Dilatato Corde 2:1
January - June, 2012
Francis Acharya, painted by a monk of Kurisumala.
Francis Acharya, painted by a monk of Kurisumala.


If you consult a standard text like the late Jacques Dupuis’ Religious Pluralism, you will find that the index lists Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux), J-A Cuttat, Bede Griffiths, Jules Monchanin and Raimon Panikkar, but not Francis Acharya, the author of this book, the first text of his with an ISBN, now published nine years after his death in 2002 at the age of ninety. Yet like them he was a European import to India and arguably as active as they in pushing at the boundaries of faith, while he lived or worked or seminar-ed and corresponded with each of them. He is comparatively unknown because he published so little of what he wrote. He was too busy living it for forty-five years in the Cistercian "Hindu lifestyle" ashram of Kurisumala, which he founded in 1958 on a mountain plateau in the middle of nowhere that is lashed by monsoon gales and rains for a third of the year [1]. The ashram survives him still, with its sixteen Indian monks headed by an elected successor abbot.

If you were to stay at Kurisumala for a retreat, one of your most enduring memories would be sitting cross-legged on the floor each lunch-time alongside the community, listening between mouthfuls to the twenty-minute reading of the day. It will be in English, from Francis Acharya’s own unique and unpublished menology, his Lives and Sayings of the Saints and Sages of Asia. There is one entry for every day of the year, and seventy-two of them, or about one in five, are from another Asian Faith.   Asia, by the way, is effectively West and South Asia, from the Bosphorus to Assam, though there are fifty saints from East Asia, Latin America, Africa and Western Europe. Thus each day can be a surprise, with some three hundred Christian saints interspersed as if with serendipity by Patanjali, or T’an Hui or  Mahavira, or Rabi’a Al-Adawiyya.

Gradually, as the days accumulate, the community of these saints becomes more and more present because the focus of each commemoration (as in a Memento or Kuklion) is not their biography but the message of their spirituality for living as a monk. Actually, the inter-faith juxtaposition is more often than the one-in-five ratio suggests because there is a frequent crossover between the different faith traditions. So, for example, the reading for Saint Benedict of Norcia (July 11) dwells at length on the spiritual quest outlined in the Rule, but suggests that it has become obscured in the West and that renewal may have to look to the 2,700 year old tradition of the muni, embodied in the Hindu, Buddhist or Jain codes. Conversely, there is a smoldering energy when monastic endeavor is compared to a burning coal hidden deep in ashes. This reference to the Divine Image in us recalls a dictum of Mar Isaac, the Syrian Christian bishop of Nineveh and later hermit of the Persian mountains, but it is brought to light by a story from Dogen Zenji (June 8) of the Soto School in Japan.

The inter-dependence is even sharper in commemorations that explore devotional spirituality, which is what energised Francis Acharya most and was expressed by him through those saints chosen as “mystics.” But there are only twenty-one of these among his 295 Christian saints over the year. This small proportion is offset by a much larger proportion of mystics in the commemorations from other faiths, where twenty-two mainly Hindu bhakta or Muslim Sufi, make up some thirty per cent of the seventy-two non-Christian total, not counting the many monks among the seventy-two who share this quality. The significance of the oriental mystic tradition is revealed because bhakti becomes a kind of model according to which several Christian saints are framed. For instance Mary of Magdala (July 22) is said to exhibit the classic bhakta, the Sanskrit word itself meaning one who clings with heart and mind to my Lord—and instantly a new insight burns through the evangelist’s account.  Then, to remind us that we are not talking of some private piety, the mark of so many bhakta becomes their commitment to ordinary village people, or in confronting injustice or ritualism, the more so if their devotional chants are sung by women at the well or by goatherds on their way to the fields.

I have gone into detail to show that this inter-faith inspiration is down to earth and right here. We are not talking of broad sweeps of conceptual theory; on the shelf beside Francis Acharya’s desk, the typescript drafts jostled with serum bottles and accounting sheets from the cattle farm, which merges into the ashram buildings. And to be frank, it is not great literature. Sometimes the sentences can seem over-worked, sometimes wooden—but still good wood, ringing true on the knuckles. 

These readings for the saint of the day are part of an impressive system of liturgical/spiritual practice that includes an inculturated Bharatiya Pooja (an Indian Rite Eucharist adapted from experiments elsewhere in Indian Catholicism), a unique translation of a West Asian monastic office that incorporates Vedic hymns, and a very customised Lectionary with a unique schema of temporal and sanctoral calendars, readings references, and commentaries. In addition, there is a strong commitment to contemplation, as shown in a privately printed booklet Meditation: Hindu-Christian Meeting Point. We are not talking about quietistic indulgence; contemplation is balanced by his concern for ecology (before it became fasionable), which he communicated through the faith of Jain saints.

