Dilatato Corde 3:2
July – December, 2013
Father Bede Griffiths OSBCam
Father Bede Griffiths OSBCam

Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality

Bede Griffiths was an Oxford trained English Benedictine monk who spent the last forty years of his life immersed in the genius of Indian spirituality as co-founder of the Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in South India. In his search for the perennial philosophy and Universal Wisdom, an ancient cosmology and anthropology became the core of his teaching: that all of reality was at the same time physical, psychological and spiritual, and the human person too was spirit, soul and body. From this deceptively simple teaching a whole integral spirituality emerges which incorporates the whole person in the journey to realizing union with God.
Bede Griffiths était un moine bénédictin anglais, formé à Oxford, qui passa les quarante dernières années de sa vie immergé dans le génie de la spiritualité indienne, en tant que co-fondateur de l’Ashram Saccidananda (Shantivanam) en Inde du Sud. Dans sa quête de la philosophie éternelle et de la sagesse universelle, une cosmologie et une anthropologie antiques sont devenues le noyau de son enseignement, à savoir: « que toute réalité est à la fois physique, psychologique et spirituelle, et que la personne humaine est aussi esprit, âme et corps ». À partir de cette assertion, apparemment simpliste, l’enseignement d’une spiritualité intégrale apparaît, qui intègre toute la personne dans son chemin vers la réalisation de l'union avec Dieu.

[This article is based on a chapter from a new book Cyprian is working on for Liturgical Press, tentatively titled The Within of Things, and also served as the basis for one of his presentations at the recent retreat in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Bede Griffiths’ mahasamdhi, held at Osage Forest of Peace near Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA in May.]


The Vedic seers had reached an understanding of the threefold nature of the world, at once physical, psychological and spiritual. These three worlds were seen to be interdependent, every physical reality having a psychological aspect, and both aspects, physical and psychological being integrated in a spiritual vision.
                                                                                                                                             Bede Griffiths[1]

For me, the most significant contribution that Bede Griffiths left us was a new understanding of spiritual anthropology, an understanding of the human person wrapped inside an ancient cosmology. As evidenced by the quote above, however, it was actually the recovery of an ancient understanding of reality: the recognition of the spiritual, psychological and physical aspects of all created reality and, following on that, a realization that the human person is at once spirit, soul, and body. So in a sense to speak of a New Vision of Reality (the title of his last major publication) is ironic. Father Bede was convinced that as we entered this new age, Western science was slowly recovering, re-discovering, the perennial philosophy, the wisdom that had prevailed throughout the world from about 500 BCE through 1500 CE. It is almost as if Western science is slowly catching up with mysticism and “discovering” what especially the Asian spiritualities and philosophies had never doubted: that the material universe is pervaded by and finds its explanation in a transcendent reality. That discovery was precisely what had already taken place in India in the fifth century before Christ, during the First Axial Period when, as Bede put it, there was a breakthrough beyond mental consciousness to the discovery of the Ultimate Reality sustaining the whole universe.

For years I assumed that Bede himself had discovered this perennial philosophy through the Vedanta after his move to India, but later research showed me that he had come to this understanding as early as 1941, as evidenced by mention of it in letters to friends, long before his full immersion in the Hindu world, though having already been introduced to Huxley. But he then saw it latent everywhere, not least in his own Christian faith at its best.

We can begin with Aldous Huxley’s articulation of the perennial philosophy. This is from his introduction to Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, where he insists that the focus of Indian religion is “one of the clearest and most comprehensive summaries of the Perennial Philosophy ever to have been made.”[1] He states it in four points. First, that the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness––the world of things and animals and human beings and even “gods”––is actually a manifestation of a Divine Ground “within which all partial realities have their being. . . .” As many Christian mystical writers loved to quote, so Saint Paul in the Acts of the Apostles tells the Athenians that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being”(Acts 17:28). Second, the perennial philosophy teaches that human beings are capable of realizing the existence of this Divine Ground by a direct intuition, and that this direct intuition is superior to discursive reasoning and the rational mind. Again, as Christian mystical writers would surely also concur, particularly the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, there is, and this is, a knowledge that unites the knower with that which is known, a “unitive” knowledge. Third, human beings possess a double nature, a phenomenal ego and, beyond that phenomenal ego, what Huxley refers to as “an eternal Self, which is the inner person, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul.” The two Christian scriptural images that immediately come to mind are Saint Paul’s writing about our life hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) and, perhaps better, Saint Peter’s reference to inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4). And finally, the perennial philosophy states that the end and purpose of human life––the telos––is to identify oneself with this eternal Self and “so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.”[2]

