Shirley du Boulay


A biography of Bede Griffiths

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

Saintliness is a difficult idea for many modern readers to come to terms with. We are accustomed these days to read accounts of eminent men and women, widely praised by our forebears, who have turned out to posses serious flaws of character or to have behaved in private in disreputable ways, so that we tend to be sceptical about biographies that lack this element of criticism. Is it, indeed, possible for a person to sustain a reputation for holiness at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Does the concept even make sense any more? These aren't easy questions to answer, but a reading of this biography may help you to make up your mind about it, for the late Bede Griffiths was pretty well as saintly as it is possible to be, whatever one understands by the term.

He was born Alan Richard Griffiths in 1906. He had a conventional Edwardian upbringing. At the age of 17 he underwent a mystical experience of Nature which du Boulay thinks was decisive in shaping the future course of his life. At Oxford his tutor was C.S. Lewis, who later became a close friend. On coming down from Oxford he joined with two other young men in an attempt to live without the benefits of modern technology. They acquired a Cotswold cottage and settled there without running water, mains drainage, or lighting to pursue the ideal of the simple life with tenacity, a certain lack of humour, and occasional inconsistency. This lasted for less than a year, but although the experiment failed in one sense it had a lasting effect on them and the three remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Alan was not at this time a Christian, but following a period of solitary living in which he underwent something close to a mental breakdown he converted to Roman Catholicism (still considered a shocking step by many Anglicans at that time), and not long afterwards joined the Benedictine Order at Prinknash, taking the name of Bede. Here he was happy for a number of years. After a not wholly successful period as Prior of a subsidiary monastery at Farnborough he went to another outlying monastery at Pluscarden in Scotland, and it was while he was there that he was invited to go to India to help establish a Benedictine monastery. The abbot was at first reluctant to let him go, but eventually he agreed. The stay in India was supposed to be for a short time but in the end it proved to be for the rest of Bede's life. The initial attempt to found a monastery failed, but then Bede, together with a Cistercian monk called Francis, succeeded in setting up a monastery in the mountains of Kerala, in south-west India. Here Bede stayed for some years, and in the 1960s his name began to become widely known thanks to his writing.

There was talk of Bede's returning to Prinknash, for he was still nominally a member of that community, but in 1968 he was asked to take over a monastic ashram in Kerala called Shantivanam, which had originally been founded by two French priests in the 1970s. Apart from visits abroad to lecture, Bede was to stay at Shantivanam for the rest of his life. It was here that his reputation for sanctity reached its full flowering; eventually people were to come to sit at his feet not only from all over India but from many other parts of the world.

Although he always wore Indian dress and in many ways sought to amalgamate Christianity with Hinduism, Bede always remained a Christian monk. But his devotion was to Christ, not to Christianity as an institution, still less to Roman Catholicism, which he criticized freely and frequently. As the years went by he troubled less and less about the differences in the various religious traditions, which he saw as different ways of approaching the central mystery. His biographer makes it abundantly clear that he acquired the most astonishing personal magnetism, so that people felt it a blessing to be in his presence whatever their own belief or lack of belief. To an extraordinary extent he combined in his person the qualities of a Christian monk and an Indian guru. It is hardly surprising that this combination did not find favour with everyone; some Christians thought he had become too Indianized, while some Hindu extremists insisted he was a Western interloper who ought to return to England. But such reactions, though they distressed Bede, seem to have been very much the exception.

Although he loved India he did not become wholly Indianized; he remained in some respects very much the Edwardian English gentleman. And something of his early prejudice against technology also remained with him, although he did quite happily fly to the USA and elsewhere to attend symposiums, much to the horror of one of his old friends from Eastington days who maintained his abhorrence of the twentieth century to the end. But when Bede became seriously ill and was advised to have a cardiac pacemaker installed he refused indignantly. And his way of life remained resolutely ascetic; he was, for example, appalled to discover that his hotel room in America was centrally heated. It's a relief to learn that he did enjoy the occasional glass of sherry.

It would be unthinkable for a modern biographer not to speculate on her subject's sexuality, and du Boulay dutifully obliges. She implies that Bede had homosexual leanings as a young man, and Bede himself apparently confirmed this, regarding homosexuality as a wholly natural phenomenon; however she thinks it unlikely that he ever had any physical relationship himself.

In spite of his rejection of modern values Bede felt a good deal of sympathy for the values and way of life that he encountered on the West Coast of the USA; indeed, as the years went by he took on quite a number of the ideas one tends to think of as characteristic of the "New Age". He seems to have had a surprisingly uncritical attitude to some of this material.

It is possible, I think, for readers to have differing opinions about the views that Bede held or the ideas he advocated, but this is probably not the most important thing about him. Although he was undoubtedly an intellectual, he wasn't really either a philosopher or a theologian; he relied ultimately on his intuition, and what mattered to those who knew him was his inner quality. I was particularly struck by his reaction when, towards the end of his life, he experienced the diminution of his intellectual capacity after a stroke. Far from feeling this to be a loss, he welcomed it because it simplified things for him and, he felt, allowed him to concentrate on what was important because his mind was no long cluttered up with irrelevant matters.

This is a good biography, which manages to convey the author's evident enthusiasm for her subject without losing all critical sense in the process.

%T Beyond the Darkness
%S A biography of Dom Bede Griffiths
%A du Boulay, Shirley
%I Rider
%C London
%D 1998
%G ISBN 0 7126 7429 2
%K biography
%P 308 pp
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