VOLUME IX, Number 2
July - December 2019


Nothing speaks more eloquently to me of the mystery of the Church than the contemplation of the starry vault of heaven. I vividly remember how I felt as a child when we set out at night along the trails near the Grande Chartreuse. My parents taught me to recognize the evening star (Venus) and the most famous constellations: the Big and the Little Dipper, Boötes, Andromeda, Cassiopeia. Much later, in Madras, I saw the Southern Cross for the first time, and I thought of the sailors of old who, having left Portugal, observed it rising on the horizon as they sailed in other latitudes. And how can I forget the nights I passed in the Sahara, lying in the dunes and losing myself in the Milky Way, and the even colder nights of the Himalayas that shone with a hundred thousand sparkling diamonds? I now understand the wonder of Thérèse who saw the initial of her name appear in the skies of Lisieux.
I still like to find this sentence on death announcements: “She went to join the stars.” Even though the hope of eternal life in Christ has faded, there remains the presentiment of a unique life that cannot be extinguished permanently and the conviction that there is no purer representation of such a life than the stars. The celestial vision that entranced Van Gogh at night in Provence merges with everything theology has taught me about the Communion of Saints. Indeed, the stars dancing around the Milky Way—the very symbol of the grace of Christ—are led by the Pole Star: His Holy Mother. All the other stars—Saint Bruno, Saint Francis, Saint Ignatius and so many others—are united in a common destiny. Sometimes the eye needs to adjust to the darkness before discerning how a distant and seemingly fainter star is linked to a particular constellation and is perfectly in place.
By molding my life into a priestly vocation in India, the Lord has assigned me to the spiritual family of those other foreigners who arrived in India before me, spent their lives (or a good part of their lives) there, and came to realize that they belonged, with every fiber of their being, to that incomparable Indian people. Over time I have learned how to receive the heritage of my elders in the Paris Foreign Mission Society and the Society of Jesus, as well as the heritage of all those who dedicated themselves to the encounter with Hinduism. Within this latter constellation appear the shining stars of Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux, and the many others who were swept along in the mystical current stirred up by those two pioneers. I was blessed to have met some of them before their departure from this world. With regard to the others, prolonged acquaintance with their writings and their legacy has made them so alive that I feel I have spent hours in conversation with them.
Until recently I knew nothing about Prasanna Devi, the hermit of Girnar, who is like an invisible star in the constellation of those beings to whom I owe so much. It was only after Bettina Baümer and Sister Guislaine of the Little Sisters of Jesus had repeatedly spoken of her that I resolved to meet her. I wanted to be, as it were, an emissary of all her friends in Benares in order to convey the full strength of our spiritual communion. I am fully aware of how much we need to encourage one another in our contemplative vocation, which so often demands that we walk alone along a crooked and stony path. And so it was that in the spring of 2015, after a long train ride and a night on the bus, I arrived in Junagadh, a small town of Saurastra in a remote part of Gujarat. The driver let me out in front of the Catholic church, and a few minutes later, I was knocking at Prasanna Devi’s door.
After I introduced myself and gave her news of all her friends on the banks of the Ganges, she replied in a soft voice and with the fine humor of an eighty-year old lady displaying an eternally youthful spirit, “You pictured me seated in ecstasy in the jungle of Atmeshwar, but here you find nothing but a poor sister lost in the din of the traffic, in a spiritual night, surrounded by Christians who don’t understand her.” A few days later, having listened at length to her account of her long spiritual journey, I found myself responding, “I really do believe that it is in this strange, somewhat odd situation that the hermit is most genuine.”
Parivraja: A Pilgrimage in Faith
Following our first meeting in 2015, I have returned to Junagadh every January, true to my promise to visit her regularly, a promise Prasanna Devi herself asked me to make. I must admit that I am the primary beneficiary of these annual meetings, because this nun’s luminous presence turns them into a spiritual retreat that calls me to plunge ever more deeply into the heart of my own vocation, which is to be present to Hinduism, following the example of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), and Henri Le Saux (1910-1973)[1]. In Prasanna Devi I have found someone who in living out her contemplative vocation has discovered her own unique way of being totally present to her Hindu friends. Who else in the Church has been in such intense communion with them? Indeed, I believe in living out her contemplative vocation in this way, she is the very model of monastic interreligious dialogue, dialogue at the level of spiritual practice and experience.I could go so far as to say that a silent transmission of experience took place between us, making Prasanna Devi one of the women to whom I am most indebted.
