SCHOLARISHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012
Father Francis Acharya OCSO was one of the forerunners of the Christian Ashram movement in India. He was a Belgian who was schooled and studied business in Brussels. By chance he was in London when Mahatma Ghandi was there for the Round Table Talks and he became captivated by this ‘half-naked fakir’ who, though poor, commanded the attention of Kings and Prime Minsters. After serving in the Belgian army he entered the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Scourmont at Chimay, Belgium. He chose this particular monastery because the reforming Abbott was planning to establish a house in India. After serving as Novice-Master he went on to be the Prior of Caldy Island in Wales.
For Anglican readers with long memories you might recall that Caldy island was an Anglican Benedictine Abbey which split, with one group converting to Rome and eventually becoming Prinish Abbey whilst the other group founded Nashdom Abbey which in time became Elton Abbey. Prinish Abbey was the mother house to the Benedictine Abbey of Pluscarden near Elgin in the north of Scotland where I used to go to on annual retreat. The Benedictines there, as at Prinish, wear white as that was the colour of the Habits of the Anglican Order. Fr Bede Griffith, the other famous guru of the Christian Ashram Movement in India, was once Prior of Pluscarden Abbey.
After his Abbott abandoned his plans to form a house in India and twenty years as a Trappist had gone by, Fr Francis travelled alone to India to join two Frenchmen with the same interests: Dom Henri le Saux OSB (Swami Abhishiktananda) and Father Jules Monchanin (Swami Paramarubi Ananda). These two had founded Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanum) near Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. Staying with them for over a year, Fr Francis began to travel all over India studying the monastic culture and traditions of the sub-continent. Finally, at the invitation of the Syro-Malankara Bishop of Tiruvalla, Zacharias Mar Athanasius, he established Kurisumala Ashram near Vagamon in the mountains of Kerala. Soon afterwards Dom Bede Griffiths OSB, after having failed at his attempt to start an Ashram at Kenkeri, joined Father Francis at Kurisumala as Co-Founder. On eighty-eight acres of land donated for the purpose and with two aspirants the four of them began the backbreaking effort of building a community from scratch.
The early days were rough and the thatched huts they had for shelter did not suffice for the summer Monsoons. Supposedly, a visiting Bishop was so moved by the austerity of their lifestyle he wept with humility and blurted out “If I were free, I’d immediately join you”. In under three years the community had grown to over fifteen members and the herculean task of transforming the beautiful but infertile soil into pastures, flower beds, vegetable gardens, and pastures was well underway. Of the natural beauty of the place Fr Francis wrote:
“This joyous site of rocks and hills,
The sparkling jewels of the highlands of Kerala,
A land of grassy slopes with flowers of many hues,
With glades where fair trees dance in the wind…”
They built stone walls everywhere to prevent erosion and irrigation ponds,
and a chapel.
Finally, out of concern for the local poor community and a search for a livlihood, the community decided to build a dairy farm and they raised their own herd from few Jersey calves.
What makes Kurisumala unique is the three streams which make up its life. Fr Francis and Fr Bede early on decided that although the Western Church excelled in precise theological doctrine, brevity in worship, and rational imagery it was unsuited to the East. They felt that the ancient Syrian tradition of St Ephraim of Edessa was far better suited. Its liturgical language springs from the same eastern source as the Old and New Testaments and is a language of poetry and mythological imagery. As a result they founded the ashram in the Syro-Malankara rite of the Roman church. This small church consisted of the Western Syrians from the church of Antioch in Kerala who wished to be in communion with the Bishop of Rome. After collecting Western Syriac Liturgical books in the middle east, Fr Francis spent the next twenty years translating them into four volumes of liturgical books for the community called Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit (Harp of the Spirit was the name given to Saint Ephraim).
The second stream that made up the ashram’s common life was the Benedictine tradition, in which both the founders had been steeped, with the Rule’s emphasis on community living and prayer, manual labour, and Lectio Divina. Fr Francis’s Trappist background led to the establishment of the hermitages that are dotted around the ashram property.
The third stream is the most radical – a complete enculturation into the Indian monastic tradition. The community members took Indian Sanskrit names, wore the pink/orange robes of a sannyassin (an Indian renouncer of the world), wore no shoes, and lived the same way as other Indian sadhus – in poverty. It went further than this though and the offices were interspersed with the spiritual wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads. In time Father Francis, who had now taken the name Acharya (which means teacher), introduced the Bharatiya Pooja – an Indian Mass using traditional Indian imagery and rituals.
I attended the Bharatiya Pooja this morning. Actually I attended the night vigil that begins at 3:45am, followed by the morning Office, followed by an hour of meditation that was then finally followed by the Mass at 6am. It really is quite extraordinary. I watched the server arrange flower blossoms around the central Saint Thomas menorah and low Altar platform in the traditional Indian way for over forty minutes before Mass. The priests are seated on small stools behind the low altar while the deacons sit on the floor. All the liturgical gestures and symbols are Hindu. As all the monks are Indian and the liturgy done perfectly it actually works. It seem solid and stately, well balanced and has not a hint of ‘self-consciousness’ or flakiness.
The only thing that struck a jarring, discordant note was the adherence of the Monastery’s instruction not to give Anglicans the Sacrament. Considering that the Ashram is the meeting point between East and West, between Christianity and Hinduism, and has been a place of pushing the boundaries of what it means to be religious and know Christ – the adherence to the papal ban seems, bluntly, contrary to the vision and spirit of the place. Still, I should not judge too much as I do not know what sort of trouble they would have with their Bishop is they were found to be disobedient. I must say that it becomes harder and harder for me to attend the Eucharist in churches where I am not allowed to receive. I am even wondering if I can slip off to the Mar Thoma, the Church of South India, or even the Anglican Church of India (The What?! I hear knowledgeable Anglicans exclaim! Well it is a long story I will answer some other time!) on some of the Sunday when I am with the West Syrians in Kottayam.
Anyway, eventually Fr Bede departed as the new Superior of Shantivanum and Kurisumala was received into the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance with Acharya becoming the first Abbott.
What I find charming about the community is that they seem to make no bones about the fact that the founder was a bit of a pain sometimes. They say quite openly that he was strict, unyielding and had a quick temper and tended to rub people the wrong way. However they take pride in the fact that these traits declined as he became older and further immersed in the life of the Ashram so that he became more and more patient, gentle and tolerant, as one brother put it
“Father Francis yesterday and Father Francis today are as far apart as night and day.”
There could be no better testament to the power of this place than that they can be honest about who their beloved founder really was, and more importantly that this place became a place of transfiguration for him. It gives us all hope (or at least a strict, unyielding man with a quick temper that tends to rub people the wrong way like me) that Christ can be merciful to us in this life and allow us to become vehicles of grace for other people before the end of our allotted days.