Restless Spirit: A Visit to Ananda Ashram, A Monastic Community of Camaldolese Women

My mother likes to say that I have a restless spirit. When she talks to friends and family she uses this phrase to justify the many places I’ve lived, traveled to, the romantic relationships I’ve had. It’s a phrase that both adequately describes me and irks me. The sense of nomadic existence, the unease at staying in one place both literally and metaphysically is something that I think she is proud of and a little ashamed of and by extension so am I. 
 
We walked the long path to Ananda Ashram. I had been told that it was much like the ashram we were staying but had “more flowers”. As we got closer I noticed the flowers. Fuchsia and gold bougainvillea and bird of paradise. A small bamboo forest off to the side. Creeping vines. It certainly looked different. “A woman’s touch”, I thought feeling a little guilty for making the gendered assumption that this place was full of flowers because clearly a woman decided to plant these. 
 
Ananda Ashram2We waited for Sister Shirley for a few minutes and when she finally arrived I understood what made this the “women’s ashram”. Her presence, her energy filled the space and it was a balm. Soothing and calm she greeted us with a gentle smile, her white clothing and pink sash floating in the wind. She explained the history of the ashram and the founding sister’s friendship with Father Bede (founder of the ashram where we were staying). She told us about the recycling of the cow dung to make methane for cooking, she described the hermitage where travelers from all over could come and stay. All the while I felt like I was floating in the ocean, embraced in a sea of calm waters. 
 
Someone in our group asked what brought her to the woman’s ashram and if she stayed all year. Sister Shirley then described her restless spirit. She talked about how she doesn’t like staying in any one place for very long. She talked about feeling called to pray and worship and discover the greater world and how because she’s spent so much time outside of India, she never really feels truly “Indian”. My ears heard her story. My heart, couched in the cotton of her presence leapt and I thought, “Kindred restless spirit. I see you.”
 
Ananda Ashram1Our group ended our time at the ashram. We thanked Sister Shirley, took a few pictures, put our shoes back on after visiting the small upper room chapel and started to make our way back down the path to our own ashram. I stayed behind. With tears in my eyes I thanked Sister Shirley and told her about my pride and shame for my restless spirit. I told her about how I feel sometimes outside of what my family considers normal and how meaningful it was to hear her story about never feeling truly Indian. I told her I sometimes never really truly feel anything because of this restlessness. She took my hand and with a tear in her own eye she thanked me. In this space, in her presence, in the woman’s ashram my spirit was no longer restless. It just was. 
- Jennifer Mahru

Into Silence

Saccidananda   — A Christian Ashram

25 January 2014Saccidananda Ashram 3

We traveled today from Bangalore to Thannirpalli in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and were met at the airport in nearby Tirichirapalli by Michael, a retired sociologist from Dorset, England, who spends three months of every year at the ashram in prayer and community service.

The word “saccidananda” refers to the three-fold Hindu concept of “being, consciousness, and bliss,” the very words used by Swami Atmapriyananda only a week ago when he spoke with us about the foundational beliefs of Hinduism at Vivekenanda University in Kolkata.

Founded in 1950, Saccidananda Ashram is dedicated to the Holy Trinity with a mission “to be a place of meeting for Hindus and Christians and people of all religions or none, who are genuinely seeking God.”

Saccidananda Ashram 1We will spend, as a class, the next three days in silence, prayer, and service with the six monks of this community and another 40 or so pilgrims currently visiting the ashram.

This PSR Immersion Learning Course has shown us in many ways how inter-religious dialogue and productive interaction between people from various traditions has shaped — and continues to shape — this holy place known as India.

We will provide updates for this blog in the weeks ahead as we absorb — and realize with deeper understanding — all that we have learned and experienced here.

As we enter into this graced time of silence at this ashram, we remain grateful for the many people we have met here in India.  We are also thankful for the many people who support the work of PSR in different ways.  Thank you!

Saccidananda Ashram 2Please continue to keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we keep you in ours.

Stay tuned!

Bernie

We thank You for the hands…

we thank You for the hands…

I didn’t want to go.  I wasn’t feeling well.  I was tired.  A nap
sounded really good.  And I heard a little voice saying, “Go Ashley,
you need to go.”  We had been hearing about this cashew plant in
Mangalore from our hosts all week.  Cashews are a favorite nut in
India, and Achal Cashews is a source of pride for the community.  I
pushed down my arrogance and my Western ideas about what I thought was
of value to see and hopped on the bus.