In the course of our conversations over the past four years, I have little by little managed to reconstruct the jigsaw puzzle of her life, and I try to commit it to memory, as would a scribe who knows that, when the time comes, he will have to pass on to others all that he has learned.
Anne was born in 1934 in Todupuzha, a small town in the ancient Christian land of Kerala in South India where, it is believed, Thomas the Apostle preached in the first century. In 1958 she joined the newly established convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Trivandrum, the first religious community to claim that it was shaping its life according to the spiritual heritage of Charles de Foucauld. Anne became a novice under the direction of Ivane de Feydeau (1919-2012), a French nun to whom Jules Monchanin was spiritually very close, endeavoring by his preaching to draw her and her community more deeply into the mystery of the Trinity.
After Monchanin’s death, Henri Le Saux, his companion and co-founder of the Shantivanam Ashram, kept in contact with Trivandrum and was present when Anne received the religious habit and was given the name ‘Anne of the Holy Eucharist.’ On that day, the Benedictine monk, who would come to be better known as Swami Abhishiktananda, commented, “How sad, to see this young woman dressed in a religious habit that is so foreign to the Indian Soul!” His words were in a sense prophetic, for although he did not live to see it, Anne would eventually take on, as he had, the saffron robe of the sannyasin.
No sooner was her novitiate over than Sister Anne had to return home. A leadership crisis at the French headquarters of the young Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart led to the closing of the Trivandrum convent. The sisters had to transfer other communities or leave religious life. Over the following decade, Sister Anne’s hope for an Indian revival of this religious family ended in disillusion. She thus became the innocent victim of one of the many sectarian deviations in the church that have caused irrevocable harm to souls who soared toward God in their youth with boundless generosity and intense desire.
What guided Anne through this dark night was the spiritual heritage of Charles de Foucauld and Jules Monchanin that had been entrusted to her during her novitiate by the incomparable Sister Ivane. Even though in the years to come this French sister’s destiny was to sink into oblivion and even a kind of failure in the eyes of the world, the spiritual progress of her novice proved to be her redemption, confirmation of the fact that Christians can never pass judgment about to the purpose of someone’s existence, for a mysterious other may come along to complete what was left unfinished.
As Anne searched for a way to live out her true vocation, she realized that none of the many religious congregations in India would be able to satisfy her unquenchable thirst for contemplation. She was then given the grace to meet a true guru in the person of the Belgian Benedictine, Dominique van Rolleghem(1904-1995), a monk of the Abbey of Saint-André in Bruges who had helped to found monasteries in China and in the Congo before he arrived in India in 1951. There he and other Belgian monks founded the first Benedictine monastery in India, Asirvanam, not far from Bangalore. This twentieth-century Desert Father was also the confessor and confidant of Henri le Saux. After the latter’s death, he devoted himself to bringing a contemplative presence into the heart of India, the same mission to which the “Hermits of the Saccidananda” had devoted themselves.[2]
At the beginning of 1973, a new door opened in the life of the 39-year-old Anne. Father Dominique suggested she should make a parivraja (the holy wandering of Hindu monks) in the company of Achille Forler, a young Frenchman who had just spent two years in the Christian Ashram of Kurisumala, where he received the name “Satyananda,” the one who finds joy in Truth. This rather daring suggestion was, in fact, a putting into practice of Jesus’ words to his disciples, on which Dominique commented on the day of their departure: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). He then blessed his two children as they set off on their journey and accompanied them with prayer, recognizing that they were both accomplishing what he himself would dearly have loved to have done and what had also been counseled by an ancient Upanishad: “When the knots of the heart have been broken, let him wander off.” [3] 
Anne, the future Prasanna Devi, carefully preserved every letter that Father Dominique wrote her from 1972 to two years before his death in 1993. These letters are an outstanding and precious testimonial of how fruitful spiritual guidance can be. The day will come when this entire correspondence will be given over to the Church so that it may nourish other souls and allow them to comprehend in an existential way what it means to abandon one’s self to the grace of God. As Father Dominique, himself an exemplar of this abandonment, wrote in one of his letters,  “Be confident Sister, you have much to gain spiritually in that new way: of what God will shows you day after day, what to do. May Jesus always be in you and between you. May he be your being and your life”(November 20, 1972).[4]
During the year that followed their departure on road on January 7, 1973, was an incredible adventure for the two pilgrims, filled with unexpected encounters and visits to different Hindu and Christian ashrams. It was above all an inner pilgrimage, as Father Dominique kept reminding her through his letters:
Here should be only attention to the present moment, to be lived in the eyes of God (February 7, 1973).
