David Foster, a monk of Downside Abbey, begins his book with a somewhat
alarming experience for a Benedictine monk – a sense of having ‘lost God’ in
his student days and how he subsequently had to build up a new relationship
with God coming from this place of comparative darkness. From this starting
point he constructs an analysis of prayer from what he terms the ‘philosophical
point of view’. To this end he references his account of prayer from the
perspective of many 19th and 20th Century, mainly
European, philosophers including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger,
Friedrich Nietzsche and William James. If these names put you off then this is
not a book for you for Foster loves his philosophy and his philosophers and
brings his wide acquaintance with their theories to bear on his experiences of
prayer. If, on the other hand, these philosophical discussions appeal then you
will find the book of great interest and fascination. Particularly well done
are the sections on the apophatic or Dionysian perspectives on prayer and how
they relate to the current ‘postmodern’ or what he sometimes terms ‘nihilist’
culture within which we currently reside (in the West at least). His
supposition throughout, supported in his argument by writers such as
Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is that ‘contemplative prayer springs from the
roots of our human being’, which for him, using Heidegger’s phraseology, is a
case of being related to our ‘underlying structure of our experience of being.’
The problem, I always feel, when constructing a philosophical analysis from
various thinkers who often contradict each other is what do we do with the
discrepancies and rough edges between the various viewpoints – either we must face
them head on, avoid them or smooth them over. Foster goes for the last position
and so we find Wittgenstein’s linguistic analyses, Heidegger’s philosophy of
being (or should that be ‘Being’?) and the Nietzschian ‘transvaluation of
values’ all brought together in a great synthesis around the Christian
experience of ‘contemplative prayer’. As I have said, for those of a
philosophical bent this may well prove attractive. For those without that
particular affliction I hope the book will still appeal as it does at least
induce a dialogue between our strange postmodern times and the older narratives
of Christian contemplative prayer for, as the author states, this search ‘has
taken people to the frontiers of experience, where we need to recognize the
limitations of reason and conceptual thinking.’ If, as Wittgenstein suggested,
our philosophical speculation acts as a finger pointing to that ‘whereof we
cannot speak’ then it has probably done as much as it can in the present times.
Dom David concludes by hoping that contemplative prayer will ultimately lead us
beyond philosophy to the place where we ‘have life and have it in abundance’.
Happy Feast Day of Saint John of the Cross. Through his prayers may the burning Fire of God fill your hearts as we approach the mysteries of Christmas!
John of the Cross – The Living Flame of Love
yet tender past all telling,
reaching the secret center of my soul!
Since now evasion’s over,
finish your work, my Lover,
break the last thread,
wound me and make me whole!
Burn that is for my
Wound of delight past feeling!
Ah, gentle hand whose touch is a caress,
foretaste of heaven conveying
and every debt repaying:
slaying, you give me life for death’s distress.
O lamps of fire
with splendid brilliance, turning
deep caverns of my soul to pools of light!
Once shadowed, dim, unknowing,
now their strange new-found glowing
gives warmth and radiance for my Love’s delight.
Ah, gentle and so
you wake within me, proving
that you are there in secret, all alone;
your fragrant breathing stills me
your grace, your glory fills me
so tenderly your love becomes my own.
Translated by Marjorie Flower, OCD:
“The Poems of St. John of the Cross”
¡Oh llama de amor viva
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva
acaba ya si quieres,
¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!
¡Oh cauterio süave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado
que a vida eterna sabe
y toda deuda paga!
Matando, muerte en vida has trocado.
¡Oh lámparas de fuego
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
color y luz dan junto a su querido!
¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!
Below are some recent reflections on this wonderful poem starting with John's own commentary on them...
I have felt somewhat
reluctant, most noble and devout lady, to explain these four stanzas, as you asked, since they deal with such
interior and spiritual matters, for which
communication language normally fails (asspirit transcends sense) and I
consequently find it difficult to say anything of
substance on the matter. Also, it is difficult to speak well of the intimate depths of the spirit (entrañas del espíritu, literally
‘entrails of the spirit’) if one
doesn’t inhabit those depths oneself. And as I have not much done that up to now I have delayed writing about these matters.
