Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023
Swami Abhishiktananda and the Psalms 
After four or five years of a dissolute bohemian life, in short order I found myself attending university, coming back to the Catholic communion I had been raised in, discerning callings to the priesthood and monastic life, planning on graduate studies, and, finally, getting married. During those preceding bohemian years, one pursuit of mine was the study of the Vedas and Upanishads, advaita, and Sivananda Yoga Vedanta. While I never repudiated the Catholic faith, I couldn’t deny that Vedanta was very compelling. The vast gulf between the two views of reality (on the surface anyway) was increasingly painful as I came back to being a practicing Catholic.
In the midst of all this, I had learned of the Benedictines and of a small monastic community in Sand Springs, Oklahoma founded by Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration, Sr. Pascaline Coff (+2021). After I reached out, Sr. Pascaline sent me a small booklet of the bhajans sung at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in Tamil Nadu, India where she had been in residence for a year with Fr. Bede Griffiths and which of course had been founded by this issue’s commemorated figure, Swami Abhishiktananda. I made a retreat at Osage + Monastery, Forest of Peace, not long after. When the evening I arrived, the recollection in the Forest (as Osage was commonly known), the sisters’ silence, the communal liturgy, and the blessed peace Sr. Pascaline exuded already led me to believe the Benedictine path held something important for me.
On the way out of the community building to my cabin that first evening, a yellow book cover with a mandala and the name “Abhishiktananda” typed across it caught my eye. I put money for the book in the small box that acted as cashier, walked back to my cabin, and was floored by what I read. Here was an author who could speak in Trinitarian language, could speak to the foundational role of Christ and the Spirit leading us back to the Father in the spiritual life, but who also took the insights of the Upanishads and Vedas seriously. An author who was not only not afraid to consider the teachings of Hinduism but who seemed to be just as at home in that religious world as the Catholic one. The fact that he held both in suspension and focused on the one thing necessary, awakening to what is Real, pointed to a resolution of the tensions I had been laboring over for several years. The fact that this author, Swami Abhishiktananda, was also Dom Henri Le Saux, OSB, added to the invitation to embrace the Benedictine charism in which I was suddenly immersed.
I had been primed for this meeting by my prior years’ study at university. Enthralled by medieval literature, I had begun studying medieval monasticism as an essential context for the study of that literature. In doing so, I encountered St. Athanasius’s Letter to Marcellinus, in which St. Athanasius praises the psalms as a kind of summary of the Scriptures and a mirror in all the circumstances of life for the one who prays. I read of St. Augustine’s love of the psalms, how they had aided him in his conversion and how he understood them to reveal the totus Christus. I began learning about the Rule of St. Benedict (RB) and the culture of the Benedictine reforms in the tenth and eleventh centuries. While I was studying these things in my coursework, I was simultaneously discerning the priesthood and religious life, and had gone to meet with Franciscan and Carmelite Third Order communities, but they just hadn’t “clicked.” On the other hand, studying medieval monasticism and its late antique sources did. My intellectual pursuits began more and more to color my spiritual ones.
By the time I first found Swami Abhishiktananda’s books at Osage, back in those halcyon days before one found things primarily by searching around on the internet, I had grown fond of not only the idea of monasticism but also its practices and outlook, and began adopting them—as I was able to in the world. Foundational to those practices and outlook were the psalms. I had begun saying the Roman Rite Divine Office daily and loved its rhythms—both spiritual and natural. I understood Benedict’s Rule much better after beginning to recite the Divine Office (even though I was using the post-conciliar secular Office). And so, my search for a spiritual home with a religious order oriented toward the Benedictines, even as my vocational discernment turned toward marriage.
Finding Osage and Swami Abhishiktananda were a kind of homecoming that I hadn’t expected but that I relished. And that relishing stemmed in part directly from Swami Abhishiktananda’s voice echoing so many monastic voices down the centuries. A voice that slides into and out of words from Scripture like an otter playing in the shallows along a riverbank. A voice that, as it spoke of the “I AM” revealed to Moses and pronounced by Christ in the Gospels, also spoke of the Upanishads’ “satyasya satyam” (“the Real of the real”).[1]
As I would discover through the years as I read more and more of Swami Abhishiktananda’s books, including his letters and journals, the tension in his belonging to both Christian and Hindu worlds was sometimes almost too much for him. As he navigated his own spiritual journey, there were moments when he resisted the liturgy of his Church and his order. He apparently even went so far as to write an essay on the problematic nature of Christians’ continued devotion to and recitation of the Psalms (though I have not secured a copy of this essay yet to confirm his thoughts on the matter).[2] But I for one am glad that he did not wholly reject or put aside the monastic calling he embarked upon in 1929, nor his characteristically Benedictine formation in the psalms, as he embraced more and more the calling of advaita and sannyasa. In what follows, I will briefly trace out the development of Swamiji’s relationship with the psalms (and the Divine Office more generally, since the psalms saturate it) to sketch in what and how they meant to him, and then draw a couple conclusions from this.
