Musings on Shantivanam (Saccidananda Ashram)

Still the most powerful part of this trip, the five days at Shantivanam were deeply restorative and spiritually refreshing. It was also good to spend it with my sister, who doesn’t belong to the Christian tradition (although, raised in a Christian household, she can speak the language). She found Shantivanam to be an unexpectedly enlightening and positive experience, and was loath to leave. Ellen did not enjoy Madurai as much. Not surprising, I guess. In startling contrast to the ashram’s serenity, beauty, simplicity, and spiritual stimulation, Madurai is chaotic, messy, complicated and deafening.

When I go on a retreat, I usually sleep a lot the first 1-3 days, and even though I had gotten good rest in Chennai I still rested more than usual when I first got to Shantivanam. I participated in daily Morning Prayer/Eucharist, Noonday prayers, and then Evening Prayer; after a day or two I started also attending the Namajapa (chanting the name of God) at 5:30 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., and doing my own Centering Prayer 20 minutes before Morning and Evening Prayer.

Sometimes on retreat I just want to retreat in every sense of the word: I find myself withdrawing from human companionship. I often don’t even want to participate in group gatherings, worship or otherwise and I never want to participate in all of them, even when I do. It tends to be time for recharging, which, for me, requires silence and time away from people.

At Shantivanam, I almost immediately wanted to attend all the services; after a day or so, when I felt rested, I also wanted to do Namajapa as well as my Centering Prayer.

There isn’t all that much to do there, although I got a lot of reading in (I finished Spirit of Fire, a biography of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and unorthodox theologian, which was very much appropriate).

Despite a lack of interesting activities, the ashram has something better. Its fairly exacting schedule provides a relaxing structured rhythm: pray and eat in silence, chop vegetables and/or free time; pray some more, eat, again in silence, more free time; attend one of Brother Martin’s “Four O’Clock Talks,” more silence and free time; pray, eat, silence, free time, pray, bed. There were two coffee or tea breaks each day; those 15-30 minutes at the Tea Circle were really the only times talking and getting to know other people was formally organized; the rest of the times, even when we weren’t officially in silence we were asked to keep fairly quiet nevertheless, honoring the contemplative atmosphere.

There’s great freedom in such a schedule; I wasn’t bombarded with choices all day, and the simple schedule (fully optional, but I opted in!) allowed my system to power down a bit.

More on Shantivanam later: I took some notes on Brother Martin’s talks which I’ll share.


Shantivanam (Forest of Peace)

“Pilgrimage is wandering after God. That it may be to a definite destination doesn’t mean that it’s not wandering, and it doesn’t destroy its continuity with the . . . kingdom-preaching wandering of Jesus. . . .

“Pilgrimage is a journey back. It can give us new eyes—the eyes of children. And that’s just as well, because only those who come as children can enter that strange kingdom. Children’s eyes see color and significance where we see only grays and emptiness. Pilgrims are dancing, delighting children. In the curious spiritual geometry of the kingdom, you can only go forward by going back.”  The Sacred Journey, xv-xvi

Heading out today to Shantivanam. I am excited about it. Some people can have the eyes of children without a change of scenery, and that might be true for me some microscopic percentage of the time. But mostly I find that pilgrimages and retreats break up my regular schedule in a way that allows me to see things anew, to wander after God, who sometimes feels so absent, or at least so extremely silent. I’m always wandering after God, but on pilgrimage it’s much more intentional.

So. Shantivanam. We don’t know if there will be WiFi. We don’t even know if there’s phone reception. We have had a relaxing few days, some regular tourism and some “religious tourism,” but staying at the Raintree is rather luxurious, a good transition from the rigors of travel.

Shantivanam refers to its accommodations  (on its web page) as “basic, but adequate.” That’s about as much as we know for sure, but I do have a schedule. There’s lots of silence — everything below with an asterisk indicates silence, and so we will be breaking silence with periods of necessary verbal communication (which is, of course, the opposite of normal life). Here’s what we’ll be doing [all from their web page]:

What’s the daily timetable?

*5.00 a.m. Angelus (wake up bell)

*5.30 a.m. Namajapa (chanting), and private meditation

*6.30 a.m. Morning prayer, ( 6.45 on Sundays ) Eucharist, breakfast

10.00 a.m. Coffee break

12.00 noon Angelus bell

*12.15 p.m. Midday prayer, meal, silence

* 3.30 p.m. Tea

4.00 p.m. “Four-O’Clock Talk” by Brother Martin on scheduled days

*6.00 p.m. Angelus, meditation, silence

*7.00 p.m. Evening prayer, supper

(silence suspended after supper until 9:00 p.m.)

*9.00 p.m. Namajapa, silence (see article on Nama Japa)


What is expected from guests?

a) To concentrate on the purpose for which they have come to the ashram, and to observe quiet in and around the ashram so as to preserve the atmosphere of peace and prayer.

b) To refrain from smoking in the ashram and from taking liquor or drugs during their stay.

c) To help cut vegetables after breakfast

d) Guests should not give any money or gifts to the individual. If at all you want give something to a person, It should go through the guest master or the superior. Please co-operate with us well running of the Ashram.

e) To respect the times of silence, which are:

From services until the end of meal times

From noon prayer until afternoon tea

From 6pm (meditation time) until after supper

After 9pm

See youse laters, alligators!


