VOLUME IX, Number 1
January - June, 2019


Abhiṣiktānanda: A Priesthood in the Spirit

On December 21,1971 which marked the thirty-sixth anniversary of his ordination, Henri le Saux (1910-1973), better known in India by the name Svāmī Abhiṣiktānanda, wrote this in his private diary:
Consecrated for a ministry. But a ministry that extends beyond its so-called ecclesial manifestations; a ministry at the service of the mystery, the revelation of the Mystery. Revelation to human beings of their own personal mystery and also of the total mystery, the mystery in itself; what is called God or the Deity. . . . The monk disappears, passes into the mystery. The priest reveals this mystery. But who can truly reveal it without being lost in it?[1]
These lines admirably summarize the priesthood of this Christian monk who, more than twenty years earlier, had forsaken his distant homeland, Brittany in France, to settle on Indian shores where his priestly ministry was mainly lived among his Hindu brethren. For sure, Abhiṣiktānanda’s priesthood and life are unique and cannot be transposed. Yet the unique glow of his priesthoodhas lost none of its power to inspire any soul who, like Henri le Saux, is moved by a deep desire to meet the real heart of India and transmit to it the newnessof Christ.
Quærere  Deum: The Quest of God
Like so many boys at the time, Abhiṣiktānanda was very young when he entered the minor seminary in 1921, at the age of eleven. Five years later he pursued his training at the major seminary to become a diocesan priest. However, following the death of one of his friends who had wanted to become a monk, Henri Le Saux felt called to take up this unfinished vocation; in 1929 he entered the Benedictine abbey of Kergonan near the Atlantic Ocean. A few months before he became a postulant, he confided to his Master of novices the reason behind this new calling:
What has drawn me from the beginning, and what still leads me on, is the hope of finding there the presence of God more immediately than anywhere else. I have a very ambitious spirit – and this is permissible, is it not? when it is a matter of seeking God – and I hope I shall not be disappointed.[2]
In this confidence full of youthful enthusiasm, we can hear an echo of what St Benedict set into the heart of his Rule as being the goal of monastic life: ‘quærere Deum’, ‘to seek God’ and ‘nihil amori Christi praeponere’, ‘to prefer nothing to the love of Christ’[3]. In his very beautiful lecture to the representatives from the world of culture in Paris, Pope Benedict XVI has explained what the ‘ quærere  Deum’ meant to the Benedictine monks:
Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is. . . . They were seeking the definitive behind the provisional?[4]
Here we seem to be hearing Henri Le Saux’s very words as he took his final monastic vows on May 30, 1935, on the feast of the Ascension. He was then ordained priest few months after, on December 21, which at that time was the day the Latin Church celebrated as the feast of Saint Thomas, apostle to India.
It is important to insist on the fact that Abhiṣiktānanda first lived out his priesthood in the Benedictine monastic atmosphere which, right up to the end of his life, left an indelible imprint in him. His priesthood was fully inscribed within the ‘ quærere  Deum’ about which Benedict XVI also declared:
quærere  Deum: because those monks were Christian, this was not an expedition into a trackless wilderness, a search leading them into total darkness. God himself had provided signposts, indeed he had marked out a path which was theirs to find and to follow. This path was his Word, which had been disclosed to men in the books of the sacred Scriptures.[5]
Indeed, the life of a Christian monk is built around the Bible, with hours set apart for lectio divina, prayerful “rumination”of the Scriptures, which is so central to the Benedictine rhythm. It is the Bible alone which is sung in the liturgy during the seven daily offices held in the Choir. The Gregorian plainchant, performed by the whole community with moving sobriety, is itself entirely composed of verses taken from the Scriptures, particularly from the Psalms. As master of ceremonies in his monastery, Abhiṣiktānanda took a passionate interest for plainchant and he retained a nostalgic yearning for it up to the end of his life; indeed, many years after, he wept when his friends in India hummed the ‘Dominus dixit’, the introit to the Christmas Midnight Mass, which he had not heard for decade.
At Kergonan, Henri Le Saux was also the librarian, which meant being in charge of one of the places most central to monastic life. While in daily contact with the books, he developed a real closeness to the thinking of the Church Fathers, the first Christian theologians, who developed a unique contemplative approach towards the Mystery revealed in Christ. But above all, Henri Le Saux lived out his ‘quaerere Deum’ in the deeply impressive silent atmosphere of Kergonan. Such was his vocation as a monk; many years later he was to write: “In the Church, the solitary soul is the minister of the Silence of God”[6].