Once when I mentioned Francis Acharya to Father Dupuis, he said, “Oh yes, completion theology.” This was true of him as a new prior in 1950s but, by the 1990s, encouraged by the teaching of Vatican II, his faith was developing an inverse completion theology—that Christianity needs other faiths to bring it to fruition in this most Asian of centuries, with Kurisumala an inspiration for the Pacific rim too. My hunch is that this awareness came from a deepening dialogue of faith about the kenosis of Christ, which itself was fed by apophatic prayer from Asian spirituality. Referring to 2 Corinthians 4:10-12, Acharya writes (Peter and Paul, June 29) that “Paul’s main teaching  . . . on the Body of Christ as summing up . . . the fullness of God . . . was the fruit of . . . deep experience . . . that Christians fill up in their flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for His body . . .” [my italics].

This collection of texts is underpinned by a painstakingly detailed knowledge of the Bible, as shown in the 2074 “hand-picked” lectionary passages used throughout the year. Also evident is Acharya’s competence in the scriptures of other faiths, which he gained through his university studies in Paris in the early 1950s. His knowledge of these scriptures led to his being asked to chair a pioneering working party of the national centre of the Indian Catholic Bishops in the early 1970s. The centre produced a draft Text for the Office of Readings that incorporated one in three readings from Indian scriptures. The text was subsequently withdrawn after an intervention by the papal nuncio in 1975 (though later, when Father Francis was in Rome, Cardinal Knox told him that he had been misunderstood).

This may seem like a long way round to the book that prompts this review, but it is not really. On its own Cistercian Spirituality is a gem, yet it reads as if it has no particular connection with inter-faith development. Its subtitle—An Ashram Perspective—over a photograph of monks sitting cross-legged in their kavi, silently meditating in the Kurisumala ashram chapel, may prompt all sorts of expectations. Actually, the book’s brief, clear, comprehensive and inspiring text (impeccably edited) could have been written in any of the continents where Cistercians are found. And I wish it had been the kind of book offered to me when I was drawn to be a Trappist monk almost fifty years ago. But there is almost nothing ashramic about it. And that is bound to raise one important question about the test of pluralism: to be authentic does it need to permeate everything we do?

So, is there some missing text? Yes and no. Although this book can stand alone and has been used as such within formation programmes at the Ashram, it is actually Volume III of a larger unpublished study, The Monastic Charism. Volume I is The Monastic Charism in non-Christian religions, namely Judaism, Sufism, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and Volume II is Monastic Charism in Asian Christianity, whether in the Bible, or Gospels, or Syriac traditions, with the whole prefaced by a chapter on “The Monastic Charism: a World Phenomenon,” which argues that monasticism is integral to human nature and part of a divine call within the pre-Judaic Cosmic Covenant long before Abraham (October 9).

One needs to understand that his writing was consolidated in the 1990s when Francis Acharya was preoccupied by two concerns. The first was to demonstrate his mainstream Cistercian orthodoxy in preparation for Kurisumala to be incorporated into the Cistercian Order in 1998. For Father Francis it was also an emotional and spiritual homecoming.­ For in 1955, as a senior monk in the Cistercian Abbey of Scourmont in Belgium, he had been obliged to accept release from his Order’s vows—as a painful price to pay for pursuing his call to India, even though his community had previously been committed to planting a foundation in India. 

Father Francis’ parallel concern was to preserve his legacy. So in a surge of energy during his eighth decade, with a weak heart and a crumbling hip, he gathered together his unpublished material, with scissors, paste and correction fluid (a word processor would have breached the poverty bar) so that his work could be anchored fast within the Order, the Church and the Vision to which he was devoted. 

So we should look forward to the publication of the companion volumes. They may not have great literary merit or indeed originality, for Francis Acharya was an “adaptor” not an “innovator,” a builder not an explorer, a dreamer with very human feet on the ground.  However, there are different kinds of idea people; you don’t have to be a writer or an intellectual, exhibiting an artist’s “installation.” As Raimon Pannikar observes, in the West theology requires intelligibility in order to be articulated, whereas in the Indian perspective it is a mode of being, which is true of the Eastern Christian tradition too. [2]

Back to the inter-faith, pluralist questions that make this monk, his ashram and his work a fascinating discovery, which is stretching and challenging my understanding as I write. If we are able sometimes to suspend our pluralism, does that suggest our commitment is incomplete and not internalised, and therefore not so evident in some of our activities? Does one move from one paradigm to another and back again like a stroboscope, or does the paradigm itself change? More and more, I see genuine pluralism as an interacting from a position of orthodoxy vis-à-vis one’s own Faith, yet enlightened, inspired and moved by another Faith.  It is akin to personal maturity coming with that awareness of being “in one’s own skin,” yet able to be totally alongside other people, discovering the blessings of their difference, and being remade by them; to be oneself, yet changed, transformed from within by looking out. Then one realises that to appreciate and fall in love with the Earth one has to see her from the Moon. One’s own orthodoxy is ever renewed in the journey.


[1] See the excellent readable biography by his niece MartheMahieu-De Praetere, Kurisumala – Francis Mahieu Acharya: a Pioneer of Christian Monasticism in India, trans. Susan Van Winkle (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications, 2007; and Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore/ Sopanam, Kottayam, 2008).

[2] K. M. George, The Silent Roots: [Syrian] Orthodox Perspectives on Christian Spirituality 1994 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1997), p. 2. Indian Edition, ISPCK, p. 2.



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