Most Rev. T.F. Little, Archbishop of Melbourne, 31 December 1987,
My year of study leave has now drawn to a close. It is appropriate that you should receive a brief report on the events and on the value of this excellent period.
There were two main purposes:
1) to follow up a certain line of prayer which had been brewing in me for many years. A book by a certain Fr. Thomas Matus O.S.B. (Camaldoli) had drawn together two traditions: the Eastern Orthodox tradition of St Symeon the New Theologian (XIth Cent., Constantinople, which is connected in some fashion with hesychasm and led on to the theology of Gregory Palamas and to the Jesus Prayer tradition); and the Indian tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism (as expounded by Abhinavagupta, XIth cent., Kashmir). Both these traditions – Orthodox and Tantric – had caused me exhilaration in the past. They described my own experience, which has in fact occurred independently of them. Now they were drawn together, boldly, in a concise and clear way. I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the two traditions and above all to exercise myself in them.
2) to reflect deeply on the purposes and methods of parish priestly life. Though the past, from my earliest days, had not disposed me to such a way of life – indeed, far more natural to me was the life, impossible of course, of the monk wandering like Francis of Assisi – it became clearer with the passing years that only the parish provided the freedom in which, realistically, one could be a man of God for the people, one who was to prophesy to them and consecrate them. Now that the busy years of Christ Campus were over, I needed time to reflect deeply on parish life.
The major means was to spend time in monasteries because they provide the space for such thoroughgoing prayer and reflection; and in monasteries of the Camaldolese tradition since Thomas Matus is Camaldolese.
A course of studies could not provide the same space. I needed to pursue my own thoughts by means of prayer (which for me has always been a course of endless theology – indeed, whenever I ask, in prayer, a theological question, no matter how difficult, the answer always comes immediately) and by means of reading in recondite areas for which there are no courses that I know of. Consequently, at the end of this year I can present to you no diplomas or letters of attestation but only this report.
January and February found me in California at New Camaldoli located on Big Sur, a magnificent coastline south of Monterrey. The high mountains of the Sierra plunge into the sea where wales can be seen migrating to their breeding grounds in Baia California. It is a wild coast, the former paradise of the hippy culture. The glorious days of the Californian winter provided good rest; the monks provided good company.
I followed the free movement of the Spirit of God who has always led me through strange paths in prayer. There were moments of anguish and bitter tears as the disappointments of the past – the Jesuits, the seminary, the priests of the diocese, Christ Campus – surfaced and confronted me. There was the realisation of the secret egoism that permeates every act and thought. There was the sense of failure and of more than half a lifetime wasted. What had been achieved? Where was my God whom I sought so wholeheartedly since my childhood? On the bright side there was continual penetration into the designs of God. Space prevents me from developing this aspect.
b) reflection on parish life:
This consisted in determining the priorities of the parish as it is to be lived out in the modern world. In the past the major efforts of the Church were found in the work of the bishops, above all the Fathers of the Church; then in the great religious orders to which the best minds gravitated; then in the papacy; then in the epic history of the missions and the active orders. The parish lived obscurely in the background. In this age of the laity, of democracy and universal education, is not the parish to be the focus of the Church’s activity? But: what sort of parish; what is the role of the priest; how, in practical and coherent fashion is the parish to be designed? Again, what are my charisms; how am I to function in a way that pleases God, man and myself? These reflections led to the development of an overall plan, a sort of mandala, if you will. Once again space does not allow elaboration. In any case, I have not come back to Australia with a bag full of kittens. The reflection on parish life with its aims and processes was an exercise only: useful in sharpening my wits but to be put in the back of the mind as I approach a particular parish with its particular history and needs.
March-April-May-June found me at Camaldoli located high in the hills of Tuscany at the watershed of the Tiber, the Arno and the rivers that flow to Ravenna. What a magnificent forest, planted by the monks, of spruce trees reaching to the sky in marvelous plays of light and shade. The snow lay thick on the forest floor. I nearly froze in the half-heated rooms. I learnt Italian by singing the psalms and became acquainted with the Italian mind and manner: discreet, subtle, intriguing. Have no fear! I cannot be a monk. For sanity’s sake I had to escape once a month – to Florence, Paris, Ravenna, Naples!
I made use of various tantras (i.e. texts) of Kashmiri Shaivism purchased in Paris, examining their philosophy, perceiving the connections with the Gospel, using the methods of meditation described in them, making commentaries.
Tantra – as a religious movement – has its periods of glory and of decadence. Mircea Eliade refers to tantra as ‘an imposing spiritual synthesis’ and describes it as the last great synthesis of pre-Moghul India. The decadent element was particularly noted by the early English Raj and has been much publicized in recent writings in the West or by unscrupulous ‘gurus’ who migrate out of India to make their fortune. This decadent element is as connected with tantra as the Black Mass is with the Eucharist. Corruptio optimi pessima. However, the periods of glory are reflected in works such as the Mahārthamañjarī of Maheśvarānanda who hails from South India, or the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra (author unknown) composed in Kashmir, or the Tantrāloka – a true summa theologica – of Abhinavagupta who hails from Kashmir. These, among many other texts I studied, are exciting texts, which emphasize many points that have become obscured in Christianity. The value of such texts is in the light, which their truth shines onto the Gospels. They allow us to bring out new things and old from the storehouse of the Church. They are textual disciples of the Gospel text. What wonders we can expect from the reconciliation between Christianity and the religions of India. The Golden Age of the Fathers will be repeated in the centuries to come.
At the same time I completed the reading of the works of Symeon the New Theologian and re-read the more complex half of Gregory Palamas’ Triads. I pursued some trails through Messalianism, Syrian Monasticism, Constantinople II, etc.