The threefold nature of reality
Similarly, Father Bede taught that the great insight the Vedic philosophers had come to was an understanding of the threefold nature of reality, that the world is at once physical, psychological, and spiritual. In the so-called primitive mind, which Bede thought was probably a lot closer to being the natural mind, there is no such thing as a merely physical object. The world is at once physical, psychological, and spiritual, and these three realms of reality are always interdependent and interwoven. “Every material thing has a psychological aspect, a relation to human consciousness, and this in turn is related to the supreme spirit which pervades both the physical world and human consciousness.”[3] In other words, all of physical reality has a psychological aspect, and both the psychological and physical realms have an underlying reality that is the source of both other realms–­–spiritual reality. And these three levels of reality should never be separated. Bede wrote that this cosmology was “typical of the whole ancient world which had emerged out of the mythological world of more ancient times,” and “the Oriental view of the universe, which is in fact, the view of the ‘perennial philosophy’, the cosmic vision which is common to all religious tradition from the most primitive tribal religions to the great world religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.”[4]

One could validly divide reality into countless other strata or realms and name them many different ways, as many have done. There is, for instance, the beautiful teaching of Hinduism about the koshas, the five coverings of the atman or Brahman, especially as articulated in the Taittiriya Upanishad.[5] Buddhism has the teaching of the five skandhas, the five aggregates that compose human appearance.[6] In modern times Huston Smith among other perennialists has revived the ancient notion of the Great Chain of Being, body–mind–soul–spirit, which Smith associates with respective realms: the terrestrial realm, the intermediate realm, celestial and infinite realms. Ken Wilber expands that to include matter as well, and called it instead “the Great Nest of being,” adding the great stress that this is both hierarchy and a holarchy (hence the word “nest” rather than “chain”).[7]

As beautiful and comprehensive as these other articulations are, I have stayed with and continue to be satisfied by this tripartite understanding for its simplicity and its resonance with so many traditions. But I think that Wilber’s vocabulary about the nest and the holarchy is especially helpful in stressing that these are interpenetrating realms of reality. Even if we present reality as a hierarchy, such as in the scale of evolutionary theory, we are actually regarding each element according to its holistic capacity, its ability to integrate what has gone before: what is whole at one stage becomes part of a larger whole at the next stage. Hence the notion of interpenetrating or, even better, enveloping levels of reality. This is very much in keeping with the thought of Teilhard de Chardin as well.[8] We might have a tendency to see spiritual reality or the soul or consciousness as something distinct or apart from material reality, either intervening in material reality or trapped in corporeality, like some forms of Gnosticism or the Greek notion of the soul that escapes the body at death, or even Descartes’ idea of the mind as an alternate substance operating completely independently of the physical universe. This ancient view would have us understand instead that these three realms of reality––the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual––are always interdependent and interwoven. The hierarchy is also a holarchy; the chain is actually a nest.

“Every material thing has a psychological aspect,” Bede writes, “a relation to human consciousness, and this in turn is related to the supreme spirit which pervades both the physical world and human consciousness.”[9] The word “psychological” may strike us as strange and clinical, but it helps to recall that it comes from the word psyche, whose translation is really more accurately “soul.” The psychological realm is the realm of the soul, and the soul as Bede understands it contains a broad spectrum of subtle dimensions. But just as every physical reality has a psychological aspect, it is important to note that what is equally important is that both the psychological and physical realms have an underlying reality, one that is beyond the realm of soul, that is the source and summit of both other realms––spiritual reality. The Vedic philosophers never separated these aspects.[10]

Perhaps rather idealistically, Father Bede thought that up until the Middle Ages, in China, India, and the Islamic world, as well as in Europe, a creative synthesis had been achieved and was maintained in which the physical, psychic, and spiritual worlds were integrated. Economic, social, political, and cultural orders were all conceived as a harmonious unity in which each human being was related to nature, to one’s fellows, and to the Divine. But then, as he often lamented, Bede thought that the Western mind gradually came to be dominated by a philosophy of materialism, whether implicit or explicit. And thus the unitive vision began to be lost, and after the Middle Ages this creative synthesis began to disintegrate. He thought that the Reformation and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, were all stages in this process of its disintegration.[11]

