Essay On Ashrams

That One Time is a recurring series of essays highlighting oddball, first-person experiences from around the world. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Complex City Guide. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed. To submit your story, email cityguidetips@complex.com. 

I am not a hippie. My parents are not hippies. I’m sure the first time I smelled patchouli I almost vomited. I grew up in a Christian household and went to a church that taught me humans are evil and most of us are going to hell. To my surprise, I learned not all religions or spiritual philosophies are this heavy handed.

The place welcomes everybody—but there are rules.

Enter yoga—a way of life that promotes personal transformation and acceptance. Yoga is very chill. When I started practicing regularly, it changed my life. Rush Limbaugh, Wall Street, and the Westboro Baptist Church no longer caused me to hyperventilate. Yoga made me feel grounded, in control, and less reactive. It kept me balanced. I wanted more of that, so I decided to go to an ashram. That was my first mistake.

My real intention was go on a generic yoga retreat where I would deepen my practice, unwind, and spend time on the beach. When I couldn’t find a retreat that was affordable and worked with my schedule, I decided to book a week at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Islands in the Bahamas. Before I left, I met with my friend Michael for a drink. He had one thing he wanted to tell me: “Don’t join a cult.”

I couldn’t image what he was talking about. Sure the place had a dress code and there were some disturbing reviews on TripAdvisor warning me “not to talk to people wearing yellow shirts,” and claiming that the place was actually a cult. But then again, there were some perfectly positive reviews as well. I decided to take my chances.

I arrived in January and the location was beautiful. There are massive cruise ships docked right across the bay, but the ashram is tucked away and hidden by beautiful greenery. There are temples everywhere and gardens and fruit trees. In addition to renting small huts and cottages, the ashram also allows people to bring their own tents. The place welcomes everybody—but there are rules.

Once the alcohol and French fries were out of my system, I started to enjoy myself.

The first rule is that all guests are required to attend satsang, which is basically a religious ceremony, twice a day. Satsang takes place at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. It includes 30 minutes of silent meditation, and devotional Kirtan singing. (There’s lots of “hare Krishna” during satsang.) The ashram also requires all guests attend yoga class twice a day. Every class follows the sequence developed by Swami Vishnu Devananda who founded Sivananda in 1969 and is renowned for his airborne peace missions. Devananda bought a junk plane, fixed it up, became a pilot, and would fly internationally with no passport or visa. He famously flew over the Berlin Wall before 1989. Other rules include: no alcohol, no bare shoulders or knees, vegetarian meals, and lights out at 10 p.m.

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My first few days on the ashram I was all in. I was committed to following the rules. The people in yellow shirts (full-time staff members and students training to become yoga teachers) looked rude and miserable, but I wasn’t going to let them stop me from having a good time. Once the alcohol and French fries were out of my system, I started to enjoy myself. I took an amazing vegan/raw food workshop and met cool people from around the world. This must be what being healthy and happy feels like, I thought. I decided I had come to the right place. That was my second mistake. 

The minute I decided that I wanted to be part of the ashram, not just a guest, was the minute I realized that things were not as they seemed. There was a reason why the people in yellow shirts looked so miserable. I heard the teacher-training course was so rigorous that many students left the ashram feeling angry and cheated. I also heard the students in the teacher-training program and the people who lived on the ashram resented the guests who just came for the beach vacation and free yoga.

Yoga, the thing that helped me improve my life and inspired me to take this trip, wasn’t as chill as I thought it was.

There was a serious “us versus them” attitude. You were committed to ashram life and devoted to Vishnu Devananda (one of us), or you were passing through and fucking up the vibe (one of them.) I didn’t know what side I wanted to be on, but my real life (the one that includes a job, steak, and beer) pretty much made the decision for me. I was one of them—an outsider. Yoga, the thing that helped me improve my life and inspired me to take this trip, wasn’t as chill as I thought it was. I guess every form of spirituality has its hang-ups.

