Benedict says there are different kinds of monks. Perhaps each monk who fully lives his calling reveals a new kind of monk. There may be as many kinds of monks as there are people who can so fully lose their conventional, conditioned self that they discover their eternally unique and unbounded self in God. In March I met Fr Bede for the last time during a week I spent with him shortly before his death when he was receiving treatment at a clinic for traditional Indian medicine in
Kerala. It seemed to me that in so fully and faithfully following his monastic call he had become purely and simply himself. No one can do more or is asked to do more with the gift of their life.
His life was a return to the source, of his own existence and also of that monastic form of life in which he found the way to live his pilgrimage. In a sense he traced the way back to the origins of Christian monasticism by becoming a sannyasi in the Indian tradition without ceasing to be what he was and without ever pretending to be what he was not. He was, in Christian terms, a Desert Father.
There are also different kinds of desert fathers. One kind is that described in a story of an old desert father who was coming to the end of his life. He had lived many years of great holiness and disciples had gathered around him. In order to let him spend his final earthly days in greater comfort they decided to carry him into the city. When they had almost reached it he became aware of what was happening and asked them where they were taking him. They explained to the city. "Are there beautiful young women in the city?" he asked them. They replied yes there were. "In that case", the old man replied, "let us return straight away to the desert".
Fr Bede's holiness was of the desert but it penetrated into the city as well. In his last years his travels, talks and retreats were impelled by his knowledge of the desperate need for our urban, technological society to recover the wisdom and the practice of contemplation.
One day in March he said to me "I have given everything I can give, I have received everything I can receive". It was a solemn statement : one of total surrender. I felt that he must be close to death to have been able to make it so sincerely. But it would be impossible to communicate the feeling with which he said it. I think my first response missed the truth of it because I felt an instantaneous sadness, a kind of rebellion against the idea that there could be no more to experience. Does it not sound like despair? But in the light of his other remarks during that time I came to sense the profound depth and ineffable experience of plenitude from which his confession of consummation came. Facing outwards to the world it was inevitably tinged with the sadness of fruition. What is complete is ended and endings must always make us sad. But facing inwards, towards the source from which he spoke, the sadness was instantly consumed in an overwhelming and irresistible joy. The ananda of the Spirit.
For all his 40 years in India Fr Bede had lived towards that consummation. He had abandoned one world in 1933 when he entered Prinknash. One might see something of what he could have become by looking at the career of his friend C.S. Lewis: an Oxford don of deep religious conviction and wide acquaintance. Fr Bede had an extraordinary intellect and a highly refined clarity of expression.
He had been speaking French at 4 and devoured books throughout his life with an unabashed relish for new ideas and for strong debate. In 1991 I was with him when he was ambushed by a hostile evangelical fundamentalist. He was attacked with a stream of theological invective. Thinking to spare Fr Bede the upset of the conflict I intervened to lead him away. But he stood his ground and began to engage the hostile invective with his own fervent but fluent and reasoned arguments. As I saw the reaction I soon realized it was not Fr Bede but his opponent I should be protecting.
For all his gifts and intellectual passion, however, as a young man the life of thought alone could not satisfy him. For a while he pursued a more romantic vision of a life of physical simplicity and disinterested study. He was perhaps one of the very last of that European school of romanticism which embraces both the Lake Poets and D.H. Lawrence. And even towards the end of his life he confessed to not believing in modern industrial society. "It is too full of self-contradictions to survive", he said. But it was not altogether a sentimental or escapist romanticism. The little cottage in the Cotswolds and his attempt there in the late 1920s to form a self-sufficient community was eventually realized 50 years later in India in an ashram that became one of the world's great convergence points for people of all religions and from all cultures.
After the trauma of his conversion to Christianity in 1932 his life became what St Benedict says the monk's life should be: the search for the wholeness of God. Even though, as he would have admitted, it took several major, radical disruptions of his life, a change of culture and another 60 years to complete it, this search for God was his life's consuming passion.
He loved the monastic life in the way he lived it with hardly any interruption at Prinknash, Farnborough and Pluscarden until he left for India in 1956. In going there, as he said, to find the other half of his soul, he was abandoning yet another world. Not the academic world but in a real sense the very monastic world and culture in which he had come to feel so at home. We see his essential monastic nature in the great detachments of his life and the joyful abandon in which he could die from one way of life into another.
He was quintessentially Benedictine, though. St Benedict says of the monk that "after long probation in a monastery, having learnt in association with many brethren how to fight against the devil, the monk goes out well-armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert". India was Fr Bede's desert. There he risked even his secure identity as a monk by exposing it to the fire of sannyasi. And so, as with the monks of all traditions and in all periods people followed him because in being close to his search for God they could themselves come closer to God. He turned no one away.