In New Vision of Reality, beginning with Descartes’ separation of mind and matter, through Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, Bede shows how by the eighteenth century all aspects of a divine reality governing the Universe had been gradually eliminated, and a mechanistic system alone remained. He goes on to accuse rationalism of setting the human mind free from the divine, and Communism of depriving human beings of their basic liberty and enslaving them to the material world, all as a result, he says, of this mechanistic, materialistic philosophy.[12] Consequently, in modern times we have inherited a mind-set that separates matter from mind, and separates matter and mind from the Supreme Reality, from God.[13] Especially in the West we suffer from the disease of the merely rational mind that causes us to see matter, mind, and spirit “as separate from one another, to imagine a world extended outside of us in space and time, and the mind as something separate from the external world.”[14] This eventually has an effect on all aspects of science, from social theory like Marxist dialectical materialism all the way through Freudian psychology. Just as the existence of a divine Ultimate (spiritual) Reality was no longer needed in cosmology and the natural sciences, so in Freud’s initial mechanistic model, which Bede thought Freud never fully transcended, the existence of a soul was gradually deemed unnecessary in psychology.

New Vision of Reality was written in the last years of Bede’s life. He had had such a mistrust of modern science and the technological age from his young adult years on, but here at the end of his life, due partially to friendship and conversation with wonderful modern thinkers such as Rupert Sheldrake, he immersed himself in the works of modern science and began to rejoice that “the elements of the more universal and profound vision” were being recovered in the context of modern scientific thought.[15] He saw far-reaching consequences for the West as it slowly regained this original and ancient vision, this perennial philosophy, not just through modern physics but through depth psychology as well. He then explicates in his own words, through his own filter as mystic and monk, the work of “the new physics” of Frijof Capra, David Bohm, Rupert Sheldrake, and Ilya Prigogine, as well as the new psychology, first of all of Carl Jung, but more recently of Karl Pribram and Ken Wilbur, and the emergence of transpersonal and depth psychology.

Spirit, soul, and body
What I find especially helpful and practical about Father Bede’s teaching is that it starts out with a broad cosmological view and then resolves in a fresh view of the human person in all our glorious transcendent capacity. From this perennial philosophy he comes to understand that just as all created reality has a spiritual, psychological, and material dimension, so each human being is not just body and soul, but spirit, soul, and body, three interpenetrating realms of our being human. It is this anthropology––spirit, soul, and body––that became the core of Bede’s teaching and writings. As a matter of fact, once, in a presentation shortly before his death, he said, “The body, mind, and spirit are the main focus of all my thinking presently; we have to integrate these three levels of reality that exist at every moment.”[16]

Huxley agrees that this also is actually a return to and a rediscovery of an ancient way of thinking. In The Perennial Philosophy, he laments that twentieth-century psychologists have chosen to ignore what the Buddha, Saint Augustine, and Pascal were all aware of: “the fact that human nature is tripartite, consisting of a spirit as well as of a mind and body; the fact that we live on the border-line between two worlds, the temporal and the eternal, the physical-vital-human and the divine. . . .”[17] Father Bede claimed that this view of the human person as body, soul, and spirit was fundamental in the Bible and very clear in Saint Paul.[18] The tripartite anthropology was certainly often very clearly taught in the Christian Orthodox tradition until modern times.

(You will perhaps have noticed that sometimes the word “mind” is used for this middle realm instead of “soul,” by Huxley here and, less often, by Father Bede as well, though he normally uses the word “soul.” I always prefer the word “soul” over “mind,” as I will explain below.)

As body we are part of the earth and, just like all of reality, the physical organism of our body is a structure of energies through which we are part of the physical universe, connected to every element of creation from the beginning of time. As body, human nature is part of the whole physical universe; it evolves out of the physical universe, from matter and life. Recall the vision of Teilhard here, how the geosphere evolves into the biosphere.[19] In his later years through the language of Tantra, Bede wrote and taught about a very practical spiritual life based partly on embracing our physicality, fully incorporating the body, including one’s sexuality. However, though he himself had a great love for nature, which was in fact a large part of his own conversion experience, what Bede didn’t speak or write about was how an embracing of the body can and should also lead to a greater appreciation for the Earth and all of creation, as well. Suffice it to say that this is an area to be explored in other work, but to stress for now that the idea of being a part of the physical universe, not being simply its intervening and impermeable head, is an important neglected emphasis.