The nineteen years Abhiṣiktānanda spent in his Benedictine abbey were fundamental in more ways than one, especially to his subsequent priesthood in Indian culture which is so deeply engrained with the figure of the monk—whether Hindu, Jain, Buddhist or Christian: “The monk is the man of the eschaton. It is he who, through whatever religious expression Providence has called him to, bears witness to the fact that God is beyond all things.”[7]
The priesthood of Melchizedek
In 1948 Henri Le Saux arrived in South India and he joined up with Jules Monchanin (1895-1957) a French priest who were living there since 1939. Together in 1950 they founded the Śāntivānam āśrama not far from near Trichy and took on new names of Christian sannyāsin. Monchanin chose Paramārūbyānanda in honour of the Holy Spirit, and Le Saux became Abhiṣikteśvarānanda as a reference to the Christ, the Anointed of the Father (abhiṣikta). The wish of these two French priests was that their little āśrama would serve the Church in India, already ready so rich with educational and medical institutions, by revealing its contemplative side, just as Mary sat at the feet of the Lord while her sister Martha was busy serving at table. It seemed to them crucial that Hinduism should discover that the Church possessed a long contemplative and monastic tradition. They also thought that this āśrama might become a place of sharing in which they, as Christians, would be receive also the gifts which the Holy Spirit brought to the very heart of India. A few years later, when recording his pilgrimage to Gangotrī in his book The Mountain of the Lord, Abhiṣiktānanda placed these words in the mouth of his fellow-traveller Sanat Kumar, who was none other than Raimon Panikkar:
It is our role as Christians of India, to draw from these treasures which have been bequeathed to us by our ṛṣī, prophets and sages, to examine their Scriptures, to drink at the most pure and primordial sources of their experience, in order that we may transmit to the Church their incomparable riches.[8]
In the same book, he further wrote,
India and her Scriptures are a part of the immense Cosmic Covenant which preceded the covenant of Sinai, and by which, across all peoples of the earth in all places and at all times, the Spirit is preparing the coming and the glory of the Incarnate Word.[9]
In speaking of a ‘Cosmic Covenant’ Abhiṣiktānanda set the Hindu quest back into the Plan for Salvation far earlier than the Christian Revelation. This wider theological perspective was necessary to give meaning to all his experiences in the course of his exploration of India. In particular, he meditated on the mysterious ‘Cosmic Covenant’ encountered in so many meetings with sannyāsī along the way or in the caves of Aruṇācala mountain. Again, he discovered this “Cosmic Covenant” in the Brahmin priests officiating in the great temples in Tamīl Nādu, and in those who became his neighbours in Uttarkāśi, where in March 1961 he bought a piece of land and set up a small hermitage. Abhiṣiktānanda was really touched by the complicity in priesthood he shared with the Hindu pandits; this is how he described the unique Masses he said in Latin next to them:
I think I have told you of the first Masses which were celebrated in the Himalayan village of Jñānsu. However early I decided to celebrate I never managed to do so before the sadhu who occupied the room below got up. He would already be chanting the words of the Gītā or repeating his mantras and punctuating them with joyful burst of OM. I murmured softly the Dominus vobiscum of the liturgy. It was namah śivaya – glory to śiva which ascended to me in reply. The Hari Om alternated with my Kyrie and Bhagavan, Bhagavan came in reply to my Sursum corda. Across the road in the temple of śiva the bells beat out the rhythm of the pūjā that my brother Melchizedek, the Brahmin, was offering in deep piety. I must admit it seemed to me that our Heavenly Father must have stooped down with very special joy over this truly cosmic liturgy.[10]
In the course of his meditations on India and the Cosmic Covenant, one figure in particular stood out: Melchizedek, the mysterious Pagan priest who came to meet Abraham to give him his blessing (Gen. 14:18-20). Abhiṣiktānanda, and Panikkar also, had no hesitation in perceiving the Hindu priests as the distant brothers of this cosmic High Priest:
Look at those priests of the Temple of Mother Ganges, the ones of Kedār, Badrī and of all the sanctuaries of the mountains and plains; are they not the very brothers of the Biblical Melchizedek? It was he who blessed Abraham and whom the priest of the Roman rite commemorates each day at the most sacred moment of the liturgy. Melchizedek is truly the type of the priest of the Cosmic Covenant, and it is according to his order, not according the order of Aaron, the priest of the special Covenant with Israel, that Christ wished to be a priest, and in him I also have my priesthood.[11]
Furthermore, the Church Fathers have always regarded Melchizedek as prefiguring Christ himself. Most particularly, the Letter to the Hebrews deeply demonstrated that Christ’s priesthood did not come down from the cultic priesthood of Aaron and of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem but, by its unsurpassable innovatory character, it could be linked back to Melchizedek’s priesthood by reference to this verse from Psalm 110: “Jesus has become a High Priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 6:20; see Psalm 110:4[12]).
