Francis Tiso

Précis en français – Abstract in English

: L'année 2012 marquera le trentième anniversaire de la publication de Blessed Simplicity :The Monk as Universal Achetype par Raimondo Panikkar, (Eloge du simple - Le moine comme archétype universel Ed. Albin Michel 1995) tiré d'une série de conférences données à Holyoke, Massachusetts, en 1980. La Holyoke Conférence a été convoquée  par le North American Board for East-West Dialogue (NABEWD), le prédécesseur nord-américain du Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID). Cet événement fut un tournant dans la vie de nombreux moines et de laïcs contemplatifs, en retraçant trois courants distincts qui se sont rencontrés pour donner naissance à ce livre important: 1.La recherche continue de Panikkar lui-même concernant une conjonction du cosmos, de Dieu et de l'humanité, qui le  conduirait à concevoir un «archétype universel» dynamique capable d'embrasser la réalité entière; 2. l'émergence d'un dialogue interreligieux monastique, encouragé par le Saint-Siège, à l'échelle institutionnelle et mondiale dans les années 1970, 3. la présence d’un groupe de laïcs catholiques inspirés et guidés par des expériences post-Vatican II de la vie contemplative, et qui ont commencé à se considérer comme un nouveau genre de «moine». Les conférences provocatrices de Panikkar ont donné un élan vital tant au dialogue qu'aux «nouveaux moines». Au même moment, des tensions sont apparues entre les protagonistes laïcs et les moines dans le début des années 1980 lorsque le MID a cherché à redéfinir ses objectifs et sa méthodologie. L'auteur propose un rapprochement des conceptions autour de la notion de «porteurs de vérité» -  désignant des personnes engagées dans une vie contemplative et dialogale. Dans la vie de telles personnes, on peut  trouver maintenant l'intégration de ce qui semblait «explosif» il y a trente ans, à savoir: Les réflexions finales de Panikkar sur la «mystique» comme constitutive de l'homme; l'approche clairement monastique qui facilite grandement le dialogue interreligieux ; et le rôle des laïcs contemplatifs dans l'élaboration de  programmes viables de dialogue au service des communautés de foi en cette époque de crise mondiale.


Abstract: The year 2012 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Raimondo Panikkar's Blessed Simplicity:  The Monk as Universal Archetype, based on a series of lectures delivered at Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1980.  The Holyoke Conference was convoked by the North American Board for East-West Dialogue, the North American predecessor of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID).  The event became a watershed in the lives of many monastics and lay contemplatives, reflecting three distinct trajectories that met in the coming to birth of this important book:  1.  Panikkar's own lifelong inquiry into the conjunction of cosmos, God, and humanity, leading to his articulation of a dynamic "universal archetype" capable of embracing reality as a whole;  2.  The emergence of monastic interreligious dialogue on a global institutional scale in the 1970s, encouraged by the Holy See; 3.  Inspired and guided by post-Vatican II experiments in contemplative living, a group of Catholic laity began to consider themselves as a new kind of "monk".  Panikkar's provocative lectures energized both the dialogue and the "new monks".  At the same time, tensions emerged between lay protagonists and monastics, as monastic interreligious dialogue sought to redefine its goals and methodology in the early 1980s.  The author proposes a reconvergence of the trajectories around the notion of "bearers of truth"- persons committed to contemplative living and interreligious dialogue.  In the lives of such persons, we may find already present the integration of what seemed "explosive" thirty years ago:   Panikkar's final reflections on the "mystic" as constitutive of the Human; the distinctly monastic approach that effectively enhances interreligious dialogue; and the role of lay contemplatives in creating viable programs of dialogue at the service of communities of faith in the present time of global crisis.


Notes can be found at the end of the article. They are also placed in a separate file. By clicking here you can open them in a separate window, thus making it easier to consult them as you read the article.]

It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, and certainly in the case of the book, Blessed Simplicity by Raimondo Panikkar, the coming together of a number of distinct streams of inquiry resembles the plot of a novel. The three streams that I detect in the background of the book includes the history of Aide Inter-Monastères recounted by Abbot Armand Veilleux on the website of the North American Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue; [1] Panikkar’s own intellectual investigations of India and monasticism; and the life experience of a small group of friends of mine in the United States in the turbulent years following the Second Vatican Council.

A large number of Benedictine and Cistercian foundations had been made during the 1950s and 60s beyond the confines of Europe and North America. Soon they were all confronted with the challenge of the dialogue between cultures and the need for inculturation. Aide Inter-Monastères (A.I.M.) was founded in 1960 as a means of coordinating the efforts made in that direction.

It was the AIM board that organized a pan-Asian monastic meeting in Bangkok in 1968, where Thomas Merton gave the final public talk of his Asian Journey, and where he tragically passed away. The dynamism of the Bangkok meeting, however, continued to motivate A.I.M. in organizing meetings that became the setting for authentic monastic interreligious dialogue. The 1973 meeting in Bangalore, India, involved not only Christian monastics, but also representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Islam, and other traditions of the East, who were invited as participants. Shortly after the Bangalore meeting, the prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Dialogue with non-Christians, Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, wrote to the Benedictine Abbot Primate to ask the monastic Orders to continue to assume a leading role in interreligious dialogue. In this way, the dialogue among religions called for at the Second Vatican Council in the document Nostra Aetate was to be carried out by Catholic monastics. The letter is worth quoting:

For a long time I have wished to write and share my joy with you over the success of the Monastic Conference in Bangalore, … Even the limited experience our Secretariat has of dialoguing with Non-Christian religions has shown very clearly the important part monasticism has to play in this field, particularly in Asia. Historically, the monk is the outstanding type of homo religiosus of all times, and as such, he attracts and serves as a reference point for both Christians and Non-Christians. The existence of monasticism at the heart of the Catholic Church is in itself a bridge connecting all religions. If we are to approach Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention the others, without the monastic experience we should hardly be considered religious men. I am glad to seize this opportunity to express my regards for the work of the Benedictine Order, especially through the AIM Secretariat, its undertaking in view of dialogue with Non-Christian religions. I should like to encourage you, too, to promote this work within the Benedictine Federation and develop it in every possible way. [2]

AIM appointed Abbot Cornelius Tholens to coordinate this task in 1975 and two meetings were held in 1977: one in America that took place at Petersham, Massachusetts, from June 4-13, 1977, and one in Europe, held at Loppem, Belgium, in August of the same year. The first one led to the creation of the North American Board for East-West Dialogue (NABEWD) and the second one to the founding of Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique (DIM), thus formally institutionalizing international monastic-based interreligious dialogue.

Before the emergence of an official role for monastic in dialogue, Raimundo Panikkar, a distinguished European (born in Spain) theologian, philosopher and scientist, had developed a more-than fifteen year rapport with the French Benedictine monk Dom Henri Le Saux, who had been in India since 1948. Le Saux had at first attempted to create a Christian ashram with Abbé Jules Monchanin in Tamil Nadu. As time went on, the vocation of Dom Le Saux transformed into his dramatic assimilation of Indian monastic observance and taking on the name Swami Abhishiktananda. Remaining in contact both with Hindu masters (especially those connected with Shri Ramana Maharshi and with the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh) and contemporary Christian theological ferment in India and Europe, Abhishiktananda became a figure of some importance in the renewal of the Indian Catholic Church. He strongly felt that the work of Raimundo Panikkar was in harmony with his own explorations, both in theology and in praxis. James Stuart, an Anglican theologian close to Abhishiktananda in India writes:

One of the very few theologians—perhaps the only one—who in Abhishiktananda’s view was addressing the problem, was his friend Raymond Panikkar. They had now been sharing their thoughts for the past ten years. He had welcomed Panikkar’s book, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, and felt that his friend had written far more boldly than he had so far dared to do, for example in Sagesse (Saccidananda, ISPCK, 1984, 1987). [3]

