IS AN EVOCATIVE NAME: meaning 'the mountain of the Cross', a place of
impressive beauty, an uncommonly successful inculturation of christian
monasticism in India. Telling the story of Francis Mahieu
Acharya's life means describing the birth and growth of the monastery of
Kurisumala, and telling the story of Kurisumala means describing the
greater part of the long life of Father Francis, who in his nineties
continued to be a spiritual leader in this community.
the cradle of the most ancient monastic traditions known to history,
going back to the Vedic epoch and even to pre-aryan India. Ever
since those distant times, the indian soul has always kept a
mystical depth, which predisposes it to meet christian mysticism.
However, this meeting had to wait a long time.
various experiences of the evangelization of India during the last
centuries put the people of India in contact with the missionary
communities' charitable and social works, but rarely allowed the
indian population a hint of the spiritual and mystical richness of
Christianity. The prophetic efforts of inculturation with indian
thought by Roberto de Nobili at the beginning of the seventeenth century
were admirable but isolated.
Jules Monchanin seems to have been the first to perceive that the
closest point of contact between the great spiritual tradition of India
and Christianity was at the level of seeking, a thirst for the mystery
of divinity, advaita for Hindus and adoration of the Trinity for
Christians. A man of exceptional intelligence and radical poverty
of heart, he quickly perceived that the monastic tradition was the
common element between Christianity and Hinduism. Before his
departure for India in 1939, he used to come to Scourmont to talk with
Don Anselme Le Bail at length about the importance of a christian
monastic presence in India, which would assimilate the spiritual riches
of Hinduism. Plans for a foundation were immediately made, but
various events, beginning with the war, delayed and then rendered
impossible a foundation in India by Scourmont Abbey.
Benedictine Henri Le Saux joined Monchanin in 1948, both men adopted the
way of life of a hindu sannyasi [professed monk]. As Swami
Paramarubyananda (Monchanin) and Swami Abhishiktananda (Le Saux), in
1950 they founded the ashram of Saccidananda, known as Shantivanam, on
the banks of the sacred river Kavery, in Kulittalai in the diocese of
Mahieu reached Shantivanam in 1955. He was not a young monk
looking for adventure but, rather, a mature man, having lived the
monastic life for twenty years, formed at the school of Dom Anselme Le
Bail, and having exercised the office of novice master at Scourmont and
Caldey, Scourmont's foundation in Wales. He entered Scourmont in
1935, after hearing Mahatma Gandhi during his studies in London.
Very early on, after Monchanin's visit to Scourmont in 1939, he
developed a desire to go on the foundation to India. Since this
foundation could not be made, after years of waiting, he obtained
permission to go join the two sannyasis of Tamil Nadu. The
year that Father Francis spent in Shantivanam in the company of these
two great spiritual masters deeply marked him. He came to know
Monchanin, especially, with whom he quickly established a relationship
of disciple to spiritual master.
number of Europeans looking for spiritual experience had passed through
Shantivanam, but disciples who wanted to stay were rare, and
indian disciples did not come. In reality, the Church of India did
not yet have the necessary vitality to produce its own christian
sannyasis, and the hindu tradition of sannyasi is one of itinerant
hermits rather than stable communities. What Monchanin and Le Saux
lived at Shantivanam was admirable, but to want to make it into a stable
community of the benedictine type was utopic.
Christian monasticism is profoundly linked to the Church. It
ordinarily can develop only at the heart of a Church that is
sufficiently alive, that has realized its own contemplative dimension.
This is why, even though the very rich spiritual experience of Monchanin
and Le Saux was a seed of christian mystical life planted on indian
soil, preparing the possibility of a christian monasticism inculturated
with the indian experience, the context of a Church in the syriac
tradition, such as the Church in Kerala, which for centuries has been
inculturated with the traditions of India, was a much more favorable
milieu for implanting an inculturated christian monasticism.
Kerala, from the religious point of view, represents a unique situation
in India. Christianity has been present there without interruption
since the first generation of the christian era. Tradition traces
its origins back to the apostle Thomas.
possibility of Father Francis founding a monastic community in a diocese
of Syro-Malankar rite presented itself in 1956, Monchanin was very
favorable. He had lost hope in a monastic 'community' in Tamil
Nadu and placed his hope in this syriac Shantivanam.
Francis Mahieu undertook the foundation of Kurisumala, accompanied by
Father Bede Griffiths, who had come to join him after a failed attempt
to transplant european monasticism in India. During the first year
after the departure of Father Francis for Kerala and the foundation of
Kurisumala, in which Father Monchanin placed much hope, the latter died,
worn out by asceticism and illness.
Saux maintained Shantivanam as best he could during the following ten
years, but his heart was elsewhere. Having decided to settle in
Gyansu in the Himalayas, in 1967 he gave his ashram of Shantivanam to
Father Francis, who accepted it and sent Father Bede Griffiths and a few
other monks from Kurisumala. This was Kurisumala's first
foundation. Until his death, Bede Griffiths maintained the
character of this new Shantivanam as it had been during the time of
Monchanin and Le Saux, that is, as a meeting place between christian
seekers and hindu seekers, and especially a reference point for
the numerous Europeans who at that time were traveling to India in
pursuit of religious experience. Kurisumala and Shantivanam even
today represent two complimentary experiences of christian monastic
presence in India.
been written about the concept of inculturation. Some day someone
will have to analyze how this was accomplished in an original way in
Kurisumala, which succeeded in the inculturation of the christian
monastic institution, whereas the experience of the two great pioneers
Monchanin and Le Saux had, above all else, been their effort to live the
encounter of christian experience and advaitic experience ever more
deeply at the heart of their personal relationship with God.
with a religious tradition, as with a culture, is made especially
through ordinary human contacts, in particular in the realm of work.