I left the ashram after a week. That day in January feels like it was years ago at this point. The experience didn’t really improve my practice, but I still love yoga. I didn't need a week on an ashram to know that. That said, Sivananda did teach me a few things about perception and reality: One person’s ill-planned yoga vacation is another person’s ashram, which may or may not actually be a cult. It's probably a good idea to stay away from all three.

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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

A visit to Kurisumala

Two conventional Catholics and an unconventional Indian ashram

By PAUL WILKES

Vagamon? Kurisumala?” The desk clerk at the Trident Hilton smiled courteously, nervously adjusting his tie and swiveling his head in that inscrutable and uniquely Indian way that says “no” and “yes” at the same time. It was not the usual next stop for his guests and while the smile remained, his eyes questioned.

My wife, Tracy, and I had spent the first two weeks of our trip to India traveling primarily through Rajistan, a land of imposing mogul fortresses, Hindu temples and the opulent, converted palaces of maharajas that now serve as hotels. It is a land of grinding poverty as well, of maimed street beggars, oppressive heat, meandering cows. We visited the tourist highlights such as Varanarsi, the holy city on the Ganges, and the Taj Mahal in Agra. It was a wonderful trip, one we had looked forward to for years.

We then flew to Cochin, the capital of Kerala state, and the night before our trip to Kurisumala, stayed at still another comfortable hotel, this one of the Trident Hilton chain. Marble floors, a breakfast buffet of unbelievable scope, swimming pool, massage available on demand. The next morning, notwithstanding the questioning look of the desk clerk, we headed west.

The road toward Vagamon, which is the closest city to Kurisumala, almost imperceptibly rises as you leave the bustling, crowded streets of Cochin, the coconut, banana and rubber trees of the fertile, tropical lowlands slowly yielding to small tea plantations, which bedeck a cooler and more rugged terrain with a rich blanket of green. About 20 miles outside of Cochin, the road carefully begins to trace the contours of the foothills of the Sahya Mountains, eventually fashioning hairpin turns and precarious cutbacks assaulted by erosion into the steep valley on the left, rubble from the crumbling rock face on the right. Some portions of the road are virtually wiped out, leaving little more than a bed of uneven rocks, victims of the last monsoon.

Rooted in India

After a three-hour trip, a small cement sign next to a stall selling basic food items, soft drinks, fresh fruit and spices, reads “Kurisumala Ashram.” We turn and are waved through the iron gate by a gatekeeper, dressed in the typical dhoti of this part of India.

What brought us here was equal parts coincidence and design. Reading an autobiography of Bede Griffiths, one of Kurisumala’s earliest monks, and then an article on Kurisumala in the monastic quarterly, Cistercian Studies , piqued my interest. “While the monks are Trappists (Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance), their praxis, their dharma if you will, attempts to integrate Catholic worship with the Hindu-Indian culture in which it is practiced,” is the way one Web site described the ashram. So, we wrote Kurisumala into our itinerary, baffling our tourist agency, which, like the Hilton, does not often get such requests.

We knew but the basics about Kurisumala. The ashram was established in 1958, the dream of a Belgian Cistercian, John Mahieu, and Griffiths, an English Benedictine, who wanted to forge a bond between East and West by creating a community that would live in the simplicity and poverty of primitive monasticism, while expressing the universality of monastic life by rooting the community in Hindu culture. Mahieu and Griffiths were impressed with the rich Syro-Malankar liturgical tradition that had taken root in this part of India, and wanted to keep and enhance these rituals, set within the venerable Western Benedictine-Cistercian discipline. It would be a community that would consciously eschew any overlay of comfort and wealth. Like monastic reformers before them, they wanted the purest, simplest form of the life, a radical renunciation of ease and convenience so that, unfettered by their possessions, they might seek God with an undivided heart. Meanwhile, they hoped to serve as an example of living Christianity in a predominantly Hindu country, one that had experienced decidedly mixed results with often-superimposed Western religion.

My wife and I had ties to and affection for the Trappists. I had written about monastic life and filmed a documentary on Thomas Merton; our two sons had been baptized at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, which was our church as much as the local parish when we lived in central Massachusetts. And so Kurisumala seemed the perfect choice.