Panikkar wrote about their relationship in retrospect in 2005:

I am reluctant to speak about my friend Abhishiktananda, because to speak about him is also to speak about myself. I will try to be discreet. Together we made two major pilgrimages—to Arunachala (Tiruvanamalai) and to Gangotri, at the source of the Ganges. These common experiences drew us very close to one another. We talked together at great length . . . I think it is possible to say that a great transformation took place in the cave of Arunachala in 1952. There he understood that what was demanded of him was not simply being “open to the other”—something he had control over—but letting the other convert him. . . . In spite of all the progress he made, I sensed that he remained torn right up to the very end of his life, at least until his heart attack in July 1973. It was then that he “found the Grail,” as he put it in a letter to me. The image of the Grail says much about his inculturation in Indian religion. In order to speak about his discovery of interior unity within the Indian tradition of advaita, he used an expression that he received from the culture of his childhood in Brittany. He was no longer alienated from himself. He died believing that his life was a failure. In fact, he was a genius without knowing it. [4]

Clearly, there was a profound exchange on the spiritual level between these two great contemplatives. In many ways, the book Blessed Simplicity is a meditation on these conversations in India, less than a decade before the Holyoke Conference was held.

The third subplot of the history of the book involves what Abbot Veilleux calls “some young people interested in dialogue who, while not belonging to any monastic institution, were keen on considering themselves representatives of what they called ‘lay monasticism’.” [5] The unmistakable tone of distancing in this description is troubling, because in reality, without these “lay monastics” much of the work of monastic interreligious dialogue would not have been possible. From the mid-1970s until shortly after the publication of the book, Blessed Simplicity by the Seabury Press in 1982, the “lay monks”, who to some extent matched the profile of the “new monks” discussed in Panikkar’s book, were not only serving as assistants and secretaries, but were actual protagonists in the organization of the epochal meetings at Petersham and Holyoke. The brought practical knowledge and skill to the organization of successful meetings. They also contributed to the “raw data” of emerging ideas about monasticism that was being discussed in monastic circles, particularly since the Bangkok meeting in 1968. For example, the primary organizer, under the direction of Father Basil Pennington, of both the Petersham Conference and the Holyoke Conference was Edward J. Bednar, who was at the time a resident of Saint Joseph’s Abbey (Trappist Cistercian) in Spencer, Massachusetts. The program of spiritual formation for laymen at Spencer was an attempt to offer the opportunity to experience the monastic life for a significant length of time, originally with no intention of their entering monastic profession. The program was the result of a courageous response to the notion of temporary monasticism, given the fact that many monastics return to lay life after a number of years of consecrated life, not as an admission of failure, but in order to carry out as laity the spiritual discoveries that were for them the graces of their time in the monastery. In addition, the practice of three year retreats in some of the Tibetan religious traditions stimulated a Catholic conversation on the value of longer periods of retreat for lay people who wanted to deepen their experience of Catholic faith in a monastic setting.

As time would show, the lay monastics and their unique skills did in fact create tensions within the North American Board for Interreligious Dialogue, leading to their gradual dismissal from the board in the course of the early 1980s. Abbot Veilleux points out that “This great variety would reveal itself in the following years as both an enrichment and at times a source of tension that made it difficult to determine the specific scope of ‘monastic’ interreligious dialogue. This was the reason why NABEWD began to exclude lay monastics from its meetings.” [6]

However, as we shall see, there is an inherent tension between living the monastic life and undergoing the spiritual transformations that are the fruit of monastic observance, and obtaining the experience and knowledge necessary to carry out Cardinal Pignedoli’s mandate. Moreover, there is a very painful tension between the acquisition of the needed knowledge and personal experience, and the process of becoming a well-balanced person of faith. And yet the challenge of the book, Blessed Simplicity, seems to have been from the start its appeal for the emergence of “new monks” who might be as likely to emerge in monastic institutions as among lay persons drawn both to “the monastic archetype” and to a dialogical encounter with members of other world religions. Thus Holyoke saw the coming together of three parallel developments: Panikkar’s assimilation of Abhishiktananda’s thought in India; the experience of the “new monks” in US monasteries and Dharma centers; and the vision of Catholic initiatives of monastic interreligious dialogue internationally. As we explore the ideas of Panikkar’s book and its implications for interreligious dialogue and the future of monasticism, we will have to revisit the almost explosive tensions that the encounter of these three developments provoked.

The 1980 Holyoke Conference and Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype
The book itself was one fruit of the 1980 meeting at Holyoke, Massachusetts, mandated by the NABEWD, and organized by Edward J. Bednar. At the time, I was an editor at the Seabury Press in New York. Bednar offered to mediate the process of acquiring Panikkar’s book manuscript from the Holyoke Conference if Seabury were willing to fund the taping and transcribing of the oral form of the lectures. This was agreeable to Avery Brooke, then the Publisher of Seabury Press, and I was assigned to the project as editor. I attended the conference, oversaw the taping process with Bednar, and supervised the transcription process in New York. Finally, I delivered an edited version of the transcription to Panikkar in Santa Barbara, California. It was evident that the oral materials would need a good deal of further work to be clear enough to constitute a book.

Panikkar, ever sensitive to the distinction between oral presentations and literary works, [7] was not satisfied to allow the transcription of his lectures to represent the content of the Conference. He and his assistant at the time, Scott Eastham (along with João V. Coutinho and Adityānanda), worked over the transcriptions that I provided to create a written document closer to what Panikkar wanted a wider readership to encounter.

What happened to this book? It was not easy to persuade the Seabury sales force to take on this book; it was they who insisted on the somewhat misleading title, Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype, because they were without much experience in marketing books on monasticism. For the most part, other than the standard Anglican and Episcopalian authors allied to Seabury, the sales force was used to selling massive works by continental Catholic theologians such as Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. These high ticket items brought substantial revenues to Seabury. With the departure of the Herder-based editorial staff to the new Crossroads and Continuum Publishing Companies in 1980, these European authors and their revenues were lost to Seabury. In part, landing a book by Panikkar was thought by the editorial staff to be the way to recover from these loses. The sales force was less optimistic and in fact the book Blessed Simplicity failed to sell even 1000 copies in its first year in print. Nevertheless, those few copies seemed to have landed in monastic libraries in many parts of the world. The American edition, sold with the Seabury backlist in 1984, seems never to have been reprinted by any US publishing house.

By 1991, Cittadella Editrice in Assisi, Italy had published an Italian translation under the title: La Sfida di Scoprirsi Monaco. This edition lacks Father Armand Veilleux’ foreword on the international work of MID. Instead, there is a brief “Presentazione” by Panikkar that is a kind of disclaimer of the intentions of the book, perhaps responding to tensions that emerged in the “reception” of the American edition in monastic circles. The question and answer sessions are translated into Italian, without identifying the questioners, in contrast to the original edition. The contributions by Ewert Cousins, Armand Veilleux, Cornelius Tholens, Basil Pennington, Paolo Soleri and Myriam Dardenne were eliminated. However, in compensation, the Italian edition provides a useful glossary and index.