By establishing a link between the Hindu priests with the mysterious figure of Melchizedek and that of Christ Himself, and also recalling the fact the canon of the Roman Church makes mention of “the offering of [the] High Priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim”, Abhiṣiktānanda was himself uncovering the cosmic dimension of his own vocation and the call to recollect in the sacrifice of the Mass “all human prayer, all human desire, all true human devotion, the true search for God that is fulfilled at last in Christ.[13]” Many writings bear witness to this double discovery. This is what he wrote to a friend from his hermitage in Uttarkasi:
In the mezzanine fitted up in my hut, I offer Mass each morning, seated like a Brahmin priest, with ceremonies of offering water, incense, fire. I read the Gospel in Sanskrit. . . . For here, as nowhere else in the Church, Christ reveals himself as a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”[14]
Above all, the Mountain of the Lord gives usthe wonderful record of the Mass which Abhiṣiktānanda celebrated together with Raimon Panikkar in Gangotrī on 6th June 1964[15]. What place could be more intense than the source of the Ganges for those wishing to experience the priesthood of Melchizedek? “In truth, there are few places in the world where there has been more expectation of the Eucharist and more mystic preparation for it by the Spirit than here, the source of the holy rivers.[16]” Indeed that was the one place where the offertory of their silent Mass could attain the dimensions of Hinduism’s age long quest which was here united with Jesus’ own offering up of his own life:
The bread and wine which I shall offer here in my Mass will be the call to God of all those pilgrims of the sacred sources of rivers in the Himalayas, of all the priests, all ascetics, those of our time, of days gone and of the future, for the Eucharist transcends all time.[17]
The Guru
Over the twenty-five years between his arrival in 1948 up to his death in 1973, India wrought a profound transformation of Abhiṣiktānanda’s vision of his priestly ministry. It is clear that these new people deepened the monastic dimension of his vocation, especially in the ‘ quærere  Deum’, the quest of God so ardently tangible in many Hindu monks – as well as the ministry of silence which the Benedictine witnessed in some munī hidden in the heart of the Himalayas. Living daily alongside the Hindu believers refined his perception of his vocation, expanding it into unexpected dimensions through new experiences, as described in his 1971 private journal:
[It is] a ministry that extends beyond its so-called ecclesial manifestations. A ministry at the service of the mystery, the revelation of the Mystery. Revelation to human beings of their own personal mystery and also of the total mystery, the mystery in itself; what is called God.[18]
This last phrase also reveals that another figure of Hindu tradition played a defining part in Abhiṣiktānanda’s new perception of his calling: the figure of the Guru, the Spiritual Master.
A few months after his arrival in India, Henri Le Saux was blessed to meet Śrī Rāmana Mahārṣi (1879-1950), in Tiruvaṇṇāmalai. The first darśana he received left an imperishable memory:
In the sage of Aruṇācala of our own time, I discerned the unique Sage of the eternal India, the unbroken succession of her sages, her ascetics, her seers; it was as if the very soul of India penetrated to the very depths of my own soul and held mysterious communion with it. It was a call which pierced through everything, rent it in pieces and opened a mighty abyss.[19]
The meeting of the Guru, first with Rāmana Mahārṣi and then, in December 1955, with Svāmī Jñānānanda, revealed to Abhiṣiktānanda that in the heart of priesthood lies not only a mystery of liturgical mediation between earth and heaven, but also a mystery of transmission of the Spirit, of which the Guru is the charismatic figure. This crucial role of the Guru became preponderant in Abhiṣiktānanda’s meditation and life, as testified by his 1966 assertion: “The priest for whom India waits, for whom the world waits.”
