This man is dangerous

As I advance in years Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius touches me more and more. Elgar was a devout Catholic and the oratorio's chilling story of a soul's journey through death to judgement is, of course, a setting of Cardinal Newman's poem of the same name. Newman was the Anglican vicar of St Augustine's Oxford before converting to Catholicism in 1845 and he wrote his paen of praise to mystical Catholic theology, The Dream of Gerontius in 1865.

Another of Cardinal Newman's work, his 1845 essay Development of Christian Doctrine in which he justifies his conversion to Catholicism, was a major influence on one of the least known and most fascinating religous figures of the twentieth-century, a figure whose progressive views on homosexuality, feminism and inter-faith communities could hardly have been more distant from the prim Victorian world of Elgar and Newman.

Bede Griffiths was born Alan Richard Griffiths into a British middle class family at Walton-on-Thames, English in 1906. He read English and Philosophy at Oxford and he became a life-long friend of the writer and scholar C.S. Lewis before participating in an early experiment in communal living with two male friends in the Cotswolds. While training for the Anglican ministry Griffiths read the Newman essay and this affected him so profoundly that he too converted to Catholicism and joined the novitiate at Prinknash Abbey, which featured on these pages two years ago.

He was ordained Father Bede in 1940 and became prior of Prinknash's sister house at Farnborough Abbey where I was privileged to hear Vespers celebrated in plainsong while writing this article. Griffiths had been introduced to Eastern philosophy, yoga and Indian Scriptures by a Jungian analyst, and while at Farnborough met Fr. Benedict Alapatt, an Indian priest born in Europe, whose vision was to start a monastic foundation in India. In 1955, Griffiths travelled with Fr. Benedict to Bombay and settled first in Kengeri and then in Kurisumala for ten years.

In 1968 Bede Griffiths moved to an established ashram at Shantivanam in southern India with two other monks and it was here that he undertook his pioneering studies of Indian thought and its relation to Christian theology. Shantivanam was accepted into the Catholic Camaldolese congregation and under Griffiths' leadership the ashram developed as a center of contemplative life and cultural and religous dialogue. As my header portrait shows Griffiths wore the saffron robes of a Hindu monk and he took the name Swami Dayananda and intermingled elements of Hinduism and Catholicism in his celebration of the Mass. The photo above is a general view of Shantivanam while the lower image shows the temple where Hindu chants were mixed with the Catholic liturgy. In the foreground is the 'cosmic cross' that was one of many controversial features of the ashram.

'Going native' created tensions with the Catholic hierarchy as did Bede Griffiths' remarkably progressive views. These included believing that homosexual love was "as normal and natural as love betwen people of the opposite sex". He advocated inter-faith communities and wanted a Church that was more concerned with love than sin. He realised that God was feminine as well as masculine and was one of the first advocates of married clergy and ministries for women. Like that other great Catholic mystic Thomas Merton who also travelled to the East Griffiths believed that meditation should take a central place in worship.

More than a decade after his death Bede Griffiths' teachings are still creating controversy. The headline for this article is taken from a February 2005 article in the National Catholic Reporter which opens with these words:

'This man, Bede Griffiths, is dangerous. That the Benedictine monk died at his Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) ashram in India in 1993 at the fine age of 86 does not alter the fact--except to the extent his death intensifies our understanding of our own situation.

Griffiths, this Hindu sannyasi (ascetic), a Catholic priest, elegant in his writing, in person charming, in death could too easily be diminished into icon-only status. His is a pleasing lithograph of shoulder-length flowing hair, neatly trimmed swami beard, handsome face, kindly if penetrating eyes bordered by haloes and swirling smoke of incense.

His writings belie the image. They are danger-daring prods, cautions, lures, inducements, challenges, barbs, warnings and reassurances from a man who found nature first, and through nature God, and through God Catholicism, and through Catholicism Benedictinism, and through the monastic life, Eastern mysticism.'

