Dilatato Corde 4:1
January - June, 2014

La mistica di Henri Le Saux OSB
tra cristianesimo ed induismo
Paolo Trianni and William Skudlarek OSB, editors
Edizioni Studium

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Henri Le Saux, O.S.B., the Pontifical Academy of Sant’Anselmo in Rome organized a monastic-academic colloquium on December 4, 2010, under the sponsorship of the official monastic interreligious dialogue agency, DIMMID. The colloquium was designed to explore the theological perspectives present in the writings of Le Saux, reflecting his own existential and spiritual explorations in Christianity and Hinduism in the period 1948-1973. 

The organizers gathered a strong list of presenters to represent a variety of Christian and monastic voices. Conspicuous by their absence are the voices of contemporary Hindu observers of the life journey of Le Saux. The volume thus represents a very fine theological contribution to the work of Christian monastic interreligious dialogue that has for a variety of reasons chosen not to resolve the perennial tension between any Christian theology of religions and the decisive “otherness” of our partners in dialogue.

Hoping that readers will not take these criticisms at the start of this review as an obstacle to collecting the sweeter fruits of the book, I would also observe that with one exception, the presenters have avoided the vexing questions—especially in the Indian context—of the purposes of “dialogue and proclamation.” It is still a matter of extreme concern in at least some Hindu circles that Catholic models of dialogue seem directed towards persuasion and conversion. However one may insist that this is a mistaken impression, the perception (complicated by a lack of accurate information about Christian missions in general) that conversion is the goal continues to evoke violent opposition and to provoke political alignments inimical to the serenity of minority communities in India.

Le Saux’s and Monchanin’s historical experiment in creating the Christian ashram of Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu simultaneously feeds the concerns of integralist Hindus and nurtures the imagination of other Hindus and some Christians about future possibilities for an in-depth dialogue of life and of religious experience. The issues, both theoretical and practical, are exceedingly complex. It is therefore no great surprise that the colloquium at Sant’Anselmo chose to address issues closer to home in terms of theology and monasticism. Nevertheless, for this reviewer, the life of Le Saux remains like Rilke’s poem, ‘The Archaic Torso of Apollo’, as a battered object of reflection insistent that observers “must change our lives” (du muss dein leben anderen). As we shall see in this review, there are some surprising dimensions to Le Saux that have not been previously explored in such depth. I will respond to each essay, translating the title into English.

Ambrogio Bongiovanni: “Henri Le Saux and Theological Inculturation in India.”

Bongiovanni begins his essay with a presentation of the Catholic Church in India at the time of independence from Great Britain, which coincided with the arrival of Le Saux and Monchanin. The basic challenge facing the Church in that crucial moment was to overcome the dominant presence and image of foreign missionaries in the Indian Catholic subculture. In part, the task of Le Saux and Monchanin was to explore ways to enable Roman Catholic Indians and their institutions to identify more effectively with South Asian culture. Instead of working in the usual fields of missionary activity—hospitals, clinics, schools, seminaries, and village missions—Monchanin and Le Saux set out to create a monastic community in tune with the ashram traditions of Hinduism. Almost from the beginning, it was apparent that such an experiment would have to go beyond what we now call inculturation and accommodation. To encounter the “real India,” Christian monasticism had to enter into a dialogue with Hinduism that included adopting to a great extent the theological vision as well as the outer forms of the autochthonous tradition. In particular, Le Saux seems to have intuited very quickly that the challenge of the moment was not so much in creating new institutions or in revising the lex orandi. Rather, the burden was on the founders themselves to enter more fully into an authentically Christian experience of God so as to be able to meet others who had themselves arrived at such depths in the other religious pathways abundantly represented in the subcontinent. This way of spiritual experience was the only credible way in which to discern whether or not these depths are convergent. Such an approach, pioneering in the decade before the Second Vatican Council, required bracketing any a priori claim or presupposition that authentic divine grace may be found only in Christianity. This would have to be the attitude within which to operate even before considering the vexing questions of Christian uniqueness and the salvific causality of the Christ event. Even today, these questions continue to create an impasse for interreligious dialogue particularly in the form of the exchange of deeper spiritual experience.

The impasse, reinforced by the document Dominus Iesus (which was in part a response to the writings of Jacques Dupuis, an important interlocutor in the spiritual journey of Henri Le Saux), arises from a tendency to avoid a critical discussion of the concrete cultural and anthropological presuppositions that characterize Western Christian “theologies of religions.” Theology of religions is still taught as a Christian response to the existence of other world religions, and continues to struggle with the recondite topic of salvation outside the visible Church. Such a theology is undoubtedly necessary in the training of leadership in an increasingly intercultural world, in which imprecise thinking can do more harm than good. However, the limitations set forth in such theologies, even the most progressive, fail to persuade and be “received” by those Christians who have actual experience of the four forms of interreligious dialogue in cultures in which Christianity is not the prevailing source of social norms. The uniqueness of Christ, the indispensable role of Church and sacraments, and the question of how to interpret “extra ecclesia nulla salus” are in fact NOT at the forefront of the practical concerns of Christians and their interlocutors in such societies. Le Saux quickly grasped that a deeper set of questions needed to occupy the focus of Christian attention, questions immediately related to the practice of the contemplative life.

At the same time, it seems that Le Saux and Monchanin made the fundamental mistake of not taking into account the fact that centuries before Vatican II, there were a variety of Catholic Christian cultures in India: French, Italian, English-Irish, Malankhara, Portuguese, etc. For this reason, one often has the impression when reading their writings that they sought to be more in dialogue with non-Christian Indians than with Christian Indians. In fact they both had strong relationships with other Christians in India, as we can see in their respective diaries. Nevertheless, neither Le Saux nor Monchanin had enough contact with ordinary Catholic laity to take decisive advantage of the insights of several centuries of ecclesial presence (not to mention nearly two millennia of Christianity).