Trust blindly and foolishly in God’s concern and love for you. In a very simple way, you will be able to pass your time in solitude. Let the Spirit guide you. In deep goodness for God’s grace, walk that spiritual life, that is at the same time lovingly practical (March 11, 1973).
The convents are too confortable places for testing our true measure of spirituality. Your situation is a call to move interiorly. Give a witness of the true God you love in your heart (sometime during the year 1973).
The next step will be shown to you. Don’t plan. Listen to the Spirit, and the circumstances. . . . Mind that you are on pilgrimage of the Unknown (August 3, 1973).
By an astonishing coincidence of circumstances, the path of the two Christian sannyasis took them in the direction of Gujarat, the state northwest of Bombay that juts into the water almost as if it were pulling the Indian subcontinent out to sea. On January 1, 1974, they reached Girnar Taleti, arriving at the very place where the ascent of the sacred mountain begins, an ascent made daily by thousands of Hindu pilgrims on the ten thousand steps that lead to the Dattatreya peak, named after the mythical guru, son of Atri Muni and Anasuya Devi, avatar of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu who composed the sublime Avadhuta Gita.
Long before Hinduism made the Girnar one of its most exalted spiritual centers, populating its slopes of famous ascetics, the place had welcomed recollected Buddhist monks whose traces are still seen in the ruins of some viharas[5]and also the famous Edicts of Ashoka, which are engraved on an ancient stone.
The white-clothed Jains of the Svetambara branch also come on pilgrimage to the mountain where, at mid-point, stands the great temple dedicated to Neminath, who did penance here and became one of the twenty-four tirthankaras, those who first forded the sea of interminable births and deaths.
Not to be outdone, the Muslims claim the town of Junagadh, located at the foot of the Girnar hills, which was the princely seat of the Nawab until 1947, when he left for Pakistan, not having succeeded in annexing his kingdom to the border state of India. However, Islam, with its beautiful historic monuments, has remained a strong presence throughout the city today. Junagadh is also noted for the tombs of Sufi masters and for its pilgrimage to Dattar, the mountain facing the Girnar.
We can therefore easily understand why their “pilgrimage to the Unknown” came to an end. Satyananda and the one he affectionately called “Chechi” (elder sister) recognized that they were very gently but insistently called to be a Christian presence in the shadow of the summit that was sanctified by so many seekers of the Absolute and where so many religions continue to meet.
After the two pilgrims had remained some time with the Hindu sannyasis, a man directed them to an secluded valley deep in the jungle that covers the slopes of the Girnar. There, near the small temple of Atmeshwar and in a gorge next to a flowing stream, Satyananda built a hut out of branches for Prasanna Devi. A year later, in late August 1976, the young Frenchman had to return for a time to his country of origin, leaving his Indian “elder sister” all alone. It was then, without anyone to give her support, that she began the true life of a hermit, a life that she had not originally planned on but one to which she gradually consented to, discerning that, in some way or other, it was the will of God. Thus the words that Father Dominique wrote to her sometime after her arrival at the Girnar were even more being fulfilled: “It is in hopeless situations that our hope (and our love of God) is put at the test. Meditate Christ's Passion, Christ's loneliness, love, overcome” (April 15, 1974).
