A February, 2005 article in the National Catholic Reporter 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…
Griffiths, Hindu sannyasi (ascetic), (and) 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.’
This was not quite the path he followed. He was born 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. They remained friends until Lewis died on November 22nd, 1962, the same day as Aldous Huxley and John F. Kennedy.
While training for the Anglican ministry, Griffiths read a John Cardinal Newman essay which affected him so profoundly that he too converted to Catholicism and joined the novitiate at Prinknash Abbey.
He was ordained Father Bede in 1940 and became prior. He had been introduced to Eastern philosophy, yoga and Indian Scriptures by a Jungian analyst, and while at the abbey met an Indian priest born in Europe with whom he traveled to India.
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 (his ashram) was accepted into the Catholic Camaldolese congregation and under Griffiths’ leadership the ashram developed as a center of contemplative life and cultural and religious dialogue.
He began to wear the saffron robes of a Hindu monk, wore a tilak[i], and he took the name Swami Dayananda. His celebration of the Mass intermingled elements of Hinduism with Catholicism.
As one might imagine, his ‘going native’ created tensions with the Catholic hierarchy as did his remarkably progressive views. These included Father Griffiths believing and publicly stating that homosexual love is:
“as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex”.
He advocated inter-faith communities and wanted a church that was more concerned with love than sin.
He realized 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.
He was apparently celibate, but also dared (remember he was a Catholic priest!) to say that ‘when I was young I might have been a homosexual’
Wayne Teasdale, describes what Griffiths experienced.
“Mysticism has but one goal: total transformation into love, or deification of the individual and the ecclesial community. In Christian terms, this means entrance into the fullness of Christ. In Hinduism and Buddhism the goal is moksha, or liberation from the chains of illusion that bind us to the realm of becoming, of suffering and striving. Liberation happens through the process of enlightenment. Whether understood as liberation or salvation, mysticism at once frees us from the constraints of mere social expectation and imposes on us a profound and personal responsibility for others in love and compassion.”
In 1990 he was required to defend himself before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by C. Joseph Ratzinger. Griffiths told him: “If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should simply fold up and go out of business” (according to an essay by Matthew Fox).
In my mind, Bede Griffiths’ understanding jibed with modern discoveries in science, spirituality and mysticism: the interconnectedness of being.
Father Griffith’s way was more akin to quantum physics (interrelatedness of being) versus the typical Catholic Cartesian world view (separate and distinct subject and object), reflected in anthropomorphosizing God as the Separate Other ( or 3 Others-in-One if you will).
Bede Griffiths was a dangerous man, just as Thomas Merton was also a dangerous man, also suspect to the church’s hierarchy, as were Origen, de Chardin, and the others.
His honesty makes him dangerous. His guilelessness makes him memorable.
Just a short distance away from San Francisco, south, nestled in the hills above Pacific Coast Highway, live members of his Camaldolese family. They are the monks of New Camaldoli Hermitage, in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur, California.
[i] a decorative or symbolic mark worn by Hindus on the forehead