SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012
I am staying for a week at Kurisumala Ashram, a Trappist Monastery of the Syro-Malankara rite which has inculturated to reflect a traditional Indian monastic way of living. I will explain what all that means in a later post. Sufficient for now is that the famous priests and monks Father Francis Acharya OCSO and Father Bede Griffith OSB (Swami Dayananda) co-founded the ashram. Swami Dayananda went on to become superior of the Christian ashram Shantivanum in Tamil Nadu. Of the two, this is the Ashram that gets most of the foreign visitors. The clue lies in the letters after their names: OSB is the abbreviation of the Order of Saint Benedict; OSCO is the abbreviation of the Order of Cistercians Strict Observance. In the early middle ages the Cistercian sought a more strict observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict while later on the brothers of the Strict Observance sought an even stricter observance than the Cistercians. Brothers of the Strict Observance are better known by their more famous name - Trappists. They are often referred to as the storm troupers of the monastic life, although I am afraid they run a very far second to the Carthusians – but then I digress. The Trappists are known for their hermitages which tend to be built in isolated areas near their monasteries which are also built in very isolated areas. Thomas Merton, perhaps the most famous monk of the 20th century, was a Trappist.
I am currently in the less visited of the two ashrams – the only Trappists monastery on the Indian subcontinent. I am also not staying in the guest house but rather, as I had written to ask permission beforehand, in an hermitage. The photograph above is of my hermitage. Did you not see it? Look again.
Do you see it now?
So this is where I will be living this week. To say it is basic is an understatement. When Father Michael, a priest of the Church of the East who dropped me off at the ashram, sought out the Guest Brother to tell him I had arrived the poor Guest Brother took one look at me and nervously insisted that I was in the wrong place and that the living conditions in the ashram were way too basic for me and that Fr Michael would need to take me to some other type of monastery. When I insisted that I knew where exactly where I was and that there was no mistake he relented. When I reminded him that I had been told I could have an hermitage the whole routine began again. Did I have any idea what I was doing?! Although I may just be being paranoid, I can`t help but wonder if I were a little less overweight would have protested so vigorously?
Finally, when all had been arranged a group of three brothers happily bundled up a basic mat for me to sleep on, a blanket (it is cold at night in the mountains), a plastic desk (I think other visitors sit on the floor and use a small table as a desk but after one look at my posterior they though I could use the small table as a stool and they would provide another ‘Western’ table for me to act as a desk), some candles, and (as a luxury for me as a spoiled, soft Westerner) a couple of burlap sacks to act as rugs! Before I knew it I was alone in a real Trappist hermitage on the side of a mountain in the wilderness of the Western Ghats.
Contrary to what the monks feared (I learned later from the Guest Brother that many Westerns flee the monastery when they see the guest rooms which are simply decadent compared with the hermitages) I took to it like a fish to water. The simplicity, or more plainly put, the poverty of the place immediately reduced life to the basics. For a mind like mine which is constantly arranging, sorting, classifying, cataloguing and filing having nothing to sort out except the monumental decision of which of my two cassocks to hang on which of the two nails in the wall was liberating.
The hermitage has a set layout. When you come in the door there is a hall that runs the length of the building. It acts like an extended entry hall. In northern climes you could hang coats on pegs and stack firewood along the wall. In this hermitage there is a sink, a plastic hose to attach to the faucet to fill the shower bucket, a hole at the bottom of one corner for the water to run out and a nylon rope running the length of the room to act as as a clothes line.
Then there is the main room consisting of a pallet and mat for sleeping (you cannot really call it a bed), a desk for writing, shelves for a few books, a small wooden crate for storage, and an alcove with an icon of the Blessed Mother (which has been mostly eaten away by insects) for praying. Nothing more, although I did bring my own mosquito net which I think adds a certain flare to the room.
For full disclosure, there is one other small room off the main one which has an Asian toilet at one end and at the other end, I’m afraid, is a small place to prepare food, or do handy work.
I actually love the hermitage and have no problem with the ‘basic’ facilities. What is humbling is that, as Fr Bede Griffiths pointed out in his book The Marriage of East and West, when he arrived in India he though that he was living simply as a Benedictine until he visited local residents. He then discovered that funature of any type was a luxury, and stone walls were beyond most people’s means. The only reason that the hermitage has a pallet to place the bed roll on is that during the monsoon season the floor becomes too damp. So the fact that the hermitage is made out of stone, has a tin roof, has running water, a toilet and has a pallet and desk makes it rather luxurious. So simplicity it is culturally relative. I wonder what Japanese simplicity would be? Perhaps just sitting down on the side of a hill.
Yet even if i did find the standards difficult it would still be worth staying here because when I look out of my window I see these flowers,
and this view!
Standing outside my front door I can turn one way and see this
and another way and look down on a small tea plantation.
Although I have been attending chapel in the ashram I have also been saying my own offices outside in the grounds around the hermitage. This was my view from the rock I sat on to say the evening office tonight.
As I was finishing the sun began to go down in the West while a full moon rose in the East.
So by moonlight pouring in the windows and by candlelight I sung compline tonight in a little hermitage made for just that purpose.