At each of my journeys to Junagadh, I go on a pilgrimage to Atmeshwar to spend an extended time of silence in the hermitage of Prasanna Devi, which now is empty. I often think back to the heroic feat of this young woman who grew up in a protected world and was now living in the jungle. I like looking at the old photos she kept from this far distant time in which she looks so beautiful. I also think about what Achille told me when I had the joy of meeting him: “Prasanna has transcended herself.” How true! This woman, so fragile in appearance, is strong indeed because she has lived her entire life in total surrender to Christ, even though, in the eyes of the world, none of this makes any sense. Achille went on to say, “Nothing seems to have prepared her for the eremitical life. Prasanna's life was not that of a person who knows in advance what she wants to do. On the contrary, Prasanna let herself be shaped by something beyond her, by someone to whom she has become totally transparent.”
Prasanna recognizes that she owes everything to Father Dominique, her guru, who encouraged her to give herself more and more deeply in the influence of the Spirit so that God’s holy will might be accomplished as she walked in darkness along this strange path of faith:
Mental prayer is an act and a disposition of abandonment to the Father’s will (March 19, 1975).
Desire nothing, except what is, and what is God’s will,—that present moment to live in God’s presence, in God’s love. And that is true contemplation; because we contemplate finally with the heart, with the whole soul, much more than with the intellect, which is only a part of the soul, and which through its eagerness of knowing many things, disturbs rather than it aids. […] Contemplation is simply to be in God’s intimate presence, to gaze in the darkness of faith, to love in limpidity of heart (December 1, 1976).
Taste and sweetness are normally for beginners; dryness and pure spirituality mean progress… ‘God is Spirit; and true worshippers adore Him in spirit and in truth.’ Only don’t forget Christ Jesus in your spiritual context and Our Lady: Christ who suffered the deepest human loneliness, in being in the flesh as it were separated from the Father, although united spiritually unto the very unity; Mary whose divine motherhood isolated her spiritually from all the other women. . . . Yes, you have been violently torn away from all community life. . . . It is your vocation, your greatness, your humbling greatness. You do please more God than the other. . . . If sannyasa is anything it is ‘separation’ for God’s sake. He alone be your love (January 23, 1977).
Sometime after the departure of Achille-Satyananda, who left Prasanna alone in the jungle of the Girnar, the local bishop gave her permission to keep the Blessed Sacrament in her hut, thus filling the solitude of Atmeshwar with a new presence. Even though the Blessed Sacrament is no longer reserved in her hermitage, it is always a moving experience to pray in her little oratory and to celebrate mass there, as as the successive parish priests from Junagadh often used to do on Sunday afternoon. As I reflect on the hours she spent in silent adoration, I recall the words of the Canticle of Canticles that so rightly speak of the hermit's inner conference with her Master and Lord:
Listen! My beloved! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. . . . Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. My beloved spoke and said to me, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely (Canticle of Canticles 2:8-10,14)
There is also another scripture passage that comes to mind: that of the temptations in the desert in the Gospel Mark where it is said that Jesus “was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (1:13). When I return from Atmeshwar, Prasanna always asks me if I saw the two mongooses who were keeping her company and protecting her from snakes. She also likes to tell me how the animals ate from her hand and that the lions did not disturb her when they came to drink at the nearby stream. These stories might seem like tales from popular lives of saints, yet they are the obvious sign of a peaceful universe recreated in universal love and extended to the most insignificant of creatures. In talking about all her companions in the forest, Prasanna adds this touching and true confession: “Only a contemplative can see the tiniest created beings; most people are usually in too much of a hurry to give them any attention.”
For years Prasanna Devi hoped and prayed that another hermit would join her in the jungle and remain there with her. That never came to pass, but she did receive a priceless grace more than four years after she settled in Atmeshwar when, in July 1978, Father Dominique came to live there, remaining there until December 1980 and dwelling in a modest hermitage that was built for him alongside that of his spiritual daughter. It was a blessed time for him. He was seventy-four years old and his time in Atmeshwar was the fulfillment of a longing he was unable to realize during his many years of community life. For his disciple too, the presence of her guru was a priceless gift, a confirmation of the eremitical life she had embraced. It was at this time that Anne changed her name to Prasanna, by which she is known today.