The 2007 edition from Cittadella Editrice reflects further modifications. A much longer introduction reintroduces the historical context of the original Holyoke Conference, honors the respondents and their contributions, and provides some insights into the driving forces behind the author’s ongoing reflections on the monastic archetype. A Third Part (Terza Parte), “Il monaco secondo le scritture dell’Induismo,” [The monk according to the Hindu scriptures] has been inserted prior to the chapter on the final synthesis. This chapter arises from the kind of reflection that Abhishiktananda, Swami Chidananda and Raimundo Panikkar were doing in the early 1970s in India. I am particularly struck by the points of contact between this chapter and James Stuart’s presentation of the final period of Abhishiktananda’s life, in which he and Chidananda performed the simplified rite of initiation (diksha) for Marc Chaduc in accordance with the Samnyasa Upanishads. This rite was designed in the course of an extensive dialogue between Swami Abhishiktananda and Swami Chidananda, head of the Sivananda Ashram at Rishikesh on the Ganges. [8]

Evidently Panikkar felt that the scriptural materials along with his commentary would give the Italian reader a chance to enter directly into the Hindu thought-world to which the author refers on numerous occasions in the text of his lectures on monasticism. On the basis of Panikkar’s own work editing the spiritual diary of Abhishiktananda, [9] one might suggest that Panikkar would like us to continue the reflections of Abhishiktananda and Chidananda today, perhaps in the form of the ecumenical and interreligious study weeks that punctuated the final years of Abhishiktananda’s life. In a personal conversation a few weeks before his death, Father Jacques Dupuis, S.J. told this author that his and Panikkar’s in-depth conversations with Abhishiktananda in those crucial years deeply and permanently impacted their theological thinking. Abhishiktananda’s rapport with Panikkar was a key source for the body of experience and of theological reflection that bore fruit in Panikkar’s lectures at Holyoke, delivered, it should be remembered, only seven years after the death of Swami Abhishiktananda.

The 2007 Italian edition, entitled Beata Semplicità: La Sfida di scoprirsi monaco, includes another important addition, the translation of Panikkar’s letter addressed to a young monk in North America in the 1980s. In this letter, Panikkar agrees with the young monk’s concerns about the élite social role of monasticism, which seems to lead not only to routine, but also to mediocrity. At the same time, he urges the monk to gather a group of like-minded monastics to form a new foundation, and to seek the support of the mother house in doing so. Clearly Panikkar, listening sensitively to Dom Armand Veilleux and other monastics, was not in favor of abandoning the monastic institution as an historic presence in our times. He strongly supports a balance between that which is authentic in institutional monasticism and the concerns of the “new monks” articulated in the Holyoke Conference. [10]

 In fact, Panikkar seems to advocate an historic role for the new foundation in bringing about the visible realization of the kind of anthropology that he advances in his other writings. It is as if monasticism (and interestingly enough, not eremiticism) is seen as the catalytic factor in reviving the spiritual vitality of humanity as a whole. The letter is a quite remarkable counterpoint to the radical proposals delivered in the oral lectures. [11] In particular, it seems to signal Panikkar’s acceptance of Armand Veilleux’s critique of the “stretching” of the term “monk” in Panikkar’s oral presentations. There is little here that might sustain a purely home-grown monasticism that might take the form of isolated persons living out the impulses of the monastic archetype detached from authoritative guidance by historic monastic communities. Ironically, Panikkar himself spent his own final days more in the manner of a “new monk” at Tavertet and may have come to personal conclusions similar to those of the hermits interviewed by Saviozzi (fn.: Cristina Saviozzi, Come gufi nella notte: Storie di eremiti del nostro tempo. San Paolo, 2010).

The impact of the original book in monastic circles, on lay contemplatives and oblates seems to have been considerable, though difficult to quantify. During the 1990’s, it is known that there was a dramatic increase in the number of Benedictine oblates in the United States, as if many lay persons began to find their spiritual homes among the monastic communities. Certainly the continuing appeal of the works of Thomas Merton contributed to this tendency. The books of Kathleen Norris (e.g. Cloister Walk) may also have driven the ongoing interest in monasticism. I would also suggest that the futile search of many intellectuals for a parish in which liturgy and preaching were not pitched to youth or families with children was also a factor in the discovery of monasteries as one’s “spiritual home”. More broadly, there has been an ecumenical dimension to the “new monk” phenomenon. Some Christians from the reformation traditions began to see monasticism as a point of departure for living simply, serving the poor and engaging in social advocacy in both urban and rural environments. Thus, the ‘new monk’ became a social phenomenon reported in both Catholic and Protestant periodicals. [12]

The disappearance of the book Blessed Simplicity from US bookstores while these developments were underway suggests that Panikkar’s discussion nurtured the reflections of others [13] whose writings reached a wider public. However, the trajectories of our three parallel developments continued after the Holyoke Conference and the publication of the book, Blessed Simplicity. We will sum up the consequences later in this essay.

Panikkar’s Anthropology and its Dependence on Monasticism and Mysticism:
In Search of a Universal Human Archetype
Panikkar’s own retrospective comments on the Holyoke Conference of 1980 are contained in an article in the May, 2004, MID Bulletin entitled “The New Monk.” [14] He reiterates his concise definition of the monk: “Without forfeiting any allegiance to monastic family, or even to religious family, the monk is first and foremost a person who has placed the realization of the plenitude of existence at the center of life.” Here Panikkar reaffirms the role of personal allegiance to a monastic or religious family, which may have been somewhat muted in the original lectures delivered at Holyoke, and only partly revised in the published version. From its opening paragraphs, Blessed Simplicity gives us the methodological ground rules for an investigation of the relationship between the archetype of the monk and a more universal notion of the human archetype which finds its fullest expression in Panikkar’s writings on “the mystic”, partly in his Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics (1979, and therefore reflecting investigations prior to Blessed Simplicity), and more fully developed in the final edition of Mistica: Pienezza di Vita. [15] Panikkar makes this clear already in Blessed Simplicity: “To a non-monastic audience, I would say that this presentation speaks to the monk in every one of us and does not wish to supplant or correct the rich literature on monasticism. It would indeed like to inspire the reader to delve into the sources of this rich human tradition. But the search for a universal archetype is at the forefront of the entire enterprise.” [16]

He goes on to clarify:

To be, then, quite specific: Is the monk a universal archetype; i.e., a universal model for human life? No. The monk is only one way of realizing a universal archetype. Yet it is in and through this (monastic) way that we may gain access to the universal archetype - of which the monk is a manifestation. This allows us to speak of the universal archetype of the monk, provided we do not freeze the inner dynamism of monkhood, and also allow ourselves to speak of the new monk. [17]

Panikkar was concerned to hold together two poles: that of radicality, of the total self-immolation of the person seized by the monastic archetype, vision, ideal and above all its goal and source: the divine . . . inseparable from the hermeneutical anthropology previously developed in Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics. The other pole is of course the integration, the outpouring of the virtues of the monastic ‘sign’ into the experience of life as a whole, hence the discussion of the ‘mystic’ as “everyman” in the New Innocence (a work revised and incorporated into Mistica: Pienezza di Vita). Panikkar seems to get this idea from his Spanish roots, including a deep experience of Opus Dei, passed rigorously through a number of autobiographical sieves, which include an early attraction for monasticism:

Since my early youth I have seen myself as a monk, but one without a monastery, or at least without walls other than those of the entire planet. And even these, it seemed to me, had to be transcended -probably by immanence- without a habit, or at least without vestments other than those worn by the human family. Yet even these vestments had to be discarded, because all cultural clothes are only partial revelations of what they conceal: the pure nakedness of total transparency only visible to the simple eye of the pure in heart. [18]

He also explored Hinduism, Buddhism, modernity (especially science and linguistics) and the evolving Church, in particular the Vatican II notion of the Church-in-the-world. He allows us only an occasional glimpse at his experiential sources, his innermost heart, so painfully and sensitively conscious is he of the dramatic gap between experience and witness-to-experience. His experience of Catholic formation in the early experience of Opus Dei as a movement in Spain in the late 1930s and early 1940s gives us an insight into his fully developed ideas on integration and “harmonious complexity”. Readers need to remember that Opus Dei was a controversial movement giving extreme importance to the life of the lay Catholic, esp. the lay Catholic professional person, seeing this form of life as an authentic crucible within which a Catholic Christian could attain the heights of sanctity. The contrast between this vision of Catholic life and holiness and the traditional view that the cloistered life was the pre-eminent way to holiness could not have been more dramatic, even if the progress of secularism in Europe and beyond had already forced many Catholics to rethink the ways and means, the forms and the fruits that could be identified with heroic sanctity. In that crucible, Panikkar learned the critical thinking that was essential to the emergence of the Opus Dei movement within pre-Vatican II Catholicism. These are the roots of the Panikkarian theological and linguistic analysis, the skill with which he cuts his terminology very sharply, eliminating with fearsome rigor every tendency towards imprecision (as distinct from nuance, of which he is a master) while astonishingly cutting off every critical assault on his analysis by showing that he knows already where the potential critic is coming from and where his likely argument is going. Of course, over the years, Panikkar moved far beyond Opus Dei and Catholic scholasticism. He engaged the challenges posed by continental philosophy through his mastery of linguistics and logic. In his encounter with Indian spirituality, he recovered the vital qualities of direct, ongoing experience, which he developed into his characteristic “cosmotheandric” vision, which moves beyond Eurocentrism.

