An Interview with Rev. Murry Rogers
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The Priest and the Swami - Shirley du Boulay
The French Benedictine monk known as Swami Abhishiktananda was one of the great Christian explorers of Indian spirituality and of interfaith dialogue. He devoted himself to contemplation. The Anglican priest Rev. Murray Rogers became a close friend and shared his memories with a writer who was researching Abhishiktananda's life.
It was a dark Indian night in 1959, in Uttar Pradesh, some 70 miles from the Himalayas, and the ecumenical community of Jyotiniketan were ending compline as they always did, standing at the door of the chapel to give a blessing to the neighbouring villages. By the light of the kerosene lamps they saw a strange figure patiently waiting in the mango grove. He was wearing the saffron robes of the sadhu, a wandering monk, and the bags containing his worldly possessions were slung around his neck. It was the Benedictine Henri le Saux, better known as Abhishiktananda. He had come at the suggestion of the priest Raimon Pannikar, a pioneer in East-West dialogue, but he had been lost until the lanterns shed light on the ashram and its chapel. The community members took the wanderer to their hearts; it was the beginning of a remarkable friendship, particularly between Abhishiktananda and Murray Rogers, the ashram's founder.
Both men were in their forties, both Christians, both considered to have wandered from their traditional paths; but in some ways they were very different. Murray Rogers had come to India as an Anglican missionary under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society. He was a tall, imposing figure, married with three children, the son of an English stockbroker, from a privileged background. Soon after he arrived in India, he had fallen under the influence of the Gandhian movement and been forced to rethink his ideas, especially on poverty. He decided it was not possible to share the Christian message by standing outside the situation, so he and his wife Mary resigned from the Church Missionary Society and asked that no more allowances should be sent to them. God is in the mud and the suffering, they argued, and that is where they wanted to be.
Abhishiktananda was a Frenchman, an old-fashioned priest of Breton seafaring stock, who had spent the previous 19 years as a Benedictine monk in the monastery of Kergonan near Briac. He was bearded and untidy, his charm lying more in his vitality, his gesticulations and his humour than in his physical appearance. His coming to India in 1948 was the fulfilment of a dream that had lingered round his consciousness since he was a novice, he wanted to bring Benedictine life to India. At the time of this meeting he was living at Shantivanam, an ashram in Tamil Nadu he had founded with another French Catholic priest, Fr Monchanin. Overwhelmed by meeting the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi, he had become so attached to silence and solitude that he was to spend his last years as a hermit in the Himalayas. As a monk he had of course taken vows of poverty, but he took the vow to its limit, saying: No man is free until he has nothing.
Abhishiktananda had never met an Anglican, nor had he met a married priest of any denomination. At first he found it hard to believe that Murray and Mary were Christians at all; he was, says Murray, chary, constantly needing to remind them that he was a Roman Catholic. None the less, Murray's overiding impression was of a man who was deeply authentic, open and human. He was a solitary who loved company.
Their separate lives and the size of India meant that they only met two or three times a year, but these reunions were charged with energy. They were serious and they joked. Abhishiktananda had a refreshingly down-to-earth understanding of God, seeing him, as the late Professor Donald Nicholl noted, as much in the making of a good soup or the careful handling of a railway train as in our most beautiful meditations. He had no problem seeing God in other denominations or religions, so when friends of the community came over for Bible study, that very Protestant activity, Abhishiktananda entered into it with gusto. More often they sat under a tree studying the Upanishads together, when Abhishiktananda would read a passage and say: You and I have Christian hearts. What echo is there in your Christian heart to what you've just heard?
As their friendship grew, Murray appreciated more and more the rare depth of holiness in Abhishiktananda. The monk, for his part, saw that Murray's work at Jyotikinetan was a real contribution to the Church; he even came to see the value of a married priesthood and the sacerdotal value of the couple. But it was more than mutual admiration that drew them to each other. Both felt they no longer completely belonged to their own traditions and were, as Murray puts it, blessedly at home with a fellow eccentric. They shared a vision, a longing to find God beyond the different religions, beyond the clothing of name and form. Both longed to get back to the source, where all is one.
Abhishiktananda has written extensively, crucial to all his thinking being the value of experience. At about the time he met Murray he wrote in his diary: If I am the bearer of a message, as people tell me, then what is this message? You can bear witness only to your own experience. There is only one thing I know, that I am - this I am, aham, which bursts out in all creation, in everything, in every event, natural or historical.
