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CISTERCIAN STUDIES SERIES: NUMBER TWO-HUNDRED FOURTEEN

Kurisumala

Francis Mahieu Acharya
A Pioneer of Christian Monasticism in India

by Marthe Mahieu-De Praetere

 

   
               
     

PREFACE

   KURISUMALA 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.

   India was 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.

   The 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.

   Father 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.

   When the 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 Tiruchirappally.

   Francis 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.

   A good 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.

   When the 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.

   Father 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.

   Father Le 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.

   Much has 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.

   Encounter 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.

   The 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.

   The author 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 century.

   Father 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.

   In these 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.

  

Armand Veilleux
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.  

 

 
 

About the Cover

 
   

   
       
       
   

     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.

   The panels 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 nature.

   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.