But now the Lord has appearedto grant me a little knowledge and givenme a little fire... I feel encouraged
knowing for certain that by my ownpower
I can say little of value, especially regarding such sublime and important matters. (LF: Prol.1)
So begins St John of the Cross’s commentary on his last, and possibly
greatest, poem, The Living Flame of Love.
Probably written sometime between May 1585 and April 1587 (according to the
testimony of P. Juan Evangelista he only took a fortnight to write it) whilst
he was Prior of the Convent of Los
Martires in Granada under the shadow of the magnificent Sierra Nevada and
Alhambra Palace, this introduction resembles the prologue to the last work of
his equally famous co-worker and spiritual associate, St Teresa of Avila. John
had arrived in Granada in 1582, the year of Teresa’s death, and I don’t think
it is too fanciful to suggest that in this, his last great poem, he recalls the
indomitable spirit of the great Teresa whose shade often hovers over the pages.
For had she now not reached the place of bliss of which they had both spoken
during their long and eventful collaboration together? She began her last
masterpiece, The Interior Castle, thus:
Few things which I have been
ordered to undertake under obediencehave
been as difficult as this present task: to write about the matter of prayer. Because, for one reason, the
Lord doesn’t seem to be giving me the
spirit or desire to do it. For another, for three months now I have had noises and weakness in the head that
have been so great that I find ithard
even to write about pressing business matters. However I knowthat the strength that arises from
obedience has a way of simplifying matters
that seem impossible, the will is determined to attempt this task even though the prospect makes my nature
suffer a lot; for the Lord hasn’t given
me enough virtue to enable me to continually wrestle both with sickness and occupations of many
kinds without feeling a great aversion to
such a task. (M: Prol.1)
So, both saints approached their last and possibly greatest tasks with
equal aversion. Teresa complaining of ‘noises in her head’ which meant she
couldn’t even attend to the necessary business of running a newly created religious
order and John fearful of his own spiritual immaturity to write of such
matters. Both protestations are belied, of course, by the masterpieces that
they then went on to produce. Yet, I feel it might be a mistake to pass over
these first protests too quickly. If such renowned spiritual masters challenge
the whole task of writing about spirituality shouldn’t we pay attention to
this? As much as Wittgenstein, Freud or Augustine, they stand on the abyss of
unknowing that opens up with alarming rapidity when we stare into our souls,
seeking to map that abyss with the tentative stutterings of their language. The
‘I know not what’ of John’s Spiritual Canticle. John’s Living Flame is thus his final confession and testament as he goes
‘gently into that Good Night.’ A testimonial made not to a priest or bishop, or
even a Discalced Friar, but to a simple ‘unlettered’ lay woman – Doña Ana del
Mercado y Peñalosa. Born in Segovia, to which she would return with John to
found his convent there, she was at this time widowed and living in Granada
with her brother.John’s final
testament, then, is to a woman, and it is to a woman’s heart that he confides
his last attempts at spiritual writing.