Our soul then is the whole inner realm––matter coming into consciousness, and then coming into self-consciousness and learning to harness the powers of the mind. Perhaps the rational mind is at the center, but it is surrounded by all the strata of the soul, the psyche––the sub-conscious, higher states of consciousness, the collective unconscious, and psychic powers and phenomena of all sorts. As soul (again, we can also use the Greek word psyche), humanity is the head of the universe. I am being unashamedly anthropocentric here, because I do believe, as the Christian tradition teaches, that the human person has been given a unique role in this economy of evolution, unlike and in many ways more advanced than other creatures, though this again needs to be attenuated and contextualized. We are, in a sense, matter coming into consciousness and forming an individual soul. Our psychological organism consists of our appetites, our senses, our feelings and imagination, our reasoning capabilities. I like to stress, as Bede did, that the rational mind forms only one part of this spectrum of consciousness. This is why I do not care for the popular phrase “body, mind, and soul” (or spirit) and why I always prefer the word “soul” over “mind,” because otherwise it seems to abstract the rational mind from the other layers of the soul, especially from the emotive and intuitive realms/functions, as well as the from higher forms of consciousness that surround it and to which it should give way. This psyche–soul forms our personality and is integrated with the physical organism. In this realm we are also a part of the psychic universe, the collective unconscious and the anima mundi, the soul of the world. The ancients, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, thought that plants and animals have some share in this psychic realm, some kind of soul, though of a different quality than ours. So there are theories of plants responding to music, for instance, which suddenly do not seem so far-fetched. This is also similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the noosphere. As a matter of fact, Teilhard takes that idea farther in his theory of cosmic embryogenesis, when he insists that whatever manifests at a more advanced degree of evolution has actually been there all along in some way.[20] Applying this to consciousness or soul, we can agree with what Bede says is the Oriental view of created reality and say that there is a psychic dimension to all created things.

But then, like matter itself, that soul has the potential to open to something more, which is the pneuma, the spirit, the point where the human spirit opens on to the Spirit of God, the Universal Spirit.[21] Beyond both body and soul––I like to say, deeper than the body and soul––and the source and summit of both body and soul, yet still integrated with them, is the spirit, what Saint Paul calls, using the Greek word, the pneuma. This spirit in us is the point of our communion with the universal Spirit which rules and permeates the whole universe. Our spirit is the point of human self-transcendence, the point at which the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, the many and the One, meet and touch.

The realm of spirit is also beyond all phenomena, beyond all thoughts and words, as the Hindu tradition would say, a-nama-rupa–beyond name and form; and our spirit is that point where we are one with the Divine Spirit who is beyond all phenomena. Bede pointed out, through his exploration of Universal Wisdom, meditating the sacred texts of the world’s authentic spiritual traditions, that the sense of Ultimate Reality being beyond all name and form is beautifully articulated by the Chinese notion of the Tao, for example, as by the Brahman/Atman of Hinduism, the sunyata of the Buddha, and the al Haqq of Islam, as well as by the abyss of the Godhead of the Christian mystic. And in some way our deepest selves too are beyond all name and form.

The human person first understands himself or herself as a physical entity saturated with soul, and then goes beyond mental consciousness to experience the transpersonal, transmental or, as Sri Aurobindo calls it, the “supramental” consciousness. And then we discover within ourselves that our ultimate “I” is one with the ground of the universe, God who is Being-Itself and the ground of human consciousness. Just as physical reality is pervaded by consciousness, by soul or psyche, so all reality, material and psychic, is further pervaded by the Divine, the Spirit. And so I, too, possess a double nature; I am not only my phenomenal ego, but I am an eternal self, which is my inner person, the spirit, the spark of divinity within my soul; and, more importantly, the end and purpose of life—in some way perhaps better to say that the real beginning of a life in the Spirit—is to identify with this eternal self so as to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine and let that unitive knowledge be the source of my strength and action in the world.