The NABEWD deliberations at Petersham in 1977 led to Panikkar’s being invited to the 1980 meeting at Holyoke to discuss the “archetype of the monk”. Therefore, Panikkar begins the lectures with an examination of what this topic implies conceptually, but also on a deeper level of felt and lived experience:

 The topic entrusted to me is “the monk as universal archetype.” The phrase is ambiguous, as will become clear in a moment. But its ambiguity is revealing. Here I hesitate: I feel I am breaking rather than constructing something. It is painful to break into pieces what one sees whole; and yet to speak, to explain, to unfold, to spread out in time and space is to break things apart. Like the body of Prajapati dismembered in the act of creation, it seems that this simple and ineffable vision which is for me the symbol of the monk can only be communicated in fragments. I must begin by taking a hammer and destroying “the universal archetype of the monk,” not unlike a child pulling apart its beloved little toy to see what is within. And within, we may discover emptiness. . . . [19]

Panikkar rejects the easier route of telling the story of the monastics of the past so as to depict a certain “ideal type” to which modern monks may respond with a desire to be more perfect. In effect, for Panikkar, this “reformist” pattern would be a betrayal of a more profound and dynamic process that he considers “trans-historical”. In effect, Panikkar rejects both the “return to the ideals of the past model” that was typical of earlier Christian reform movements, [20] as well as the model of reform in the radical proposals of post-Vatican II theologians such as John O’Malley, S.J., [21] whose 1971 article on Vatican II aggiornamento formally advocated for a complete revision of Catholicism, without reference to past models of reform.

As such, Panikkar’s approach is a great deal subtler and at the same time more realistic. Hence, his point of departure:

 . . . I am not so much directed to recount the history of the past or even to venture into the historical future, as I am concerned to probe the transhistorical present - for us here and now. In other words, because I am existentially concerned with our daily lives and present situation, making use of the ambiguity of the phrase “monastic archetype” I shall address myself not to describing the monk as archetype, i.e., the monk as a paradigm of human life, but to exploring the archetype of the monk, i.e., monkhood as a possible human archetype. In point of fact, the phrase “monastic archetype” may mean that there is a monastic archetype of which the monk is the example, or of which the monk is the manifestation. The distinction is important and subtle. The monk as archetype may be taken to mean that there is such a thing as an ideal monk, and that monks have incarnated this ideal in different degrees. This might be the best way for a renovatio, a renewal of the pristine purity of the monk. It is a legitimate and urgent concern but, in a certain sense, it freezes human creativity inasmuch as it ties us to an almost Platonic and immutable essence of the ideal monk. [22]

Then he proceeds to a discussion of what he means by “archetype”:

Archetype here means a model, a prototypical form (morphē). It allows only for explications and clarifications. All that is left to us is to be good or even better monks. To speak of the archetype of the monk, on the other hand, assumes that there is a human archetype which the monk works out with greater or lesser success. Traditional monks may have re-enacted in their own way “something” that we too may be called upon to realize, but in a different manner which expresses the growth and newness of the humanum. Archetype here means a product of the different forces and factors, conscious and unconscious, individual and collective, which go into shaping a particular human configuration. in a certain sense it gives us a free hand to launch an exploration into the very dynamism of the many factors that shape human life. Since archetype here does not mean a model, but rather the product of human life itself, this very archetype is thus mutable and dynamic. [23]

The subtlety of the discussion is found in the fact that to speak of monkhood, one must describe and relate to a living tradition, otherwise the discussion risks artificiality. However, Panikkar notes that “To study the archetype of the monk, on the other hand, viz., the accumulation of human experiences still ongoing, brings us to observe the signs of our times and directs us to the future. We have to decipher the riddle of modernity. I say riddle because we shall have to discriminate between fleeting and superficial fashion and the real contribution that enriches and continues the value of tradition.” Thus he arrives at the turning point: “In point of fact, the new monks are precisely those who contribute to the crystallization of the archetype that I shall endeavor to describe.” [24]

This turning to the notion of the “new monk” is explosive since it seems to stretch the term “monk” beyond its historical boundaries, and even flies in the face of the monastic rules of both East and West. Panikkar has to design a new methodology to accomplish his purpose here:

By monk, monachos, I understand that person who aspires to reach the ultimate goal of life with all his being by renouncing all that is not necessary to it, i.e., by concentrating on this one single and unique goal. Precisely this single-mindedness (ekagrata), or rather the exclusivity of the goal that shuns all subordinate though legitimate goals, distinguishes the monastic way from other spiritual endeavors toward perfection or salvation. . . . If, in a certain sense, everybody is supposed to strive for the ultimate goal of life, the monk is radical and exclusive in this quest. [25]

He lights the explosion by juxtaposing a dynamic notion of the “archetype” joined to his radical definition of the monk:

The thesis I am defending is that the monk is the expression of an archetype which is a constitutive dimension of human life. This archetype is a unique quality of each person, which at once needs and shuns institutionalization. Such a conception has, I submit, always been an underlying belief of tradition. . . .The monk is highly personal. It is with this belief in mind that tradition has considered the hermit—the idiorhythmic—to be the perfect monk. . . . [26]

Even the description of the monastic vocation suggests that it is a prior experience that convinces the person that some kind of perfection, some vision of wholeness, is a human possibility; thus the purpose of monastic life is to provide an outward form supportive of the ongoing process by which persons who have already glimpsed the goal actually attain it fully and experientially. Crucial here, especially to the experiential dimension contributed by the “new monks,” is that monasticism is not described as a set of conditions within which the discovery of transcendence is made. This places the notion of a monastic vocation in dramatic relief:

The monk ultimately becomes monk not by a process of thinking, or merely of desiring, but as the result of an urge, the fruit of an experience that eventually leads him to change and in the final analysis, break something in his life for the sake of that “thing” which encompasses or transcends everything. One does not become a monk in order to do something, or even to acquire anything, but in order to be (everything, yourself, the supreme being, nothing . . . ). The monk does not become a monk just because of a desire. he will be told time and again to eliminate all desires. I speak of an aspiration and an urge. it is not because one wills it that one becomes a monk. The monk is compelled, as it were, by an experience that can only articulate itself in the praxis of one’s life. . . . It is the existence of such an ontological aspiration in the human being that leads me to speak of monkhood as a constitutive dimension of human life. [27]

This insight corresponds to Abhishiktananda’s own experience in India when he encountered the depths of Hindu contemplative experience by meditating on Arunachala:

You already know how much I have been marked by my first two stays at Arunachala. The latest has had an even deeper effect on me. Each time I think I have reached the depths; but the deeper I go, the more I discover even deeper sphere within the depth. And how can I describe them? First I will admit in all humility. . . . that I have the impression that until this Lent I never understood what monastic life essentially is. I used to laugh at Father Abbot, Dom Marsille, when like Saint Benedict he referred us to the original source of monasticism - the desert - in which I saw nothing but eccentricity and utopia. Now I have understood that Saint Benedict could only create Cassino and the Rule because he had first passed three years in blessed solitude. . . . Only in solitude does anyone enter the heart of monastic life, because only there he enters ‘within’ and monastic life is essentially a life ‘within’. Never mind that I needed India and the contact with Hindu monks. . . . in order to understand that! I think I understood it last year, and that it was in me in the form of a mental concept. Now dare I say that it has become a matter of experience? [28]

Like Abhishiktananda, Panikkar realized, partly on the basis of his Indian experiences, partly on the basis of his exploration of modern science and philosophy, that a more universal archetypal dynamic is at work in human consciousness:

My hypothesis is that monkhood, i.e., the archetype of which the monk is an expression, corresponds to one dimension of this humanum, so that every human being has

potentially the possibility of realizing this dimension. Monkhood is a dimension that has to be integrated with other dimensions of human life in order to fulfil the humanum. [29]

This enables him to clarify the extent to which he is borrowing the notion of “archetype” from the terminology of depth psychology, and the extent to which he is speaking in terms of philosophical anthropology:

I would say that an archetype is a paradigm which becomes for you the center of your myth. And myth is that in which you believe without believing that you believe in it. This is why we can only speak about other people’s myths.
The word has a long history, and was again put into circulation by C.G. Jung. I would use it partly in his sense. I would not like to say model, which sounds too objective, on the outside, and too conscious. Nor would I like to say conviction, belief, faith, or doctrine, which may appear to be too “essential” and equally conscious or conceptual.
Archetype for me represents literally a fundamental type, i.e., a basic constituent or relatively permanent cast, in our case, of human life. It is used as the contrary of a fleeting appearance (phainomenon). it represents a basis upon which at least a part of our life is built. I take from Jung not so much the notion that it is submerged in the collective unconscious as that it is a dynamis which on the one hand directs, and on the other hand attracts, human ideals and praxis. I have also used the expression “constitutive dimension” as the anthropological counterpart for what in the history of human consciousness crystallizes or appears as an archetype. [30]

In their oral form, partly captured in the 1981 summary on the MID website, [31] the grounding of the lectures in reflections on Abhishiktananda’s writings becomes more evident, particularly in the way in which the term archetype is used in a dynamic sense, referring to the fundamental nature of being, consciousness and religion. 

Archétypes et Religions: Au-delà des archétypes qui jaillissent à l’origine même de la conscience humaine, il y a les pulsions fondamentales de l’être. Au-delà de n’importe quel archétype d’ordre religieux, il y a en nous cette pulsion absolument originelle qui nous réfère à l’être, a l’Absolu, cet élan spontané de notre nature pour se rejoindre elle-même, pourrait-on dire, et pour réaliser en leur plénitude les virtualités foncières qui la constituent.
Cet référence fondamentale a l’Être, autrement dit cet élan de nature vers soi, se manifeste au travers des archétypes. Ceux-ci sont le lien indispensable entre ce qui git inexprimé au fond même de l’être et le plan déjà périphérique du mental, auquel l’homme devient conscient de soi et donc capable de se porter spontanément vers le but inscrit à la fois dans sa nature et dans l’unicité de sa vocation personnelle. [32]

Abhishiktananda goes on to explain how the notion of archetype applies to the evolution of religions [33] and to the crisis of our own times in which the prophetic voice and the humanistic voice are raised, in the former case, against religious sclerosis in the form of structures and formulas, whereas the latter contests the very claim of religions to be a way by which human beings realize themselves. [34]

The Outcomes
Panikkar’s ideas in The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, in Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics, in The Intrareligious Dialogue, and related works, provide us with a thick description of what Panikkar means by “archetype” and what constitutes his overarching anthropological vision (the cosmotheandric vision).

Reading Panikkar alongside the works of Abhishiktananda provides an intuitive sense that Panikkar’s overarching philosophical scheme is a systematic working out of the thought experiments of Abhishiktananda. Panikkar, rooted in his own background as philosopher, scientist and theologian with deep roots in Western European culture, is attempting a multicultural reading of what Abhishiktananda discovered in India, and which Panikkar himself discovered there, to a great extent catalyzed by his deep friendship with Abhishiktananda. Thus, Panikkar’s attempt to elaborate the “monastic archetype”, which appears upon close examination to have been an experiment in finding a “universal archetype” for humanity, is a kind of portrait of the evolution of Abhishiktananda’s thought and experience of life as a sannyasin in India. As Panikkar continued to work through these ideas, it is clear that the real “universal archetype” towards which his thought progressed is that of the mystic, conceived as a human person engaged in a deep inquiry with reality as a whole. This notion of the mystic as a universal human archetype has roots even in the Christology that Abhishiktananda disclosed in the final months of his life as disclosed in the diary which Panikkar himself edited for publication as Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. [35] In the recent (2008) Italian translation of the Opera Omnia, Volume I, Mistica: Pienezza di Vita, we can see the shadow of the monastic archetype accompanying that of the mystic, which seems to have been Panikkar’s final description of the “universal human archetype”: “This explains why many mystics retire into solitude: not to isolate themselves from the world, but rather to enter into a more intimate and profound contact with it. Solitude is not isolation. The mystic needs neither propaganda nor advertising”. [36]

And with even greater resonance with my conclusions:

Mysticism posits the ultimate questions of which the human spirit is capable. . . . The mystical life represents the actual summit of the life of a human being, this being gifted with consciousness, both of oneself and of reality, even if that consciousness may be imperfect, and of course consciousness cannot be severed from the intellect. Therefore, a discussion of mysticism cannot lose itself among the so called mystical phenomena, but must take seriously a confrontation with the foundations of a human life and of all reality.[37]

But after all this, what became of the new monks? I am particularly interested in the portrayal of the background to the Holyoke Conference in Abbot Armand Veilleux’ essay on the MID website, and the personal notes of my good friend Edward J. Bednar, who was the principal “on site” organizer of the conference. The neat exclusion of any but the most cursory mention of the role of interreligious activists who were not formally members of a monastic community in Abbot Armand’s account illustrates one of the problems at the heart of the history of monastic developments since the Second Vatican Council. For Panikkar in Blessed Simplicity, these persons were to become the “new monks” who might carry out tasks in the monastic spirit that simply cannot be taken on by professed monks in extant monastic communities. Here Panikkar shows greater discretion than did Thomas Merton during his final talk at the Bangkok Monastic Congress, moments before his tragic death. In the film version of this talk, when Merton begins to extol Marxist poets and American hippies as the true monks of our times, one can see that many of the monastic participants begin to put their pens and pencils down on their desks. Monastic leadership, with considerable justification, wanted nothing to do with these ersatz “new” monks.

 I do not think that Panikkar, and not even Bednar and our associates at the time, had anything in common with what Merton was trying to say in Bangkok. [38] My impression is that Panikkar, thanks to his sojourns in India and his friendship with Abhishiktananda, was aware that a rigorous kind of spiritual practice was needed, and that would require recovery on the part of Christian monastics of the basic and irreducible values of monasticism in all cultures. Bednar’s connection with a deep commitment to spiritual practice was nurtured by his Byzantine Christian family background, his practice of Rinzai Zen at Yale, and spiritual direction under Father Henri Nouwen. Bednar’s experiences in the course of the 1970s demonstrated that serious spiritual practice, connected to monastic communities such as Saint Joseph’s Abbey, began to bear fruit thanks to the encouragement of people like Father Basil Pennington, who saw the value of lay monastic participation and created a program at Spencer to nurture precisely that kind of participation. In the context of living the monastic life, a layman like Bednar could also assist in organizing programs of monastic interreligious dialogue. By the Petersham Conference of 1977, Bednar was already aware of his role as a kind of interface expert between Catholic monastic institutions and the wider world of expanding spiritual practice communities throughout North America and beyond. By the Holyoke Conference, it was clear that monastic interreligious dialogue was relying heavily on the scholarly expertise and organizational skills of lay collaborators, almost all of whom lived their lives under the aegis of the mysterious attractive force of institutional monasticism, without becoming monks in terms of a vowed commitment. By the early 1980s, when Bednar became president of the Temple of Understanding in New York, a UN-related non-governmental organization (at the time, I was a board member, and was actively involved in these discussions and developments), it seemed that his personal trajectory, in response to the optimism of most of the leadership of monastic interreligious dialogue, was moving inexorably towards institutional forms that were not compatible with life within a monastery. This role, outside the monastery, needed an institutional container that was spiritually more coherent than an NGO, but more flexible that any extant religious order. The container needed a founder, but at least in the United States, the founder was not to be found.