We arrived and were shown around the plant.  A sweet nutty smell was
in the air, loud machinery echoed through the rooms.  95% of the
employees are women.   They have benefits, including health care and
childcare on site.  There are dozens of women silently working.  I
could not do this meticulous, grinding work.  I am aware of my
entitlement and privledge again, and I am humbled.

I lag behind the group, smile, and say hello to three of the women
sorting the nuts.  They giggle and smile back.  “I see you; I am
bearing witness to your work,” I think.  A student shared that this
gives new meaning to the familiar words we often pray, “We thank you
for the hands that grew this food, and for the hands that prepared
it.”

We thank you for the hands that washed these nuts, cracked them open,
sorted them, hauled them, roasted them, prepared them, and packaged
them.

At the end of the tour I buy a bag of cashews and a box of cashew
sweets, and I notice that I am paying more than the daily wage.  We
get back on the bus to go visit a temple, munching on cashews.

- Ashley

Men Go Here, Women Go There

Men Go Here, Women Go There: Worship Experience at Seyyid Madani Darga Ullal

As we walk up to the Mosque, it is busy with men and women coming and going.  Upon making our way to the entrance of the building, we remove our shoes, and step inside the busy place of worship.  We are ushered to a room off to the side where we are fed caramels, plantains, dates, and told about the history of the Mosque we are all about to enter.  I am feeling anxious and excited to see this Mosque, as I have only ever heard about them, but have never been inside one.

After our Mosque orientation, we are invited to visit the shrine.  As we exit the room off to the side to the main part of the building, I hear someone say, “women go that way,” pointing down the vast gathering area to an indeterminate direction.  My immediate inner reaction to hearing this is, “here we go again.”  Often in the various airports we have traveled in and out of on this pilgrimage, men and women have been separated in the airport security lines for being hand searched.  I am not a fan of airport security in the first place because who I am does not match my identification.  And, even though I move easily through the world passing unanimously as male, I still find it hard to separate myself from those 32 years where I was made to go in the line that matched my identification.

As the women in our group make their way past me, I turn to the entrance of the shrine, step up to the entrance where the attendant is at, and wonder if he will figure me out and turn me away because I am not like the other men here to worship. Shame can feel terrible.  Shame feels more terrible when I am turned away from being part of something I really love, like experiencing God in new ways.  But, there is no shame.  The attendant looks me in the eyes, smiles, and says, “right in here, sir.”

I enter into where the shrine is.  The room is exquisite, with a large shrine located in the center.  To the side of the shrine stand two Imams giving blessings.  I see Bernie with an Imam holding a blue sash to Bernie’s forehead for a blessing, and decide I would like to be blessed too.  As I am waiting in a short line for a blessing, it dawns on me that I have not seen any of the women from our group yet.  I wonder if perhaps they have a separate shrine to worship at.  And, if they do, I hope it is as ornate as the one the men have. It is now my turn to be blessed, and again feel the anticipation of a possible gender nightmare at hand as I step up to the Imam.  The Imam looks me in the eyes, and places the blue sash to my forehead, and offers a blessing.  No questions.  No confused looks.  Just blessings.

We finally see the women from the group, and learn that they were not allowed in the shrine room where the men were worshipping.  And, they did not have a separate shrine to worship.  Instead, they were only allowed to watch the men be blessed from behind a dark glass window.  I could not help but feel that part of me took that repressive journey with the women.  But, I didn’t.

Finally, I should feel a large sense of satisfaction and pride for being seen for who I really I am.  And, a large part of me wants to feel that way. But, there is a small and burning piece of me that is beginning to understand the privilege that comes along with fully living life the way I feel most comfortable.  This privilege is something I struggle with finding acceptance around.  I know what it feels like to be turned away from something because of my gender.  And, now I know what it feels like to be accepted because of my gender.  I hope someday there is no wall that divides people.

Eli’jah Carroll

 

Running with dogs

21 January 2014

After a full week of not running (due to the long flights from San Francisco to India, an 8-hour layover at the Dubai airport, and the impossibility of running in our Kolkata neighborhood due to the intense air pollution and dangerous traffic), I had the opportunity – finally! – to take a run this morning at sunrise in our Mangalore neighborhood.  (We are staying at Karnataka Theological College which lies in the beautiful, tropical neighborhood of Balmatta.)