I often imagine the two contemplatives keeping vigil on either side of the stream. There are some photos that preserve the memory of this time of joy. When he left the Girnar, Dominique spent a few months in the company of a young Indian in a hermitage on the sweltering plain of Surat. He then returned to the monastery of Asirvanam from which he continued to write regularly to his disciple, leading her ever forward along the paths of prayer that are ultimately the true story of the life of a hermit, an inner epic that only God knows:
Your prayer be definitely a longing after the Lord. That is true love in this world. And that is the state of prayer, which you must try to maintain, notwithstanding assailing distractions and continued dryness. Waiting and longing is prayer (February 13,1986).
‘Dryness in prayer’, so said the Little Flower, ‘has been my fate during my whole life’. Try to put some love in your ‘surrender’. Dryness itself is the deepening of spiritual life. And that kind of awareness of God during the days, is it not what we call continued prayer?, prayer ‘in life’ (June 16, 1989).
At the beginning of 1990, the spiritual father and daughter met each other one last time before Dominique returned to Belgium. Prasanna made the long journey by train to Bangalore to ask her guru for what the Hindu tradition calls diksha: the ultimate initiation that completely frees the disciple, who is now called to walk alone and free on the paths of the Spirit. As age and sickness weakened her spiritual father, his letters became rarer. He wrote his last one on December 21, 1993, to wish her a happy New Year. Dominique died on January 22, 1995, in his home monastery of Saint-André in Bruges, having accompanied Prasanna Devi's inner pilgrimage to the end of his life, lavishing on her the spiritual wisdom he had distilled over the years:
What is the normal experience of the age in contemplative life? I should say fidelity. When all feelings of enthusiasm are past, when prayer has become very dry, continue to spend your time in pure love, that is love of gratuity (no reason, no motive of love anymore at hand). Such also is God’s love,—love for loving. Say once, slowly, slowly: ‘Our Father’ . . . even without words. . . . (January 10, 1992).
The Christian sadhvi
On March 25, 1997, the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, Prasanna Devi professed her vows as a hermit to Mar Gregory Karotemprel, the Syro-Malabar Bishop of Rajkot in Gujarat. Several years earlier, Father Dominique had discovered that canon 570 of the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches allowed official recognition of the eremitical life and he had counseled his disciple, who had never been able to make perpetual profession in a religious congregation, to move in this direction because “what is made obvious is that your vocation is 'unique'“ (December 31, 1988). Her profession of vows as a hermit was celebrated with a beautiful mass at Atmeshwar, which was attended by the bishop, many priests and nuns, parishioners from Junagadh and elsewhere, and also many Hindu friends from the area. It was a special celebration because Prasanna was now the only officially recognized Christian hermit in India—a fact that the diocese of Rajkot takes pride in. It was as if, all of a sudden, the Church was overthrowing the way the world reckons value by affirming that, in order to fulfill its mission, it did not only need the intricate network of its numerous institutions (schools, hospitals, convents, and parishes) but also and especially, the prayer of a woman who, without being aware of it, carries the world in her silent offering and resembles the hold of a boat hidden beneath the waves that prevent it from capsizing and sinking. Achille gave me a very profound insight into the purely eremitical life embodied by Prasanna Devi. She is, he said, “like the snows that never melt. They seems to have little impact on the course of the world because they are so far removed from our daily lives, and yet they are what control the atmosphere.” The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says much the same thing:
Those who withdraw to the heights to fast and pray in silence are . . . the pillars bearing the spiritual weight of what happens in history. They share in the uniqueness of Christ, in the freedom of that nobility which is conferred from above; that serene, untamed freedom which cannot be caged and put to use. Theirs is the first of all aristocracies, source and justification for all the others, and the last yet remaining to us in an unaristocratic age.[6]
Prasanna implemented her eremitical vocation in Atmeshwar in a very radical way, as evidence by the extreme material poverty in which she spent her four decades of solitude. At the same time, she had a very particular understanding of her mission, which was to give Christian witness to prayer and friendship, offered without reservation to all the Hindu believers with whom she lived on a daily basis. It is because of her particular understanding of her mission as a hermit that she has become, through our meetings, a great source of inspiration for my life in Benares. I believe that I can make my own everything that she says with such authenticity and forcefulness. At the very least, her words call me to greater fidelity to my own vocation.
