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The Cave of the Heart: The life of Swami Abhishiktananda

02 November 2006


Leigh Hatts enjoys the surprising tale of a monk turned swami

 Orbis Books/Alban £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

SHIRLEY du Boulay has written biographies of such well-known people as St Teresa of Avila and Desmond Tutu, but her latest must have been a challenge: he lived much of his life alone, and is still not widely known. But it is a remarkable and important story.

Henri Le Saux was a Benedictine monk who spent years building a bridge with Hinduism, and in doing so became Swami Abhishiktananda. What is extraordinary is that he set out on this road before he knew that Vatican II would be called, let alone would encourage dialogue.

There is a description of his childhood in Brittany as part of a Roman Catholic family. When he entered Kergonan Abbey in 1929, there were plenty of fellow recruits, and every day included the normal high mass at which only the celebrant communicated.

Despite impressive research, the author is unable to say why Fr Le Saux left this community, which he loved, to visit India, though she does explain how the penniless monk obtained permission, and made the trip in 1948. He never returned. For his last 25 years he was engaged in a long struggle to be nearer to God.

Abhishiktananda was not a missionary. He was years ahead of his time, abandoning chairs, tables, and bed for the floor in his Christian ashram, and dressing as a Hindu monk to be Indian to the depths of heart and soul.

He celebrated the eucharist daily, even when living alone in a cave, adding Sanskrit to the Latin in a move towards use of the vernacular. Late in life he met Anglicans and Quakers, and came to realise the value of non-Roman Catholic Christians. The author suggests that an ecumenical and interfaith conference that he helped to organise (under a tree) might have influenced Vatican II discussions.

There are several unanswered questions about the Swami’s actions and fulfilment, but du Boulay probably comes as close to him as is so far possible.

Leigh Hatts is editor of In SE1, a South Bank arts magazine.

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