As soon as I left the seminary’s front gate I noticed something that I never saw in Kolkata: women — on their own — walking alone and in pairs, getting exercise.  Even more men were jogging or walking, and a cricket game played by teenage boys was just beginning on the local athletic field as I ran by.

As I continued my run I came to a narrow and windy lane that was shaded with large, leafy trees (which had been few and far between in Kolkata). In addition, there were hundreds of flowering bushes that gently scented the air with their tropical fragrances.

running with dogsNot surprisingly, I soon came across an Indian pariah dog (they are a popular breed here in India) and he looked up at me curiously as I ran by.  Soon, though, he was running by my side and then, quite suddenly, he was gone.

About a half mile later he was back to join me on the run – only this time he had two canine friends with him: both pariah dogs as well with their tan-colored coats and gentle faces.

Whereas the dogs I saw in Kolkata were emaciated and many covered with sores, these Mangalore pariah dogs were healthy-looking and fit: they helped me to maintain a decent running pace.

The dogs ran with me for only a short distance but they were an early sign to me that Mangalore was quite a different place than Kolkata.

Good companions for my first run in India, my canine friends also extended to me a nice, early morning welcome on this next stop on our Indian pilgrimage.

Bernie

Sights and reflections

Infant Jesus, our mode of transportation in Mangalore
Infant Jesus, our mode of transportation in Mangalore

20140119_112841

India…it’s complicated…

Arms crossed…
Head bowed…
Spirit’s touch.

The potentiality of divinity…
Unity for all existence…
Touching Spirit.

Heart opened…
A Child’s forehead kissing stone…
A mother’s guiding hand…
A crone’s blessing…
Spirit touching.

Grasping ritual…
Dazed in color…
Commerce…
Discounted…
Bewilderment…
Touched by Spirit.

You must remember
We are in India, Ma’m…

 Mariah   

20140119_153042    hmmm       20140120_140917   20140119_183320


Car ride back to campus

St Aloysius College

Today, among other things, we visited St. Aloysius College in Mangalore.  It was built in 1882 and houses a stunningly beautiful chapel filled with paintings by Brother Antonio Moscheni.  I’ve never been to the Sistine Chapel but I imagine one feels the same awe stepping into it.   Every wall, each part of the ceiling, every column is covered and each painting had a kind of Indian flare.

The frescoes on the walls tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ – his birth, death and resurrection, the lives he touched, the miracles he preformed, the stories he told.  In addition there are paintings on canvas of the apostles and, across the ceiling, the life of St. Aloysius.

The eldest son of a wealthy family, he handed his privilege and his sword over to his younger brother so that could lead a religious life.  While he was studying in Rome, plague broke out and he joined a group of volunteers to care for the sick.  Becoming ill himself, he died at the young age of 23.   The guide book states:  “This young man who gave his life in the service of others is given as a model to the 14,000 young people studying on this campus.   He had wealth, power and influence.  But he gave them up in order to serve others, especially the most needy.  Our students are asked to imbibe his spirit of service.”

We weren’t permitted to take pictures but here are a few pictures of the postcards purchased as we left:
- 01/21   Mariah, participant

St. Aloysius College 4  St. Aloysius College 3  St. Aloysius College 2  St. Aloysius College 1

 

Jain temple in Moodabidri

Visit with Charukeerti Panditacharyavarya Swamiji 1Visit with Charukeerti Panditacharyavarya Swamiji

Visit with Charukeerti Panditacharyavarya Swamiji 3Visit with Charukeerti Panditacharyavarya Swamiji 2   Visit with Charukeerti Panditacharyavarya Swamiji 4   Visit with Charukeerti Panditacharyavarya Swamiji 5         Jain Temple

Thoughts after our visit with the Jain Swamiji:

All this inclusion and exclusion – at the core it is the primal need for food, clothing and shelter. The dread of not having enough. And especially in the U.S., in a culture so invested in individuality, we have lost our trust in the community to care for us. That is why a trip like this can bond people so deeply. We return to the community, the group that circles the wagons and takes care of its own. We are sharing everything, freely and with great generosity. The motivation is care of each other in this foreign land. Joselito gets bites on his arm. We all learn of it very quickly and we immediately all search among our luggage to see who has the ointment that will soothe and cure. One place we visit brings up deep emotions for one if us. We all notice, and somehow just the right person responds, goes to be with that one to listen and care. We pass the word among us later that that one is now feeling better and maybe at the next meal someone offers a cookie, someone else again offers a silent hug. We care for each other. We are acutely aware of each others health, emotions and needs for food, clothing, shelter and care.