The personal encounter of a committed Christian such as Dom Le Saux with India creates, in any case, the conditions for the possibility of a deeper conversion in that Christian’s life. This conversion is primarily mystical or contemplative in character, and as such is a grace received subjectively and gratefully by that believer. It leads to a deeper intimacy and wonderment regarding the person and the mission of Jesus, as we read time after time in the diaries of Henri Le Saux. The contemplative believer, however, struggles with the temptation to abandon the subjective historical sensibility of belonging to a distinctive community of faith. It is not possible to remain human while bracketing out one’s cultural identity and historical consciousness, not even in India, where no Jain, no Muslim, no Hindu, no Parsee would ever bracket out his or her identity, even in exploring the teachings of a guru of some other lineage. Nor should the Christian do so. At the same time, as author Bongiovanni notes, Christianity in India and elsewhere will shift its self- understanding and consequent praxis in the light of such deeper conversions shared among clergy, religious and committed laity. Dialogue, proclamation and conversion are a shared experience, enriched over time by experience and the fruits of personal maturity, as Bongiovanni rightly points out, making effective use of secondary sources such as the writings of British spiritual writer Donald Nicholl.

Bongiovanni takes up the theme of inculturation, but avoids the task of raising questions such as why the Indian Church has in practice evaded the option of making more widespread use of Indian cultural forms in the liturgy, preferring the most populist instances of “renewal” deriving from the turbulent period of the 1970s in the United States and Europe. Very little of this has much to do with specifically religious inculturation. Instead, it reflects the Indian cultural embrace of all things global, popular, and marketable. Even the ashrams of Tamil Nadu, which I visited in 2003, seemed concerned to present themselves as marketable gardens of tranquility with semi-pop music playing from loudspeakers along the meditation paths. I saw little that would suggest that the more demanding aspects of Le Saux’s experiments in Hindu-Christian monasticism were being kept alive. Perhaps Shantivanam is different; I certainly hope so.

Bongiovanni, along with almost all the other authors of these essays, also fails to mention that the Christian ashram movement has fueled the concerns of integralist Hindus who see the ashrams as part of a deceptive missionary strategy in which social justice issues, the caste problem, the tribal problem, and even interreligious dialogue are implicated. Dialogue is not just an idea: it has an historical context and needs to be addressed phenomenologically, as we will see later in this review.

Bongiovanni also takes up the often repeated claim that in some way “Christ must disappear” as if it were an expression amenable to the process of inculturation. I am not sure his analysis of this question does justice to the implications of the statement in the theology of the Fourth Gospel. If Christ is to be seen as a mere manifestation of a vague human hope for transcendence within the sphere of the contingent and illusory world (as Troeltschian historical consciousness would seem to suggest), then we have truly gutted the meaning of the Incarnation as a radical immanent gift from the Otherness of the divine. Is it not more meaningful to perceive that it is the Johannine “I” that must now disappear? That “I”’s disappearance is a teaching on the dynamism of Christian spiritual maturation, where realism about our human limitations encounters the undying longing for salvation and holiness. In other words, the disappearance of the “I am” is a revelation about the key virtue of humility, about which D. Nicholls has written well. From that place of humility, credible dialogue can proceed, guided by the Paraclete who enters Christian consciousness at that very point. Humble participant observers, well trained in the language of faith and in the experience of interior experience, can effectively represent the wideness inherent to authentic Christian faith and life.

Here is where Bongiovanni does dialogue a real service by offering a useful five part typology of the dynamics of dialogue. This dialogue requires a shared hermeneutic, in which both sides have an equal share in affirming or correcting what the other says about the partner. Here too, each side needs to articulate and if necessary revise what it perceives and states about the other. In this way, dialogue can heal the memories of those wounds that arose in the past when particular writers presumed that they had understood “the other” when in fact they had not understood anything at all. In this healing process, Le Saux remains an indispensable voice.

Aldo Natale Terrin. “Advaita in the Thought of Dom Le Saux.”

Professor Terrin’s contribution to the volume is one of the most philosophically demanding, based extensively on the categories of thought associated with Husserl and Heidegger. Although this essay seems to have been cut to match the length of the other contributions, it does open up a valuable insight into Dom Le Saux/Abhishiktananda as more of a modern European than we might otherwise have thought. Terrin proposes to analyze subjectivity and the search for an innermost Self as the key terms that disclose Le Saux’s enduring contribution to the theology of religions. Beginning with the emergence of advaita vedanta in Western philosophical consciousness, Terrin introduces the reader to the key figures in central European thought from Eckhart to Spinoza, to Herder, Schelling, and Schopenhauer. Thanks to Schopenhauer’s student Deusson, the advaita vedanta of Shankaracarya came to be seen as the pinnacle of Hindu thought. Inspired in part by this European assessment, neo-Hinduism invigorated the Indian rediscovery of the native philosophical heritage. Terrin moves the conversation a step further in order to encounter Le Saux.

Advaita vedanta in the writings of Abhishiktananda takes on a more deeply mystical character, in contrast to its ontological (i.e., monist) interpretation in neo-Hinduism. Advaita is an experience and an attitude rooted in the primordial experience of the pure consciousness of Being, as in Husserl and Heidegger. This pure consciousness is distinguished from the discursive mental fluctuations of the empirical self. As a result of this approach, which in fact does seem to describe Abhishiktananda’s approach, we come to an advaita that is less theistic and more akin to Buddhist notions of non-dualism. The concept of an ontological, monistic Absolute undergoes a profound shift of meaning in the kind of epistemological mode typical of Buddhism [Buddhist?] Madhyamaka.

Abhishiktananda’s diary accounts of contemplative experiences reflect this approach, which Terrin is able to appreciate and elucidate.

For Abhishiktananda, the path of liberation outlined in the verses of the great Upanishads passes through a series of deepening intuitions of the atman-brahman (Self-God) nonduality. “God” and “salvation” acquire new meanings for the contemplative as he/she moves in meditation practice from awareness to intuitive awareness, and from intuitive awareness to experiential immersion into the within of the atman-brahman dyad. Citing Shankaracarya’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras: in this within, “God is the Lord whom one is to seek out and know . . . who governs the Self from within.”