Traveling is a great time to notice preferences, and how they can rob me of peace of mind.

On the Lufthansa leg of the journey, when I was so squashed in, I would have much preferred to have decent leg room. And arm room. And a little bubble around myself. That wasn’t happening, so I did a bit of a check and realized I was frustrated but not in any discomfort. I could, however, get uncomfortable when I thought, “Nine point five hours of this?” because that future seemed unacceptable and restricted and would probably give me a blood clot and I just might die.

It was good to be able to laugh at myself a little. I did have compression stockings, in an attractive argyle pattern, no less, and sometimes when I stretched my legs I happened to knock up against the feet of the woman whose reclined seat was restricting my movement. Yeah, mildly retaliatory. The real problem? My preference for space wasn’t being met. My preference for reading and writing weren’t feasible. My preference for Quatar Airways certainly wasn’t being met.

But I had no real discomfort. Not physical, anyway. And I wasn’t dying of a blood clot, although my heart felt restricted in a spiritual way. So, I recognized, it was just preferences. Reminded me of a recent New Yorker cartoon: a mother and her young backpack-wearing child are entering an office, the door labeled “Special Services,” and Mother says to the woman at a desk, “My child has special wants.”

One of the great things about traveling is noticing preferences. When I realized I was dealing with a special want and not a special need, I felt better. (I still don’t plan to travel via Lufthansa when I can avoid it.)

P.S. – Judgments: A few years ago I thought a woman was genuinely stark raving mad on another flight because she grabbed the seat in front of her, angry at its occupant for reclining all the way, and shook it aggressively. I was shocked and very judgmental: This lady is crazy! Wow! Terrible! On the Lufthansa flight, I realized I was entertaining a fantasy of doing the same thing, but in my case it seemed far more reasonable and justified. I still suspect the woman was unbalanced, but she simply expressed an unfiltered, primal desire lurking somewhere deep and unacknowledged in my own mind.

Adventures in India

Here we are! Or here I am, until sister Ellen gets here shortly (she had a longer layover). Going from Philadelphia to Chennai had its good and bad, or I could say advantages/disadvantages if I want to avoid attributing moral virtue or lack thereof. Advantages: checking in went very smoothly, and the few delays didn’t affect my ability to make transfers, so they weren’t really delays at all.

Also, I sat sort-of-next-to a woman, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Keel (we had an empty seat between us; yay!), on the long leg between Dulles and the Frankfurt airport. She was taking the same flight from Frankfurt to Chennai, India; I don’t know the chances of sitting by someone going the same place on a connecting flight, but I do enjoy and expect synchronicities when I’m traveling. She’s a Unity pastor who now leads trips, mostly to India, attends courses at O&O Academy, formerly Oneness University, and lectures/speaks about it. I don’t know much about O&O, but I certainly liked and connected with Patricia.

Sadly, the flight from Frankfurt to Chennai, 9.5 hours on Lufthansa, was physically quite miserable. The seats were smaller than American domestic seats (already tiny!) and I literally could not eat most of my dinner because I had no movement of my arms except with elbows kept to my body. The woman in front of me immediately put her seat all the way back and then sat at the front of it most of the time, not even leaning back against it. It was frustrating, because I had nice reading and writing materials, which were out of the question, so I watched movies. I had already watched Lion King between Dulles and Frankfurt (a favorite, beautiful and uplifting), so I watched Lala Land (romantic and beautiful; hard to hear), then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (closed captions!; amazing performances by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell) and then fast-forwarded through much of the artsy A Ghost Story (I had 60 minutes for a 92-minute movie). The movies kept me entertained and distracted from my discomfort. But note to self: avoid Lufthansa in the future.

I’m now at the Raintree. My brand-new Belkin Surge Protector blows the fuses in the room; whether it’s the wiring here or the Belkin I’m not sure. It’s part of the fun of traveling in India; it tests resilience.

I love being a Food Traveler; at the breakfast, the dining room staff asked repeatedly if I wanted waffles, omelettes, pancakes, cereal, etc. I chose instead a lovely dish of creamed mushrooms, peas, and corn; idli bread (made of fermented black lentils and rice) with one of the condiments; stewed figs; steamed vegetables; a Japanese omelette (small); coffee; a lovely slice of toast with butter and marmalade. I’m trying to remind myself not to overeat; and if I’m tempted to overeat, make it mostly vegetables and some fruit.

I got all organized (Why am I so much more organized when I travel? Perhaps it’s because every item has been carefully chosen, and I only have to decide how to organize the relatively few belongings). I’m proud of how few items of clothing I brought.  Now I will do some journaling and read some of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (I’ve read it at least three times before), which I hope to donate to Shantivanam when we get there.