This is not the typical Western way to speak of human anthropology. We do not normally distinguish spirit from soul, but normally speak of the human person as either body and soul, or body and spirit, though we do sometimes speak of the “spiritual soul.” As a matter of fact, Huxley specifically laments that even though Saint Paul had drawn the “useful and illuminating distinction between the psyche and the pneuma,” the word pneuma “never achieved any degree of popularity,” and that the “hopelessly ambiguous term, psyche,” (hence also for most of us the English word “soul”) has come to be used “indifferently for either the personal consciousness or the spirit.”[22] The English word “soul” usually indicates some non-tangible, ethereal part of a person that may even live on after the death of the body. What we find in biblical anthropology, however, is that words such as nephesh in Hebrew and psyche in Greek, which are usually translated as “soul,” often refer to the physical body itself, or at least to some tangible aspects of human existence such as the flesh, the blood, the throat, or the breath as well. So the English translation “soul” has come to mean something different from what the original words meant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the other hand, admits that the soul is sometimes distinguished from the spirit, but insists that even this “does not introduce a duality into the soul.” Spirit, according to the Catechism, signifies that from creation human beings are ordered to a supernatural end and that one’s soul “can be gratuitously raised . . . to communion with God.”[23] As beautiful as this is, Father Bede, among others, found this anthropology lacking in clarity. He saw the need always to distinguish between the spirit and the soul, between the spiritual and the psychic; and he noted the importance of understanding and accentuating the spiritual realm, which brings the other two realms to their fruition.

The Christian tradition tends to refer to our human condition as a “fallen state,” and what I want to propose is that this is what our fallen state is: the state of our spirit, soul, and body being out of right relationship. The norm is psychic consciousness dominated by the rational mind, or else the mind run riot by the appetites of the body. What I want to suggest further is that the goal–the scopos—of the spiritual life is to discover, to realize this spirit within us, this deepest aspect of our being, the place of our meeting with the Divine, and find a way to let that be what is the master of our lives, and then to bring the body and soul (with its mind) into right relationship with the inner spirit that is guided by the Spirit of God.

The new consciousness of a new humanity
Now let’s use these terms to look at Jesus. The birth of Jesus from a Virgin was a sign of the birth of a new humanity, born “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of [human] will, but of God” (John 1:13) Could we say, born not simply of the body, nor of the soul, but born of spirit, of the Spirit? Jesus’ miracles were signs of a new creation, a sign of matter being transformed by its being penetrated by consciousness, signs of the mastery of the Spirit over matter, signs of matter being brought into right relationship with Spirit. The stories about Jesus’ death and Resurrection, his descent into hell and his Ascension are signs of the passage through death that every person has to undergo in order to realize God, and signs of the penetration of the Spirit into the depths of the unconscious and all the realms of consciousness. But an even more profound truth is that at the Resurrection the body and soul of Jesus were transformed by the Spirit; humanity and nature were revealed in an indivisible unity, a unity that was at once physical, psychological, and spiritual, that is, body, soul, and spirit. Even Jesus’ Second Coming that we long for can be seen as the final manifestation of all of creation and all of humanity passing out of its present state of being and consciousness into total consciousness of Reality, when all of creation that is “groaning in labor pains until now… while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23) will be brought into right relationship with the Spirit who is its source and its summit. This is not only the soul going to heaven; this is the proper end of the spiritual life according to the Christian mystical vision––“a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

And so for the individual, as Abhishiktananda wrote, “The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is the symbol, the sign, the sacrament, the ‘cosmic origin’ of the penetration, the impregnation of all our faculties by the ‘mystery of the depth’,” the Spirit.[24] This following paragraph may be the most important thing that I ever read in Father Bede’s writings:

When the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost, the power of the Spirit [that] had transformed the body and soul of Christ at the resurrection was communicated to his disciples. A new consciousness dawned, a consciousness beyond the ordinary rational consciousness, which set the apostles free from the limitations of our present mode of existence and consciousness and opened them to the new world of the Resurrection.[25]

This is a fresh approach and new language to express the transformational character of Christianity and Christian mysticism. This is the consciousness that is meant to dawn on us and the transformation that is meant to happen in us through our Baptism, and specifically through the sacrament of Confirmation, when the Pentecostal Spirit of the Risen Jesus allows us to open our eyes and understand the meaning of the Resurrection, to see the world once again in right relationship, brought about by Jesus re-establishing the right relationship for flesh and all of creation. And, Saint Paul tells us, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Romans 8:11), and not just at death, but even now. That same spirit, if invoked, will bring us into right relationship, spirit, soul, and body. “Pentecost is the openness of the mind,”[26] the mind becoming open to this, the deepest reality, the reality of the Spirit who is our source and our summit.