Abhishiktananda dedicated his years in India precisely to the cultivation (bhavana) of this very experience. His Western background, rooted in the monastic appropriation of apophatic mysticism, offered a point of departure for this ongoing exploration of the advaita experience. Following his Indian sources, Abhishiktananda remains a theist. He knows the anti-Buddhist arguments well: if the Absolute is not truly Absolute, then it becomes indistinguishable from the plurality of objects known to the mind. Thus everything becomes, for a brief moment, an Absolute, and the world of awareness fills up with a clutter of idols! That is not what happens when the truth discloses itself to deeper levels of awareness. The renunciant or monk lives the anguish of being torn between the disclosure of the Absolute and the daily problems that require decisions and actions, something that Abhishiktananda’s friend Raimondo Panikkar discussed in his book, Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype. This explains the many expressions of “anguish” in Le Saux’s personal writings, which were not always about struggles with dogma and institutional religion!

The beauty of Le Saux’s struggle to live the disclosure of non-duality is that he recognized that “to avoid saying two with one’s very life is love,” even as one seeks to be totally free of “I.” At the same time, some of his cries of anguish make us fear that he was imposing on God a denial of God’s own loving initiative in creating us and all that is. If we were to be only inseparably one in love with God and totally without a conscious self, then why were we created as we are, embodied and multiple in motivation? Did Le Saux at times lose his balance in a fundamental anthropological conundrum, something we find at times in Eckhart as well? Did he perhaps fail to temper the hereimplications of his idea of nondualism with a clearer and more concrete understanding of real Hinduism? And yet in his more realistic writings, he was aware of the severe internalized limits and the vast distances between Hinduism, Christianity and all religions in confrontation with the sublime oneness that his understanding of advaita requires.

Terrin also comes close to Buddhist thought when he attempts to describe experience without concepts (anubhava, which we might describe as a-prapancika, “without mental elaborations”). For south Asian religious mysticism, this notion is, and always has been, the phenomenological description of religious experience. In the West, both philosophy and theology have had a harder time liberating the category of experience from conceptualization, whether the concepts are prior to, coincident or consequent upon contemplative experience. Abhishiktananda was trying, as a Westerner, to appropriate precisely this insight with might and main.

Terrin is able to apply his command of phenomenology at this point to distinguish emotion and cognition, as if this were the topic he has been waiting to elaborate from the start of the essay. Sometimes such cognitions lead to truth, but the analysis must be undertaken with great care with regard to temporal sequences inherent to the act of cognition. Terrin’s analysis offers a valuable glimpse into one of the most vexing problems of religious studies: what we study when we study religion “scientifically” results in an analysis of a sentiment that lacks a verifiable object or referent. Thus, religious experience is depicted as presenting itself as something that a subject undergoes in a pre-semantic manner. Being pre-semantic, such experience cannot be classified as religious at all. For this line of reasoning, feelings or sentiments are without noetic function or content. Responding, Terrin points out how Husserl analyses the relational dynamic between feelings and rational knowing. Both carry with them an intentional principle, inseparable from subjective and intersubjective attitudes, all of which are amply cognitive in character. This cognition is never pure, never other than asymmetrical, and progressive, or insistently partial, in practice. There is a mixture of the discursive with the non-discursive, even in contemplative experience. In this way, Terrin allows an experience to be understood as religious on the basis of its intentional origin, and through its transition through various degrees of intuition and legitimation (discernment). In this way, Husserl might have been able to speak of an experience both prior to the “concept” and above and beyond the said “concept.” Terrin is of the opinion that this analysis helps us understand Le Saux in his encounter with advaita. It may well be true that this Husslerian drama is descriptive of Le Saux’s experience in India, even though it may not be adequately descriptive of the life-drama of any born Hindu, not to mention a highly trained spiritual preceptor (I am thinking of Gnanananda, Abhishiktananda’s Shaivite guru).

In his conclusions, Terrin seems to set aside the implications of these insights in order to offer counsels on dialogue that might impel us towards “the absolute truth” and away from the mental world of particular things and multiplicity, concepts, and pre-concepts. Rather than offering a Husserlian integration of the processes of perception and cognition within the sphere of experience, Terrin disappoints us by leaving us in no-man’s-land, perhaps in order to enjoy there the company of the ever-searching Abhishiktananda. In this scenario, Le Saux is disclosed as more of a modern man than we might have expected, and less of the primordial sannyasin “clothed with the wind.”

Michaela Pfeifer, O.Cist. “The Contribution of Rhineland-Flemish Mysticism to the Inner Journey of Henri Le Saux”