Furthermore there was the exploration of the act of intercession, which is the high point of prayer. Is it not, indeed, the present activity of Christ in his eternity, our High Priest before God! In intercession – not the endless presentation of requests but the act of union with God and man – we find the perfection of pastoral planning. Christ directs his Church by interceding for her. We commune in our charisms. Is not such communion the very essence of pastoral activity?
b) reflection on parish life:
The general plan or ‘mandala’, developed so convincingly in California was elaborated in detail in Italy. What precise objectives, both innovative and authentic, would fulfill the aims? What content and procedures would fulfill the objectives? (You will recognize here the method of the lesson-plan so thoroughly learnt at Christ Campus!) This required hard thinking, coherence and continual evaluation. It was a valuable exercise whatever the applicability of these plans.
July-August: the desert of Sinai.
Like an Israelite I pitched my tent in view of Mt Sinai and like Elijah I spent my time among the rocks. There were no books – except a guidebook on Egypt! – no distractions. I had always wanted to spend some time in the abandonment of the desert, stripping myself bare. What a glorious location! The high mountains reverberate in the sun, bare and sheer, where the Bedouin women eke out a pasture for their flocks. The heat of the summer sun, as it rose swiftly out of the horizon, was tempered by the dry wind surprisingly cool. I was to spend a full forty days here near the ancient monastery of St. Catherine, eating at a simple ‘café’ and going to the coast once a week to rest from the constant attempt at prayer. The Egyptians struck me as being the most courteous people I have ever met.
I wished to die. I wished to end all that I had been these many years and to return no longer ‘I’ but someone else. I wished to subject to the scrutiny of the Spirit all that I had read and thought and planned. Was it of God? In the heat of the desert would its attractiveness survive? In this situation I came to realize with particular acuteness how vain-glorious had been the sermons and liturgies of the past; how I had wished to dazzle the people with a work of art; how I had sought prestige and power in my years at Christ Campus; how I had used language and ideas as a means of domination and of concealing my own lack of purpose. The temptations that had been so insinuating in the past became evident. At the same time there were moments of great consolation. What I truly wanted – now I realized it with great force – was to dwell like John the disciple in the heart of Christ who dwells in the bosom of the Father. What I wanted was to draw all to myself so that all would be one, we in God and God in us, we in each other. Speech was the tool to these, proceeding from the silence of design and concluding in the silence of achievement. I wished to explode within them in light. Yet I am a child and I am afraid to speak.
All this sounds so stereotypical. Indeed it is, but for me it was an old thing made new. The Gospel, so often heard, was beginning to be desired.
This was straight holiday, touring Europe with my mother and sister. We swept in a great circle from Paris to Brussels, through South Germany and Austria to Budapest and then down through northern Italy and Corsica to sweep back up again through the Riviera to Paris.
November-December: Shantivanam, Tamil Nadu
was spent in the ashram of Shantivanam in South India and at an ashram at Narsinghpur in Central India, both of which, while Hindu in style, belong to Camaldoli. Although I had been in India before, this lengthy stay made me fall in love with the Indian character. No doubt India has its fair share of scoundrels, its load of injustice. Nevertheless there is something deeply attractive about the people. Poverty produces its own sort of blessedness. Never have I seen so many smiling people and laughing faces. The Westerners by contrast seemed distraught and bloated. The Indians have the dignity of those who live at the level of necessity and, therefore, whose actions are always worthwhile. Living in harmony with nature they acquire a natural innocence.
Things were starting to fall into place. Some powerful meditations showed me the coherence of all my motivations and ideas. My prayer is symbolically described in the second account of creation (Gn 2) and in that narrative’s counterpart: the hymn of Colossians (Col I). The stages are, in short: silence, which leads to the transcendent God who then bestows the activity of the Holy Spirit who, in turn, gives authority over heaven and earth. Then comes the recognition of charisms, which inspires the act of intercession and, supremely, the act of communion. Such stages bring about conformity to Christ, a transfiguration. There is no space here to describe in any more detail a method of prayer, which has slowly built up in me and which, I must say, is exhilarating and satisfying to the whole man.
Part of this pursuit of prayer involved trying to discover a tantric. There are many who pass as tantrics in India but are generally charlatans. My enquiries – and I travelled extensively and consulted widely – were met with silence or evasion. ‘All Hindu religion is tantric to some extent.’ ‘No true practitioners of tantra declare themselves.’ ‘Go to another town and see so-and-so.’ ‘You have to be careful. They can get control of your mind.’ In short, the quest was fruitless except that it persuaded me of the value of my past two methods: experience, which, independently of any reading, has led me, unconsciously, to the most profound and reputable tantra; and reading of classical texts and studies.
b) reflection on parish life:
The plans that had been elaborated in detail at Carnaldoli were now set out in a timetable. Thus the whole process of pastoral planning was given its realistic shape. Will it ever be used? No matter. The exercise was valuable in itself.
What conclusions can be drawn?
The future for me, it seems, is twofold:
1: firstly and most basically – it is my food and light – to develop an intense prayer life, a prayer life that springs from the tradition described by Gregory Palamas and from the Indian philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism. I would envisage spending two or three hours daily in prayer, one day a week, one month a year, as I have done for some years now already.
2: to engage in parish life, not repeating the stagnation of a parish such as the one I grew up in, but seeing the parish as the sacrament of the Church and, indeed, of the future, being the communion of saints. What a conversion has been operated in me: from God to man; from Christ of the paschal mystery to the Christ-to-come; from ideas to grace; from teaching to prophecy; from monastery to parish; from Christian obedience to Christian authority. Yet I am frightened.
What was the value of the year?
It was a time to look into my soul and to order my ambitions. It was a year of elucidation and elaboration. I hope it has been a watershed. I hope, at least, that I will be a more useful instrument for your episcopacy.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Fr. John Dupuche