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Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths
by Shirley Du Boulay
New York: Doubleday, 1998
(308 pages; $24.95, cloth)
by Dale Nelson
C. S. Lewis’s admirers have long appreciated a couple of autobiographies by pupils (and friends) of Lewis, published in his lifetime—John Wain’s Sprightly Running and Bede Griffiths’ The Golden String. Wain’s account of the wartime Inklings meetings, and the popularity of Lewis’s Oxford Socratic Club debates and Charles Williams’s rhapsodic lectures on Milton, belongs to a later period of Lewis’s career than Griffiths’ record of Lewis as a young scholar and tutor at Magdalene College.
Neither Lewis nor Griffiths was a Christian in 1926 or thereabouts, when Griffiths, hoping through the poetic imagination to come closer to truth, changed the focus of his university work from classical to English literature, and acquired Lewis as tutor. They became friends, discussing their ideas, pursuing a spiritual quest that had begun with intense experiences of “Joy,” and recommending books to one another. Griffiths contributed a valuable essay to James Como’s collection, C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, recalling how Lewis commented, shortly before his death, on their nearly forty years of friendship.
Their ways diverged, however, soon after both returned to Christian faith and practice in the early 1930s. Alan Griffiths (December 17, 1906—May 13, 1993) became a Roman Catholic and, almost at the same time, a Benedictine monk; Lewis, remaining Anglican, decided against lengthy debate of their theological differences, complaining, “With other Catholics I find no difficulty in deriving much edification from religious talk on the common ground: but you refuse to show any interest except in differences.”
Alan Griffiths was clothed as a postulant in January 1933. Almost five years later, he made his solemn profession as a monk, and in March 1940 was ordained a priest. He received the name Bede. In April 1947 he became prior of St. Michael’s Abbey at Farnborough, England, where he developed something of a following as a spiritual guide to lay visitors and was the postulants’ Master of Studies. In December 1951, his abbot sent him to the northernmost Benedictine abbey in the world, Pluscarden in Scotland, perhaps concerned about an overly hospitable “apostolate of the parlour.” Here Father Bede wrote his autobiography, the “golden string” of the title referring to “the grace which is given to every soul, hidden under the circumstances of our daily life, and easily lost if we choose not to attend to it,” which leads “out of the labyrinth of life” to union with God. At Farnborough, he had met Father Benedict Alapatt, an Indian priest who fired him with the desire to set up, not missions and social work, but contemplative Christian life in India. Griffiths secured an “indult of exclaustration,” meaning official permission to leave the abbey to which he had been assigned. At the last moment the archbishop of Bangalore apparently got cold feet and sent a telegram against the trip; Griffiths ignored it, and he and Fr. Benedict arrived in India in March 1955.
It was his own bishop in India who gave him and his partner, Fr. Francis, saffron robes to wear—the identifying garment of the Hindu holy man. Early in the Indian portion of his life, Griffiths thought of Hinduism and Buddhism as providing “types and shadows of Christ” and the Church, awaiting, as did Judaism, the complete revelation of God, including the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. By 1962, though, Fr. Bede appears to have decided that the Christian’s task in India was “to discover Christ already present and active in the Hindu soul,” waiting to be born. For Christians in the Reformation tradition, this is a good example of “enthusiasm” or a “theology of glory,” at odds with the genuine theology of the Cross.
Griffiths certainly clashed with representatives of his own Church, as, for example, late in his life when he criticized Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter cautioning bishops about certain meditative practices. His Christian ashram had statuary depicting the Holy Spirit as feminine and Christ seated in lotus posture. He was ready to affirm adventitious “parallels” between faiths, e.g., that the Trinity is evident in the Hindu formula sat (being) chit (awareness) ananda (bliss). Perhaps once one has persuaded oneself that all religions are one, it is rather easy to make this sort of correlation. The root of the error seems to be in this idea: mystical experience is the summit of the life of faith; but manifestly other religions, as well as Christianity, foster mystical experience; therefore, at their best, all religions are one. If one starts with the idea that the gospel—the Atonement, the Cross, the Resurrection—is the essence of the Christian life, one does not so readily adopt the unity of religions.
The trajectory of Griffiths’ thought, then, took him far from the mere Christianity that his friend Lewis propounded in radio series and popular books. While Lewis thought Catholic authorities were right to make Pierre Teilhard de Chardin “shut up,” Griffiths sounds like the radical French priest when he writes, “This creation is in evolution towards the new creation.” In the years after Lewis’s death (1963), Griffiths achieved considerable fame, too, but as a proponent of what is now sometimes called “deep ecumenism,” and he looked to classical Hindu and Buddhist ideas and practices, and other non-Christian ways as well.