It can be documented in the diaries that Le Saux was deeply influenced by the Rhineland and Flemish medieval mystics. In particular, he shares their language of the “abyss of the soul” and their concept of the spiritual journey directed towards a perfect freedom that can say “I am.” Pfeifer traces the outlines of a useful definition of mysticism in her study of Abhishiktananda: “Mysticism, the intimate place of vision in the religious world, ratifies that which is.” In this vein, in Margherite Porete’s writings, Le Saux was able to find insights that expressed his journey and its goal: “Here there is no one, only Him, no one loves except Him, for no one is, only Him. And this is why He loves, sees, praises, by Himself, of His own being.” For the Beguines, the unknowability of God becomes accessible through love, “without a why.” Beyond that, this late medieval mysticism intuits that the soul, from the first moment of its existence, is born simultaneously with God-as-God. Before being “created,” soul and God are one in essence. In Eckhart, freedom is understood as the “ground of the soul.” Such insights, radical enough to stoke the fires of persecution, definitively pointed Le Saux’s reflections in the direction of advaita vedanta. From Ruesbroec, however, Le Saux discovered another theme closer to the concrete struggles of a human being called to the contemplative vocation. Here he found the language to express a longing to overcome oneself and to raise oneself above one’s works in order to reach an imageless, interior nudity. In this sublime doctrine, Le Saux was able to find a way out of the monastic perfectionism inculcated in the early twentieth century in the Congregation of Solesmes. At that time, the notion of man as the image of God tended to favor moral perfectionism, with all its consequent risks of distortion and excess. With the insight that God is the ground into which the soul descends to lose itself, Le Saux was able to embody the daily faithfulness of love more typical of the mature monastic vocation, detached, through the graces of renunciation, from one’s own preferences and aspirations. As a result of this maturation of his vocation, Le Saux as Abhishiktananda came to an astounding and consoling insight: apophatic spirituality, Benedictine humility, and Christian spiritual maturity at last coincide. The way of descent, rather than of ascent, i.e., the way of realistic encounter with the depths of the soul beneath and behind the pretensions of “name and form” (nama-rupa), shows us exactly why a theological approach strongly attached to the cataphatic way can be unfaithful to the very dogmas that imagery would wish to sustain. If the Logos is incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, then the contemplative must descend into the depths of the mystery of the humanity of Jesus in order to be transformed into his or her own authentic humanity. An ascent towards inhuman perfection leads to pathology, as Merton observed in some of his later writings.

Le Saux’s pioneering exploration of Hindu monasticism gave rise to a set of inner experiences, chronicled in his diaries, that confirm the speculative intuitions of the medieval mystics he knew so well. In this way, his explorations of “inner space” offers to our time of interreligious dialogue an incarnational spirituality that, precisely because of its paradoxical uniqueness and universality, requires its fulfillment in the apophatic way. The apophatic way is thus not reducible to a faithless or pseudo-gnostic abandonment of the lex orandi, or of Christ proclaimed in the apostolic kerygma. Rather, the apophatic way allows the co-redeeming mystery of the faith of the ordinary believer to burn brightly beyond the perennially disappointing confines of merely institutional and intellectually dogmatic religiosity. Burning brightly means that the faith, far from passing away, lives anew in spite of personal and institutional failures. In this way, the believer, body and soul, and the faithful called forth (ek-kaleo) to be church, find themselves in a graced dynamic, a healing union with the Anointed One of God-who-saves (Christos-Iesous). Le Saux could write, “Those who have renounced all that might be theirs, should be truly totally absorbed in God”—not as perfectionists, but as the broken ones restored in Christ Crucified.

Pfeifer goes on to show how Le Saux continued these Christological reflections in the direction of a new form of Trinitarian theology, by means of further brilliant expositions of the linguistic nuances of the Rhineland and Flemish mystics, duly compared with the adaptations that Le Saux evolved while in India. In these writings, one notices a distinct convergence between the thought of Le Saux and the apophatic mysticism of the fourteenth century masterpiece, The Cloud of Unknowing.

Maurizio Gronchi: The Mystical Christology of Henri Le Saux

Gronchi’s essay defines the project of Henri Le Saux in terms of an attempt to integrate of the spiritual depth of advaita praxis/philosophy with the Christian experience of the Trinity. Le Saux recognized intuitively that facile accusations of dualism or imprecise definitions of monism do not adequately represent the truth encountered in the depths of inner experience. In this, Le Saux demonstrated experientially what De Lubac and Karl Rahner were articulating in their theological research on the order of grace active among human persons, unimpeded by the effects of sin and in strict continuity with the order of creation.

Gronchi’s voice, in harmony with other contributions to this volume, supports a Christian theology in which the “blessed rage for order” (D. Tracy) and “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm) are inseparable from the mystical or contemplative journey of embodied persons in their historical context. As a consequence of the writings of Le Saux, the term mysticism can no longer be defined so as to exclude the religious experience of persons rooted in traditions other than Christianity from formal consideration by Christian theologians. That said, we also need to recognize that there is a geographical, cultural, and historical location for such discoveries and assertions. Each of these “locations” merits serious critical reflection, such as that set in motion by the volume under review here. It might have been helpful for Gronchi and other authors to have been clearer in distinguishing the theological question of the efficacy of the Christ event, and the uniqueness of Christ, from a consideration of the authenticity of mystical experience within and beyond the confines of Christian identity. This distinction, already posited in Rahner’s “supernatural existential” and applied to non-Christians in his controverted but still insightful notion of “anonymous Christians,” comes to life in the writings of Le Saux. Thanks to Le Saux, Christians came to understand that it is always possible for the human spirit to be stirred to life by the ubiquitous Divine Presence, ever merciful, active, and solicitous in love. However, such stirrings may not always and everywhere correspond or coincide with the perseverance in grace that insures salvation. A fuller analysis of the relationship between inner or mystical experience and the authentic structure of an act of faith (or more precisely, a life of faith) awaits a more adequate presentation.

However, Gronchi is able to demonstrate that Le Saux’s Christology was conscious of the cultural dynamism, grounded in cosmology, that Danielou and Teilhard de Chardin also attempted to explored Christologically. The cosmic covenant, the unfolding of the human event in biological evolution, the dying and rising of human cultures, all beg to be made present in any truly contemporary Christology.

Le Saux’s contribution to the conversation, rooted in his own monastic spirituality in dialogue with at least one significant dimension of Hindu tradition, was to explore the mystical structure of Jesus’ own experience of his Abba. Le Saux understood that this experience is effectively the basis for all religious experience, and not only that known to Christianity. As such, perhaps Le Saux might have found more fertile terrain in the theologies of Ramanuja or even in Abhinavagupta, rather than in the austere intellectualist near-monism of Shankaracarya. To articulate a Christian advaita, the questions of relationality (God-man; Creator-creation; plurality of human cultures and their interactions) are inevitable, and are not adequately addressed under the rubric of maya which collapses much that is of value in human experience in order to remain faithful to the strictly advaitin viewpoint.

