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).

No comments:

Post a Comment