01.04.2013 Spirituality

A Mystic for Our Times

Jeremy Ball encounters the mysticism of Father Bede Griffiths

Two years ago while browsing the shelves of my local library, a book leapt from the shelves and landed on the floor in front of me. I felt the magic in the air knowing that this was not mere coincidence.

Reverently, I collected the old looking book from the floor, running my hand across the cover as if feeling its essence, reading the words, The Golden String by Father Bede Griffiths. I opened the book to see an image of an old man with a long white beard and wearing what appeared to be a tunic. He looked just like one of the good old kings of England before the world went wrong. Reading the first few pages, the words touched me, as if Father Bede were talking directly to me. My son tugging my trouser leg begging me to take him home broke me from my reverie. Knowing I would soon go overseas, I placed the book back on the shelf.

A few weeks later I was in a beautiful bush camp in Timbavati, South Africa with White Lions patrolling round the fence. As exciting as the surroundings were, my full attention was with my new acquaintance, who would become a major character in the next chapter of my life - world renowned author and modern day mystic Andrew Harvey. I had never had such a deep, comfortable and free flowing conversation. In a short space of time we had shared with each other our life stories and felt like I was with my eternal kin. Towards the end of the conversation, after Andrew had shared several of his mystical experiences and his connection with Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism, he became a little softer and spoke so reverentially and dearly of the teacher who really touched his heart. Andrew spoke of meeting Father Bede Griffiths in his little ashram in Southern India where he was to spend 10 days interviewing this true mystic a few months before his passing. Andrew told of how he observed this gentle and loving man go through a spiritual transformation. As we returned to our rooms, Andrew gave me a copy of his latest book, The Hope, directing me to the chapter about his beloved Father Bede.

I lay in bed reading by torchlight and immediately turned to the chapter Andrew had marked, "The Message of Father Bede Griffiths". It began: "One of the greatest mysteries of the path is that the Divine will guide you to meet, at the time when you are ready and receptive, the beings who can lead you forward. As Rumi wrote: 'The lovers are never abandoned by Destiny; Destiny will unveil to them the sign they will need and hold out to them, in a golden cup, the wine they are thirsty for.'" I could certainly vouch for that.

The chapter went on to describe the transformation Father Bede had gone through in the final years of his life, a process the Greek Orthodox mystics call "theosis", a subtle transfiguration of the human by the Divine. Andrew considers Bede a living example of the possibility of the birth of the Divine Human. Bede was at pains to point out through his humility that this was not some ultimate expression that made him omniscient or a guru: "When, through grace, you are taken to one horizon of Awakening, another, even vaster, opens up before you. Even the highest angels are evolving, drawn ever upward in a passion of love for love."

In writing this piece, I discovered that Father Bede was born in 1906 in Walton-on-Thames, about an hour's train ride southwest of London. Bede, originally called Alan Richard Griffiths, was born into a middle class family. The family lost their position in society and comfortable lifestyle around the time of Bede's birth after his father, who had been cheated by a business partner, left the family.

Bede was schooled at a Christian school for poor children. He excelled academically and won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he read English Literature and Philosophy being tutored by none other than CS Lewis (author of Alice in Wonderland), with whom he formed a strong friendship. Both men were great lovers of mysticism and true personal spirituality.

It was at high school that Bede had his first mystical experience, one that would form a foundation for his spiritual search and leanings. While walking across the playing fields he had an experience of being one with all nature, one with the mother. In his later years and long before it was fashionable, Bede stood for a feminine view of the Divine in the mind of man after centuries of patriarchal domination.

On completing university, Bede and two friends experimented with the simple life, retreating from the growing industrialisation of the world. At a small property in the English Cotswolds, they spent their days submerging themselves in nature, milking cows and reading spiritual texts including the Bible. Bede wanted to deepen his religious training and considered ministry in the Church of England, but instead was sent to work in the slums of London. Witnessing the pain of fellow humans firsthand threw him into an internal spiritual conflict. Suffering from this spiritual pain, Bede returned to the Cotswolds for fasting and prayer that led him to a breakthrough: "I was no longer in the centre of my own life". The experience deepened into "real prayer" and then "returning to the Centre".

Following this dark night of the soul many mystics speak of, Bede found a book by a Catholic mystic that lead him to enter the Catholic Church. He took his first communion on Christmas Eve 1931 and then entered the Benedictine monastic order, receiving the name Bede, meaning "prayer" in Latin.

With Bede's kindness, intelligence and dedication he quickly began to play a significant role within his order. He welcomed people from other faiths and cultures and began to foster a love of the Eastern traditions. Eventually, after initial resistance from his order, Father Bede set sail for Mumbai, India.

After many pilgrimages, Bede, with another monk, set up an ashram. They wore saffron robes, took Sanskrit names and immersed themselves in the local culture seeking to understand Christianity through other lenses. The 40 years Bede spent in India opened him to the depth of all mystical traditions, which he came to see as rays of the same bright sun. The Dalai Lama met Bede and said of him, "Father Bede Griffiths is an awakened being opening the hearts and minds of humanity to gain understanding and acceptance of all the major religions."

On the last morning Andrew Harvey was with Father Bede, shortly before his passing, Bede leaned in close to Andrew summing up in one graceful statement the crux of the current world situation: "We are in the hour of God … humanity has come to the moment when it will have to choose between playing God, with the catastrophic results we see all around us, and trying to become what all the true mystical traditions know we can become - one with God through grace in life. This is a dangerous and yet wonderful and hopeful moment because if enough of us can choose the latter, the birth of a wholly new kind of human being, and so of a new world, is possible."

On May 13, 1993, after a serious of powerful strokes and spiritual illuminations, Father Bede Griffiths reached his Mahasamadhi.

Jeremy Ball

At 26, following a “shamanic intervention”, Jeremy closed his business and left London to visit sacred sites and elders, later creating Transformational Tours and SacredFire.

When not roaming mother earth, you will find Jeremy at home in Byron Bay's hinterland, playing with his children and planning the next adventure. jeremy@transformationaltours.com.au