The winding road beyond the gate is lined with stone walls and it is quickly apparent that monks of Kurisumala have taken the otherwise rocky and barren land at this elevation, good only for marginal grazing, and converted it into rich, terraced fields with succulent grass for cattle feed, verdant pastures, stands of banana trees and neat rows of tapioca plants. The dirt road is paved with cobblestones at the top of the rise as we near what must be the monastic compound, but there is still no overt sign, no cross, no statue that would demarcate a Christian monastery. There is a barn and small milk-processing room off to the left. It is only when one of the guests points us to the right that we see a small cross over an archway marking the entrance to the chapel and monks’ living quarters on one side and a small assembly room on the other. The rustling of dry banana leaves is the only sound in the otherwise still, hot, early afternoon air.

When we contacted the monastery by e-mail (we would find that the monastery does not itself have this service, but a neighbor brings messages addressed to Kurisumala@yahoo.com) we were at first told the ashram did not accept married couples. When we assured Abbot Yeshudas Thelliyil that we would stay apart, he kindly relented.

The first monk we encounter is young, full-bearded Brother John, who in broken but understandable English introduces himself as the assistant guest master, hoists our bags out of the car and ushers us into the building on the right, insisting that we eat. We have just had lunch, which seems to disappoint him. He then takes Tracy to the woman’s side, my wife disappearing down a winding path with an amazing array of tropical flowering plants. Moments later, Brother John leads me through a low iron gate, to the men’s quarters.

The men’s building is low slung, with a corrugated roof and a narrow cement apron. Lush banana trees shelter one side. My room has a small straw mat on a cement floor, an iron-frame bed with a mattress a few inches thick resting on jute webbing. A mosquito net hangs overhead. There is a straight-backed wooden chair and small desk. The bathroom has a commode and sink with a cold water spigot; another spigot is on the wall over a half-filled bucket. A drain, centrally located on the cement floor, will catch the runoff. It is a classic Asian bathroom of the lower classes. At least the lower classes that have indoor plumbing.

The monastic day

As I can see from the schedule that Brother John gave me, the monastic day at Kurisumala generally follows that observed in American Trappist monasteries. The day begins with vigils at 3:45, followed by Lectio Divina, Mass, and breakfast before “bread labor” for monks begins. Periods of spiritual reading and meditation, lunch, another period of “bread labor,” supper, an evening gathering of the community called satsung before compline round out the rest of the day.

The schedule may have read like that of a “normal” monastery, but Kurisumala was to be unlike anything I -- and I’m sure Tracy, although I had no way of communicating with her -- had ever experienced.

The founders were adamant about resurrecting, preserving and enhancing the richness of Syro-Malankar worship, so daily Mass, called Bharatiya Pooja (literally “Indian worship”) is an exquisite liturgy in Malayalam, the local language, that suffuses all the senses through the use of light, flowers, fire, water and incense. After lighting the altar lamp, for instance, the thurifer gently sweeps his hands near the flame to bring “light” to his eyes, mind and heart.

The music is a lush pastiche of hymns and chants drawn from as varied sources as the Bhagavad-Gita, St. Ephrem and the Upanishads. In keeping with simplicity, there is no organ; a hand-pumped harmonium, the beat kept with a tambourine, provides the music.

The evocative words of Bharatiya Pooja blend Oriental and Occidental spirituality: “O Lord of all, Source and Establisher and Preserved of eternal dharma, we pray that peace and tranquility may descend on the whole world and on us who offer your eternal sacrifice. It was this sacrifice that restored the cosmic order and reestablished dharma. May all men grow in the eternal life which you give them.”

The presiding monks are seated lotus-style on straw mats before a low altar where a brass oil lamp rises dramatically from a bed of cut flowers. Visitors, segregated male and female, also sit lotus-style on straw mats that are arranged in neat rows in the body of the small chapel. The consecrated bread is a simple chapati, which is dipped into a small chalice of wine and placed in the worshiper’s mouth.