Taboo or to do? Is Christianity
complementary with yoga, martial arts, Hallowe’en, mindfulness and other
Authors: Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson
Publisher: Darton, Longman and Todd
waves of non-Christian belief and practice have been hitting the shores of
Christianity in the past few decades. Following in the footsteps of the Beatles, the ‘West’ has become
fascinated with, successively, Transcendental Meditation (TM – remember that?),
yoga, Tai Chi, and latterly, mindfulness. Each in its way has held up the
promise of spiritual and emotional wellbeing, usually through the pursuance of
certain programmes, courses, and nowadays, apps or online interaction. The
authors of this new book – two Australian Baptists – round up all these with
many of the usual suspects in the battle to keep Christianity untainted by such
distractions: astrology, tarot, and even aromatherapy, crystals and angels. The
result is an interesting and diverting book, not least in the insights it
throws on the unease these practices have caused in some quarters of
Christendom. From a Catholic perspective, and to give the authors their due
they respect this, this of course is nothing new. We are reminded (p.206) that
during the re-evangelisation of Britain by St Mellitus he was advised by Pope
St Gregory the Great not to destroy pagan temples but to ritually purify them
and re-consecrate them back to Christ. This is largely the position the authors
adopt in their survey. Taking each practice in turn they examine the case for
and against the adoption of the practice and offer what they call ‘case
studies’ for discernment of each. I get the sense that this will be enormously
helpful for the readership to which the book is intended (probably not this
reviewer) and will help many Christians who are unacquainted with such
practices to feel less threatened by them. The weakness in the book lies in the
potted biographies of each practice. For a book of this size one cannot expect
in-depth academic analysis however some of the summaries do appear on the
facile side and any practitioner of Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism reading the
book would probably be shocked by some of the trite generalisations made. Not
to mention the Roman Catholic reader – one of the few RC’s mentioned, Dom Bede
Griffiths OSB, is considered ‘out there’ and the text has several odd statements
such as suggesting All Saints’ Day might be celebrated in a church the evening
before (isn’t that the whole point of All Hallows Eve?) and the even more
startling: ‘we know of churches where angels are taboo’! That said I applaud
the open-mindedness of the authors which is probably not so easy considering
the milieu from which they are operating. However the authors might profitably
have learnt more from Christians living in societies such as India who have had
to deal with these interactions for millennia and have made a fine art of
sifting the helpful from the unhelpful amongst the spiritual practices within
which they find themselves immersed. Generally the presentation is fine, apart
from some annoying typos and the continuing DLT trend not to include an index –
which really should be curtailed – and in this instance no bibliography either.
Douglas Adams is quoted on p.208 and to quote the master again, in the view of
the authors the practices discussed are ‘mostly harmless’. However in
expressing ‘the need for the Christian community to show maturity and take a
lead’, to accept that we live in ‘a syncretistic world’ and realise that we
must carefully discern how to ‘exercise Christ-honouring discipleship without
“demonizing” other ways of approaching life’ the authors are to be
I have recently submitted two articles to be published by the 'Pastoral Review' and 'Vinayasadhana' concerning these two giants of contemporary Indian spirituality: Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri de Saux) and Swami Sadanand. I had the great privilege to meet the latter earlier this year shortly before he died in April and the encounter made a lasting impression. These articles are part of the fruit of that encounter and I am sure there will be much more to come. I reproduce parts from both here.
I am grateful to
conversations with, inter alia, Fr
Kurian Perumpallikunnel CMI, Fr Jose Nandhikkara CMI, Fr Anto Vattakuzhy CMI,
Fr Saju Chackalackal CMI and Cecilia von Bertrab to help formulate some of the
ideas contained here. For more information on Swamiji's life and work see http://mattersindia.com/2016/04/revolutionary-catholic-ascetic-dies/ and http://www.swamiachan.com/.
The articles are dedicated to his memory:
‘The wellbeing of all creatures is the joy
of God; everything in the universe is the gift of God, proclaiming his
presence; everything I offer at your feet at every moment; O my God your will
is my will’ (Swami Sadanand).
From an early stage of his time in India, Abhishiktananda
asked the question: ‘Does Hindu sannyāsa really have an equivalent in Christianity?’ (Diary entry,
and it was in exploring this end that much of the rest of his life in India was
dedicated (he never returned to his native France). For him, especially after
spending time on the sacred mountain of Arunachāla in Southern India, the heart of sannyāsa became a complete stripping, a
complete emptying which for him was centred upon silence, solitude and poverty:
Sannyāsa involves not only withdrawal from
society, from the social and religious
framework, from social and religious obligations etc. but also a fundamental commitment beyond the
intellectual framework of one’s life.