Every catholic priest – and a fortiori the priest living in India – should read this timeless text. In the very first lines, Abhiṣiktānanda delivers the essence of his vision:
In the Indian context, the Christian priest needs be a guru. […] For a Hindu, a guru is not an ordinary preacher who simply repeats to willing listeners that which he himself learnt from his teachers or read in his textbooks. Here is a man who speaks from experience. The guru is the one who imparts the teaching of salvation; and is it not in the depths of the heart alone that the mystery of wisdom can be heard? Is it not from there that the experience of salvation wells up?[20]
The ever-vivid deep impression left on him by his meeting with Rāmana Mahārṣi empowered him to write that, for a Christian,
the guru or spiritual master is only the one who has encountered in the depth of his soul the ‘true living God’ of whom the Bible speaks on every page, and from thenceforth became forever branded with the mark of that encounter […]. The guru is the one who, having in the depths of his heart discovered the spark of Being – not in the abstract, but the I AM which manifested on Horeb mountain – can no longer fail to recognize it everywhere, without and within each creature and each human being, in the most intimate essence of all that is, in every happening, in every movement of the Cosmos as measured by time.[21]
Be it in a Hindu context or a Christian one, such an experience is given by the grace of the Supreme Guru – the jagadguru:God residing in the heart. Yet the light of this one and only guru is diffracted by other lights that come to help the spiritual seeker along his way. For instance, in the Indian tradition, the Sacred texts are called gurugrantha, about which Abhiṣiktānanda wrote,
There is no doubt that the books will have assisted him in his quest for the Ultimate Reality, especially those books bequeathed to him by his Tradition and which communicate to him – insofar as communication is possible – the experience of those who were the first to gain access to the Inner Mystery.[22]
Above all the Supreme Guru manifests himself in the darśana of the Sages whose teaching is pursued in the depth of silence:
The seeker will no doubt have been helped by masters, for it is only from others that one can receive the teaching of Salvation. . . . Indeed, that teaching is not merely communication, it is communion, we would say in Christian language. But herein lies the great secret. The Master’s role is not to transmit notions.Above all, it is to awaken the disciple; to open the disciple’s inner eye, the one which plunges inwards and recognizes the Mystery there. It is to open the disciple’s consciousness to the Spirit which inhabits him, to that Spirit which fathoms and scrutinizes the depths of God. No doubt the words pronounced by the guru travel from mouth to ear on the outside, as does any human word that necessarily travels through the ambient air. But really speaking the guru’s words are transmitted directly from heart to heart, through the unifying medium of the Spirit, so that everyone communes with the Eternal Word. This is why, in India, silence is considered to be the most favourable atmosphere for teaching Wisdom.[23]
It is obvious that in this 1966 text, Abhiṣiktānanda puts forth a very high ideal of the priesthood, but for him, this ideal was tuned in to India herself, for “the priest for whom India waits, for whom the world waits” is also “the priest whom India hears from the depths, whom the world understands.”It is not surprising that the young bishop of Varanasi, Patrick d’Souza (1928-2014) tried to convince Abhiṣiktānanda to join him on the banks of the Ganges to help him found a “pilot seminary” to train those Catholic priests who could be really heard by their Hindu brothers. Most importantly, this ideal of the priest as spiritual master was experienced in a very moving way by Abhiṣiktānanda at the end of his life, in the company of his disciples: two Hindu Brahmins: Lalit śarma and RameśŚrīvāstava; Sister Thérèse, a French Carmelite from Lisieux who came to join him in India and Marc Chaduc. In 1972, he confided in a letter to a friend:
Next week I shall be at Haridvār with Thérèse; the ten days following with Rameś, the young Hindu who reads the Gospel and made me discover in an inexplicable experience what a guru means for a disciple. That goes so very far beyond ‘spiritual direction’ and even natural—or even spiritual—fatherhood.[24]
Abhiṣiktānanda’s most dazzling hours as a guru were spent with Marc Chaduc, a French seminarian who arrived in India in 1971. Marc was the disciple who, more than any other, had received his master’s spiritual heritage. On June 30, 1973, during the ecumenical dīkṣā in the Ganges at Hṛiṣikeś, Marc was introduced into the lineage of Hindu sannyāsī by Svāmī Cidānanda (Divine Life Society) and also into that of the Christian monks by Abhiṣiktānanda. By a mysterious coincidence, that same date, June 30, 1973, was also that on which Marc should have received his priestly ordination with his fellow seminarians in France, but India had drawn him along a different path, even though Abhiṣiktānanda never ceased to hope that one day his disciple would become a priest:
The priesthood? I have a strong impression that it awaits you at some point in the course of time. A priesthood that is very spiritualized, very free from limitations, a priesthood in the Spirit. This dīkṣāin the Ganges will signify your gift of yourself to that priesthood, and the Spirit will respond in his own time and his own way.[25]
Having become Svāmī Ajātānanda, Marc Chaduc (1944-1977) never became a priest but in his silent life as a sannyāsin, he raised up to the point of incandescence that which was the ground of Abhiṣiktānanda’s priesthood, that ‘ quærere  Deum’, ‘to seek God and let oneself be found by him’. Marc’s mysterious disappearance four years after his master’s own departure might be understood as a manifestation of the spiritual necessity to disappear which lies at the heart of the priesthood – and at the heart of every Christian life –, as clearly stated in the letter to the Colossians: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. . . . For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:1.3).
