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.

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