in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Christian Sannyāsin: The Third Age and Christian Life.

Dear All

I am just putting the final touches to my chapter on Consecrated Life after our wonderful conference in Bangalore at the beginning of the month. I have already shared the beginning of the chapter and here are some extracts from the end and my discussion of the Christian and Hindu/Indian views of the 'end of life' - old age and renunciation.

All good wishes


In his earlier essay of 1924, The Fourfold Way of India, written when he was in his early sixties, Tagore makes a strong contrast between the Western and Eastern approaches to life. ‘In Europe’, he writes:


We see only two divisions of man’s worldly life – the period of training and that of work. It is like prolonging a straight line till, wearied, you drop off your brush. (p.498)


For, as he points out, ‘work is a process and cannot really be the end of anything’ and yet ‘Europe has omitted to put before man any definite goal in which its work may find its natural termination an gain its rest’. India, on the other hand, ‘has not advised us to come to a sudden stop while work is in full swing’ (p.499).  And this is where the account of the third and fourth stages of life differs so markedly from the dominant narrative currently apparent in the West – that we prepare ourselves for work (schools and universities being the places to acquire the necessary skills for a life of work), we work (the most important part of our life) and then (if we are lucky) we ‘retire’, or as Tagore puts it ‘drop off our brush’ to fill the final years watching day-time TV or visiting the grandchildren. By contrast what he presents us in the third and fourth stages of life is the deliberate and calculated move to renunciation which is enshrined in the Indian tradition…


As we have seen, even in Tagore’s own writing on the four-fold stages of life there exists a tension and contradiction often reflecting his own mood and attitude to his own life at the time of writing. When he got around to writing about the phases in the late Religion of Man, being nearly seventy, he felt able to give due weight to each of the phases and their importance in individual development. Yet, as a young man, writing in 1892 in his early thirties and a decade after the Sudder Street revelation we began this chapter with, he makes an interesting remark referring to the final stage of renunciation – the sannyasi:


If by nature I were a sanyasi, then I would have spent my life pondering life’s transcience, and no day would have gone by without a solemn rite to the glory of God. But I am not, and my mind is preoccupied instead by the beauty that disappears from my life each day; I feel I do not appreciate it properly. [1]


And a year later:


There are two aspects to India: the householder and the sanyasi. The first refuses to leave his home hearth, the second is utterly homeless. Inside me both aspects are to be found. [2]


And I think it is in this ‘creative unity’ that Tagore expressed in his life we find the ‘coincidence of opposites’ that I think could best characterize the ‘Christian sannyāsin’.

The latter phase of life has increasingly become in the West a conflict and struggle with Death as we slump in the sofa after a life of hard work. Hermann Hesse, the Swiss poet, saw the art of life as the art of befriending death and as Tagore famously put it, Death is simply the lowering of the lamps as the dawn approaches…

Where I think writers like Tagore are valuable is that they remind us that this final stage moves beyond the purely psychological. For as the outer forms die we move into a new place. A poetic place beyond the psychological and even the theological. As Pope Francis says, a new child is born as we are called out of the caves of our comfort zones (p.45). In the Indian tradition the Sannyāsin ‘owns no place and no person and has to be by definition a solitary wanderer’ (Thottakara p.561). The Christian, in contrast, by virtue of their consecration to Christ, remains in service to the world even though they do not identify with the world’s goals and aims.[3] As Perumpallikunnel points out (Mystical Experience, p.680) the Indian sannyāsa is one of renunciation without restriction, the emphasis is on the individual relationship with God mediated by the guru and we find there is little emphasis on the communitarian prayer such as the Eucharist as found in the Christian tradition. Yet, in spite of the differences it is possible to see both Indian sannyāsa and Christian consecrated life as two aspects of the final encounter and relationship with the ultimate goal of human life – our encounter with the limit of human mortality and the embrace of Sister Death. Thottakara calls it ‘the Yoga mind’ that integrates apparently bi-polar realities and he mentions Fr Francis Vineeth CMI, founder of the Vidyavanam ashram near Bangalore, as an example of a modern sadhu ‘who tries to awaken the religious-spiritual consciousness of the sadhakas and develop in them a soul culture that is deeply rooted in the age old principles of Indian spirituality and in the immensely rich Christian spiritual traditions without at the same time negating the positive values of matter, body and this world’ (p.558). At heart what Indian sannyāsa and Christian consecrated life have in common is that for both renunciation, whether of the world or the ego, must be connected with love and surrender to the creator.[4] In this way both Indian and Christian traditions embrace on the threshold of the infinite.


‘Child, don’t you know who calls you lovingly?

Why this fear?

Death is just another name for what you call life,

Not an alien at all.

Why, come then and embrace her!

Come and Hold Her Hand!’