Partly as a result of tensions between professed monastic members of the NABEWD and the lay advisors, in the course of the 1980s, the Board began to remove the “new monks” (i.e. lay board members) from their positions on the Board. This included people like Bednar and Wayne Teasdale, a Fordham doctoral candidate who was studying Abhishiktananda and Christian Vedanta. Abbot Armand glosses this move as a “return to the original purpose” of NABEWD. However, such ‘"returns" are usually the result of a moment of recognition in which the identity of a group feels threatened by the dynamism of an unexpectedly competent minority in its midst, something that has been observed in other institutional settings as well.

The long-range consequences of this “return to an original purpose” are only now becoming evident. During the late 80s and 90s, a number of very talented monastics promoted interreligious dialogue, held conferences, published major contributions to the field, [39] contributed articles to journals, and maintained a lively exchange with theologians internationally. However, in the absence, or at least in the scarcity, of bishops and abbots willing to institutionalize the role of lay “new monks” in the North American Catholic Church, gradually, the generation of monastic leaders has begun to age and pass on. The relative scarcity of monastic vocations and the prevalence of concerns about Catholic identity in Catholic institutions has not proven to be fertile ground for an increasing commitment to interreligious study and dialogue among North American monastics. Maintaining the inter-monastic exchanges with Asian monastics (Zen, Tibetan Buddhist, etc.) has run into organizational difficulties. Initiatives have taken the form of dialogues among Westerners who had taken up monastic life in a variety of religious traditions (e.g. the “Monks in the West” dialogues). It is true that some monastic interreligious leadership participated actively in the dialogues sponsored by the USCCB as well. However, one cannot help feeling that there is a loss of momentum, with the significant conferences still relying on academics, rather than monks or even “new monks” to provide substantial content.

Moreover, the political consequences of Islamic integralism, and Hindu and Buddhist attacks on Christians in South Asia have given rise to a kind of crisis mentality. For those outside a direct experience of interreligious dialogue, particularly the monastic dialogue of spiritual experience, it may seem that a cultural dialogue focused on works of charity, social justice and peacemaking is more urgently needed at this time. The institutional climate has changed to one in which a great deal of caution needs to be exercised, precisely because verbal polemics have in fact led to violence. A more irenic dialogue based on common spiritual values seems in some circles to be a kind of inadmissible capitulation. However, as we know from the general sociology of knowledge, failure to continue research in fundamental issues concomitantly leads to failure in developing practical, beneficial applications.

The crisis might have been averted if North American bishops and abbots had come up with a viable solution for the recognition of the “new monks” in more concrete ways than can be obtained through the institution of monastic oblates. True, some US dioceses have recognized the hermit vocation in accord with Canon 603, as have dioceses in many parts of the world. However, these hermits seem to have had little impact on interreligious dialogue; [40] they are good hermits, but perhaps not really “new monks” living the tension “towards” harmonious complexity in Panikkar’s vision.

The “new monks” connected with monastic interreligious dialogue in the ‘70s and ‘80s ended up scattered across the landscape in a variety of marginal careers: of those I know from the Holyoke Conference, one is a night watchman living in a rooming house in the Boston area; another, after service to the Parliament of World Religions, was an adjunct professor in various universities in the Chicago area before his untimely death; [41] another is married and teaching ecclesiology in the Detroit Catholic seminary; another, recognized for research on Tibetan Buddhist studies, was never able to obtain an academic position and is currently pastor of a small rural parish in southern Italy; another worked in the NGO sector for a number of years and is now retired in the New Haven area; another is a student at Yale Divinity School. Over the years, one of the discoveries that impresses me about these “new monks” is that their very marginality corresponds to the most fundamental discovery of inner experience: that material success, name, fame and outer format count for very little in comparison to the experience of divine, ineffable wholeness (one thinks of Saint John of the Cross in his final assignment, exiled from the governance of the Discalced Carmelites). In a very real sense, the world became our monastery, as it did even for Raimundo Panikkar, who concluded his academic career, international televised interviews and conferences (including the World Parliament of Religions in Barcelona) with a quiet life of reflection in a small village, Tavertet, in his native Catalunya. And here again, Panikkar was right: the inner experience is definitely prior to the subsequent development of career and other commitments, including vows. I think the data allow us to affirm that the “monastic archetype”, grounded and experienced as an opening to the ineffable divine milieu, is a dynamic force in at least some persons, and the very ordinariness [42] of the experience, the person, and the consequences seem to be a confirmation of authenticity. The implications of these discoveries for monasticism and for other forms of the religious life need to be taken seriously (and re-reading Merton’s Inner Experience only reinforces the cause for concern). In her recent and generally circumspect book on hermits in Central Italy, Cristina Saviozzi allows herself to recount a rather indiscrete observation by one of the women she interviewed:

A hermitess told me that she is almost certain that in a short time only this form [the eremitical] of the religious life would survive. While taking a walk with Fra Mario, I tried to raise the same concern, being curious to know his thoughts on the matter. Fra Mario listened to me and, bowing solemnly as he usually does before every great truth, with the passion of someone truly in love, responded in the affirmative, and supporting his response as follows: “Because it is a perennial form of religious life; it seeks the perennial. It does not fade away, it is not meant only for a particular time; it is given for all times, until the Coming of the Lord. The person who seeks God and wishes to bear witness to God among people with one’s life is always relevant. It is not a charism that passes away the way the times change. This is forever. This desire for God, to seek God and to stay with God is deep in human nature. It is also a kind of proof - that we come to Him- otherwise our hearts would only be filled with the things of this world. It is what Saint Thomas Aquinas said: ‘Man comes forth from God and returns to God’. This is the itinerary of a human life. [43]

What more could be said, except to observe that a few of these Italian hermits are engaged in interreligious dialogue and the reconciliation of people who had explored non-Christian religions and who now wish to return to the practice of Catholicism in depth? [44] Here we find the convergence between the “new monk” understood as a human being with a deep and persuasive experience of transcendence, the energetic expert capable of integrating a mission with the foundational inner experience, and an explicit recognition on the part of Church authorities that such persons have a rightful place- the eremitical life- in the mandala of contemporary Catholicism.

Returning to the theme of monastic interreligious dialogue, we might wish to think of the monastics as existential “bearers of truth”. In practice, their role is an ongoing source of tension, which may, however, spin off “new monks” and new directions. The bearers of truth, as I choose to call them in response to a series of conversations with Prof. Ilaria Morali, are at the interface between dialogue and monasticism, where praxis meets the person, where the archetype becomes visible and active. This is precisely why there are going to be tensions, more or less resolvable in “harmonious complexity” through the wisdom of superiors skilled in discerning “the signs of the times.”  