He always remained Christian and faithful to his Benedictine roots, but his discovery of advaita, or non-duality, the fundamental insight of the Hindu scriptures, caused him the greatest anguish. Abhishiktananda called advaita a royal secret. Advaita is pure being; it is Christ's Before Abraham was, I am. It is the mystery that God and the world are not two. It is the ultimate experience of mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Rumi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
The full advaitic experience was eventually known to Abhishiktananda and then he found reconciliation and great peace, but on the way he was torn apart. How could he reconcile the apparent incompatibility between Christianity and advaita? What if in advaita he was only finding himself and not God? The tension brought him to the point when he wrote in his diary: I wrestle with the angel. I constantly try to deny the ultimate value of advaita. For years he tried to reconcile his total commitment to Christ with his conviction that the advaitic experience is the deepest experience known to man.
Murray described his own vision as the wish that the reality of God (Father, Son and Spirit) might grow inside me; might swallow me up, if I dared to let it. This longing for what can be seen as a Christian understanding of advaita must have been balm to the soul of Abhishiktananda, who for many years found few with whom he could discuss the overwhelming tension in his life.
Abhishiktananda died in 1973, so we must rely on Murray, who now lives in England, to answer questions such as how they dealt with denominational differences, for instance the Eucharist. At first, when Abhishiktananda was staying at Jyotiniketan, he would celebrate Mass alone, standing in his room, wearing his crumpled Roman vestments, using his portable Mass kit and Latin missal. Gradually he and Murray came to celebrate together, sometimes cross-legged by the Ganges, the altar-stone a rock, taken specially from the river. Not wanting to cause offence, least of all in anything concerning the Eucharist, they never concelebrated in public.
Another question, inevitable in the Indian context, was that of guru and disciple. Though Abhishiktananda was not concerned with having disciples, he lived both experiences, his guru being Sri Gnanananda and his closest disciple, at the end of his life, a young Frenchman called Marc Chaduc. Between him and Murray, was there anything of the relationship betweeen guru and disciple? The humility of Murray's answer is touching: I think I wasn't deep enough (to put it in a very Western way) to make use of what Swamiji had to share.
Murray feels that Swamiji, as he was known by his friends, was Cervantes, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote rolled into one. He was Sancho Panza in that he was down-to-earth, never taking for granted, for instance, where the next meal was coming from. He was Don Quixote in the courage with which he tilted at windmills, even at the structure that tries to keep Christianity in one box and Hinduism in another. Not as Murray says, because you can find where they interlock and say this doctrine agrees with that doctrine, not on that level at all, but by surpassing both.
So profound were Abhishiktananda's experiences that he sometimes thought he was mad, and Murray feels the courage of his persistence on this hard path was all the more remarkable because he had a painful sense of inferiority. Though well versed in theology and philosophy, Abhishiktananda felt nervous with learned people; he was overwhelmed by them. He couldn't cope when he was faced with a human being who spoke about the eternal, about the Christian experience or the advaitic experience as if they knew what they were talking about. Swamiji knew that however much he knew, he was in the first form. He was extraordinarily humble, says Murray.
Beyond, always beyond, Abhishiktananda used to say, and that took him to realms where some Christians doubted his Christianity. Just as he could share with Murray the tension he experienced between Christianity and advaita, so he was able to share thoughts that were, at the time, unacceptable to many. For instance, he wrote to Murray just two months before his death: The Christ I might present will be simply the I AM of every deep heart, who can show himself in the dancing Shiva or the amorous Krishna! And the kingdom is precisely this discovery of the inside of the Grail! The awakening is a total explosion.
If proof of the depth of their friendship were needed, it lay in the depth of their sharing; in its combination of intensity, humour and trust. It lay in Abhishiktananda's grief when Murray and his community left India, far exceeding the concern he usually felt when parting from friends; it lay in the three-day journey he made from his hut in the Himalayas to Delhi, to spend just one evening with Murray, who was passing through.
As for Murray, he says his friend opened my eyes on what it means to be in God. I remember him saying, "Prayer is simply believing that you are in God." Apart from my family, Swamiji is the greatest gift God has given me.
Friendship like this not only changes lives but can also affect the spiritual lives of people around them. Here were two people who could share at a very deep level. They could even share what Abhishiktananda called the Ah of the Kena Upanishad: that which is the hearing behind hearing, the thinking behind thinking, the speech behind speech, the sight behind sight. It is also the breathing behind breathing.
* Shirley du Boulay is the biographer of Bede Griffiths... (www.thetablet.co.uk/article/5261)
An Interview with Raimon Panikkar
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for granting permission.