Along the way to meals, which are served in the refectory, the visitor can glimpse something of the monk’s lives: Hand-woven saffron shawls and tunics or khavi -- the Hindu symbol of a life of renunciation -- hang on a line to dry. There is a simple kitchen with a wood-burning hearth heating huge kettles, a bakery and storage area with piles of carrots, turnips, potatoes, onions and garlic on the cool ground. A tiny library is also used for the overflow of visitors at mealtime, if they cannot be accommodated along the wall of the refectory. On the wooden shelves of the library is a modest collection of well-worn books divided between Western and Eastern monasticism and spirituality, few of them of recent vintage.

When we arrive for meals, aluminum plates -- shaped much like cake pans -- and aluminum cups are arranged at intervals before straw mats along the wall, the plate already filled. For breakfast, there is a thick slice of freshly-baked bread and homemade jam made with seasonally available fruits and vegetables like pineapple, banana, tomato and pumpkin. Lunch and supper might consist of an ample serving of rice, a vegetable curry and perhaps a portion of some green vegetable and a small banana or a few tangerine segments. Hot, sweetened tea is offered in the morning and either water or a diluted juice for the other meals.

Meals are taken in silence. At noon, there is a reading by one of the monks who is seated with the abbot; the rest of the community is out of sight. All meals are eaten with your right hand and the monk-server solicitously passes in front of the visitors offering either more of the daily fare, or if the person thinks they have too much -- and there is a gentle admonition not to waste food -- ready to scoop some back into the serving pot. After the meal, visitors go to an open window and pour water on their hands to wash, the water falling to the ground outside where banana trees line the building.

The rest of the time, guests are free to read, rest or visit the chapel, whose sanctuary, in the Eastern tradition, is behind a diaphanous veil. You can walk the trails that lace through the monastery, visit the breathtaking overlook called “Inspiration Point” or climb still higher to the Stations of the Cross set on a ridge overlooking the property. Sprawling vegetable gardens produce greens, huge cabbages, white radishes as big as carrots and long tubular squash called snake gourds. Although the monks I saw in my walks were working with the dairy business in some way -- grinding feed, leading cows to pasture while the barn was cleaned, talking to some of the local farmers who either work there or bring their milk to be processed and sold -- I found them attentive both to guests and to the task at hand.

More to teach us

Beyond the externals, this hospitable, simple, beautiful and poor ashram high in the Sahya Mountains of Southern India had much more to teach us, both about monasticism and about ourselves.

I had a low-grade fever compliments of some bug encountered earlier in the trip and was only operating at half-capacity, and thus somewhat oblivious to my surroundings. But I could see that Tracy was having a harder time adjusting. The look on her face after breakfast on the second day necessitated a clandestine meeting. We walked toward the cobblestone road at the side of the barn and then out a narrow dirt road that that leads toward a huge reservoir with a stunning view of the mountain range just beyond. She started sobbing.

“I don’t know what do with myself. There’s no place to even sit and read a book, my room is tiny, bugs are coming in the windows, crawling on the floors. Forget about drying my hair, there isn’t even a mirror to comb it! I don’t know if I can stay.”

Tracy was on a sabbatical from her work as the executive director of an arts and character-development center she had started in the inner city of Wilmington, N.C. One of the reasons for our India trip was that she wanted to “reflect on my life” and “get out of my comfort zone.” I didn’t know about the first part, but Kurisumala was handily taking care of the second.

Having spent a fair amount of time at monasteries, in fact living as a hermit in the shadow of one of them in hopes of discovering that I had a monastic vocation, I had experienced similar dark nights of the soul. I weakly offered, “Stay with it.” I don’t know if that registered or made any sense at all. The look on her face was forlorn as she headed back to the women’s quarters. This was a formidable woman, unafraid to walk through Wilmington’s toughest housing communities, a tigress in defending her children, a force that I knew better than to try to blunt or shape.

Indeed, I would understand, but only later: Kurisumala strips you bare, and quickly. For Westerners and conventional Catholics like ourselves, there is nothing familiar, creature comforts are negligible, even bathing was a task. Hot water was available between three and five each afternoon and with bucket in hand, retreatants could go to the kitchen, return to their rooms and ladle the water over their body. Much of the liturgy was different and in a strange language, eating was certainly unlike anything we had experienced, and sleeping was hardly restful or easy.