This is the love that rests at the core of all our religions – the Good News that we are loved and cared for. The teaching is there in all faiths: love one another as you love yourself.

Love and blessings to all at PSR from all of us here in Mangalore.
– Michael, participant

Morning Chapel Service, Karnataka Theological College

The immersion cohort fully participated in the  morning’s chapel service on 21 January, sharing their words of gratitude and reflection with the faculty and students at Karnataka Theological College.

Here is a snip of the closing song from morning worship. This song was arranged by the Director of the KTC Program Centre, Rev. Dr. Hannibal Cabral.

 

A Reading from The Letter of Paul to the Colossians 1: 1-6:

I, Paul, am writing this letter. I am an apostle of Christ Jesus just as God planned. Our brother Timothy joins me in writing. We are sending this letter to you, our brothers and sisters in Colosse.

You belong to Christ. You are holy and faithful. May God our Father give you grace and peace. We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.

We thank him because we have heard about your faith in Christ Jesus. We have also heard that you love all of God’s people. Your faith and love are based on the hope you have. What you hope for is stored up for you in heaven. You have already heard about it. You were told about it when the message of truth was given to you. I’m talking about the good news that has come to you.

All over the world the good news is bearing fruit and growing. It has been doing that among you since the day you heard it. That is when you understood God’s grace in all its truth. (Colossians 1:1-6 NIRV)

This is the Word of the Lord.
___________________________________________

And, here are the words of the PSR participants…

Bernie preaching on 21st to Karnataka Theological College (KTC) faculty and students during morning serviceBernie Schlager

Good morning! Namaste! The Lord be with you!I bring you greetings in faith from the community of faith at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, where — since 1866 — the Gospel has been preached and where students have been formed to spread the Good News — in its many forms and traditions — in California, throughout the United States, and, indeed around the world.

Last evening you welcomed us to your home here in Mangalore with the gift of your hospitality which included a beautiful red rose — one for each of us.  We were so touched by that act     of kindness and so deeply grateful for your welcome.  We hope to learn from you and with you in the days to come.

The thirteen of us here with you this week are on a pilgrimage of faith.  As with all pilgrims (whether Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jain), we have felt called to journey to this holy land of India because we know that — for many, many generations — this has been a land of seekers, prophets, pilgrims, gurus, and sages — women and men who have sought — and, indeed, still seek — to learn more about our shared human quest to understand the Divine in our lives.  For us who are Christians, this quest involves following Jesus Christ in our lives and understanding how we might bring his Gospel message to all people.

We who have journeyed from California to Kolkata, to Mangalore, to the ashram of Father Bede Griffiths, and to Bangalore hope to learn how our sisters and brothers in faith live out their witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

And we seek to learn:
• from those who are Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Muslim;
• from those who practice the indigenous religions of their ancestors
• and from Christians in India who have crafted Indian theologies as they live in Christian community and preach the Gospel on this beautiful and complex subcontinent.

We seek to see the light of Christ, the love of God, the spark of the Divine in everyone we meet during this month of January.

And, so, we bring with us greetings in faith and thank you for being Christ here in south India.

Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for you here at Karnataka Theological College: for your witness that there is the light of the Divine in all persons and that we are all called to make that light shine everywhere and always.  Amen.

A few of our seminarians will now share with you some brief reflections on their own pilgrimages, thus far, in this holy land of India.

Worship with seminarians at Karnataka Theological College 3Eli’jah Carroll

A piece of scripture Bernie just read was, “and truly comprehended the grace of God.” I am a second year Master’s of Divinity student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA– a place where I was called to study because I felt the grace of God– saw the grace of God– I comprehended the grace of God– saw the gospel alive– breathing. Going to school– learning about God– God’s people– all the ways in which God can be experienced– I thought “YES! I am fully comprehending God!” I am learning different– being here– having been in Kolkata where I experienced God’s grace in new ways– Through car horns blazing, the sound of morning prayer at 5am, the orphans at Mother Teresa’s Orphanage, the ex-sex workers making bags and t-shirts at Freeset– a company that aims to give sex workers alternative ways of earning a living,  I experienced God’s grace through Hindu wisdom, the smell of people doing their best to celebrate life– to live. Being in India this past week– I experienced God’s grace in ways that are so precious and profound– I’ve seen God in completely new ways. My view of God has expanded. My feeling about God’s grace? Is it really possible to comprehend God’s grace?