Ironically, Le Saux chose a non-intellectual strand of Christian apophatism with which to respond to Vedanta, a tradition that is as intellectual as any form of scholasticism whether Christian, Buddhist or rationalist. After all, both Aquinas and Je Tsong Khapa were both quite confident that their verbal formulations and cosmological systems took into consideration the material, intellectual and transcendent features of the “stages of the spiritual path” toward the fullness of salvation, whether Vajrayana Buddhist or Catholic Christian. Le Saux may have erred in assuming that anti-rational apophatism and a-cosmic interpretations of the primordial Abba experience were a proper response to Vedanta. His approach needs a further stage of integration with the historical phases of spiritual evolution among religions and cultures, and in my view, the advaita approach truncates that further stage.

It is true that what Le Saux and others discovered (one thinks of Simon Weil) in the East leaves us insistently with the task of revising our assessment of the value of certain traditionally “non-negotiable” features of the Biblical heritage. There seems to be a general consensus among scholars of religion that the mystical religions are superior to the revealed monotheisms in the fecundity of their intellectual insights and their abundant stimuli for social and personal reform, whatever might wish to say for the prophets of ancient Israel. Only the mystical elements of the monotheisms seem to approach this level of creativity and imagination, as Weil pointed out in her demanding “Letter to a Priest” in the early 1940s. The myth of a primordial fall, redemption as a legal fiction, blood sacrifice, grace divorced from subjective experience, a theodicy that freezes both mind and feelings, a feeble notion of spiritual growth because grace seems hobbled by the weakness of the flesh, all tend to make Biblical religion vulnerable to the penetrating, and often more profoundly humane, responses of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism in their more enlightened manifestations. Thus, to read Le Saux’s diaries is a kind of relief or consolation to anyone who has pondered these troubling comparisons. Le Saux tells us, “Salvation is awakening to the Presence of God,” and not the acceptance of a set of incredible creedal formulae. This statement alone cuts through more than one Gordian knot of traditional catechesis, and subverts the ontological notion of salvation by moving in the direction of a dynamic phenomenology of human transformation that our own times require. Le Saux might have gone further with this salutary subversion had he explored critical epistemology more fully. He is too often inclined to write down aphorisms and assertions, without giving an analysis of how he came to know such things for certain. In fact, what Le Saux seems to have projected as the necessary salvific awakening is impossible when the cognitive capacity of persons has been blunted by misguided religiosity. How indeed can the higher self be awakened so that the human person might experience the grace of true inner freedom, and the collapse of the “old man” of the apparent self?

For those who have had the grace of a glimpse of what is possible, it does seem (p. 91) that the historical Christ may still be understood as the “spiritual” Christ: the pneumatikos known to the pneumatikoi. My sense is that Le Saux was able to articulate this position above all because of his monastic roots in the lex orandi (p. 92), as Gronchi also observes correctly. Lacking such roots, what arises? It is difficult to imagine why a person would arrive at a convergence of self-transcendence with an explicit encounter with the Risen Christ in the depths of the soul in the absence of a prior encounter with Christ in the experience of sacraments and liturgy. In this, all the initiatic insights of India become mater et magistra for Le Saux, and I would say also for us. It is the shaktipat of the guru that corrects and enlivens the gray terrain of modern Christian historicism and institutional inertia. India has shown itself capable of sustaining the deeper search for union with God (open to almost anyone) without neglecting institutional, village, and family life. Under such delicately balanced social structures, even the extremes of the contemplative “type” can enter the “narrow way” with a certain security.

At this point, Gronchi’s essay enables us to understand the apparent diminishment of the historical Christ in Le Saux’s diaries as simply a maturation of the mystical path, already known in monastic Christianity, and amply attested in Indian religions as well. A typically monastic, liturgical, meditative approach to the spiritual quest is thus seen as “normal” for a traditional religious consciousness and only perceived as anomalous for the liberalism and abstract historical consciousness of post-Troeltschian Western European Christianity, an artifact of its time and location. Only in the tension between two types of religious consciousness can we understand why the “mystery of Christ” is much greater than the Jesus of history (p. 96).

Clarifying these tendencies, we begin to approach the theological conversation partners of Le Saux, i.e., Dupuis and Panikkar. What Gronchi should have advanced, in my view, would have been a more complete account of Le Saux as a critical Western voice, living in India (itself undergoing an encounter with modernity), but speaking most articulately to Western Christian communities.

Paolo Trianni: “Mysticism of India and Christian Mysticism in Swami Abhishiktananda”

Prof. Trianni is in substantial agreement with the other authors of this volume on the existential project of Le Saux “to set in motion an attempt to bring India’s mysticism and the Christian religious tradition closer together,” especially by means of monasticism. He also takes note of the fact that, in spite of the extreme diversity of views to be found in the great historical traditions of India, both Monchanin and Le Saux confined themselves as Christian monastics to an encounter with the one Hindu theological position most incompatible with Christian theology, i.e. the advaita vedanta of Shankaracarya. Thus, the encounter always entailed some severe obstacles because of the advaita denial of any real distinction in essence between God and the human and because of the doctrine of maya, in which the created cosmos is merely a deceptive appearance that must be definitively “perforated” by the contemplative in search of existential truth.

On the Christian side of the conversation, Trianni is able to identify four problematic focal points inimical to a fruitful dialogue with Indian religion and philosophy, namely, Christianity’s insistence on

  • the uniqueness of Christ as world savior;

  • the irreducible need for the Church and its sacraments in order for the believer to appropriate the saving grace of Christ;

  • the intrinsic value of both the human person and the cosmos as creative manifestations of divine love;

  • a clear distinction in being between Creator and creation.