The interreligious implications of Panikkar’s search for a universal archetype (which we must understand as something dynamic, something going on in the minds and hearts of real persons undergoing the transformations that inquiry itself propels) require us to take up the identity of the “bearers of truth” - i.e. the nature and character of the persons of religious conviction who sooner or later find themselves at the “table” of interreligious dialogue. As mystics in the Panikkarian sense, many of the tensions around the monk as acosmic renouncer, as practitioner of “blessed simplicity” are resolved into integration, into “harmonious complexity”. Nevertheless, to become credible “bearers of truth” the person of dialogue needs to have explored in considerable depth the same terrain of the “world renouncer” that the monk must explore. In fact, the world-striding prophet of interreligious harmony is a kind of modern exemplification of the ancient Indian figure of the cakravartin: the emperor who conquers the wheel of the world in all directions; however, as the Buddhist myth articulates this notion in the light of the Buddha’s own life story, the cakravartin has the same karmic profile as the world renouncer who, attaining enlightenment, becomes a world teacher, a turner of the spiritual wheel of the Dharma in order to bring liberation to all sentient beings. Panikkar’s genius shines forth in his efforts to bring the voice of modernity into this ancient dialectic of the world-conqueror/world-renouncer, because he was himself in dialogue with many friends and colleagues, aware of the crisis of that dialectic in the religions of our times.  

“Bearers of Truth” is a phrase that reflects my own concerns about the future of interreligious dialogue. On the one hand we have people who have made what they call “interfaith” as a sort of religion in which everyone conveniently—all too conveniently—is in agreement, and no one says anything politically incorrect, or rather, if someone says something inappropriate or in poor taste, it is just ignored. One pretends it didn’t happen, or was not the result of a bad intention on the part of the perpetrator. On the other hand we have people obsessed with the politics of identity, with the “ideal type” being the fundamentalist who believes anything as long as it comes from an authoritative source, no matter how irrelevant to the present situation or disconnected from the context in which the source was written. These two religious pathologies, often allied to other aberrations, that intensify the crisis of dialogue at the present time. It is therefore no surprise to find a certain caution in recent monastic interreligious dialogue.

The question continues to revolve around the kind of person who is going to be capable of carrying out the task of interreligious dialogue as envisioned by Cardinal Pignedoli and a great cloud of monastic witnesses over the past sixty years? We are at a turning point which, precisely because it is a place of contradiction and unpredictable change, does not easily allow a complete view of what is required. The bearer of truth is—elusively—a person capable of encompassing and even consecrating life’s ample stretches of uncertainty, ambiguity, unanswered questions, unresolved tensions, and temptations to mediocrity to the task of building bridges with few resources. Institutional religions may prefer to field teams of reliable, known, proven ‘experts’ who can articulate “truths” if not persuasively at least precisely, to engage in dialogue with “others” (who may in fact be of the same subjective profile as “repeaters of truths” rather than “bearers of truth”). That strategy eliminates authentic witness, the very thing that truth requires of dialogue partners, if what is witnessed and “borne” is to be welcomed by dialogue partners as truth, as credible, as something to which a person might reasonably assent. What violence all this may do to the “dialogue of religious experience”—if the appointed bearers of truth are lacking in deep, enduring inner experience corresponding to the “truth(s)” which they are called to articulate in a dialogue setting. What we have seen in Panikkar’s trajectory across the archetypes is a search for a universal archetype that might take flesh in persons whose inner experience has matured towards a truly radical openness, an openness that is radical because it is relationally accessible to all others; this would be the true mystic, the person capable of listening with the ears of the heart.

Raimondo Panikkar was concerned to present the evolving manifestation of the monastic archetype in our times, aware of the ideals that seem persuasive and of the sociological (or sociomorphological) pressures that alter the configuration of the ideal in practice. For our purposes, the present urgency of interreligious dialogue contributes to the sociomorphic pressure on the monastic archetype. On the one hand, the search for identity and authenticity within monastic life contribute to the emergence of credible persons whose orientation is profoundly spiritual. Such persons, one might reason, should be ideal contributors to interreligious dialogue, where it is clear that the “bearers of truth” should be recognizable existentially as persons shaped by, transformed by the truths they live. On the other hand, there is the tension between what might be an ideal trajectory of formation for a monk, and what might be the kind of background that favors the development of skills and personal qualities necessary for effective interreligious dialogue. That the monastic path has a great deal to offer to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, recent history can abundantly confirm. If even in rural Tuscany a diocesan hermit convenes interreligious dialogue meetings, [45] we can see that the great examples of Abhishiktananda, Merton, Monchanin, Bede Griffiths, Enomiya Lasalle, and so many others of that generation have not come to an end. At the same time, from the perspective of institutional interreligious dialogue, it seems clear to me that something other than monastic formation is needed to insure that the dialogue does not fall into the trap of becoming a “thing unto itself” with no sense of accountability or of service to the communities of faith from which the protagonists in dialogue have come to the various settings in which dialogue takes place.

 For effective and credible interreligious dialogue to occur, persons of faith need a much deeper experience of faith, along the lines of what monastic profession is meant to nurture. Moreover, such persons need an exposure to the way religions are actually lived in the world, with all their values, ideals and defects, so as to bring to the table of dialogue a certain concreteness and realism. The cultivation of that kind of experience requires study, travel, internships and a many years of “participant observer” conversation - all of which tends to be at the opposite pole of what monastic formation normally requires in terms of renunciation, silence and solitude. In a certain sense, applying Panikkar’s ideas on the monastic archetype to the requirements of interreligious dialogue tends to heighten the tensions that his book illustrated in the figure of the “new monk”.

This leaves me with a final reflection on what Raimondo Panikkar has to say to those who are undertaking interreligious dialogue at this particular moment in history (because dialogue changes and will change over time; it is contingent on language and context, and world events. . . . ); particularly since I am also living in a small rural village far away from those settings, NGOs and the like, in which multicultural and interreligious debates are raging. I like to think that the bearers of truth are people who know exactly what Colle Croce and Tavertet really are, even before they are identified as “representing” something, a choice, a symbol of distance, of silence, of standing down and standing outside for a while. They are quiet places with their own human, divine and terrestrial/sidereal dynamics. Their apparent simplicity masks a great complexity that requires an intuitive grasp of interdependence, somewhat detached from verbalization. Not all that goes on is easy to verbalize or rationalize; one must observe from a place of inner silence. This is good training for the round table of dialogue, but there is more. To survive in a Colle Croce or a Tavertet requires that the bearer of truth be True, be a satyagraha, be credible, be a whole person. Our old stone houses are certainly not of glass, but in the sight of our neighbors, our every gesture and word and glance bespeaks what we are and are not, what our substance is, what truth we truly live. It is easier to live in the anonymity of the city or in the glow of academic prominence than to live in a rural village where no pretensions of any kind will win favor. You are who you are, or you are nothing, or less. The village life as embraced by Gandhi is indeed an experiment in truth, to the extent that a human being can live exposed before others who may not value the traits and virtues that he or she thinks ought to be valued. As such, one needs to attend to the garden of personal qualities that do gain social capital in such a setting, and in so doing, one improves greatly. Then come back to the round table, to the NGO, to the lecture hall, and see if this improvement has an effect, qualitative or otherwise, on what one does there.

Conclusions and Further Research
What I have called a crisis in the dialectic of religions relates directly to the experiences of the three interlocutors that met at Holyoke in 1980: the new monks who brought their energy and expertise along with strong convictions about inner experience; Panikkar on his own hermeneutical trajectory; and monastic interreligious dialogue with its own international/institutional agenda. The crisis, to sum it up in a few words, is basically the lived incompatibility between carrying out the task of institutional interreligious dialogue while at the same time maintaining the integrity of monastic institutions, seen as “privileged environments” in which the inner experience is respected, nurtured and handed on, almost like a candle flame on a windy night. It is also a crisis of the cursus honorum of humanistic disciplines in our time.