There was nothing familiar or secure to hold onto. I had been in many monasteries over five decades and while the accommodations were always modest, there was at least the security of a common language, a fork, hot water.

But the natural, good-natured and very deliberate poverty of Kurisumala was offering something else, difficult at first to see. In the total absence of the familiar, a sort of void descends, somewhat disorienting (as my wife so keenly was experiencing), a little frightening, creating a sense both apprehensive and anticipatory even as it cleaves a cavernous hole in one’s ego. Openness, vulnerability, transparency are words that come to mind but I can’t, try as I might, fashion them into a meaningful sentence. It says something of beginning to sense the presence of God -- only sensing -- when our accumulated defenses, pretenses and counterfeit images of that God are rendered useless.

Christian roots

The Christian roots of this part of India go deep, far deeper than in some areas of the world more often considered “Christian.” Tradition has it that the apostle St. Thomas established churches on the eastern and western coasts of Southern India in the year 52, at a time when Europe only knew primitive religions. A unique church developed, for centuries largely ignored by the West. The church in India owed more to the traditions, liturgies and customs of Syria and Persia than to the “Latinizing” influences that helped regularize a fragmented Europe, a Western orientation that would eventually be transplanted to the Americas.

With the Portuguese colonization of the 17th and 18th centuries came one of the darker periods in Indian church history, when missionaries and bishops, with the tacit approval of Rome, preached and enforced European Catholicism, ruthlessly trying to root out rituals and practices considered much too native an expression of the “one, true faith.” With the growing sense of ecumenism in the 1920s and 1930s, the Catholic Malankara Syrian church was again unified with Rome, its practices still warily regarded by many within the church.

On visits to India, Western monks and priests with an openness to probing different approaches to spirituality found a deep and ancient tradition of Hindu monasticism alongside a Christian liturgical and ritual life that burst the boundaries of anything they had experienced before. India was a cradle of monasticism, predating Christian monasticism by 1,000 years. Christian liturgies here offered rich evocations of both the temporal and the divine, using the familiar vernacular not the distancing Latin that was standard at the time. Pioneers like the French missionary Abbé J. Monchanin, and the French Benedictine Henri Le Saux established the Sachidananda Ashram, or Shantivanam, as it was popularly known in Southern India. It was here that Kurisumala’s founder, Mahieu, already formed through 20 years of monastic life at the Trappist abbey of Scourmont in Belgium, first glimpsed the possibility of a new kind of monastery, embedding a Cistercian way of life within the rich and ancient culture of India. Kurisumala -- a combination of cruz, the Portuguese word for cross, and mala, the Dravidian word for mountain -- was born.

Griffiths joined Mahieu at Kurisumala’s founding, but left after a few years to be the superior at Shantivanam. Mahieu would eventually take on the monastic name of Francis and the Hindu approbation of Acharya -- meaning a spiritual mentor or master, akin to our “Reverend Father.” The early years were trying as the first few aspirants at Kurisumala weathered monsoon rains in palm frond huts and tried to eke a living out of the mountaintop soil. They began to terrace the land to make it more productive, plant crops and dig a reservoir to irrigate during the dry season. Francis, who had met Gandhi years before in London, was determined to employ Gandhi’s imperative to make cows -- sacred to the Hindus, but, as they aged and wandered freely, often a liability within this fragile economy -- a useful asset. Kurisumala brought over two Jersey bulls from England and the ashram gradually developed into a model dairy farm and agricultural center, drawing into a cooperative local farmers and the poor and landless who came to settle nearby.

The community eventually grew to about 20, and that has been its approximate size throughout much of its life.