Nothing gets left behind
Why is this important? This is where I find that Ken Wilber’s language, which is very popular with a certain segment of contemporary spiritual seekers, fleshes out Father Bede’s admonition that we need to integrate these three levels of reality that exist, the body, the soul, and the spirit, at every moment. This holistic understanding of the human person is a call to an integral spiritual life, a word that Wilber inherits from the Integral Yoga of Aurobindo, with whom Bede was very familiar; a spirituality that recognizes that the development of each of these aspects––spirit, soul, and body––is important to the spiritual growth of the whole person. Otherwise so-called spiritual enlightenment could actually make the rest of one’s life a disaster! If it is true, as Saint Thomas Aquinas taught, that grace builds on, and does not destroy, nature, then no aspect of our being human is not meant to be transformed by the spiritual life.

As Wilber explains it, there are many different areas of development that the human person needs to go through. He calls those areas “lines.”[27] They are various intelligences, you might say. One could list dozens but the most widely cited are cognitive development, for instance, and then the interpersonal intelligences such as psychosexual emotional development. Then there is moral and ethical development, and one wonders how much authority someone has about moral and ethical issues if one does not have psychosexual emotional development. There is also bodily or kinesthetic development, verbal and linguistic, logical and mathematical development, and the more creative artistic intelligences such as musical, rhythmic, visual, spatial; and finally naturalistic development. And then there is so-called spiritual development. It is interesting to see spiritual development as only one of those areas, one of those lines of development, only one form of intelligence. I say “so-called spiritual” not to be cynical, but because from this way of thinking, not everything we call “spiritual” actually is spiritual: it might be religious; it might also be merely a psychic phenomenon that could be good, neutral, or even evil.

That being said, the main point is this: someone who has had a profound spiritual experience such as a religious conversion might still be at a fairly low level of development in one or several other areas. Wilber points out that this also applies even to a lot of spiritual teachers and religious leaders. They perhaps have a real gift for the vocabulary and skills of the spiritual life and a knack for the whole ambience of religiosity, but other developmental lines have been neglected or could actually be pathological. For example, there might have been emphasis on personal interior development, but no time was ever taken for interpersonal, sexual, or emotional intelligence. This would certainly give some explanation for the scourge that has been wracking the Roman Catholic clergy, who may by now be sensing the dire need of a more integral spirituality, but other communions and traditions have had similar problems. (As a matter of fact, Wilber teaches mainly from his experience in Buddhism.)

The problem is that states of consciousness such as spiritual or religious experiences can seem so all inclusive that we can be led to think we are developed in other areas as well, simply because spiritual experience or religious training has a kind of veneer of wisdom that seems to hover over everything. In my experience, great damage has been done in this regard. That’s why I say that so-called spiritual enlightenment could actually make the rest of one’s life a disaster! If teachers do not have some kind of integrally informed awareness, it will be difficult for them to make decisions in areas in which they are not competent. One could rightly wonder, as the closet continues to pour out skeleton after dancing skeleton, how anyone associated with Roman Catholicism, for example, could dare to expound on healthy sexuality except with head bowed in absolute humility. Even if our teachings and our anthropology be sound (I am purposefully using the subjunctive mode here), we have certainly not modeled a way to live them healthily! Could it be that the whole body of Catholicism or Catholic religious life is pathologically un-integrated?

The other extreme might be a tendency into a kind “angelism”—as Catholics used to call it—thinking we have left all those other things behind now that we are “spiritual,” a phenomenon that some contemporary spiritual thinkers call “spiritual bypassing.” But, we find out soon enough that nothing gets left behind, and that is precisely the point of this integral spirit, soul, and body teaching. We all—maybe especially, spiritual seekers—need to develop our whole persons at some point, to the glory of God. Instead of the spirit making us skip over those seemingly lower lines of development, what if the spiritual life led us to approach those more fundamental aspects of our being with reverence and wisdom?

Outside of sexuality, I have sensed a need for growth within Christian spirituality in many other areas as well, such as our understanding of our place in the ecosystem of the planet, for example, These are often areas where other traditions and even so-called “pagans” have actually continued the Incarnational trajectory of Christianity in history without us. If it is true, as the famous aphorism of Saint Irenaeus sings, that the glory of God is the human person fully alive; if it is true that Jesus came that “they might have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10), then I am dreaming of a practical integral Christian spirituality, one which reverences and develops the whole person, spirit, soul, and body. What would that look like? Spirit, soul, and body are dimensions that are already a part of us. To be what Wilber calls “integrally informed” means being aware of where we need help, where we are lacking, as well as recognizing what our gifts are.

