity. He is the great Purusha – one quarter of him is here on earth, three quarters of him are above in heaven, and he uses that kind of language.  In St John’s gospel he saws, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the son of Man who is in heaven.”  He was aware of all this world, the Gods and the angels, you see, and habitually speaks in those terms.  When he was in the desert the devil came and tempted and he overcame the temptation of the devil, and the angels came and ministered to him.  He lived in that world of angels and he was constantly in communion with that being he called his father.  The son does nothing but what he sees the father doing, he is living from that world of spirits, angels and heaven, the transcendent, but at the same time living a perfectly human life.  And that is what incarnation means.  Rahner puts it very beautifully as man opens himself to God, to the transcendent Holy one and the holy one communicates himself to man.  The movements, of man ascending towards God and of God descending towards man meet.  The incarnation means the fullness of the Godhead giving itself to man and man opening himself to the fullness of the Godhead.

The last thing is the understanding of the Godhead.  We have to distinguish between God and the Godhead.  The God head is the absolute reality, the source of all power, wisdom and eventually love.  And that godhead manifests in all these Gods, in all these forms.  In the Hindu view all the Gods, goddesses are the names of forms, the nama-rupa of the one who has no name nor form.  God is the form of this Godhead, and Yahweh is one form of the Godhead.  So Jesus knows the Godhead under this form of Yahweh, one he calls Father.  And he knows himself as the self-expression of Yahweh, and that is why St John calls him the Word of God.  The word is the self-expression: we express ourselves through words and the Godhead expresses itself in Jesus, reveals itself and manifests itself.  And so Jesus can say non one knows the Father but the Son and no one knows the Son except the Father.  He is aware of this intimate and unique relationship with the Godhead, the source of all, manifesting himself in him.  Secondly as he reveals the Father he communicates the spirit.  The spirit is ruah in Hebrew, and it is the spirit that moves over the water in the beginning.  The spirit is the power of life in the whole creation, but especially it is this manifestation of God communicating himself.  At first it is rather crude as with Samson who receives the spirit of God and then goes and overcomes the Philistines.  But then the spirit descends upon the prophets and inspires them to speak and finally Ezekiel makes the great prophecy, “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh and I shall put my spirit in you.”  The spirit of God is to be communicated to man and that was the expectation, and Jesus is the one in whom that spirit was totally present and who can therefore communicate it to man.

So we get three aspects of God. God the source, the godhead, the Father, the one beyond all.  Then there is the self manifestation, the revelation of the Father in the son, the communication of the Father in the spirit.  This then leads to the doctrine of the Trinity developed by the fathers of the church in the first four centuries, but which is basically in the New Testament.  Jesus speaks in the language of the Father, the source of himself, the son and the spirit he would give.  The fathers of the church saw God as the source, the ground and origin with beginning and the Father eternally manifesting and speaks himself in this world, and eternally communicates himself in the spirit.  So the son in the knowledge of the father, self revelation of the father, and the holy Spirit is the love of the father and the son, the self communication of the father and the son.  And that is the Christian idea of the ultimate reality.  That means that the godhead is intra-personal.  This is very important and there is a great danger.  It is very strong in Hinduism, where you get the ultimate as pure identity, all difference disappears in Saccidananda. But actually in that ultimate reality there is fullness of being and the fullness of being is personal.  A person means knowledge and love and a person is capable of knowledge and love in a human sense.  But the word person points to a reality in God as near as we can.  God does not know in the way we do but nevertheless something corresponding to love exists in the Godhead, and therefore the fullness of personal being, of knowledge and love, is found in the Godhead.

I find that important because for most people personal relationships are most important in their lives, and if in the end all that is going to disappear most people would feel it was going to be rather a blank.  It is not going to be very interesting.  But the reality is the opposite and the fullness of your personal being is realised.  What you dimly experiences with your wife, children father and mother, the totality of experience in the Godhead, the fullness of personal being, knowledge and love is finally realised.  That is the understanding of the Trinity.  That is only one approach of course to this great complex mystery and everything we say about it is analogical and pointing towards it, but nothing can describe or express it properly.  Godhead by itself is beyond words and thoughts.  As the Buddha says we use the words to go beyond the words to reach the word in its essence.  We use concepts to go beyond concepts to reach the unconceivable reality. So God is beyond but we use these words and form these theologies to point ourselves, to relate ourselves and bring ourselves into touch with that reality.  We must remember that all words, formulas and dogmas are words pointing towards the transcendent mystery which can never be expressed.