In the course of realizing his project of inculturation through monastic encounter, Le Saux underwent four stages of inner transformation as he attempted to take seriously both sides of the Hindu-Catholic theological equation:

  • an initial phase of optimism in which he believed that Christocentric inclusivism could overcome opposition expressed by both Hindus and Christians;

  • a subsequent phase in which the depth of the divergences between the traditions became clearer and more troubling, leading Le Saux to realize that harmonization is not possible and drawing him towards a deeper engagement with Hinduism;

  • a new attempt at a synthesis between Christianity and Vedanta, seen in Le Saux’s writings in the mid-1960s;

  • a final period during the last months of his life, in which Le Saux seems to have distanced himself from the synthetic, conceptual reconciliation that he had attempted earlier in order to open himself more fully and existentially to the vedantic experience.

Trianni observes that the most troublesome feature of Le Saux’s struggle seems to have been the inner struggle he experienced with the Church as self-proclaimed exclusive mediator of salvation, to the point of saying, “The Church is the fundamental obstacle between me and Christ, between Christ and humanity.”

In my opinion, Le Saux was in fact entering into the position of a modern European, skeptical and alienated from the public stances employed by the churches of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a European monk, he had been unable to make his own descent into this existential critique. For a Catholic monk in Europe, it would have been difficult to see the Church as anything other than the victim of secularization, especially in France, where world class historical monastic sites had been dynamited to obtain building materials during the Napoleonic period. It was rather Le Saux’s devastating encounter on the level of inner experience that forced doubt upon him. This may explain why his responses to the encounter with vedanta sound at times like the voice of a modern European philosopher of religion, rather than that of a Hindu of any epoch. I detect this in the following:

  • Le Saux shows almost no interest at all in any Hindu traditions other than advaita vedanta, thus excluding the bhakti traditions entirely from consideration for dialogue;

  • he shows an almost complete detachment from the Hindu ritual traditions, and has nothing to say of the sacred content of Hindu law, for example with regard to caste;

  • his approach to advaita is remarkably uncritical with regard to its numerous intellectual flaws and neglectful of serious consideration of well-known attacks in the writings of other Hindu theologians;

  • he seems unable to cut through the debilitating subjectivism inherent to the advaita anthropology in order to foresee the consequences of this subjectivism for the mental and moral well-being of contemplatives.

An experienced Hindu sage would never have made such mistakes and might in fact have been more respectful towards the Catholic Church as a sacred institution with its own integral worldview and its own wisdom with regard to spiritual maturity. Here again, Le Saux seems like a “modern.”

Even the more balanced approach of Father Monchanin, who employed the insights of the Rhineland and Flemish mystics in devising a synthesis with advaita, seems not to have found enduring traction in the writings of Abhishiktananda, especially in those phases in which he repudiates synthesis.

Instead, in an important moment of reflection, Le Saux turned to mythic and archetypal elements in Hinduism in order to reformulate a different kind of synthesis, somewhat along that attempted by Raimondo Panikkar in his presentation of the “unknown Christ of Hinduism” in terms of the Prajapati Vedic creation myth, followed by the “archetype of the monk” in the 1980s, and in the “archetype of the mystic” in later writings. Trianni shows how Le Saux links the Christ-archetype to the atman, to the guru, to the sacrifice of Purusha (Prajapati), and to the union of the nous (intellectus) with its divine archetype (as in the Cappadocian Fathers, well known by Le Saux). Time after time, these efforts at mythic synthesis founder on the shoals of advaita ontology, as Trianni rightly observes.

Ontological monism is not the same concept or experience as mystical participation as articulated in Neo-Platonism or in Saint Gregory of Nyssa. However, in the tantric side of Shaivite Hinduism, with its cosmic vision of the dancing Shiva, Le Saux found an opening for a synthesis with the cosmic Christ of the first chapters of the Letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, and with the Omega Point of Teilhard de Chardin. Taking this route leads to some extremely attractive insights. Nevertheless, all the passages that Trianni cites to show Le Saux’s rejection of “mediated” encounters with the sacred seem to miss the point of non-dualism entirely: that the forms of mediation and of ritual are as much a showing forth of the divine as the inner self of the one who is consciously waking up to the inseparable union that is at the heart of every being, every consciousness and every action, as the Bhagavad Gita states in several key passages. The perceiver and that which is perceived are inseparable in the act of perception; the act of perception itself is transformative, and opens outward into the experience of non-duality.

It might be said that some forms of western Neo-Platonism may wish to force the self beyond all concepts, rites, and mediations in order to encounter The One, but a truly onto-epistemological non-dualism is able to see the forms proceeding seamlessly from primordial unity. Thus some concepts do indeed lead back to the true nature of reality, as both Buddhist and Hindu non-dualist philosophers (such as Je Tsong Khapa in Tibet) have persuasively argued.

Trianni’s essay provides us with a good summary of Le Saux’s struggle to articulate Trinity and Incarnation in an advaita environment. One has the impression that Le Saux may have been interpreting advaita, the Flemish mystics, Evagrian apophatism, and the notion of unmediated experience of the depths of the Self in himself as a Western man, shaped by a Christian monastic experience and open to Hindu experiences in depth. We find his writings enclosed in a hermeneutical circle that distinguishes Le Saux from the Hinduism to which he was so committed and from the Catholic Christianity he so loved. By this I mean that the texts, insights, and vocabularies of previous mystical giants are all subject to ongoing changes in the meaning of their words in each subsequent generation of readers and interpreters. Because of this, Abhishiktananda was inextricably caught in a net of historical and linguistic discontinuities that not even authentic inner experience could sew back together. Some additional steps needed to be taken. I would suggest that one of those steps might yet be taken in the form of a more assiduous contact and study of the broader range of South Asian mystical traditions. Another step, perhaps underway in some circles, would be to create credible monastic centers in which deeper and wider experiences of shared contemplative experience might be nurtured.

Benedict Kanakappally: “Henri Le Saux: A Phenomenological Reading of an Experience of the Sacred in India”

Father Kanakappally attempts to bypass the difficulties that arise from a theological-critical interpretation of Le Saux by means of a non-theological, non-metaphysical approach that he identifies with phenomenology. He defines this as a gazing upon and describing everything that presents itself for our attention: the facts obtainable by observation, leaving all else respectfully “bracketed.” In reality, since all the authors of this volume limit themselves to the fragmentary and chronologically complex legacy of Le Saux’s writings, Kanakappally’s essay does not break particularly new ground. However, the author persuasively invites the reader to empathize with the experience of Le Saux by way of an interior gaze through which the reader may discover related or similar experiences. In which case, through empathy, the writings of Le Saux “read” the reader’s own inner life.