He affirmed the Kundalini Yoga conception of energy centers in the body, and eventually approved the Maharishi’s transcendental meditation. From 1968 till his death, his home was Shantivanam ashram, on the Cavery River in India. Liturgical readings incorporated passages from the Bible and from the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu religious writings. In later years he read a book on the symbolism of Tarot cards and found it “the last word in wisdom,” and imagined the creation of a “community of love” each of whose members would be paired with one of the Tarot symbols: a married couple he was close to would have the roles of Magician and Empress, Griffiths himself would be the Hermit, etc. He said too that homosexual love could be “as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex.”
A month after a stroke in early 1990, Griffiths had an experience in which he felt that he was again near death; he felt a sense of unity with Christ on the cross, but “nothing happened”; and then, he felt an “inspiration . . . to surrender to the Mother.” He did so and felt overwhelming love. “Death, the Mother, the Void, all was love.” Andrew Harvey, author of The Direct Path: Creating a Journey to the Divine Through the World’s Mystical Traditions and editor of Essential Gay Mystics, reported that Griffiths “believed his stroke to be an initiation by the Mother (specifically in her Kali or Black Madonna aspect as Saving Destroyer and Killer of Illusion). [Griffiths was ‘compelled’ by her to] integrate within himself the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ powers of his mind and soul as to give birth with increasing passion, purity and intensity to the Divine Child within him, the ‘Christ-consciousness.’”
This biography by Shirley Du Boulay is largely the chronicle of how Griffiths became a sannyasin or holy man in India, believing that Hinduism and Christianity fulfill one another, reinterpreting or shedding Catholic doctrines along the way. On the evidence from The Golden String and Du Boulay’s biography, Griffiths’ development is not surprising. His father was remote, unreal, ineffectual; his mother capable and emotionally close to him; it appears to be true that male children from such families often find orthodox Christianity and Christian sexual teaching very hard to accept. His earliest mystical experiences were of nature; they were not specifically Christian. He became a pacifist. Rejecting industrial civilization as a young man, he and two friends practiced extreme austerities for months before Griffiths embraced Christianity. (In fact, when he became a monk, he found the relatively ample diet difficult to adjust to.) Although he was a student of Aquinas and Newman as a young man, he also prized Eastern works virtually from the beginning of his spiritual explorations. Later, a Jungian analyst became an important friend, and he was fascinated by the Jungian doctrine of the coincidence of opposites.
The inner division that seemed most prominent in his life, and that he came to hope he would be able to resolve in India, was not attributed to the sinner’s bondage to sin and his estrangement from a holy God, but to a split between the reason and consciousness on one side, and the deep springs of the spirit on the other. He perceived this division as cultural, too; the West was excessively rational and masculine, the East was intuitive and feminine. The essence of the spiritual life, then, was integrative—his outer vocation being the reconciliation of religions, his inner task being, ultimately, to experience non-duality of self and God.
Du Boulay claims that Griffiths was alert to the dangers of syncretism, but also relates such things as his presentation of the four-armed dancing Shiva image to the nuns of the Osage Monastery, intended as a symbol of Christ. They placed it in a side chapel. Incidentally, Du Boulay reports that the sisters chose the name “Osage Monastery” in part because of the way it would be abbreviated! “I cannot conceive of Christ now except in terms of Vedanta,” he wrote in 1971. Griffiths does not seem to have been interested in the New Testament’s dualism: its account of God’s warfare with the devil, and salvation as atonement, redemption through Christ’s blood, forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the power of darkness, and placement in the kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:12–13).
So far as I can tell, Du Boulay’s book is sufficiently researched but is not wholly reliable. She relates as a “first impression” of Lewis’s appearance a description that is taken from Griffiths’ Breakfast Table essay; it probably applies much better to Lewis years later. She suggests that Griffiths did not join Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams for Inklings meetings because of the group’s drinking and laughter; actually, according to Humphrey Carpenter, the earliest date for the Lewis Inklings is 1933, the year Griffiths began his monastic career, and Charles Williams did not join till 1939. She misunderstands a remark in The Golden String (of which much of the early part of her book is a paraphrase), about its being better to go to hell with the great lovers than to heaven with the saints; she says that he derived this idea from Dante, but what Griffiths wrote was that he had thought that prior to reading Dante.
She writes in the hope of increasing the visibility of Griffiths’ ideas, particularly as he came to believe that the world religions “are all in their different ways forms of the one true religion, which has been made known to man from the beginning of the world, though they are all in their different ways corrupted or distorted,” the “original divine truth” underlying them being discovered by experience. She knows that Griffiths’ ideas are widely accepted now, with corresponding practices (there are “at least fifty” Christian ashrams in India now, she says). Granting warm blurbs for her biography are Hans Küng, Matthew Fox, and Andrew Harvey. As the United Religions Initiative and countless grassroots enterprises show, Griffiths’ ideas are likely to be ubiquitous in the twenty-first century.
Dale Nelson is associate professor of English at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.