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Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffiths, 86, dies in India.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - He died May 13 at his southern India ashram, they say, but even at age 86 and on the edge of death Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffiths was still running so far ahead of the pack that his life's momentum will quicken him for many springs to come.

Here was this English gentleman, a scholar, going off to India in 1955, long before it became a fashionable destination for religious seekers from the West, to found a contemplative community. What he founded, really, wrapped in the homespun robes of an Indian sannyasi (itinerant monk), was a spiritual era, a chance for the Christian church to stretch and breathe and become one again in a marriage between East and West. But it has been a long courtship.

Born Alan Richard Griffiths on Dec. 17, 1906, he would graduate from Oxford University and lecture in English literature for a time. In 1933, he converted to Catholicism and in 1940 was ordained a Benedictine priest.

He was a monk in Prinknash Abbey, after having served as prior elsewhere, when a visiting Indian priest asked whether anyone would be willing to journey to his country to found a community. Griffiths was eager to go. He had studied the great Indian and Chinese texts. A Jewish woman who taught yoga had further pricked his interest in Eastern religions, and he was long since dis-illusioned with the frothing competitiveness of Western technological society.

His abbot, after first axing the idea, may well have rued his sudden change of heart when Griffiths arrived in India and proceeded to cofound a monastic ashram in the Syrian rite. Years before Vatican II, Griffiths was already shivering the Greco-Roman structures of Western Catholicism.

That was in Kerala state, where the Syrian rite was and is strong. In 1968, Griffiths moved to neighboring Tamil Nadu and started a Hindu-Christian ashram in the Latin rite at Shantivanam. That is where he died.

Over the years, pilgrims almost beyond counting, many of them young Americans, have visited Griffiths' ashram, some no doubt drawn there because of his books. The 10th volume, The New Creation in Christ, has only recently been published. What were those Western pilgrims, many of them dissatisfied Catholics, looking for?

In The Marriage of East and West, published more than a decade ago, Griffiths hailed the end of the age of Western domination and said the world would find its future in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Where the West went wrong, he wrote, was in allowing its "aggressive, masculine, rationalist mind" to take control. That was one of the fruits of the Renaissance, and it destroyed the harmony of the Middle Ages.

What the East has to offer is the "feminine, intuitive, passive and receptive power" of creation. Meditation and contemplative prayer can help create the space where reason and intuition can unite, because without the other neither is whole and both are inadequate.

Much of this sounds almost commonplace nowadays, but that is partly because of Griffiths' own prophetic pilgrimage, begun so many year ago. Yet, as late as 1990, Griffiths was forced to defend Eastern spirituality against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's December 1989 response to the challenge of Buddhist and Hindu spirituality.

Discussing the CDF's warning that certain forms of Eastern prayer tempt people to try to overcome the necessary distance between creator and creature, God and humankind, Griffiths wrote in NCR that "Jesus himself totally denies any such distance. |I am the vine,' he says,'you are the branches.' How can the branches be |distant' from the vine?"

We must "never in any way seek to place ourselves on the same level as the object of our contemplation," the CDF document insisted.

"Of course, we don't seek to place ourselves on the same level," Griffiths countered. "It is God who has already placed us there. Jesus says, |I have not called you servants, but friends."

That kind of simplicity, of hard-won lucidity, had long become typical of the man.

Undeterred, Griffiths pushed on - past one major stroke and then a second one even more devastating last December. In a speech probably dictated after the second stroke had paralyzed his left side, he saw a new world consciousness emerging, saw science as the altar upon which the marriage between East and West would be consecrated:

"Science today recognizes that all order comes out of chaos. When the old structures break down and the traditional forms begin to disintegrate, precisely then in the chaos, a new form, a new structure, a new order of being and consciousness emerges."

This century has seen three revolutions in the physical sciences: relativity, quantum mechanics and the newest one, called simply, chaos. Clear-brained mystic that he was, still running ahead of the pack, Griffiths was quick to realize that each revolution led us not farther from but closer to God, to the universe of meaning.

American mathematician Edward Lorenz was one of the pioneers of the science called chaos, the science that finds order masquerading where only randomness was thought to reign. One of his fundamental notions is popularly known as the Butterfly Effect: A butterfly flaps its wings in Tamil Nadu, say, and by next month the air it stirs turns a storm system nasty over Chicago. You can count on it.

Maybe Griffiths never heard of these wonders, but you can bet he would have loved them. Sorry, Mr. Einstein, said physicist Joseph Ford, but God does play dice with the universe. Only the dice are loaded. Griffiths knew that. It was what allowed religion and science to play at the same table.

In Tamil Nadu, say, there is a butterfly whose wings go on flapping even in death. And one suspects that the air they stir will yet storm over distant lands for years to come.
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Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Obituary
Date:May 21, 1993
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