(Diary 7.1.54, p.88)
We could argue that Abhishiktananda’s sannyāsa was even more extreme than the Hindu
version (certainly more so that Tagore’s). The Hindu tradition involves a
ritualised stripping away prescribed for certain castes (and indeed gender)
only. What Abhishiktananda was advocating was something far more radical – it
was a ‘sannyāsa beyond sannyāsa’ – a stripping away that also included the stripping away
of all (what he saw) as unnecessary religion accoutrements. In 1954 he wrote in
his Diary that ‘Sannyāsa, in its total renunciation and its total liberation, is
incompatible with ecclesial Christianity, which does not admit the possibility
of itself being transcended’ (7.1.54, p.88).In 1954 it was the transcendence of Christianity that preoccupied him.
Twenty years later in his last written essay, on sannyāsa, he prescribes it as the ‘renunciation
of renunciation’ – it would for him ultimately go beyond every religious form,
including Hinduism. The Hindu attempt to make sannyāsa the fourth stage of life was, he felt, ‘an attempt of Hindu
society to win back, and at least to some extent, to reintegrate with itself
those who had renounced everything’ (The Further
Shore: p.17). No
doubt this attitude was inspired by the wild (and possibly psychotic) swamis he
met on the banks of the Ganges in his own final period of renunciation. At this
stage there is no theology or learning left, such a person has become what he
calls a ‘fire sannyasi’ (The Further Shore, p.22) who ‘becomes
indifferent, on that very day he should go forth and roam’ (The Further Shore p.22).
desire to live this extreme lifestyle this was to prove impossible for him. He had
difficulty living in isolation at Gyansu, his little hut on the banks of the
Ganges, and spent half the year there and the other half teaching and
travelling in the Plains. After his own heart attack in July 1973 he realised
he would never live in his ‘cave’ again and died later that year in a nursing
home at Indore.
The Possibility of Christian Sannyāsa?
If then the
traditional practice was too much for a spiritual titan such as Henri le Saux
is the practice one that is defensible or indeed legitimate for Christians? As
is often the case, Tagore suggests a possible compromise solution. As a young
man, writing in 1892 in his early thirties, he made an interesting remark with
reference to sannyāsa:
by nature I were a sanyasi (sic), 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. 
And a year later:
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. 
And I think it is in
such a ‘creative unity’ as Tagore expressed it that we can find the
‘coincidence of opposites’ that I think could best characterize the ‘Christian sannyāsi’.
In the Indian tradition the sannyāsi ‘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.
Yet, in spite of the differences between the extreme Hindu version of sannyāsa (as
attempted to be practised by Abhishiktananda) and the Christian versions of
active holiness it is possible to see both Indian sannyāsa
and Christian spiritual 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
Christian spiritual 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
this way both Indian and Christian traditions embrace on the threshold of the
Nowhere is this better illustrated
than in the rich life of Swami Sadanand, a Christian sannyāsi,
who died earlier this year. Swamiji, as he was popularly known, had spent his
whole life since taking the robe of a sannyāsi,
pursuing justice and truth for the poorest and most alienated in India whilst
also practising the deep ascetic and meditational life of a sadhu. He famously
befriended the murderer of a Catholic nun, Sr Rani Maria, whilst he served his
time in prison so that when he was released, and repented his crimes, he was
accepted into the late nun’s family. Such was the fame of this reconciliation
that Pope Francis invited Swamiji, the nun’s murderer and family to Rome in
2014. I had the great good fortune to meet Swamiji shortly before his death
earlier this year and, perhaps more than any argument in this short article,
his presence and life are a convincing testimony to the possibility of
To experience his smile, won despite a lifetime of hardship and suffering, was
to experience the loving blessing of the Saviour. In loving tribute I dedicate
this article to his memory.
by R. Panikkar and published as:Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The
Spiritual Diary (1948 – 1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. le Saux).
Trans. D. Fleming and J. Stuart. Delhi: ISPCK, 1998. Hereafter ‘Diary’.
The Further Shore, Abhishiktananda. New Delhi: ISPCK, 1975.
 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:
 Letter to his nephew, 7th February 1893, ibid.
 Although, as Thottakara notes, in recent years Buddhists, Hindus
and Jains have all taken to more communitarian models of sannyāsa imitating in many ways Christian monastic models of
service to the world, the poor and downtrodden (p.562).
 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 should be developed?