Kanakappally first “reads” Le Saux’s notion of a Hindu-Christian monasticism as a unique instance of a Christian who truly embraced the religious tradition (and consciousness?) of India. By this he means that the monastic project was not one of inculturation, but of authentic dialogue under the rubric of the “dialogue of inner experience.” Kanakappally claims that Le Saux went even farther by occupying—one is tempted to add “non-dualistically”—in himself both poles of a Hindu-Christian dialogue of religious experience. According to Kanakappally, (p. 128), without this self-identification with both poles of a dialogue, there can be no truly interior dialogue (i.e. of inner experience), nor a dialogue of two equal partners. I think that many of us who have engaged other religions in some degree of depth have experienced something of this inner identification, sometimes called “crossing over.” Some may have even experienced intense contemplative insights in the sacred spaces of other faiths. However, I have some unresolved doubts about these, and other, “non-negotiables” so often mentioned in descriptions of authentic dialogue: “equal partners” and “occupying both poles within oneself.” I wonder if attraction, falling in love, engaging in full-fledged dual practice might be truly classifiable as a set of “sine qua non’s” of authentic dialogue, even in India, much less elsewhere. The notion of parity, or the symmetry of partners, is highly problematic even from a phenomenological perspective, chiefly because it is concretely unobtainable even “de facto,” not to mention “de iure” (as Dominus Iesus insists). The very nature of dialogue in practice is determined precisely by the asymmetries among the dialogue partners. Often the most persuasive motivation for dialogue is that of perceived asymmetry. For example, a religious minority engages in dialogue in order to make itself better known and respected by the majority culture. A majority culture may engage in dialogue in order to overcome its own atavistic remnants of prejudice and violence. Asymmetries may be of a great diversity of type: numerical, chronological, geographical, intellectual, structural, and in the relative plausibility of respective beliefs. A strongly motivating asymmetry evidenced in recent dialogues is the degree to which religious traditions have been able (or not able) to engage creatively with modernity. In some ways, two “equal” partners may have little to say to one other! It seems that only those who have promoted long term interreligious dialogues know about these “phenomenological” realities. In my view, dialogue takes place most credibly when it is engaged for the benefit of and at the service of extant, living, and flourishing communities of faith. Dialogue participants should of course be committed to the full spectrum of ways, beliefs, practices and traditions of each community, and at least curious as religious persons about the ways and traditions of others. Dialogue is not diplomacy, nor an occasion for proselytism, nor a course in comparative religions. A degree of personal commitment and depth-experience are indispensable because such qualities are inseparable from the credibility of the dialogue partners.

Thus a truly phenomenological account of Le Saux’s project in India would distinguish that project from both inculturation and dialogue. It might be more accurately portrayed as engagement on the path of inner conversion. Whether we like it or not, to do this, Le Saux had to bracket, at times, almost the entire Christian patrimony in order to enter a most difficult portion of the Hindu lotus pond of theologies, and in so doing became at times a kind of Hindu, even though in a way not entirely satisfactory to Hindus. Certainly the Christian terms that Le Saux continued to use to the end of his life (including a profound Christ-centered mysticism) had taken on an inner life of their own, consistent with his own inner life. That reformulation was catalyzed by the kind of Hinduism that Le Saux chose to encounter, and by the kind of Western man that Le Saux continued to be to the end.

It is therefore no wonder that Le Saux experienced a great deal of anguish over this turn of events, as Kanakappally recounts (p. 131), and as Dupuis and Panikkar have also noted in their writings about Abhishiktananda.

It seems to me that the long term value of Le Saux’s experience will not be in its contribution to dialogue among religions, although even there it has an important pioneering niche. Rather, his experience stands as a voice of anguish and protest against those forms of Christian piety that, isolated from historical consciousness and mired in pathological aesthetics, produce unbalanced and even anti-social personality disorders among Christians of all denominations. Le Saux knew that some forms of Hindu piety led along the same road to lost equilibrium. He took up the challenge to pursue holiness by reaching out to spiritualities of renunciation, interiority, and wholeness, which he was able to find in certain forms of Hindu experience. What he found is, in my view, more important than where he found it. For this writer, the achievement is that of a European, a Western man, stripped of most of his Western cultural props, coming to terms with the same contradictions that tormented Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, Barth, Eliade, and even Thomas Merton. Le Saux is their brother even more than he is a disciple of Ramana Maharshi or Gnanananda. For this reason, even the mystical side of Abhishiktananda’s life in India could well have been lived in Brittany or Paris or Tubingen. Arunachala and Chidambaram, two holy places where I myself experienced persuasive moments of spiritual opening, served as catalysts for Abhishiktananda’s being-present-to and being-radically-open, because moments of openness and fresh awareness can occur washing the dishes, doing laboratory work, translating a text, gazing at the landscape, or holding a sick person’s hand.

It is nonetheless true that for Le Saux, the Indian experience also made demands on his own understanding of the monastic vocation, which he came to recognize as an innate calling, not dependent on formation (p. 135). The radicality of the renunciation found in Indian sannyasa enabled Le Saux to articulate a typically modern Western insight on transcendence (p. 136): “Sannyasa . . . requires a true transcendence of all that which is usually identified with religion and with being religious.” I think it is profoundly ironic, and unfortunately not noted by the author of this essay, that Le Saux employs both Hindu and Buddhist terminology of renunciation to describe perfect, total and utterly unattainable (see above what Pfeiffer has to say about “descent”), even undesirable, inner or mental renunciation (p. 137). For this reason, the claim that Le Saux succeeded in the abandonment of paradigms and patterns (p. 138) seems not only “unclassifiable” or exceptional: it seems not to have been the case at all. Le Saux did reflect in his diary on the possibility of radical renunciation, and in his life at many points he put a significant part of these reflections into practice. However, he never completely lived this reality except in that final year of his life in the company of Marc Chaduc, and then after his heart attack. Kanakappally notes that he left no system of thought or way of acting that others might have been able to imitate (although Marc made the fatal attempt to do so), and rightly observes that this might stand as a kind of “success” in terms of radical renunciation: renouncing the role of becoming a model or creating a pattern or rule of life to be followed by others.

