Dilatato Corde 7:2
July – December, 2017
Mary V. T. Cattan
The Extraordinary Lives of Murray and Mary Rogers
Pickwick Publications
Murray (1917–2006) and Mary (1916–2007) Rogers truly led, as the title of the book states, extraordinary lives, having lived all over the world and having been involved in dialogue with a variety of different major religions. Their contributions were not so much in terms of scholarly studies, but in terms of the lives they led. Hence, not much has been written about them. Those who study the life of Swami Abhishiktananda know that the Rogers were close friends of his. Also, their spiritual companion, Heather Sandeman, translated some of Abhishiktananda’s works into English, and Mary Rogers was one of Panikkar’s collaborators in his 1977 translation of Vedic texts, The Vedic Experience. Cattan’s engaging and detailed biography will keep alive the memories of Murray, Mary, and Heather, making their contributions and extraordinary lives.

Mary and Murray were raised in puritanical Christian sects in England, Mary in the Plymouth Brethren and Murray in the “‘Strict and Particular Baptists’ of the Anabaptist tradition” (6). Murray eventually joined the Anglican Church and felt called to be a priest and missionary. Later, after having heard the missionary and friend of Mahatma Gandhi, C. F. Andrews speak, Murray felt called to India. Also, Mary and Murray met, and were married in the Anglican Church in 1940. In 1946, after Murray spent some years in ministry in England, they moved to India as missionaries.

The Rogers grew uncomfortable with their lives as Anglican missionaries. Their lavish lifestyle contrasted with the lifestyle of the people, and constituted a complicity with the colonialism against which the country was struggling. Thus, they pursued a new direction in 1951, when they accepted an invitation to join Gandhi’s ashram of Sevagram. There, as they wished, they lived very simply. However, it was a challenging context for them. In addition to the sparse lifestyle, it was difficult for Murray to see such extraordinary human qualities, that were absent in his Christian contexts, in a Hindu context. Also, he felt that Gandhianism as conceived and practiced at Sevagram was essentially a religion, and thus in competition with his Christian identity. A new direction came to the Rogers when they were invited to live, in a separate hut, with a Hindu family in a village. This was even more challenging in terms of lifestyle, but was highly enlightening for them. This was a special time, and they were hurt and disappointed, when, after the man who had invited them passed away, his sons disinvited them.

Dissatisfied with their former lifestyle as Anglican missionaries, uncomfortable at Sevagram, and dismissed from the Hindu village, Mary and Murray struck out on their own. Their idea aim was live a Christian lifestyle of prayer while sharing the village lifestyle. With a bishop’s assistance, they settled on a plot of land outside of the village of Kareli in Uttar Pradesh. Eventually they were joined by Heather Sandeman, whom Mary and Murray first knew as a teacher at St. Hilda’s boarding school, where their children attended. In 1957, their community took definite shape, and they called it Jyotiniketan, or “Place of Light.” In the coming years, they met people like Raimundo Panikkar, Swami Abhishiktananda, and Jacques Cuttat. Murray traveled widely both inside and outside of India, attending interfaith events and becoming involved with the World Council of Churches.

Jyotiniketan had its days of glory in India, but they did not last. Tensions were rising between Murray and his sponsoring organization, the Church Missionary Society. Also, interreligious tensions were rising in India. Further, Mary, Murray, and Heather were aging, and the lifestyle was growing more difficult for them. Most disconcerting of all, no one beyond Heather had come to join, them. The idea was that by living as Indian as possible they would dissolve the gulf between themselves and the Indians, and that Indians would thereby be attracted to share their spiritual life. Realizing that no matter how hard they tried they were essentially Europeans, they felt it was best for to step aside. Hence, in 1971, fourteen years after having inaugurated Jyotiniketan, they handed it over to an “Indian Franciscan priest,” Fr. Augustine (163).

Just as in the past when things did not work out, new opportunities came. A decade earlier Murray and Mary had visited Jerusalem, and had received an invitation from a Russian Orthodox abbess to settle there to live the lifestyle of Jyotiniketan. They decided it was time to take her up on that invitation. Murray, Mary, and Heather settled in the Old City and continued the same lifestyle they had lived in India, Mary and Heather even dressing in their saris and Murray in his Indian cassocks. In Jerusalem they encountered incredible divisions, not only between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but also between Christians themselves. Murray became deeply involved in interreligious groups, and the Jyotiniketan community aimed to give witness to a transcendent reality that lie beyond religious and denominational differences. However, Murray eventually became deeply involved in controversy, protesting the demolition of some Palestinian homes near his residence. Things became tense for the Jyotiniketan community, and Murray became the object of international criticism. After nine years in Jerusalem, they accepted an invitation to settle in Hong Kong, to help anchor a Christian ecumenical institute.           

In Jerusalem, Rosemarie Shonholzer joined the Jyotiniketan community, and they all moved to Hong Kong. They had a rocky start, for their invitation fell through. Eventually they established themselves, continuing their lives of poverty and prayer, and became somewhat involved with Chinese and Japanese forms of spirituality. Murray extended his network of contacts, and he became a known figure. Their goal in India had been to live as Indian as possible, their goal in Jerusalem to point to a reality beyond religious differences, and in Hong Kong they gave witness to a lifestyle of poverty and simplicity in the midst of a society that was wealthy and secular.
Murray became a thorn in the side of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong. For instance, when the British were handing Hong Kong over to the Chinese, and Anglican bishops were counseling against protesting policies of the Chinese government, Murray stated in a Palm Sunday homily that “we have sometimes been told that our Lord Jesus did not take political action; that is not true. Here in this demonstration of advancing into the capital city of his country as a King. . . . Jesus that day [Palm Sunday] invited His followers to demonstrate” (264). Tensions rose, and eventually Murray was “forbidden to preach in the diocese” (268).

After spending six years in Hong Kong, the Jyotiniketan community accepted an invitation to settle on a farm in Canada. At this point, they were quite aged, but they continued the same lifestyle of poverty, prayer, interreligious involvement, and social justice activities. Also, their time in Canada gave them some exposure to Native American issues and spirituality. Various longtime friends of theirs were dying, and Rosemarie, who had been with them in Jerusalem and Hong Kong, passed away. In these final years, Mary had a strong desire to be near family in England, and although England represented everything that Murray had been struggling in his life to grow past, he conceded to her wishes. After four years in Canada, the community settled in England.

In England, Murray, Mary, and Heather all passed away. In an interview with the scholar, Judson Trapnell, Murray reflected, “What made this frightened boy, afraid to say ‘boo to a goose,’ ready to say anything to anybody? . . . I was [originally] an absolute fundamentalist! I’m amazed at what God’s spirit can do with a simple fellow! Shoe-horning him out of one sort of life, into another” (323). There were disappointments in these final years. For instance, the Anglican hierarchy was very cold to Murray. Also, on the property in India where Jyotiniketan had originally sat, a large church was constructed, with an imposing wall around it, shielding it from the surrounding village life that Murray, Mary, and Heather had tried so hard to emulate. Though their lives had disappointments, in a note to friends to be read posthumously, Murray wrote, “Friends, we know, don’t we, that this is not the end. . . . Until we are together again, dear friends, live, live every day of your lives and be thankful” (334).

Mary Cattan’s book is highly detailed and very readable. It is appropriate for those interested in interreligious dialogue and those interested in the intersection of action and contemplation. The book is important for those involved with Hindu-Christian dialogue and Christian inculturation. This study is especially important for those researching twentieth century Hindu-Christian dialogue.
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