Although he had been given permission to leave his Belgian monastery, Father Francis was so far out of the mainstream of monastic and Indian life that he was free to shape a kind of community unknown and untried. Although the Trappist General Chapter had refused to sanction or even acknowledge Father Francis’ experimental community, he was determined to weave three seemingly disparate strands, a classic Benedictine-Cistercian spirituality, a simple Indian monastic lifestyle, and the rich Eastern liturgy he had come to appreciate. Many missionaries before him “adapted” to local customs while retaining elements of Western lifestyle. Francis was determined to be fully inculturated, to live, think, and worship as an Indian, while retaining his Christian framework.

Nested in the Indian way

The first strand is easy enough to see and experience as the monks of Kurisumala go through the typical monastic day -- little different from the days of Benedict -- with periods of community prayer and worship, individual prayer, meditation and reading, and work. One distinctive daily gathering is satsung, which is akin to the monastic chapter meeting, but at Kurisumala all guests are invited to join the community in song, chants and instruction.

Because it is nested in the Indian way of monasticism, Kurisumala comes uniquely alive. Poverty is not just a word here. The monks go about barefoot, wash their own simple and often threadbare garments, and sleep on the floor on thin straw mats. They do not own a passenger vehicle; the simple musical instruments, the well-used devotional books, the modest vegetarian diet bespeak a community that is living very much at the level of the average Indian. Simple conveniences are carefully considered and if they are found helpful but not in keeping with this spirit of poverty, they are avoided. On the other hand, a modern packaging machine that fills then seals plastic bags of milk for the diary cooperative was found to be necessary to getting their product to market with sanitation and efficiency.

There is a very Indian concern for the community, which does not simply describe the 20 monks of Kurisumala, but also embraces villagers who live in the valleys and on the hillsides of the Vagamon district. Today, Kurisumala employs some 70 villagers in its dairy and manure operations. (The cow dung is dried, hand-screened, and sold to coconut and banana plantations.) The ashram provides good breeding livestock -- or even a cow for a struggling family who then can obtain a better price for their milk than they would by selling small amounts individually. Sometimes it is a dowry that is needed to marry off a villager’s daughter or money for an operation or medicine.

Hearkening back to Benedict’s admonition that every guest is to be treated as Christ, all monasteries surely believe in hospitality, but at Kurisumala it is palpable, from the warm welcome to the concern the monks had for my health and for Tracy’s state of mind. Chalk it up to monastic radar that knows exactly what “that look” on the face of a retreatant means.

During our stay, a group of young Indian seminarians, a half dozen Indian nuns, and a Spanish laywoman are guests, but throughout the day, dozens of other people can be seen on the pathways and roads of the monastery, in the chapel, at meals. The monks go about their day and work, but not without a nod or smile to their guests. I never got the feeling -- which I have experienced in other monasteries -- that we seculars were invading their sacred space.

If genuine happiness is an admirable monastic trait, it is a hallmark at Kurisumala. It is not marked by the forced smiles of men who would rather keep the world at arm’s length, but of a community that displays the basic Indian openness infused with a spiritual vitality that embraces you, even as it leaves you alone to ponder your inner self. There is not a smidgeon of false piety or an “us versus them” mentality in evidence. I am sure that the monks have their internal problems, storms rage over their individual souls and that the constant stream of guests and visitors can be trying. But I felt the monks did look upon the guests -- and I don’t say this lightly -- as so many Christs.

But it is the liturgical life that gives Kurisumala its distinctive character, depth and impact. After all, Christ spoke Aramaic, of which Syriac, the language used in worship, is a dialect. He reclined at table at the Last Supper when inaugurating the Eucharist, not standing behind an altar. The Bharatiya Pooja is more a celebration than a memorial, a family gathering, dignified to be sure, but homey rather than a formal, a ritual that is not ritualized. As I closed my eyes one morning, I felt not only in the company of the monks and other guests, but those early believers in Christ’s day in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia as they wove their cultural traditions into the fabric of belief that sustained and comforted them. After all, it was not Montevideo or Milan or Minneapolis where Christianity first was practiced, but in humble homes in the Middle East.

The richness of the Upanishads, the Vedic hymns and chants, the haunting music on age-old instruments, the glittering icons on the walls of the church, the sheer poetry of Eastern imagery conspire to play upon what St. Ephrem called “the harp of the spirit.”

