‘Suddenly from Heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house’
Thoughts from India
It is good to be back from India where I had a wonderful time thanks to the kindness of my friends there. Here are some thoughts to prepare us for the great Feast of Pentecost inspired by my time there.
The ashram where I was staying in the Himalayas had been started by Vandana Mataji, a co-worker of the French Benedictine, Henri Le Saux. Born in 1910 to a poor Breton family, Le Saux had a long interest in India and Indian spirituality joining at an early age the minor seminary at Châteaugiron in 1921 before entering the Benedictine order at the Abbey of Sainte-Anne de Kergonan in 1929. In 1948 he sailed to India to begin a monastic community with his fellow French priest, Jules Monchanin, their aim being to live the ancient Western monastic life within the frame and ambit of classical Indian ideas, philosophy and spiritual practice. The monastery they founded, normally called Shantivanam (The Forest of Peace), survived their passing and today flourishes, however while they both lived there it largely remained (as both priests liked it) a quiet and empty hermitage. Both priests began wearing the kavi of the Hindu renouncer in the 1950s at which time Henri le Saux took the name Abishikteśvarānda (throughout this article I have used the normal English version of his name, Swami Abhishiktananda, omitting the diacritics). In 1968, Swami Abhishiktananda decided to head north to the source of the Ganges where he spent the final years of his life alternating between a small hermitage he had built there and seeking to convey his message to a new generation of seekers to India.
Still controversial today after his death in 1973 there are elements in his life and writings that pre-empt our twenty-first century concerns in a prophetic fashion. A few days after my return to England we suffered the horrendous attack on the Manchester Arena. Watching the groups of mourning, distressed and disconsolate folk in that proud city I was reminded once again of the Swami’s message: that we must open up to the new possibilities that are now arising. Accordingly in this article I would like to concentrate on a key aspect of the Swami’s teaching: that we are now being called by the Risen Christ to a new awakening and the instrument for that call will, certainly, be the ‘vent de l’esprit’.
The Trinitarian Nature of Christian Prayer
In her wisdom the Church presents us with a wonderful series of mysteries to contemplate week by week as we proceed through the church year, beginning with the Annunciation, passing through the mysteries of the Incarnation, the call to Christ’s ministry and suffering leading to his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Now we are led at this climax of Easter to the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. All this culminates in the great feast of the Trinity which we celebrate shortly. For, as the church reminds us, we cannot think of Christian life, Christian vocation, Christian action or indeed Christian prayer outside the Trinitarian perspective. As St Paul puts it in the Letter to the Romans (8: 26 – 29):
The spirit participates in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we should,
But that very Spirit supplicates on our behalf with unutterable groanings.
And the Father who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit,
Because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to God.
We know that in all things God works for good for those who love God
And they are called according to God’s purpose.
And for those whom he knew long ago
He also destined that they be conformed to the Ikon of his Son
So that He would be the first-born of a large family.
The passage is truly wonderful as we realise that our Christian prayer is caught up in the ‘conversation’ between the Father and Son by the Spirit, even if we have no idea what our ‘groanings’ are going to accomplish. The inevitable consequence of being caught up in this conversation is that we are initiated into ‘the large family’, the Church, to which we are destined by virtue of our baptism. Thus, for Abhishiktananda ‘the Church is essentially a spiritual reality and the Christian religion is, first of all, a living experience in the Spirit’ (Renewal of the Indian Church: 1). Therefore, he continues, Christian life must be lived at the level of the Spirit, if we do not allow the Spirit into our prayers and lives we are not really acting as Christians. The Gospel writers talk of Christ as the lodestone of the psyche (or soul) that leads to the Spirit – the pneuma. Christ, as it were, produces, an ethical field that surrounds our thoughts and souls, so that the psyche now has a moral or ethical life. By focussing our lives on Christ, they suggest, we will be led to the Spirit. Contemplation in the Christian tradition is thus not something that focuses on attaining esoteric inner states through self-absorption, but rather it is the process that leads the soul (the psyche) to the Spirit – the pneuma: ‘Those who try to make their psyche secure will lose it, but those who lose their psyche will keep it’ (Lk 17.33 see also Matt 16.25, Mk 8.35 and Lk 9.24).
This then colours how we view contemplation in the Christian tradition. As Abhishiktananda puts it: ‘by contemplation we do not refer simply to a life of habitual separation from the world and its lawful activities, that is to the acosmic life of the monk or hermit’ (Renewal of the Indian Church: 5). Christian contemplation is not a withdrawal from the world but a call to re-engage with the world, but, and here is the rub, with the Spirit at the centre of our activity. What St Ignatius called ‘becoming a contemplative in action’. In a letter to Antonio Brandao written in 1551outlining how he saw the balance of prayer and work in the life of his Jesuit scholastics, he gave a list of practical activities wherein they can find God, concluding the letter by stating that: ‘this kind of meditation – finding God our Lord in everything – is easier than lifting ourselves up and laboriously making ourselves present to abstract divine realities. Moreover, by making us properly disposed, this excellent exercise will bring great visitations of our Lord even in short prayers’ (Letters of St Ignatius in Ganss: 353). As this passage reveals, action and contemplation are for Ignatius two sides of the same coin and one cannot develop mystical pieties without at the same time developing a life of Christian action in the world. Over-emphasis on the latter has sometimes led to downplaying the former.
So therefore as we contemplate these great mysteries of Pentecost let us remember that the descent of the Spirit reminds us of our essential Trinitarian nature: rooted in Christ we look both to the Father in Heaven as well as to our fellow suffering humans on earth. We all live in what Abhishiktananda called ‘the cave of the heart’ but we also extend our hand of service to suffering humanity in the tears and bloodshed of bombs, death and civil strife. For contemplation is ‘the constant attention to the mystery which we are, by nature and grace, in the deepest recesses of our own spirit’ (Renewal of the Indian Church p.6). Edith Stein, the great Carmelite martyr of Auschwitz, reminded us that we sit with the ‘God-man’, Jesus Christ, on the axis of the infinite spirit and finite suffering flesh. Let us remember this constantly in the coming days of what the Orthodox call ‘The Bright Week’ – recalling our birth-rite in the Spirit and our duty to our fellow suffering humanity.
Come Holy Spirit!
Bringing from Heaven
The radiance of your light.
Come Father of the Poor
Come giver of all gifts
Come light of our hearts!