This “unreachable star” of Christian-Hindu encounter remains a force of nature, a cosmic-human singularity that in reality no extant religious order has been able to incorporate. No one is encouraging anyone to follow in the footsteps of Abhishiktananda, at least not among professed religious belonging to traditional orders. There are some experiments underway, and there are the hermits under canon 603; I place great hope in these indications that there are Christians still willing to take risks to live out the demands of this “impossible” yet strangely attractive inner journey. Perhaps Raimondo Panikkar’s reflections, in part inspired by Abhishiktananda’s friendship, on the monastic and mystic archetypes, may find a home in more than one order and even in more than one religion.

Gianfranco Bertagni: “Henri Le Saux: For a Mysticism beyond Forms”

Bertagni challenges us to question whether or not Le Saux held the advaita vedanta position. I have also been raising the same question by interpreting Le Saux as a particular kind of modern, European voice for a widespread contemporary experience, often occasioned by an encounter with Hindu or Buddhist thought. Bertagni takes us into the inner world of Le Saux, where his ideas wrestled in the night with his experiences. Le Saux wrote, “If advaita were to become a doctrine, if it were institutionalized, it would become a false advaita, a new religion.” Bertagni easily detects a note of negativity in the use of the word religion here, something I would cite as an example of Le Saux’s “modernity.” However, one could read the citation as referring simply to the conviction of the advaita tradition that to take advaita as a “view” or philosophy (darshana) is impossible, because advaita is too profound to be anything less than universal and insuperable. If that is the view espoused by Le Saux, then we would have to say that he truly held this position as ultimate, as the final position to be held by any theology, Christian or Hindu. After all, advaita Vedanta in India is a doctrine, it is a definite religious stance. However, in this diary entry, Le Saux is making the case for advaita as “something else.” Bertagni then has to identify the two poles: the historically conscious Le Saux who knew how advaita functions in India thought (and beyond rationality in the contemplative practice of the tradition) and the other being Le Saux’s own exasperated efforts to incarnate the non-dualist position in his own monastic commitment.

It would seem, nevertheless, that the problem that Le Saux represents for all his interpreters lies not in this particular polarity. Rather, it lies within the rational framework of advaita as both a theology and as a spiritual path. Advaita tells us that anything over against the absolute Being of God becomes inevitably another god, an alternative coexisting absolute, thus an impossibility. For this reason, any notion of a subsistent creation is a challenge to the very being of God. On the other hand, we can present advaita not as a metaphysical system, but as a spiritual path leading to a transformative experience, a subjective mystical intuition that can, should and does arise in any religious context. Thus we need to ask Le Saux’s writings: is advaita a form of ontological monism, or is it a subjective inner experience consisting in the collapse of the subject-object distinction (as the Buddhists say)? Struggling with these questions, Le Saux became quite competent in discernment. Bertagni points out that it was this inner development that enabled Le Saux to distinguish between purported cultural accretions and the essence of any religion, including that of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The revelation of Jesus was explosive, destructive of the name and form game boards of previous religious reforms. The early Christians apparently sidetracked rather quickly the consequences of that explosion and made the message of Jesus into something Palestinian, ecclesial, and irreducibly Mediterranean.

For this reason, Le Saux had to resolve this Christian tendency to reductionism by adhering not to a school of thought, but to an experiential intuition. The intuition goes beyond the terminology and proves its effectiveness by enforcing a radical stripping away of pretenses and conceptualizations, palliative comforts to religious consciousness. In the spirit of the Rhineland mystics, Le Saux’s advaita intuition gives rise to a most credible humility: “free of the ego, man finally IS.” Thus, in a move that recalls Quietism, “rites, creeds, are the way that circles the mountain. Go directly to the top, say the Upanishads—by way of radical humility and oneness.” “Only a complete surrender of the dynamics of the ‘I’ allows for an experience of God denuded of any cultural artifice” (p. 149). It is the desert in which one loses the God whom one sought, the “ego” that seeks, and even the dualistic structure(s) by which one conducts the search. This is brilliant. In fact, this is what the jnani has always known, the search was only to deepen the discernment of that. Otherwise, there can be no formulas, because in this no man’s land, formulas can easily become idols or even weapons. This means dogmas and laws, even the Christological and theological ones, can be distorted.

In Bertagni’s handling of Le Saux’s most explosive quotations, we have a modern tonality not absent in recent remarks of Pope Francis. The true follower of the Christ is analogous to the atheist: both have refused the superimposition of an extraneous god on things in the manner of names and forms (p. 152). Unlike the atheist, but much like the Tibetan dzogchen practitioners (and perhaps also Simone Weil!), the gnostic/jnani sees the radiance of things, the presence, without seeking to explain it with new names or forms.

In the final paragraphs of Bertagni’s essay, we arrive once again, via atheism, Weil, Bernard Welte, and Panikkar, at a very modern Henri Le Saux, whose references to traditional religious faith of any kind seem to this writer to be radically utilitarian in spirit, and thus entirely within a worldview imbued with historical consciousness and somewhat detached from religious consciousness (as defined by Louis Dupre, the philosopher of religion). For this reason, i.e., having a weak link to religious consciousness, Le Saux is less able to make a contribution to the integration of inner experience with the lived experiences of any historical community of faith. This is why Le Saux’s project has its limits as far as interreligious dialogue is concerned, even as it opens doors to some truly profound insights.

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