In this sense also, Prasanna, even as the most hidden star of her spiritual constellation, is the one that, to my mind, has captured the ideal of Charles de Foucauld, Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux, especially in her unrestrained dedication to her Hindu brothers and sisters. It is, moreover, because she incarnated the eremitic ideal in all its incandescence that Prasanna, as a Christian, spoke so powerfully to the heart of India and that her holiness was so widely recognized by the Indian people. To the thousands of Hindus who, over the years, went up to Atmeshwar, Prasanna gave nothing but the darshan, the vision of the divine they seek in their temples, in their sacred writings, and especially in their saints. What I have for proof of this is all the testimony that was given me in Junagadh, especially by the family of Rudraraj, one of the many students I have met in Benares. I can also present as evidence the unbroken line of Hindu disciples and friends that continues to make its way to the Catholic parish where Prasanna now resides. I could also point to her portrait, which has been placed in the middle of other portraits of Hindu gurus in the little temple of Atmeshwar, a few steps from where she lived. For everyone, the Christian hermit - the sadhvi - was the perfect realization of the name she gave to her hermitage: Sneha deepam, the light of love, doing so in fidelity to the counsel of her spiritual father: “Your charity to all people be your witness” (December 24, 1976).
When she lived in the jungle, Mataji, mother—that is what the Hindus called her—rose at three o'clock in the morning and from three-thirty to seven o'clock, she prayed in silence. This time before sunrise is especially auspicious for the meditation that Indians call Brahmamuhurta. At eight o'clock she opened her door to visitors for two hours, doing so once again in the afternoon. Everyone knew when they could approach the hermit to bring her some food, to entrust her with the joys and worries of life, and, most of all, simply to stand in the radiance of her presence. A very moving testimony was given by Odette Baumer-Despeigne (1913-2002), a friend of Henri le Saux and Dominique Van Rolleghem, who visited Atmeshwar in 1978:
Early in the morning the first pilgrims arrived to receive the darshan—the blessing—of the many hermits that inhabit the sacred mountain. The pilgrims stopped and prostrated before each of them before arriving at the top of the mountain, the goal of their pilgrimage. For a Hindu, a “holy man,” a “holy woman,” is the visible sign of the Invisible. After placing an offering of fruit or flowers at the feet of the hermit, the pilgrim sits in silence for a few minutes until the hermit puts an end to the silent conversation by bowing before the pilgrim and pronouncing the sacred syllable AUM, symbol of the Absolute. After having received Father Dominique's darshan, everyone crossed the stream and came to stop at the feet of Sister Anne and also of me, the foreigner seated at her side, who thus discovered interreligious dialogue, if I can put it this way, in its existential raw state: a heart to heart in an atmosphere of serenity and complete self-emptying.[7]
Those who are somewhat familiar with the spirituality of the Christian East will find in Prasanna Devi something of the poustiniki of eternal Russia, those hermits who lived silently in the forests but not far from the villages and whose door was always open to welcome with listening and prayer all suffering humanity. For this reason, I was not surprised when Prasanna Devi confided that she had been the instrument for preventing eight suicides. Those who were planning to end their lives in the jungle changed their mind after the hermit looked on them with such love in her eyes. Sometime later, they told her their secret—that it was because of her that they had not gone through with their decision to end their lives. Likewise, couples who were unable to conceive went to the hermit to ask her to pray for them and came back to Atmeshwar a year later with a small child to be blessed by Prasanna Devi.
What can we say about such miracles other than that they were accomplished through the power of intercession that is completely devoid self-interest and are the fruit of an inner radiance that comes from holiness. When Prasanna tells me these stories, she does so simply and without taking any credit for what has happened. For her, everything comes from the Lord who used her at particular moments as a mere instrument of his mercy.
Because Mataji walks in faith stripped of any inner consolation and offers to take upon herself the suffering of others, I can say that I have rarely met anyone as Christian as this woman, who has become a compassionate mother for everyone. What makes her all the more remarkable is that she has lived most of her life in the midst of non-Christians. She knows she owes everything to the faith and devotion of her Hindu friends.