He believed in monasticism. But he felt that western monasticism needed the catalyst of the encounter with its eastern counterpart if it was to recover its spiritual potency. Above all he believed that the monastery was meant to be a centre of contemplation and monks were called to be the spiritual guides of a world thirsty for the gift of prayer. Monasteries he said, in that week I spent with him, were once at the living centre of society. Then they marginalized themselves. But today they are called again to be at the centre of life relinking society to the spiritual life from which it feels itself so tragically alienated.
Fr Bede's life and teaching that we celebrate in this cathedral today shows us that the wholeness of God is each person's deepest thirst and hunger. The risks Fr Bede took with his own life show that this wholeness is found not in comfortable compromises but in the reconciliation of extremes - a reconciliation in which we must risk everything we have gained so far in order to go into a deeper poverty of spirit. One certainly felt in his presence a mysterious and unique reconciliation - he called it a "marriage" - of east and west.
By the end of his life he had discovered how boundless is the tolerance and compassion needed to seek the God who is "all in all". The "theory of everything" which physicists today are seeking is not, he knew, a merely conceptual insight. It is that union of insight and communion or inter-being we call Love.
Fr Bede's universality and cosmic sense of the Christian revelation made some people very uneasy. Any truly universal, prophetic vision must do so because it exposes and undermines the ways we defend the very structures of mind or society which we must at last surrender. He was attacked by fundamentalists in both his own and other religions. Then his native gifts of clear and cool reasoning and his taste for debate bore him up. But because he lived so long, time caught up with him. And so,he lived to see a generation of spiritual seekers who understood and responded to that immense solitary step he had once taken in going to India. Because he took that step of faith at the right moment in his life and never took back what he had once abandoned, he never grew old. The young flocked to his ashram on the banks of the Cauvery River because they found in this sharp minded and gentle octogenarian one like themselves.
As I sat with him during the afternoons after he had received his sometimes painful massage treatment, ("wonderfully transformative" he would call it soon after), I would read him from the Gospel of John. I have never experienced such intense attentiveness. The way he listened and fed on those words forced me to read them in a way that showed them really to be "words of life". "This is too wonderful" he said one day "it is all I can take for now." He then lay in silence digesting the words and then motioned to me to continue. "I believe, I believe. Thanks be to God." When I read him the words we listened to a few moments ago, "This is my commandment that you love one another" he caught his breath and lifted his finger with emphasis and said "That is the whole gospel".
Fr Bede came to a most powerful purity of being in those weeks before he died. And at the purest core of that purity of heart, with all its gentleness and all-embracing compassion, was his personal love for Jesus. Over and over he returned to what he called "the great gift of my life" and wept with gratitude for the redemptive power of God which he said he had received through Jesus Christ. It is so important to emphasize this I think because his profound experience of personal union with Jesus coincided and indeed grew in proportion to his undimmed sense of the universal source of all religions and therefore the holiness of all faiths. It was precisely his experience of the love of Jesus that opened his mind to see the need for a relationship of deep reverence between all religions as they made their way back to the Source.
His intelligence, the vigour of his prophetic, controversial temperament were powerful but not, therefore, the deepest drives of his personality. They have given the church and the dialogue with other faiths immense riches. But his deepest drive was always to explore to the fullest degree that experience of union with God which had first overwhelmed him as a schoolboy boy one summer evening in Sussex in a moment out of time. As he explored it throughout his life, in body, mind and spirit, he was also explored by it. As a consequence, his monastic life opened his heart to a fullness and richness of human feeling. This in turn led him to a great sweetness of nature and a warm and gentle humanity whose childlike innocence had an irresistible strength and power of persuasion.
After a lifetime of following the monastic adventure and long pilgrimages of thought he came to the end of his life filled with what St Benedict described as "the inexpressible sweetness of love". It is because of this, his final transformation, visible to our eyes that we have something of wonder and value for us all to celebrate, Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems, Buddhists, Jews, Bahais, Christians and all our family of religions. Because of being able to celebrate it here we should be thankful to Fr Bede for the grace of this occasion. As a result we must hear our own call and see our own direction that much more clearly in the light of the "bliss of compassion": dhyananda, the name he took when he abandoned himself to the living God in sannyasa.
Laurence Freeman OSB
Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine monk of the Monastery of Christ the King, London, and spiritual guide of the World Community for Christian Meditation.
Click here for information about Bede Griffiths' book on John Main and Christian Meditation titled The New Creation in Christ: Meditation and Community.