This is a transcript of a talk given by Fr Bede at Shantivanam on 3rd April 1984. The transcript was made by the late Elizabeth Hayes, a Sangha member from Worthing. It was first published in the Sangha Newsletter in September 2004.

Homosexual Love

On Homosexual Love

Bede Griffiths

By homosexual love I mean love between people of the same sex.   Such love is just as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex.  Another word for it is friendship, which can be quite a superficial relationship but can also touch the depths of one’s being.  Friendship is normally between people of the same sex and many people have found in it the deepest experience of their lives.  A classical example of this is the love between David and Jonathan in the Bible, of which it is said: “Jonathan loved David with his whole soul”. (1) But the supreme example of this love is that between Jesus and the ‘beloved disciple’.  No one knows who this disciple was; but we know that he wrote the Fourth Gospel, which goes by the name of John.  He is called there simply the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ and we are told that he “reclined on Jesus’ breast”.(2) This means that they were reclining at supper in the Graeco-Roman style and this disciple was reclining next to Jesus and had only to turn his head to be in direct contact with him.  As a result he has gone down in history as the disciple who had the closest intimacy with Jesus.  It may be remarked that in India this relation between guru and disciple may be one of extreme intimacy.  They share one another’s inmost being, so that it can be said that they are really one and not two.  This is probably the closest intimacy which has ever been known.  There is a total oneness of being in which both guru and disciple share in a relationship of love in which all duality in overcome.

In Greece the love of Achillles and Patrochus, the heroes of the Trojan War, was celebrated by Homer and in Athens homosexual love came to be considered the normal path of growth in human love.  This was, no doubt, because women, except in some outstanding examples, played very little part in Greek society.  Socrates himself was married, but when he was in prison and his wife and other women came to visit him and began to weep and wail, he had them all turned out so that he could discuss the immortality of the soul with his disciples.  Plato, his most famous disciple, told us nearly all we know about Socrates and described how he went among the young men in Athens, challenging them to think what they really meant by words such as justice, truth, goodness and beauty.  For Plato, as for all that circle, homosexual love was the one way to discover the meaning of love and beauty, He described how young men begin with the love of physical beauty, but they have to learn how to pass to love of the soul, of character and true humanity.  Then they have to learn to go beyond all created beauty to the one, eternal, absolute beauty which alone can satisfy human love and desire.

This may seem a very remote ideal, but is it really so?  Is it not true that physical beauty, whether of man or woman, or of this marvellous universe, in which we find ourselves, can never finally satisfy us, and that human love, both in marriage or between friends, can never fully answer our need?  We are all in search of an unattainable ideal and we feel frustrated because we cannot attain to it.  That is why friends parts and marriages break up, and nations go to war, because the society they have built up cannot satisfy their needs.  There is something which is dragging us out of all settled institutions and all conventional society, awakening the hope of a New Age, which will come nearer to our ideal. Today, perhaps more than ever, people feel that our present system of society, which is destroying the earth on which we depend for our existence, and seems in many places to be dissolving into chaos, is on its death bed and only a new beginning, a new age, can save us.

But it is in the sphere of human relationships that the conflict in society is most acute, and human relationships ultimately depend on love.  For many people religious organisations no longer provide an answer and marriage as an institution is losing its hold.  This brings us back to the problem of love.  We realise now that marriage is not simply a matter of begetting children and bringing up a family.  In its ultimate meaning and intention it is a communion of love.  This communion can be realised by people of the opposite sex, but many are finding that homosexual love can reach a depth of communion and self-surrender which conventional marriage fails to evoke.  This view is not so new as it might seem.  Apart from the examples I mentioned it is well known that Shakespeare and Michelangelo both wrote sonnets of impassioned love to someone of their own sex.  But it may be new to many people to know that in the Middle Ages many monks, including some distinguished saints, experienced extraordinary depth of love, which came to them not as a contradiction but as a fulfilment of their love of God.  This most famous example of this is found in the little book on Christian Friendship by St Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk in England in the 12th century.  “The day before yesterday, as I was walking the round of the cloister of the monastery, the brethren were sitting around forming a most loving crowd.  In that multitude I found no one whom I did not love and none by whom I felt sure I was not loved.  I was filled with such joy that it surpassed all the delights of the world.  I felt indeed my spirit was transfused into all and the affection of all to have passed into me, so that I could say with the prophet: Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity”.(3)