In Hindu homes, Pooja is a daily occurrence, with food offered to the deity then returned to the worshiper to consume. Enriched with Christian sacramental realism, this is, of course, our Eucharist. Francis Acharya saw the connections, over and over again. He translated and published works that were largely lost, even in the East. In doing so, he exposed the intertwined, but often buried roots of early Christianity.

In 1998, this amazing ashram, drawing on such diverse strands, was formally received into the worldwide Trappist community, a milestone Father -- and now Abbot -- Francis Acharya had dreamed of from the founding of the monastery 40 years before. It may have seemed an honor for Kurisumala to be accepted into affiliation, but what the Cistercians received was a clear vision of monasticism, a community that was so unvarnished and untrammeled because it had not been founded in the usual way, as a daughter house of an existing monastery. Instead, Kurisumala had been allowed to splice different rich traditions and practices together to express a new, yet ancient, vision of monastic life.

In fact, Kurisumala might be viewed in the tradition of the first Cistercian monks, who in the 11th century left what they considered a compromised, too-comfortable Benedictine life to found a new monastery. They reclaimed what was barely habitable land and the venerable tradition of Benedict, living in a holy poverty that spawned not only a new and dynamic branch of monasticism, but renewed liturgy and had a profound effect on the Middle Ages.

Kurisumala is looked upon with suspicion by some in the church and in monastic circles for its embrace of Hindu practices and lifestyle, coupled with the use of the Syro-Malankan liturgy. The booklet containing an English translation that visitors use for Bharatiya Pooja contains a long explanation of the roots and purpose of the liturgy as well as a bold request that the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches acknowledge and regularize the use of this innovative liturgy.

Abbot Francis, who died in 2002, never advocated that Bharatiya Pooja become the standard Mass in India or this part of the world, just that it be allowed to be offered and to speak to souls as it is so capable. Kurisumala may homogenize its milk, but it is clear this ashram wants to keep its life and liturgy in their native state.

Space to flourish

It came to me one afternoon as I sat there in the chapel in my fevered state that perhaps Kurisumala was not only offering something to pilgrims like my wife and me, but to monks and monasticism worldwide. Here at Kurisumala was a cloistered community, yet porous enough to embrace visitors warmly, providing that sacred space in which both monks and visitors could flourish. The ashram has enhanced the economic conditions of the people in whose midst they are living, allowing them to experience the presence of good and caring Christian neighbors, not too busy or self-involved to address the immediate needs around them.

By our second and third days at Kurisumala, I could see that Tracy was doing better. Not looking better, mind you. No mirror means no makeup. Her lovely, curly hair was frizzing out, not being tamed by a hair dryer. She said little to me during our truncated, furtive meetings, just that she had been asked to help the visiting Indian nuns clean and chop vegetables, her contribution to the “bread labor” of the ashram. The addition of a little labora to the ora was proving -- as Benedict discovered -- to be an ideal combination. She had found a bench in the library where she could read, and was spending some quiet time alone in the chapel between services.

It was only after I fainted in church during Bharatiya Pooja that I would find out more.

Nothing alarming, really. The fever had hung on; I wasn’t eating much and whatever else was floating around in body and soul conspired to trifle with my blood pressure. One moment I was sitting on a wooden bench next to an aging monk at the back of the chapel -- he who would doze off and rest his head on my shoulder -- and the next moment I was looking up into the alarmed faces of my wife, and a few of the nuns. Bharatiya Pooja went on, and I was gently helped outside. Brother John was there and within minutes a car materialized, courtesy of the manager of a small tea plantation who is a friend of the monastery. We were soon on our way down the corkscrew mountain road at a terrifying speed. I sat in the front seat, with Brother John just behind me. For the hourlong trip, he tenderly wrapped his arms around me, a sort of human seat belt.

