High school, geography, a wooden desk and India – I’d sat mesmerised visualising masses of brown bodies, all draped in dhotis and coloured saris, bathing in the holy Ganges.
I knew that one day I must travel to that far-off land. It was as though India held the answer to some vague unasked question. Years later I stumbled across The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s novel of the spiritual wanderings of a young World War I pilot and his search for a God he no longer believed in.
My father was a World War I veteran. Maybe that was why Maugham’s tale touched me so deeply. I could understand his character, Larry, a man there one minute, gone the next, confused, restless, finally finding serenity in an ‘ashrama’ in southern India.
Dad didn’t travel; he drifted – toward Newcastle. Here at the RSL he found great weighty tomes of war histories and mates to share that amber liquid of forgetfulness. Or was it remembrance? He was a man impossible to hold down, impossible to have a firm relationship with. Again, my need to go to India seemed even stronger.
Earlier this year I was privileged to be part of a pilgrimage to both India and Sri Lanka with Marist Father Michael Whelan as Chaplain.
Our “Journey in the Heart” included a time of retreat in Benedictine Father Bede Griffiths’ ashram.
Neither a rushed adventure, nor an ordinary coach trip, it was a journey of the spirit; a time for renewal, with daily Gospel readings, celebrations of the Eucharist, opportunities for meditation, reflection and group sharing.
It was a voyage of discovery. Months later, the senses are still overloaded with riches gathered from two remarkable cultures.
There were many highlights, from a surprise dinner party with our leader Marie’s family on a Mumbai rooftop terrace, to Shantivanam’s rose-pink chapel, to watching Father Michael place eight flowers to represent the eight directions of space on the sacred "Tali" platter. This signifies that the Mass is offered in the "centre" of the Universe, thereby relating to the whole of creation.
Leaving ashram peace to join symphonies of blaring traffic as an enormous blood orange sun tried to force its way through pearly white haze, we pass oxen with painted horns, smiling faces, families balanced on motor bikes and on to Sri Lanka’s baby elephants, cheeky monkeys and saplings of the Sacred Bo Tree – unforgettable memories.
The clearest of all are my days at Saccidananda.
Marie, our remarkable pilgrimage organiser, had prepared us as to what we could anticipate at the monastery which follows the Benedictine tradition and the customs of a Hindu ashram.
Here there is meditation at sunrise and sunset and common prayer three times daily with selected readings from the Tamil classics, Psalms and passages from the Bible. I’d packed only a few basics for this trip. The unresolved grief I’d chosen to carry was heavy enough. I had a plan. I would sit somewhere under a shady tree, write a letter to my dad and speak about the shame I felt at not having understood why he was as he was, at not having been more compassionate, more knowing.
Journalling was a practice both tried and failed in the past; however, this time I trusted I could leave the sadness forever in the red powdery soil of Shantivanam. Writing didn’t happen. I sidestepped it by taking part in the daily rituals of hermitage life. My fear? There was nowhere to hide. The dam wall, built with care, could burst without warning.
Waking before dawn, I fell into the narrow cot in my tiny cell each night grateful for the mosquito net, overhead fan, three meals of rice, curried vegetable and fat yellow bananas; grateful most of all to have made it through the day with only lumps in the throat. No weeping.
Sitting at the rear of the coach as we rolled through the green of Sri Lanka toward the end of our pilgrimage gave a chance to mull over where I’d been, what I’d seen and more importantly, how I felt. I recognised the spiritual backbone of “Journey in the Heart” had had the greatest impact.
On each occasion during the Penitential Rite, Father Michael had encouraged awareness of our feelings, asking us to silently identify any emotion, whether in the body, psyche or spirit, to ask ourselves open questions, to listen.
At some point, whether at a resort in the mountains of Kandalama or during the Ash Wednesday Eucharist in the hills of Kandy, I realised I’d been granted an opening for self-forgiveness, coming to terms with the regret and guilt I’d clutched over lack of connection with my dad. I now understood it just ‘was’.
And that long ago unasked question? I believe I found an answer during the Ashram’s scheduled afternoon talks with Brother Martin Sahajananda. Reading The Razor’s Edge decades ago I’d brushed against the Vedas and Upanishads, two of the world’s most ancient religious philosophies affirming the oneness and harmony of all religions. I remember the excitement I felt then. It was as though I’d uncovered a hidden truth. No matter the colour or creed, we were all one.
As Brother Martin discussed the similarities and differences between faiths and the need to go beyond the structures to see the fullness of truth in every religion, and that there is no division, there was that same excitement again.
As a kid of 12, I doubt there’d been any inkling in that long-gone geography class but was there just a glimmer of this possibility when I travelled with Maugham’s Laurence Darrell and witnessed his rite of passage?
One of the delights of a pilgrimage such as this is that the group often continues to flourish long after the time of togetherness with new bonds and friendships, shared meals and opportunities to become voluntary “friends of Shantivanam” supporting the Ashram’s mission to assist the needy living in their neighbourhood.
Initially I’d wavered about this tour, dithering about risks of the unknown. Strangely, throughout the indecision, a strong message persisted – the phrase “let go and let God”.
I’ll be ever thankful that I did listen to that constant inner voice.
From Mumbai to Colombo, “Journey in the Heart” had taken me through the chaos of city life to tranquillity on a river coracle ride, stillness in a Buddhist rockcave temple and the peace of a Hindu hermitage, a place where my personal spirituality deepened and moved to a higher level.