In her 2005 biography of Swami Abhishiktananda, Shirley Du Boulay asks, “Nourished as he was by nearly forty years of the Tridentine Mass, how could he not have its rhythms deep in his bones?”[3] I ask the same about his recitation of the Divine Office and especially the most substantial material in the offices, the psalms. Though the Real lies beyond words and concepts, Swami Abhishiktananda also taught that on the day-to-day, human level, one needed signs, language, symbols that “pointed to” the mystery beyond signs.
As is clear from his spiritual diary and his letters, at times Swami Abhishiktananda struggled with his commitments and responsibilities regarding the Church’s liturgy, but he also seems to have gained peace with them toward the end of his life. As much as he experimented with the liturgy during his years in India, he had been shaped by the discipline of psalmody as a monk from his entrance to the Abbey of St. Anne in Kergonan in 1929 through his departure for India in 1948, continuing the observance of his offices in stricter or looser forms the rest of his life. Not only was he formed by this discipline as a community member, but he enjoyed directing the liturgy at St. Anne’s as assistant master of ceremonies in 1935 and then, in 1943, master of ceremonies, looking after all the practical matters of the Divine Office for his monastic community.[4] As early as 1953, however, as he struggled with time, form, and conceptualization at the holy mountain Arunachala in southern India, he notes, “Even before coming to India there were many verses of the Psalms which no longer spoke to me. And that became more and more pronounced.”[5]
For years after, there is an oscillation, an ambivalence in his approach to the duties to Mass and Office he had as priest and monk, struggling back and forth. In 1955, when Fr. Francis Mahieu had joined Swami Abhishiktananda at Shantivanam for a time. he writes positively in his journal, “Yesterday we started the Office except for Vigils—that brings back memories, it is pleasant.”[6] He also points to the Bhagavad Gita’s exhortation to nonattachment to all actions to resolve his worries about these ritual obligations.[7] Whatever his feelings on the matter, he continued to fulfill the ritual obligations of his state to the end. Even on his retreat at Tapovanam, the ashram of Sri Gnanananda Giri, he continued to say the Divine Office (“the breviary said entirely privately in an hour at midday”).[8] And in his final illness when he had left all but one of his breviary volumes in another city, he still daily “read a few Psalms and other passages [of Scripture].”[9] I will return to this last period of Swamiji’s life presently.
Through all the conflict reported and ruminated upon in his journals and letters (which no one but his friends knew about before these documents’ publication years after his death), Swami Abhishiktananda was writing books. Some of them appeared during his lifetime, a number were published posthumously. We find throughout many of his books a seasoning of the psalms, some more, some less. He often uses psalm verses not in his most earnest theological passages (these often rely on the New Testament Epistles and the Gospels) but to make otherwise less prominent points more interesting or poetic, showing how he simply thought with the psalms, as so many monastic authors have done. One large exception to this general rule is the Trinitarian resonance he draws from Psalm 2:7, in which he sees the Father saying to the Son, “Today I have begotten you.”[10] We see the psalms throughout his books, except for The Mountain of the Lord (1966), Guru and Disciple (1970 [French] and 1974 [English]), and The Further Shore (1975). Though even here, The Mountain of the Lord takes the psalms known as the “Songs of Ascent” as their epigraph, framing the book’s entire account of two pilgrimages to the sources of the Ganges in the psalms’ imagery. Guru and Disciple (recounting his time with Sri Gnanananda Giri) cites Psalm 40 in the author’s preface and opens with a description of the Sanskrit chanting around Sri Ramana Maharshi’s samadhi as “psalmody.”[11] And his last book, The Further Shore, poignantly makes its only mention of the psalms a reference comparing the submersion of the sannyasi in the river Ganges at his initiation to Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan—the Synoptic Gospels’ “You are my Son” echoing the filial language of Psalm 2:7 noted above.[12]
Despite his use of the psalms throughout his writing and his daily recitation of the psalms in the Divine Office and lectio divina, I noted above that Swami Abhishiktananda was conflicted in his view of the psalms. It is in light of this reluctance toward the psalms in the life of a Benedictine monk that I would like to draw this reflection essay to a close. As I mentioned more generally above, in a letter composed after the heart attack that would lead to his death, Swamiji says to his disciple Swami Ajatananda (Marc Chaduc) that he reads the psalms in the morning and evening along “with other texts from the Old and New Testament.” He continues, “They often set my teeth on edge, but the remarkable thing about them is the upright stance of man in front of God….”[13] These scriptural texts he had been obliged to recite daily his whole adult life “set [his] teeth on edge”—a sincere admission balanced by his admiration of the relation of humans to the divine assumed throughout these problematic texts. This apparently had been said in response to Swami Ajatananda reporting to Swami Abhishiktananda “a renewed taste for the Psalms of Israel.”