In spite of the fact that she is doubly an outsider, not only by her religion but also by her birth in southern India, Mataji has become one of the most beautiful fruits of the arid land of Saurastra. In her, I see perfectly fulfilled the ideal of the Vaishnava Jana To, the famous poem of Narsinh Mehta (1414-1481), the saint of Junagadh, which Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), also a son of Gujarat, adopted as a program of life: “He is a real Vaishnav who feels the suffering of others as his own suffering. He is ever ready to serve, and is never guilty of overweening pride.”
Even more impressive is the prayer of the bodhisattva, the awakened being who chooses to continue experiencing the pain of the world to help all people. There is an astonishing text that was composed in the seventh century by the monk Shantideva who also lived in this place. When I read it again, thinking of Prasanna Devi who embodies it so perfectly, I recognize the truth of the belief in the interconnection of all our existences. According to the Buddhists as well as the Hindus, it is in through interconnectedness that beings of light are capable of recapitulating the entire spiritual quest that has preceded them for millennia in order to benefit all humanity at the present time:
For as long as space endures and for as long as the world lasts, may I live dispelling the miseries of the world. . . . May I be a guard for those without one, a guide for all who journey on the road, may I become a boat, a raft or bridge, for all who wish to cross the water.[8]
“Although it is night”
In September 2014, Prasanna Devi suffered a cardiac arrest and was found lying on the threshold of her hermitage. What needed to be done was self-evident: she had to leave Atmeshwar. One can only smile to learn that the only place available for this woman who had been named Anne at birth was a small room in a building called “Anne's Annex” that was located in the compound of the parish of St. Anne.
Mataji’s new home is the opposite of the wild paradise where she lived for forty years. There is no respite from the incessant noise of vehicles that shake the ground and make it very difficult to carry on a conversation. There is yet another trial to endure. Most of the parishioners do not understand Mataji and pay very little attention to her. For them, she is a sister and should therefore enter the traditional frameworks of religious life, which means living in a convent that is in good standing.
This feeling of being a stranger to her own Christian brothers is a very painful experience. Prasanna's Hindu friends and followers have urged her to come and live in a hermitage they would build for her on the edge of Junagadh that would have all the conveniences appropriate to her advanced age. However, she has turned the offer, explaining that after having been deprived of Mass for so many years, it is now a priceless consolation to be living near the church.
Even more wrenching for her is the experience of being stripped of the consolation of prayer. On occasion she said to me, “Where are the great times of meditation and heart to heart exchange with the Lord that I lived in the silence of Atmeshwar? Today, I can no longer pray like I used to.” And yet, at different times of the day, I see Prasanna go to the near-by Lourdes grotto, lay some flowers at the feet of the Virgin, and then pause there for a long time with her rosary in her hand. I wonder if she remembers what Father Dominique once wrote to her:
A success in this world and even in the Church is not just the mark of the Lord’s favour: ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls in the soil and dies there, it will not bring forth fruit.’ For His own Son, the Father prepared ‘the failure’ of the Passion (April 20, 1989).
All this gives me an occasion to meditate with no little dread on the somewhat brutal ways the Lord plants us in one place so that he can later transplant us to another, without giving us any advance explanation. I also meditate afresh on love’s most essential quality: to pour oneself out with abandon and to claim nothing for oneself. In this way, love resembles a perfume of great price that makes the senses happy for a time and then evaporates. That is why it is good for love to be self-effacing.
For Prasanna Devi, who is nearing the end of her earthly pilgrimage, the night becomes more impenetrable as the Lord continues to strip away all that had given her. Very often, I feel utterly helpless in the face of the unexpressed complaint of the one who confides to me, “All I have done is consent to the will of God; it is He alone who has laid out my path from the beginning”. For Mataji, I would like my affection and my priesthood to be like a credit for the Resurrection, when her Beloved will come for her and say, “Now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Canticle of Canticles 2:11). However, today is a bitter time of walking in darkness, as did John of the Cross, who left us that fearsome refrain, “aunque es de noche” - “although it is night.”[9] I believe that it is also at the painful price of such fidelity that the transformation of night into light can be fulfilled in Prasanna Devi, the light about which Father Dominique spoke to her at the beginning of her adventure with Satyananda:
Yet the very trial is inside, and Sister Anna is right in saying: some days are so dark. . . . I should answer: don’t look for light, but become light. Wait and realize deeper and deeper the spiritual nakedness and simplicity of God. Be never distressed in presence of the ‘void’ and the ‘silence’: this is God’s ‘milieu’. . . . Night shall turn into light, without ceasing to be night (August 15, 1974).
