Bede Griffiths OSB OCam (17 December 1906 – 13 May 1993), Alan Richard Griffiths, was born in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England as the youngest of three children of a middle-class family. Shortly after Griffiths’ birth, his father was betrayed by a business partner and was left penniless. His mother took the children and established residence in a smaller home which she maintained, though she had to find work to support herself and the children. At age 12, Griffiths was sent to Christ’s Hospital, a school for poor boys. The students of this school were nicknamed “bluecoats”. He excelled in his studies and earned a scholarship to the University of Oxford where, in 1925, he began his studies in English literature and philosophy at Magdalen College. In his third year at university he came under the tutelage of C. S. Lewis, who became a lifelong friend. Griffiths graduated from Oxford in 1929 with a degree in journalism.
Shortly after graduation Griffiths, with two fellow Oxford friends, settled in a cottage in the Cotswolds and began what they called an “experiment in common living”. They followed a lifestyle attuned to nature, milking cows and selling the milk to support themselves. They would read the Bible together as a form of literature. Griffiths noted a strong connection between the teachings of scripture and the rhythm of the nature around them. The experiment lasted less than a year, as one of the friends found the life too demanding. Nevertheless, the experience had a strong effect on Griffiths and served as a prelude to his later life in India.
As an immediate result of this experience, Griffiths decided to seek ordination in the Church of England. He was advised, however, to gain some experience in the slums of London. This advice was so contrary to what Griffiths felt to be his vocation that it drove him to a crisis of faith, which nearly ended in an emotional breakdown. Guided by the writings of Cardinal Newman, he reached a point in this struggle where he had a spiritual breakthrough.
In November 1931, Griffiths went to stay at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey where he was impressed by the life of the monks. Despite the strong anti-Roman Catholic sentiments of his mother, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Griffiths was received by the abbey as a postulant a month after his reception into the Catholic Church. On 29 December 1932, he entered the novitiate and was given the monastic name of “Bede”. He made his solemn profession in 1937 and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1940.
In 1947 Griffiths was chosen to be the prior for the monastery at Farnborough in Hampshire. Four years later the abbot sent him to another monastery, Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland. It was there that he wrote his autobiography The Golden String.
During Griffiths’ time at Farnborough, he had come to know Father Benedict Alapatt, a European-born monk of Indian descent who was greatly interested in establishing a monastery in India. Griffiths had already been introduced to Eastern thought, yoga and the Vedas and took interest in this proposed project. The abbot at first refused permission, but later changed his mind and authorised Griffiths to go to India. There was one condition, though: Griffiths was not to be there as a member of the abbey, but as a priest subject to a local bishop, which meant that he would be giving up his vows.
After some painful inner debate, Griffiths agreed to this and, in 1955, he embarked for India with Alapatt. At the time, he wrote to a friend: “I am going to discover the other half of my soul.” After arriving and visiting some spiritual centres in the country, they settled in Kengeri in Bangalore with the goal of building a monastery there. That project was eventually unsuccessful as Griffiths left the location in 1958, saying that he found it “too Western”.
Griffiths then joined with a Belgian monk, Father Francis Acharya OCSO at his Kurisumala Ashram (“Mountain of the Cross”), a Syriac Rite monastery of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Kerala. They sought to develop a form of monastic life based in the Indian tradition, adopting the saffron garments of an Indian sannyasi (an ascetic or monk). During that time he continued his studies in the religions and cultures of India, writing Christ in India while there. He also visited the United States during the period, giving a number of talks about East–West dialogue and was interviewed by CBS television.
Later, in 1968, Griffiths moved to the Saccidananda Ashram (also known as Shantivanam; Tamil for “forest of peace”) in Tamil Nadu, South India, which had been founded in 1950 by the French Benedictine monk Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux OSB) along with a French-man, the Abbé Jules Monchanin. The two had developed a religious lifestyle which was completely expressed in authentic Indian fashion, using English, Sanskrit and Tamil in their religious services. They had built the ashram buildings by hand in the style of the poor of the country.
In Shantivanam Griffiths resumed his studies of Indian thought, trying to relate it to Christian theology. At this point, he became known as “Swami Dayananda” (bliss of compassion). He wrote 12 books on Hindu–Christian dialogue. During this period, Griffiths desired to reconnect himself with the Benedictine order and sought a monastic congregation which would accept him in the way of life he had developed over the decades. He was welcomed by the Camaldolese monks, and he and the ashram became a part of their congregation.
In January 1990, Griffiths suffered a stroke in his room at the ashram. A month later, to the day, he was declared healed. The following year, he began a period of extensive travel program, making annual visits to the United States, then later to Europe and Australia, where he met the Dalai Lama. He continued his journey, giving lectures in Germany and England. He arrived back at the ashram in October 1992, where an Australian film crew was awaiting him to make a documentary about his life, which was released as A Human Search.
Three days after the completion of filming, on his 86th birthday, Griffiths had a major stroke. The following month, he had a further series of strokes. He died at Shantivanam on 13 May 1993, aged 86.
Roland R. Ropers
Photograph by Anders Blichfeldt