God’s grace is so much bigger than I can possibly imagine. It’s bigger than words– bigger than people– bigger than any action. The more I experience God’s grace– in new ways– in new places– through new experiences– the more I realize how incomprehensible God’s grace truly is. God’s grace is truly a miracle

Worship with seminarians at Karnataka Theological College 4Participant Eric McEuen unfortunately had a cold that took his voice, so his words were read by classmate Lewis Eggleston

Greetings. I came here to learn, and I am so grateful to be here – in India; at KTC. I had heard that people in India had tremendous heart. I have felt such welcome, hospitality and kindness since arriving, I believe this is so true.I had heard that India also wrestles with some serious social problems. And on the streets of Kolkata, I have seen many people in need of simple things like food and water.

I had heard of the great faith of Christians in India. And, again in Kolkata, I saw a place called Freeset created to give new opportunities to women caught in the sex trade. I saw Mother Teresa’s group, the Missionaries of Charity, and some of the work they do to bring hope to the very poor and to orphans. And I saw a hospice for people with HIV and AIDS, bringing humanity and kindness to people with this virus – who are sometimes pushed away out of fear.

Finally, I heard a sermon about social exclusion and how harmful it is – saying Christian life is all about finding those who are excluded by society and bringing them back into fellowship.

I have just arrived at KTC. But by your kindness and the light in your eyes, I know that each one of you – God willing – will also do great things.

Michael preaching at KTCMichael Deborah Haven

It is such an honor to be here with you this morning. From our reading this morning, verse 6: This message has been bearing fruit and growing among you since the day you heard and truly understood God’s grace, in the same way that it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world. In my church in Alameda,California, every Sunday we begin worship by saying: “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Our intention when we say that, our hope, is that people visiting with us for the first time will feel the wonderful welcome and love of God. When I first visited that church this saying made me feel like I had come home. I stayed, and became a member of that church. Now they are supporting me as I study to become a minister. It is a warm and welcoming church.

But since we have been here in India – Kolkata and now Mangalore – we are understanding God’s grace in a much deeper Spencer. We have been welcomed here – welcomed with open arms, good food, and friendship.

I see God’s grace in every smile here today. I see God in your eyes. And your welcome of us will bear fruit and grow. Because of you, because of the way you show us the grace of God, we will come to understand God’s love in a very personal way. We will carry your love with us back to our home churches.

Because of you, we have heard and truly understand God’s grace.

Thank you and may God bless you in your work.

sheila preachingSheila Thomas

My name is Sheila Thomas and I am a third year Masters of Divinity student at PSR graduating in May.I have wanted to visit India for a long time.  In fact, I had considered coming several years ago with a friend and her mother who were traveling to Delhi.  However, that trip did not work out.

My interest in coming to India was affirmed when I learned that two black ministers from the U.S. had visited here and had been transformed by their experiences.  One, Howard Thurman, traveled here almost 80 years ago for four months from 1935 to 1936.  The other, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is being celebrated in the U.S. as I speak for his contributions to transforming the lives of not only Black Americans but all Americans, followed his mentor Howard Thurman to India thirty years later.

Both Thurman and King were followers of Jesus and Jesus’ life served as a model for their lives. While there were many aspects of Jesus’ life that spoke to each man, the one overriding theme was love and the importance of not only a personal love but also a transcendent love that overcomes barriers to each of us fully living our lives and sharing who we are with the world.

Now, I follow in the footsteps of these two great men on a pilgrimage of faith as Bernie suggested but also a pilgrimage of love.  The generosity of spirit that you and our hosts in Kolkata have shown us helps me to understand more deeply why Thurman and King were transformed during these visits.  Each experienced the love of God during their visits here.  Their experiences and our experiences are examples of the unconditional love that Jesus insisted is the way we are to live our lives.  So, I end by saying thank you for your generosity and loving kindness.  Namaste.

Group picture with Karnataka Theological College Community
Group picture with Karnataka Theological College Community