When we arrived at the Marian Medical Center in Pala, I was seen immediately by a physician, given a complete workup including an EKG, blood profile and chest x-ray before seeing a second and then a third physician, who prescribed four medicines for what was determined to be a garden-variety bacterial or viral chest infection. Tracy went back up the mountain and I stayed in a holding area at the hospital where nursing students giggled as they tried their English on one of the few “Europeans” seen at the hospital and Sister Linda, one of the Franciscans who staff the hospital, made sure I didn’t need food, water or company. The bill for everything was $15.

In a few hours Tracy was back, with a rosary around her neck, the gift, along with the prayers, of one of the Indian nuns. We were soon on our way to Cochin. It was then that we were able to discuss what had happened at Kurisumala.

Just as she was leaving the ashram, Abbot Thelliyil took her aside and, with his burning black eyes upon her own, told her that she was a “good wife” for looking after me so lovingly and with such great concern when I fainted. This tiny man, who must weigh little more than 100 pounds, reached up and pressed his hands on either side of her head. It was not the light touch of a faint spirit. She felt not only the pressure of his hands, but a tingling akin to electricity at her temples, then flowing into the rest of her body. My Tracy is not one given to spiritual overstatement, but at that moment, she felt something she had never felt before.

We continued on toward Cochin, with long periods of silence, interspersed with our reliving the experience. Tracy turned to me. “I couldn’t sleep at all the first night,” she said. “I had been crying nonstop. I don’t even know what I was reading, but the words ‘O, God, come to me in my distress,’ kept repeating and repeating in my brain. At 5 o’clock, I heard a knock at the door. It was Brother John, with a beautiful white flower and a cup of hot, sweetened tea on a tray. I just couldn’t believe it.”

We were back at the Hilton in Cochin that night, with cloth napkins, silverware, a warm shower and a comfortable mattress. For two people who leave little air space unfilled with talk, we found ourselves lapsing into long periods of silence. At dinner, Tracy put her fork down and looked over at me. “I just realized,” she said, hesitating to make sure she was both sure of herself and would using the right words. “I prayed for the first time in my life at Kurisumala. I don’t even know what I prayed or how I prayed. But I know I prayed.”

A week later, we were back in the United States, but Kurisumala didn’t fade from our memory. This was not merely an interesting stop on our trip to India. Something happened there. For Tracy, it proved to be the beginning of a new and fresh prayer life, of daily spiritual reading and a quiet period of meditation, a calm that I and many of her friends have noticed in a still very effervescent woman.

Abundance prevails

For me, Kurisumala registered not so much as a demanding goal to be continually struggled for, but as a quiet standard to live by. Of how abundance -- of affection, of worship, of community, of kindness -- can, in the midst of seeming poverty and utter simplicity, prevail. Of the power of finding more by having less. Of deep happiness in both the most profound and the most mundane daily activities.

These monks, from a culture so different from ours, showed Tracy and me that God continually infuses our lives with his presence -- we only need to put aside our preconceptions and our alleged intellectual sophistication to experience it. That God speaks to us in mysterious ways at unexpected times in our lives. That God expresses himself with palpable, physical signs. And that holiness is so recklessly pervasive, so very, very ordinary.

I sensed this on a recent Thursday morning, as I was taking the Eucharist to patients at our local hospital. As I entered one of the rooms on the floor for cancer patients, Kurisumala suddenly was with me. It came over me in an instant, like remembering and reliving a vivid dream, although deep into the day. I looked down at the woman in the bed, whom I did not know, and then at the host in my pyx. I understand the theology of the Eucharist, but I also realized that -- physically -- this was not just a tasteless wafer in my hand. And that she wasn’t a stranger after all. This was rich food from the family’s table, taken to a sick relative. Our complicated church, our convoluted ways of drawing near to God paled in comparison to the raw power of the Real Presence. Pooja. Hospital Pooja. I placed the host on her tongue. I smiled and patted her fevered cheek. And she smiled back.

Paul Wilkes, who lives in Wilmington, N.C., is the author of many books and the creator of the New Beginnings programs for parish vitality and good stewardship (www.nbontheweb.com).

Related Web site

Kurisumala Ashram
www.vagamon.com/kurisumala/kurisumala.htm

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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