Indeed, for Abhiṣiktānanda, the priest – just as are all true spiritual souls – is a hidden being. This astonishing idea means that the mystery of his encounter with the Living God must remain hidden, far from all publicity and may only be shared withthose who approach him with a veritable spiritual thirst. Herein resides the mystery of true recognition, of which the Hindu tradition says: “When the disciple is ready, the guru appears”. Thus, concerning this “priest for whom India waits, for whom the world waits”, Abhiṣiktānanda went on to write,
No doubt he is at times already here, that priest, in India just as much as in the world, but he is rarely manifested publicly, except when God seeks to shake up his Church: he is mostly hidden except to a few, to those in whom the Spirit has made its dwelling and who, as if by instinct, led by that same Spirit, come to him.[26]
The Puruṣasūkta states that: “With three quarters the Puruṣa rose upwards, and one quarter of him still remains here” (Ṛg VedaX, 4). Another confirmation of the minute earthly manifestation of the Purusha can be found in icebergs, of which the great mass is hidden below the surface of the water. The same could be said of the priesthood in the Spirit, of which the essential part—contemplation of the Divine Mystery through silence and prayer, the ‘ quærere  Deum’—has to remain hidden from the eyes of men so as to be the very soul of his spiritual action in the heart of the world. That was the real message of Abhiṣiktānanda’s priesthood: “The monk disappears, passes into the mystery. The priest reveals this mystery. But who can truly reveal it without being lost in it?”[27]
Translated by Caroline Malcolm



[1] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ascent to the depth of the heart. The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of Svāmī Abhiṣiktānanda (Dom Henri Le Saux),Delhi: ISPCK, 1998, p. 335.
[2] Letter of Abhiṣiktānanda to the novice master of Kergonan of 4th December 1928. Cf. J. Stuart, Svāmī Abhiṣiktānanda. His life told through his letters, Delhi: ISPCK, 1989, p. 3.
[3] Rule of saint Benedict IV, 21.
[4] Benedict XVI, Meeting with representatives from the world of culture, Collège des Bernardins, Paris, 12 September 2008.
[5] Benedict XVI, Ibidem.
[6] H. Le Saux, « Le prêtre que l’Inde attend, que le monde attend », Les yeux de lumière, Paris: Centurion, 1979, p. 104.
[7] Abhiṣiktānanda, The Mountain of the Lord. Pilgrimage to Gangotrī,Bangalore: The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1966, p. 22.
[8] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ibidem, p. 23.
[9] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ibidem, p. 22.
[10] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ibidem, pp. 34-35.
[11] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ibidem, p. 32.
[12] Besides the mention in Psalm 110, the two biblical passages which refer the mysterious priest Melchizedek are in Genesis and in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Gen 14:18-20); “This Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything. His name first means righteous king, and he was also king of Salem, that is king of peace. Without father,mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (Heb 7:1-3).
[13] Benedict XVI, Lectio divina with the parish priests of the diocese of Rome, 18th February 2010. In this text, Benedict XVI leads a very beautiful meditation on the figure of Melchizedek through which ‘the pagan world enters the Old Testament’.
[14] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Father Joseph Lemarié of 29th July 1965. Cf. J. Stuart, Svāmī Abhiṣiktānanda, p. 194.
[15] A few months later, at the beginning of January 1965, Abhishiktānanda et Panikkar celebrated a Mass together on the summit of Aruṇācala mountain in Tamīl Nādu.
[16] Abhiṣiktānanda, The Mountain of the Lord, pp. 33-34
[17] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ibidem, p. 33.
[18] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ascent to the depth of the heart, p. 335.
[19] Abhiṣiktānanda, The Secret of Aruṇāchala. A Christian Hermit on Shiva’s Holy Mountain, Delhi: I.S.P.C.K, 1979, pp. 8-9.
[20] H. Le Saux, « Le prêtre que l’Inde attend, que le monde attend », p. 100.
[21] H. Le Saux, Ibidem, p. 101.
[22] H. Le Saux, Ibidem, p. 101.
[23] H. Le Saux, Ibidem, p. 101.
[24] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Father Joseph Lemarié of 5th January 1972. Cf. J. Stuart, Svāmī Abhiṣiktānanda, pp. 289-290.
[25] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Marc Chaduc of 24 avril 1973. Cf. J. Stuart, Svāmī Abhiṣiktānanda, pp. 333.
[26] H. Le Saux, « Le prêtre que l’Inde attend, que le monde attend », p. 100.
[27] Abhiṣiktānanda, Ascent to the depth of the heart, p. 335.
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