(R. Tagore, Endless Death)[5]


[1] Letter to his nephew, 15th June 1892 from Shelidah, reprinted in Glimpses of Bengal: Selected Letters by Rabindranath Tagore, ed K. Dutta and A. Robinson, London: Macmillan, 1991.
[2] Letter to his nephew, 7th February 1893, ibid.
[3] Although as Thottakara notes in recent years both Buddhists, Hindus and Jains have taken to more communitarian models of sannyasin imitating in many ways Christian monastic models of service to the world, the poor and downtrodden (p.562).
[4] It is interesting that the entry to the final stage of sannyāsa in Indian tradition is accompanied by a renunciation ceremony. The Christian tradition of consecrated life has no such ‘vow’ or ‘ceremony’ to mark this final phase – perhaps it might be something that could be developed?
[5]Translated by K. Dyson in I Won’t Let You Go: Selected Poems. Glasgow: Bloodaxe, 1991, p.74. ‘When a sannyasin dies, no funeral rites are performed; there is no mourning’ (Thottakara p.572).

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Events at the Marylebone Centre for Healing and Counselling

Dear All

Please find attached some of the exciting programme at Marylebone for the New Year. I hope to see some of you there.

Kind regards



Tuesday, 19 January 2016

India Dialogue Visit - January 2016

Dear All

Please find attached below a report on my recent eventful visit to India. Many thanks again to all who made my stay so memorable.

Kind Regards



My visit to India began in Bangalore with a plenary address at the International Conference organised by Vinayasadhana (The Institute of Formative Spirituality and Counselling) at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram (DVK) – a theological institute run by the Carmelites of Mary of Immaculate (CMI). The conference celebrated the end of the Year of Consecrated Life initiated by Pope Francis in December 2014 and its title was ‘Consecrated Life in the Globalized Era: Catholic, Ecumenical and Interreligious Perspectives’, coordinated by our genial host, Fr Saju Chackalackal CMI, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy. I was asked to comment on the psychological dynamics of consecrated life and took as my title, ‘The Awakening of the Heart: Psycho-spiritual reflections on Consecrated Life’. Drawing on themes from the Bengali Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and from Western writers including James Fowler, Carl Jung and Robert Johnson I looked at consecrated life from the perspective of the human life cycle. To conclude I drew on recent reflections on the life of the Indian sannyasi from the writings of Fr Augustine Thottakara CMI and Fr Kurian Perumpallikunnel CMI, with the latter of whom I was delighted to share my plenary session so that an interesting dialogue developed. Some of the talk has been placed on this blog already and it is hoped the rest will appear in an edited volume of the proceedings from the conference later this year. Notable speakers at the conference also included Prof Kees Waaijman from the Titus Bradsma Institute in the Netherlands and Prof Franco Imoda SJ, President of AVEPRO at the Holy See and former Rector of the Gregorian University in Rome and Swami Sadananda. All of whom contributed interesting insights to a fascinating event.

          After the conference in the congenial surroundings of DVK I travelled to Vidyavanam Ashram on the outskirts of Bangalore at Bannaghatta National Park. This Christian Ashram in the Indian tradition was initiated by the 81 year old Fr Frances Vineeth CMI. Fr Vineeth was present in the ashram throughout the week and I was privileged to record a series of addresses, meditations and interviews with him which I hope to work on in the coming months to prepare an article assessing the work of this remarkable pioneer of Hindu-Christian dialogue. During my stay Fr Vineeth spoke with eloquence and passion about the influence of the Hindu scriptures on his life and thought, the foundation of Vidyavanam and the life of the Christian sannyasi. I was accompanied by Fr Jose Nandhikkara CMI, another keen worker on Hindu-Christian dialogue and along with the other ashramites we enjoyed days full of yoga, meditation, discourse and a chance to enjoy the beauties of the Indian natural world.

          At the end of the week I returned once again to DVK to form part of the ‘jury’ for the public defence of Dominican PhD candidate: Fr Vinoy Thomas Paikkattu OP. Fr Vinoy is one of 100 Indian Dominicans (refounded from the Irish Dominican province – we had many friends in common) and his thesis was entitled: ‘To be Human, to be Relational: An Analysis of Aquinas and Wittgenstein for a Philosophical Anthropology’. I had not conducted a public doctoral defence in India before and the hall was crowded with family, friends and fellow students. I was enormously impressed by Fr Vinoy’s sang froid in front of such public exposure and was secretly grateful for our more private British system of closed doctoral vivas as I am sure I would not have stood it as well as he did. We awarded him a distinction for his excellent thesis and defence.

          As my time in India drew to a close I had one final surprise. On my last evening I met four young Tibetans from the nearby Sera monastery at Mysore who had risked life and limb, giving up their homes and families, to trek across the high Himalayas so that they could practise their religion and studies in peace in India. They asked if I could spend my last morning in Bangalore teaching them something of the Christian mystical tradition. Not surpisingly, I took as my ‘sutra’, Teresa of Avila’s ‘Interior Castle’ and with Fr Mathew Chandrankunnel CMI we engaged in an interesting discussion on this ‘honorary Tibetan’ discussing the ‘seven levels of consciousness’ in her writing and its similarity to Tibetan models of thought. Themes I hope to explore in future writings.

          I left India with a sense of having been lucky to meet some outstanding practitioners of dialogue and with plenty of material to work on in the coming months. I am very grateful to all the kindness and help shown me by the staff and students of DVK and Vidyavanam and am looking forward to future collaborative work between DVK and St Mary’s Twickenham in the form of conferences, publications and visits.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti!