Beyond the experience of duality

The Silence and Solitude of the Heart



(Shantivanam 1991)


The goal of monastic life has always been seen in terms of seeking God. St. Benedict asks of the novice, does he truly seek God, and in India this search for God has gone on from the time of the Vedas giving birth to different forms of monastic life, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. In our ashram we try to combine the tradition of ashram life in India with that of monastic life in the West, particularly as it has come down in the tradition of Camaldoli. St. Romuald in the eleventh century gave the monastic life this particular form combining community and solitary life but also evangelical life or the life of the wandering monk. We feel that each of these paths has its own special value.

The common life is, of course, basic both to the monastic and the Christian tradition in the West. The apostles after Pentecost are described as remaining in the teaching of the apostles, the common life, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. This was always seen as a model of monastic life in later times. In India, on the other hand, the emphasis has always been on the solitary life. Hinduism itself is not so much a common religion as a way of life with many paths by which the individual can reach God. Of these the way of Sannyasa, of renunciation of marriage and property and all human attachments in order to give oneself to God alone, has always been seen as the highest ideal.

There is therefore a deep difference at the heart of each religion. Christianity has always been concerned with the common life, whether in the home or in a religious community and this naturally demands a certain organisation and structure. Hindu sannyasa, on the other hand, calls for the utmost freedom. The guru at the conclusion of his initiation says to the Sannyasi: go, my son, go over the wide spaces of the earth, go to the beyond The only bond which binds a sannyasi is the bond with the guru. The guru is God and it is in and through him that the sannyasi finds God. 

This raises a problem for the Christian monk. For him Christ can be the only true guru – the sat-guru – and any other spiritual guide can only represent Christ. Moreover his discipleship of Christ calls for his membership in the body of Christ and the demands which the common life makes upon him. How can these opposite demands be met? Swami Abhishiktananda was faced with this problem all his life and in the end opted for pure sannyasa, renouncing all human ties while yet keeping a link with the church. But this does not seem to be an adequate answer and Abhishiktananda was never able finally to resolve the problem.

Can the tradition of Camaldoli provide an answer to this problem? St. Romuald started life as a Benedictine monk, but he felt more and more drawn to solitary life and, though he never broke his bond with the Benedictine life, he devoted himself above all to solitary prayer and surrender to God alone. Is this perhaps a model for a monk today? Thomas Merton felt the same call to monastic life but sought more and more for solitude within the monastic calling. In the Eastern church also, which no doubt influenced St. Romuald, solitary life was seen as the highest expression of the monastic calling.

Behind this question of solitary or community life lies the still more profound question of the nature of prayer. St. Benedict organised the monastic life round the common prayer of the liturgy, and gave lectio divina, the meditative reading of the Scriptures, as the principal spiritual discipline. But beyond the prayer of the liturgy, the prayer of words and thoughts, there is in Christian tradition the pure prayer of Evagrius, where the mind goes beyond word and thought and enters into the immediate presence of God. It is here that the monastic tradition of the West comes closest to the oriental tradition. In all oriental tradition, both Buddhist and Hindu, the aim is to transcend both the senses and the mind and enter into the deep self, the point of the spirit, where the human touches the divine.

It would seem that this is where we are being led as a Benedictine ashram. We can accept the basic structure of monastic life with its common prayer, study and work, but within this structure each monk is free to follow the inner call of the Spirit and enter into the silence and solitude of the heart, where God is immediately present. It is in this inner centre that we join with the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Jain and all who truly seek God. An ashram is not so much an exterior place as an interior space. It is this space of the heart – what the Upanishads call the space in the heart of the lotus – that an ashram has to provide. People today all over the world are in search of this inner space, this point of communion with God. Only where people are continually living in search of God, seeking him with all their heart can this space be found. That is the responsibility of an ashram, to provide this space of the heart, where each person can find the inner space, the ashram, in their own heart and the world can find a peace in the midst of confusion.

Bede Griffiths

Shantivanam – 1991