As today is Christmas Day, I thought a reflection on my first spiritual teacher, Father Bede Griffiths, who was an extraordinary Catholic priest and prophet, might be of interest. Of all the people in my life he is the one, I would say, who has had the most lasting influence. First some background.
I first traveled to India early in 1987, and it felt really like a home-coming. Somehow I felt in touch with the culture, with the people and even with the food. This was quite telling, because I must say in all honesty, I never felt at home in the West.
That year I was basically back-packing around the country, just enjoying the new experiences that are available in such a big and diverse country. I traveled from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, and although that year I didn’t get very far east, nevertheless I did get to the western border at Jaisalmer.
Now one thing about traveling in India is that you can come into close contact with the religious culture of the country, as most temples and shrines (but not all, or not all parts) are open to the visitor. Because of this I had a number of conversations with various sadhus and pandits. This left me with a modicum of understanding about the culture and a longing to know more.
Owing to financial restrictions I was only there for around 5 months, as I remember, and then had to return to the drudgery of work-a-day life in cold, grey England. I was living in south London at the time and working all hours as a courier, which was one very quick way to raise enough money to leave again.
Now even in those days I would rarely listen to the news, and I really was working long hours, but somehow one night in August I stayed up and listened to the BBC radio news at 10.00, and stuck it through to the end. I was about to switch off when there was an annoucement for the following programme which was one of these late night religious slots.
It just so happened the programme was going to be about an ashram near Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, a city I had visited earlier in the year, and had good memories of, so my interest was stirred. When the programme started in turned out to be an interview with Father Bede Griffiths, a Catholic Father, who had been living in India since the 50s.
I cannot remember much about the programme or what was said, but I was immediately struck by the quality of his voice, which made me think that if there was a true saint alive in the world, this was him. And I immediately determined that when I returned to India, as I was planning to do, I would go and visit the ashram.
That was not to happen until early in the following year. It was actually something of an epic journey, as I had a stopover on the flight to India in Turkey, and a friend (who was later to become a Muslim) had joined me and we had traveled all over that country, until we were far in the East on the Iraqi border.
We then traveled what must have been around 1,500 kilometres back to Instanbul, my friend flew back to England I went on to India. The flight was to Bombay (Mumbai), and from there I got an overnight train down to Bangalore, and again on to Trichy, where after making enquiries I got on a local bus and travelled out to Tanirpalli. I think the whole trip took about 5 days, and was quite exhausting.
When I arrived at the ashram I was told it was full!
I had been reading a book about Tibetan Buddhism on the way, and one of the things mentioned was that postulants for monastic training might be left outside the monastery for 3 or 4 days before gaining entry. That was a bit of fortunate reading, and I immediately decided to do the same if I had to.
Fortunately I didn’t have to wait days, only a couple of hours, and I was given a bed in a dormitory. The ashram was quite full in those days, but then it didn’t have very much accommodation, as Father Bede was still not quite so well known as he would become later when he was much in demand internationally.
After cleaning up and getting things arranged I went to the chapel for evening service. Still up to that time I had never seen a photograph of Father Bede and I remember watching the monastics as they arrived in chapel, and wondering which one was he.
Eventually a tall, bearded, slightly-stooped old English monk with flowing grey hair entered, looking for all the world, like he had stepped out of a fantasy novel.
I again remember being very impressed by the quality of his voice, when I first had the chance to hear him speak “live”, but also I must say that his message, which was basically built around the harmony of religions on the one hand, and the interface with science on the other, very much appealed to me at the time.
I stayed at the ashram for around 5 months and it was the most revoluntionary period of my life. It was here that I first learned meditation which was to become so central to the rest of my life, and it was also here that I got my first proper introduction to Eastern religious thought.
Although I had had an interest in religion before I met Father I don’t think anybody would have said I was in any way monastically inclined, and if I am now living as a monastic myself, albeit in a different tradition, it is more due to the influence of Father Bede than anybody else.
But more than that he made religion come alive for me. I think before – at least in my life – it was more or less just one of many competing theories that I was interested in. Father though was living a truly religious life, doing that most wonderful thing, which even now I rarely come across: living what he preached.
He talked about compassion and he was compassionate; he preached about harmony, and he showed how it could be implemented; he also taught simplicity and lived a simple life – in a small mud and daub hut, with a string bed on the edge of a poor village in southern India – that was also quite revelatory.
Father’s Bede’s living example, his kindness, his openness and spirit of enquiry were the things that eventually brought religion alive to me, not as something to be discussed, but as something to be lived if it was to be meaningful – it is this quality that is lacking even today in so much religious dialogue – when you meet a saint from another religion you don’t need to be convinced of the validity of his beliefs by argument.
Here is a short video in which he talks about his experience after being hit by a stroke in 1991, this quite revolutionised his thinking, especially about the feminine aspect of religion.
photograph by Fr. Douglas Conlon