But while these texts set his teeth on edge, and he was prevented from saying the full Divine Office due to having left breviary volumes behind when his heart attack occurred, we still find, poignantly, Swami Abhishiktananda thinking and writing with the psalms in his final months. He describes his inability to focus to Swami Ajatananda in two letters with the phrase from Psalm 73 “ut jumentum [like a beast before thee]” that is also used by St. Benedict in RB 7:50,[14] and he repeats the phrase in a letter to his sister as well.[15] He also lets Swami Ajatananda know, a month before his death, that a letter he'd sent earlier was written “de profundis” (“from the depths”), referencing the Latin beginning of Psalm 130.[16] These last uses of the psalms in Swamiji’s writings are not speculative or analytical. They do not offer any probing wisdom or erudition. And I think that is exactly what is so moving about them. He’s simply a monk, self-consciously close to death, writing to his disciple and to his sister. And as he writes to them, part of his language is the psalms’ language. He is still—for all his ego-shattering experiences, his moving half a world away from all he knew, his immersion in a religious and sociocultural context not of his birth, his studies—that otter sliding in and out of the shallows along the riverbank. The psalms simply are part of his way of relating to the world in words and concepts.
Why does this matter? First, because it shows that Swami Abhishiktananda was still affected by his monastic training, that he hadn’t completely abandoned his earlier spiritual life; rather, there was a continuity, an integrity to this humble, human life. Swamiji has a lesson for us in how our formation indeed does form us, and we can find grounding and a home in that formation, even when in many ways we’ve changed and grown away from what we’ve once been. We needn’t reject everything to grow, to move on, to find new insight, to awaken. This is a poignant teaching from a man who spent his whole life in pursuit of peace (Ps 34:15; RB Prol:17), wherever the Spirit led. Our traditions have their problems, their tensions, their limitations, but they also serve as a cultivated ground for nourishment and growth, for good fruit.
On a more personal level, Swami Abhishiktananda’s embodiment of the bridge between the two worlds of Christianity and Hinduism in his specific role as a Benedictine monk helped me find a home in the tradition in which I was brought up but with which I had had a strained relationship for years. The seamlessness with which he navigated between Trinitarian and monastic language and the language of Vedanta helped me to bridge a spiritual, conceptual, and practical chasm that had seemed irresolvable to me before I met him in his books. This ability to serve as a bridge (in Sanskrit: setu) in a more general way and a more personal way is to me precisely why Swami Abhishiktananda continues to matter in our world.
He had said in a 1967 letter to a friend that
It is precisely the fact of being a bridge that makes this uncomfortable situation worthwhile. The world, at every level, needs such bridges… How complicated life is, more so than anything we can think up. However, the danger of this life as a “bridge” is that we run the risk of not belonging finally to either side; whereas, however harrowing it may be, our duty is precisely to belong wholly to both sides. This is only possible in the mystery of God” (Letters 213).
As usual, Swamiji points us to the one thing necessary: to awaken to the mystery of God. His service as a bridge between human communities and categories, concepts and commitments, can help many of us on various spiritual paths, helping to light the difficult way that seeks openness and encounter, to awaken to the Real, to what IS. From my humble position decades after his mahasamadhi, Swamiji’s “uncomfortable situation” was certainly “worthwhile.” Pax/Shanti.
[1] Swami Abhishiktananda, In Spirit and Truth (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989), 5-6.
[2] Swami Abhishiktananda, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through his Letters (Delhi: ISPCK 1989), 184.
[3] Shirely Du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 209. A happy note: Monkfish will be publishing Swamiji’s letters anew in fall of 2024.
[4] Du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart, 24 and 29.
[5] Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart (Delhi: ISPCK 1998), 71.
[6] Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent,129.
[7] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 93-94.
[8] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 100.
[9] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 357.
[10] E.g. Swami Abhishiktananda, In the Bosom of the Father (Eugene, OR: Resource 2018), 41 and Swami Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda (Delhi: ISPCK 1997 [1974]) 77.
[11] Swami Abhishiktananda, Guru & Disiciple (Delhi: Abhishiktananda Centre for Interreligious Dialogue 2014), xli and 1.
[12] Swami Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore (Delhi: ISPCK 1975), 52. The Synoptic Gospel verses are Matt 3:17, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:22.
[13] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 352.
[14] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 353 and 356.
[15] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 357.
[16] Swami Abhishiktananda, Letters, 359.
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