For Father Francis and the Kurisumala community, inculturation meant
celebrating the liturgy every day in an indianized Syriac rite and in
translating its rich liturgical texts. It also meant the adoption
of eastern monasticism's stages in the gradual initiation of a candidate
to monastic life. But in addition, it meant building a monastery
with their own hands, together with local workers; developing sources of
revenue not only for the monastic community but also for the local
population, particularly by setting up a dairy cooperative; and,
especially, receiving after day the many indian or european visitors,
whether hindu, christian, or buddhist.
present work is not a reflection on the problems of christian
monasticism's insertion into the religious tradition of India. It
simply tells the personal story of a monk who lived this process of
inculturation day after day for half a century. Nothing can better
allow us to glimpse the demands, the challenges, and the difficulties of
such an enterprise.
of this biography of Father Francis Mahieu Acharya, 1 Madame
Marthe Mahieu-De Praetere, is one of his nieces. In her text we
can easily sense her admiration for her uncle, whom she visited
regularly in Kurisumala for many years. This unconcealed
admiration has not prevented her from consulting all the available
documents in Europe and in India and from listening to everyone who
could help her to give a faithful and exact account of the events she
describes. These events not only constitute the history of Francis
Mahieu and of Kurisumala but also in some way form the background of the
development of all christian monasticism in India for the last half
Francis was a cistercian-trappist monk when he left for India. A
project such as Kurisumala, however, could happen within the
structure of the Order, with all its canonical requirements, especially
at a time when people were not yet sufficiently prepared for this kind
of inculturation. Therefore, it was done under the authority of
the local bishop, and Father Francis ceased to belong to the Cistercian
Order during all the years of Kurisumala's development. He
remained profoundly cistercian to the bottom of his heart. Through
Kurisumala's full incorporation as an autonomous monastery of the
Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance in 1998, the historical cycle
came full circle.
circumstances, it is entirely appropriate that this biography be
published in the collection of Cahiers scourmontois (Scourmont
notebooks), after the Life of Anselme Le Bail, who was Father
Francis' abbot, and the Poems and Prayers of Charles Dumont, who
entered Scourmont shortly after him.
Abbot of Scourmont
1 Acharya is
the name that Father Francis Mahieu took when he received indian
citizenship in 1968. Acharya in Sanskrit means 'the
Master', the one who teaches the disciples.
The icon of Francis
Acharya on the cover of the book is drawn by a member of the Kurisumala
Ashram, and he was received in to the Ashram by Francis himself.
The artist lived with Francis in the Ashram for many years and together
they prayed and meditated on the divine, and then he initiated this
Sishya into Sanyasa. Thus the icon is the outcome and fruit of a
rich lived experience of the artist with Francis and so this icon
carries with it a variety of theological and philosophical perspectives.
The portrait of Francis Acharya is depicted in the Indian style, sitting
as he does in a lotus posture with folded hands placed over the heart.
Francis wears saffron coloured clothes, the colour of Sanyasa and
renunciation. The folded hands greet people with a namaskar, which
means: 'I do not belong to myself; but to the almighty divine'.
The white calf, underneath
the portrait symbolises the holiness of Francis, while the powerfully
shaded lion depicts his single-minded drive of establishing the
Kurisumala Ashram, blending the three sources of Kurisumala, namely, the
Indian, the Eastern and the Western spiritualities. Through the
powerful symbols of calf and lion, saffron colour and the simple
material things, like the writing pad and books, Francis Acharya's
simplicity of life and his pursuit of holiness are vividly expressed.
The icon on the top signify the Eastern spirituality and the Benedictine
sources of religious life.
on the left and right unravel two other shades of Francis' life: From
the Old Testament, the dream of Jacob is depicted where the angels are
ascending and descending on a ladder. The steps of the ladder
symbolise the two prominent aspects of the Benedictine Order, namely,
the steps of humility, according to St. Benedict and the steps of
pride, according to St. Bernard. Underneath is the Cistercian
Abbey in Caldey Island, where Francis was novice master. The
patron saint of Acharya in his religious life was Francis of Assisi, who
danced with the whole nature. Symbolically, the right panel
depicts Francis Acharya as a dancer in the midst of the mystifying
The panel on the top depicts the cross as a symbol of liberation.
People, who are burdened with their daily experience, find peace and
solace in the cross and thereby they are relieved and they walk around
as free and liberated persons. Gandhiji is also placed among those
who are influenced by the message of the cross, showing thereby how he
influenced Francis Acharya. The lower panel depicts the Ashram
life, rearing the cattle as the bread and butter of the life of the
members of the Ashram. It is also symbolical because it signifies
Francis Acharya as a Gopala, cowherd, which manifests his affinity to
India and his yearning for integrating the Indian Sanyasa with Western
Monasticism. In sum, the icon symbolises and portrays the entire
life, vision and mission of Francis Acharya.