Although heresy for some post-Vatican 2 Catholics Bede Griffiths views were remarkably in tune with the zeitgeist of the late 60s. He was, apparently celibate, and said that 'when I was young I might have been a homosexual' but towards the end of his life formed close relationships with several female students. His progressive views found an audience and in the 1980s he became a leading figure in Christian-Hindu dialogue and often visited the U.S. where his talks drew large audiences. He died at Shantivanam in 1993 and his work is continued today by the Bede Griffiths Trust, part of the Camaldolese Institute for East-West Dialogue based in California. Visit their website for related audio files, there are audio interviews with Griffiths on the BBC website.

Shirley du Boulay's excellent biography of Bede Griffiths, Beyond the Darkness, from which my header portrait is taken, is now available in paperback and is highly recommended. Like Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain Bede Griffiths' early autobiography The Golden String became a best seller and is again recommended although the more comprehensive du Boulay biography is my first choice.

There are fundamental differences between the teachings of Bede Griffiths and those of the Taizé Community in Burgundy, France. But they both share a commitment to inclusiveness in religous celebration, a commitment which has increased in relevance in the twenty-first century. This is confirmed by the fact that my two articles on the Taizé Community from 2006 continue to be the most visited of any posts On An Overgrown Path, read them here and here.

Now playing - The Kronos Quartet's and Asha Bhosle's homage to legendary Indian film composer Rahul Dev Burman. Elgar to Bollywood is a distinctly overgrown path even by my standards but hear me out. The form of Goan folk music known as deknii is believed to be a blend of Catholic and Hindu music (Goa's population is 66% Hindu and 27% Christian). One of the most famous deknni songs, Hanv Saiba Poltodi Vetam, was used by by Raj Kapoor in his Hindi movie Bobby. Which provides my path to the Kronos' wonderful tribute to Bollywood. While major labels such as Universal Music insist that the salvation of the classical music industry is a reincarnation of the Three Tenors (together with the shellac 78 presumably?), others, such as Nonesuch, agree with Philip Glass that 'World Music is the new classical'. Now wouldn't Bede Griffiths' life make a superb Philip Glass opera?

Image credits, header from Shirley du Boulay's biography, the two photos of Shantivanam from the Bede Griffiths Trust. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Another candidate for my Now playing tailpiece was Jordi Savall's The Route to the Orient which has already featured on these pages.

Like Philip Glass Jordi Savall realised long ago that World Music is the new classical. The Route to the Orient traces in music the 16th century journey of Jesuit missionary Francisco Javier from Portugal to the Far East, a journey that included Goa.

The concluding track on CD1, which is a raga based on the plainsong O Gloriosa Domina, is one of the most seriously beautiful things ever to be captured on a silver disc.
Civic Center said…
Actually, I want to see the Bollywood version of Bede's life, complete with major singing-and-dancing musical numbers.

Monsieur Pliable, you really do come up with the most interesting characters on this blog in the entire world. I stand enchanted.
Pliable said…
Mike, as I advance in years I also find myself responding to flattery.

Erudite, inclusive and wide-ranging quite pass me by.

But 'enchanting' I can take. Let me buy you a drink or two the next time I am on the West Coast.

The worrying thing is that English National Opera will take your suggestion of a Bede musical seriously, and it will be Michael Ball in the title role -
Dom Bede Griffiths was simply what a saint is.And so much more.Must say, your posts are so intelligent without being pedantic or cloying.And damned informative,too
Lili said…
I've just discovered this blog by a roundabout mistake and I'm speechless with delight. I'm sending it to my favorite friends. It reminds me of one of my favorite life events which was being carted off to a "surprise" event in Istanbul which turned out to be an evening of Sufi history, music and turning. I'm off to Afghanistan in 3 weeks which makes discovery of Pliable a very happy coincidence indeed. We miss this cultural depth and wisdom in the US.
Ken Trimble said…
are you saying bede griffith is dangerous, or are you saying the 'catholic reporter is', for my take i found him the most enlightened Christian I have yet encountered, not hung up on old ideals. We come from the Mother & as well as the Father, I mean I have the genes of my mother & father so it is natural. We need to look at things differently the old paradigm is broke, if you look at the world from an old Christian viewpoint I wonder if the earth we have in the West so abused felt that somehow the world or earth is different from ourselves, we are all inter-connected, if the goings-on in the Amazon with the cutting down of trees it affects us here in Australia, my country, we are the same butterfly, Fr. Bede was a visionary and his sorely missed in todays world.....

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