It is interesting to highlight some differences between the North American and the European situations. In Europe, monastic exchanges sponsored by DIM continue thanks to the efforts of both Asian-born and European convert Buddhists and Hindus. At the same time, most significantly, the emergence of the diocesan eremitical life as an alternative to institutionalized religious life has revitalized monasticism, giving the “new monks” a place on which to stand. Remarkably, the support for this option has been sustained by many diocesan bishops (especially in Central Italy) and by the motherhouse of the Camaldolese Benedictines and by new monastic communities such as that founded by pioneer ecumenist Don Divo Barsotti and the distinguished Bolognese theologian Giuseppe Dossetti.

Bishops began to find real advantages in welcoming hermits into their dioceses in order to promote a certain kind of ministry of prayer and listening for persons who had become alienated from parishes and the “official” bureaucratic Church structure. Moreover, many Italian dioceses are burdened with abandoned properties in rural areas that are falling into ruin. These sites were at one time small monasteries or hermitages; it was therefore comparatively easy for bishops to appoint a hermit to care for these sites, uniting a spiritual presence with a labor force willing to restore and rebuild places of historical and cultural significance. In my view, this new development is the most credible outcome to all the reflection on monasticism, the archetype and the cosmotheandric vision that Panikkar so brilliantly elaborated. It is no surprise that his works are being published systematically by Jaca Book in Milan, and that many of the conferences and interviews of his final years were given in Italian, where the “new monks” include many lay people whose lives have been deeply influenced by the contemplative practices of East and West. The Italians seem to have “received” Panikkar’s ideas congenially, and in some cases implemented them concretely.

A great deal more might be said by way of interpreting the steps that led up to the Holyoke Conference in 1980. The Conference may have been for many persons a “watershed” in their involvement with monastic interreligious dialogue, but it is also true that some of the dynamic forces at work before and during the conference were already on their own trajectory. Panikkar’s proposals may have been only tangentially or catalytically relevant to other interactions that have left their traces to the present day. That is to say: Panikkar was working with a certain body of material, seeking to interpret the dynamic forces of his times. The reflections on monasticism presented at Holyoke represent his own personal inquiry and his ongoing effort at interpreting the experience of Abhishiktananda in India. He continued to develop these ideas in subsequent writings and seems in the end to have followed the threads all the way to his final version of the book on mysticism, in which the archetype of the mystic converges with that of the monk. The convergence occurs because Panikkar was always searching for a dynamic definition of the archetype, which he conceived of as a driving force of consciousness. He was also determined to find a “universal” archetype, one that might energize a recovery of the full depth and breadth of the human person, in contradistinction to the tendencies of modernity, which he saw as perilously reductive. In the process of disclosing the features of the universal archetype, Panikkar contributed to the development of a theory of interreligious dialogue and also stimulated the parallel world of monastic renewal. In the end, it is the task of the reader to “receive” Panikkar’s presentation of the universal archetype within the framework of one’s own life and calling. A universal archetype, I repeat, is a driving force in consciousness, and is not limited to a visible manifestation or form. Thus monasticism as a calling, and way of life, retains its integrity as a form within human history, without losing its unique catalytic role in shaping the evolution of human consciousness. In fact, by retaining its formal features, monasticism(s) in all cultures tend to remind human beings of those deeper aspects of the human adventure that some cultures have chosen to overlook. In providing a “living” and visible reminder, the monasticism(s) of the world introduce a disquieting element into the tendency to reduce the human to a merely numerical, material, and fabricated silhouette in a consumerist society.


[All websites were active when accessed on July 19, 2011]

[1] MID Bulletin 71, Sept. 2003. “The Prehistory of Interreligious Dialogue.”
[2] Personal files, Edward J. Bednar
[3] James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told Through His Letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1995), p. 216
[4] MID website, Bulletin 74, April 2005.
[5] MID Bulletin 71, Sept. 2003.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Blessed Simplicity (New York: Seabury, 1982), Introduction, p. 3
[8] See Stuart, op. cit., pp. 290-304
[9] Ascent to the Depth of the Heart (Delhi: ISPCK, 1998)
[10] Beata Semplicità (2007), pp. 253-260, a text that merits further study in the light of recent monastic experiments.
[11] See the reports on the Holyoke Conference on the MID website, which covers the main points in the lectures as delivered orally. MID Bulletin 10, February, 1981).
[12] See:
www.newmonasticism.org; www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com;  Relevant Magazine; www.thesimpleway.org;  and other sites and articles on evangelical Christian experiments in "new monasticism"
[13] E.g. on the MID website:
http://monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=92 [15] Milan: Jaca Book, 2010.
[16] Blessed Simplicity, p. 7, Italics mine.
[17] Ibid., pp. 8-9
[18] Ibid., , pp 6-9
[19] Ibid. p. 5-6
[20] Gerhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform in the Age of the Fathers, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1959.
[21] John W. O’Malley, “Reform, Historical Consciousness and Vatican II’s Aggionamento,” Theological Studies 32 (1971), pp. 573–601
[22] Blessed Simplicity, p. 7-8.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid, p. 8.
[25] Ibid.
[26] cf. Saviozzi, op. cit. p. 123; Blessed Simplicity, p. 11, italics mine.
[27] Blessed Simplicity, p. 11
[28] Stuart, op. cit., p. 62: A letter to a friend in Paris, 1953.
[29] Blessed Simplicity, p. 14
[30] Ibid. p. 25; cf. Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics.
[31] MID Bulletin (February 1981), “East-West Symposium : Mysticism of Integration”
[32] Interiorité et Révélation (1982), p. 177
[33] Ibid., pp. 177-8.
[34] Ibid., p. 179.
[35] ISPCK, 1986; Panikkar's Introduction dated 1982.
[36] Mistica, Pienezza di Vita, p. 186; Cf. J. Stuart, Abhishiktananda/ Letters, p. 280.
[37] Ibid. p. 151, my translation.
[38] The same could be said of other laymen present at the Holyoke meeting: Robert Fastiggi, Wayne Teasdale, Alan Harrison, and the author of this essay.
[39] The two Gethsemane volumes from 1998 and 2008 are a case in point, for which see: Robert A. Jonas' bibliography at
[40] With some exceptions, such as the Sky Farm Hermitage in Sonoma, California.
[41] Before his death, he was admitted to diocesan monastic consecration by Cardinal Francis George.
[42] See Merton: The Inner Experience, "The awakening of the inner self" p. 9.
[43] Saviozzi, op. cit. p. 123; my translation.
[44] Saviozzi, op. cit., pp. 33; 48-49; 111.
[45] See: Cristina Saviozzi, op. cit., p. 33


Abhishiktānanda (Henri Le Saux, O.S.B.). Prayer. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1973.

Abhishiktānanda (Henri Le Saux, O.S.B.). Intériorité et révélation: Essais théologiques. Editions Presence, Sisteron, 1982.

Abhishiktānanda (Henri Le Saux, O.S.B.). Saccidānanda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience. ISPCK, Delhi, 1997.

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Raimon Panikkar. La sfida di scoprirsi monaco. Traduzione di Adria Augusti Chimenti.  Assisi, Cittadella Editrice, 1991.

Raimundo Panikkar. The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. Completely Revised and Enlarged Edition. Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 1981.

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Cristina Saviozzi. Come gufi nella notte: Storie di eremiti del nostro tempo. Milano, Edizioni San Paolo, 2010.

William Skudlarek, O.S.B., General Editor. The Continuing Quest for God: Monastic Spirituality in Tradition and Transition. Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1982.

James Stuart. Swami Abhishiktananda: His life told through his letters. Delhi, ISPCK, 1995.

Francis V. Tiso, editor. The Sign Beyond All Signs: Christian Monasticism in Dialogue with India. Bangalore, Asirvanam Benedictine Monastery, 1997.


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