I witnessed these mysterious inner transformations during my visits to Junagadh. Now, when I ask Mataji how she can stand the constant din of trucks, cars, and rickshaws passing by her room, she replies, “These noises have become my prayer. They are the manifestation of the lives of each of these children of God who get up early to work and for whom I try to intercede.”
I find this answer admirable because it reveals just how fully Prasanna Devi consents to live a completely different vocation, once more saying to the Lord, who seems to have toyed with her by dragging her to the exact opposite of her lonely jungle, Adsum, “Here I am.” Today, she accepts that she will no longer carry the world in the fervent silence of the Girnar. Instead, she will, as it were, descend to be closer to her brothers and sisters, to be in existential communion with humanity and present it to the Lord. How true is the title of Gilbert Cesbron's novel about worker priests, Saints Go to Hell (Les saints vont en enfer)! Here again, Mataji discovers a new richness: “I have never known human beings as concretely as I do now. At Atmeshwar, there was a great risk of idealizing them because everyone was so good to me.” Nonetheless, she extends her cloak of mercy even over the sin of the world that now surrounds her. All, without exception, are the object of a thousand small gestures of goodness that wants nothing more than to bring them closer to the infinite love the Lord has for them.
More than the words and confidences that we exchange, I like to remain silent in the presence of Mataji and simply benefit from the radiance of her presence. She is so beautiful! Her beauty is not so much her undeniable physical beauty on which time seems to have no hold. It is something else. It is a light that reminds me of the Bengali saint, Ma Ananda Mayi (1896-1982), surely one of the most beautiful women that India has brought forth. What especially strikes me about Prasanna is her face and her smile. Her smile is elusive because it has something of the divine about it. She is not aware of what a great peace emanates from her, nor of her effervescent life, the kind of life that Saint John describes in the Prologue of his Gospel about the Word of God when he says, “In him was life” (John 1 :4).
I have taken some pictures of Mataji but I rarely manage to capture the glow in her eyes, the strength of her spiritual presence, and especially the attraction of her whole being, which is so uncomplicated, filled with a childlike joy. I believe the joy of contemplating the absolute simplicity of God is already hers, as is the fulfillment of the Christian way, which, as Jesus said to his disciples, entails becoming like little child (se Matthew 18:3). Father Dominique alluded to this when he wrote, “and let the joy of simple hearts always be your joy!” (December 12, 1974).
After everything has been stripped away, all that remains for Prasanna is love—simple, childlike love, love that is burning and infinitely alive, love that takes possession of the hearts of those who have become poor, as promised in the Beatitudes. The matchless peace that Mataji's presence gives us is the perfect illustration of what Jesus said about the Baptist, his cousin and father of monks: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (John 5:35).
Translated by William Skudlarek
[1] Charles de Foucauld was a French priest who lived as an isolated Christian in the Sahara desert. His spiritual legacy is nowadays carried forward by the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus. Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda) were the co-founders of Shantivanam ashram in South India for the purpose of meeting Hinduism through contemplation.
[2] J. Monchanin-H. Le Saux, Ermites du Saccidânanda. Un essai d’intégration chrétienne de la tradition monastique de l’Inde (Paris: Casterman, 1956).
[3] Cf. Mundaka Upanishad II, 9.
[4] Father Dominque wrote to Anne in English. Citations from this correspondence as given exactly as they appear in his letters.
[5] Vihara was the name given to Buddhist monasteries where one could literally indulge in holy leisure - the otium of Western monastic tradition.
[6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), p. 122.
[7] Odette Baumer-Despeigne, « Un témoin du dialogue.
Le Père Dominique Van Rolleghem (1904-1995) », Bulletin du Dialogue Inter-Monastique (DIM), n° 12, juin 1995. Emphasis added.
[8] Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara, III.X.
[9] John of the Cross, “Cantar del alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe”.
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