Bede Griffiths’ exploration into this area in both his study and his lived spirituality in the latter part of the twentieth century in India, has provided a bridge from traditional Christian spirituality and its lexicon to the sensibility and vocabulary of informed spiritual seekers of the early twenty-first century, hungry for and informed by contemporary incarnations of integral spirituality. Especially under his guidance and re-articulation of ancient truths, Christianity has as much to offer to the discussion as to learn, and as much to learn as to offer.


Abhishiktananda. Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. Delhi: ISPCK, 1986.

The Bhagavad Gita: the Song of God, trans. Swami Prahavananda and Christopher Isherwood Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1987.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. United States Catholic Conference: 1994.

Griffiths, Bede. “Integration of Mind, Body, and Spirit,”An Occasional Paper of the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo: 1994.

–––––––––––––. Marriage of East and West: A Sequel to the Golden String. Springfield, IL.: Templegate, 1976.

–––––––––––––. New Vision of Reality. Springfield: Templegate, 1989.

–––––––––––––. Return to the Center. Springfield: Templegate, 1976.

Huxley, Aldous. Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

–––––––––––––. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1959.

Wilber, Ken. The Essential Ken Wilber: an Introductory Reader. Boston: Shambala, 1998.

–––––––––––––. The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston: Shambala, 1998.

 –––––––––––––.The Integral Vision. Boston: Shambala, 2007.


[1] Aldous Huxley, introduction to Bhagavad Gita: the Song of God, trans. Swami Prahavananda and Christopher Isherwood (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1987), 6-7.

[2] Huxley, 7.

[3] MEW, 51.

[4] MEW, 51.

[5] The five koshas are the annamaya-kosha–the material covering of food, the physical body and the material world, non-living matter and energy; the Pranamaya–kosa–the vital covering manifest as breath; the Manomaya-kosa–the mental covering, the rational mind; the Vijnana-maya–kosa–intelligence covering, the higher form of mind, what we often refer to as the subtle realm; and the Ananda-maya-kosa–the bliss covering, the causal realm, the formless, beyond.

[6] The five skandhas are rupa–material composition, vedana–sensing (including the sixth sense of mental perception), samjna–perception, samskara–mental formations, and vijnana–consciousness.

[7] Ken Wilber, The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad (Boston: Shambala, 1998), 42-42. See also “Completing the Great Chain,” from One Taste quoted in The Essential Ken Wilber: an Introductory Reader (Boston: Shambala, 1998), 108.

[8] Note, for instance, his theory of cosmic embryogenesis in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), especially Book Two, “Life”; and The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), especially Part Three 1, “The Attributes of the Divine Milieu.” 111ff.

[9]MEW, 51.

[10] Bede Griffiths, New Vision of Reality  [hereafter NVR] (Springfield: Templegate, 1989), 58.

[11] Bede Griffiths, Return to the Center [hereafter RTC] (Springfield: Templegate, 1976), 96.

[12] RTC, 96.

[13] NVR, 59.

[14] NVR, 57.

[15] NVR, 11.

[16] Bede Griffiths, “Integration of Mind, Body, and Spirit,”An Occasional Paper of the Fetzer Institute (Kalamazoo: 1994), 1.

[17] Aldous Huxley, Perennial Philosophy, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), 115.

[18] NVR, 97.

[19] See especially Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon, Chapter One, “The Advent of Life.”

[20] Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon, 78 for cosmic embryogenesis, and 180-4 for noosphere.

[21] NVR, 97.

[22] Perennial Philosophy, 165-166. Huxley raises the interesting point that devotional writers in the Western church chose to speak of the anima, the feminine noun that for Romans meant the lower, animal soul, instead of animus, the masculine noun that was normally used for the rational soul, because “the human soul is normally regarded as feminine in expositions of the Perennial Philosophy.”

[23] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (United States Catholic Conference: 1994),  #367, 93–94.

[24]Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart (Delhi: ISPCK, 1986), 216.

[25] MEW, 36.

[26]Abhishiktananda, Ascent, 274.

[27] Wilber reiterates this teaching in numerous places. See, for instance, Ken Wilber, The Integral Vision (Boston: Shambala, 2007), 37-44.

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