How was it that St Aelred and his brother monks were able to reach this extraordinary degree of communion in love?  I think that it was due to their prayer and their belief in the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ which they shared.  According to this doctrine a Christian is united to Christ as a member of a body is united to the body as a whole.  This doctrine is derived from St Paul, who wrote: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body.  So it is with Christ. For us the one spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of the one spirit”. (4) This union of human beings with Christ in one body is conceived realistically by St Paul when he says: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ”. (5) This union with Christ is therefore not only in the spirit but also in the body.  The human being is indissolubly a body-soul and this body-soul is united with others in the spirit, the deepest dimension of the human being, so that St Paul can write: “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him”. (6)  In other words a human being is an integrated whole of body (soma), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma), and at the point of the spirit the human being is united with the Holy Spirit and becomes a member of the mystical body of Christ.

There is always a danger of ‘spiritualism’ and forgetting that it is our whole being, body, soul and spirit, which has been redeemed by Christ and made a member of his mystical body.  We are an integrated whole and no one part of our being can act independently of the whole.  When we love we love with our whole being, body, soul and spirit.  That is why St Paul regards sexual sin as so serious, because it breaks the bond of the body with the soul and spirit and likewise when love takes possession of the whole person, body, soul and spirit are all involved. This is what constitutes the sacredness of marriage.  But equally when any two persons enter into a deep relationship of love, their whole being is involved.  There is an element of sex in all human love, as Freud discovered, though he misinterpreted it.  In the love of a mother for her child and of a child for its mother there is implicitly a sexual bond.  The ‘Oedipus complex’ which Freud uncovered, is a reality.  Parents and children have a sexual bond, whether it is recognised or not, as so many cases of child abuse are making us aware.  It is necessary, therefore, to recognise this sexual element in all genuine human love.  It may be wholly implicit and consciously unrecognised, but it is always there in the unconscious.

This is what constitutes the problem of homosexuality.  The purest spiritual love between two people of the same sex, such as that of St Aelred and his monks, will always have a sub- conscious element of emotion and this in turn will have a sexual basis.  We should not be ashamed of this sexual basis in our nature.  It is how we are made and has to be recognised as a gift from God.  How we relate this sexual instinct to the other dimensions of love affects all love relationships alike.  If the sexual instinct is allowed to dominate the relationship, it can degrade the whole person.  But a spiritual love without any basis in sex would be inhuman.  This is one of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life – to try to ignore the body and its instincts and aspire to a ‘pure’ spiritual love.  This only means that the sexual instinct is repressed and causes conflict in the soul.  What unites body and soul is the emotional nature and it is in the control of this that the virtue of chastity consists.  If the emotions are guided by the spirit and opened to the presence of the Holy Spirit, then the whole person is integrated and the sexual instinct becomes a positive force – eros and agape, human and divine love, are united and we experience ourselves as members of the body of Christ, realising in ourselves the fullness of the love of God.  But if the sexual instinct is repressed, either consciously or unconsciously, it becomes a negative and destructive force which can prevent our growth in love.

This applies equally to heterosexual and homosexual love.  The indulgence of the sexual instinct at the expense of the soul and spirit can be equally destructive in either case.  So also can the repression of this instinct.  We have to become fully human beings, consciously recognising our sexual nature and bringing it into harmony with our love for God and for other people.  Whether those people are of the same or of a different sex makes no difference.  The love of Jesus and the ‘beloved disciple’, of St Aelred and his monks and of any man or woman in the body of Christ, is a fully human love, which reaches every level of our being and opens us to the fullness of love for which we were created.  In an animal the sexual instinct exists for the reproduction of the species, and in a marriage between human beings this is one way in which love can be expressed.  But human love goes beyond animal instinct.  As Plato understood, it is a way of growing beyond our animal nature and opening the whole being to the power of the Spirit of God.  As St Paul reminds us: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ.  The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord and the Lord for this body”.(7)  It is as members of the Body of Christ that we realise, whether as men or women, the fullness of the love of God and of our own human nature.  It is in the Eucharist also that this communion with one another in the Body of Christ is most clearly expressed.

(1) 1 Samuel 20, 17

(2) John 13, 23

(3) Christian Friendship, by Aelred of Reivaulx, translated by Hugh Talbot (London 1942)

(4) 1 Corinthians 12, 12-13

(5) ditto 6, 15

(6) ditto 6, 17

(7) ditto 6, 13

This article by Fr Bede was not published in his lifetime. A Photocopy of the original manuscript is to be found in the Bede Griffiths Collection in the archive of Douai Abbey.