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Shantivanam, Forest of Peace by Sylvia Deck

On the last day of 2006 a group of twenty eager pilgrims arrived in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India, to be met joyfully by Fr. Cyprian at the Christian Ashram known as Saccidananda.  Founded in 1948 by a French priest and French Benedictine monk, the name means Holy Trinity, or literally “Being - Consciousness/Knowledge - Bliss” (“Sat-Cit-Ananda”).  But we called it Shantivanam, Forest of Peace, a place where peace and holy energy is palpable.

Our five days at Shantivanam followed this schedule: Angelus at 5 a.m., meditation, 5:30, morning prayer at 6:30 a.m. followed by Eucharist then breakfast. Some of us then chopped vegetables; others went off to read or check out the extensive library started by Bede Griffiths, the Camaldolese  monk who is the reason so many pilgrims come to this remote area.  At 10 a.m we met in the Tea Circle for coffee and chatting; 10:30 was our time with Fr. Cyprian.

Mid-day prayer was at 12:15 followed by lunch, the biggest meal of the day. (The food, cooked in an over-the-fire kitchen, was delicious!) We rested until 3:30 before a conference with Brother Martin at 4 p.m..  Next: meditation, evening prayer, dinner. By then, our bodies, still accommodating to the intense heat and humidity as well as clouds of mosquitoes from the nearby Kavery River, craved sleep on our gauze-draped beds.  Each day was glorious!

In addition to meditative, incense-filled liturgies accompanied by Sanskrit and Tamil songs, there were two highlights - first an invitation for dinner from Sr. Mary Louise across the road at Ananda Ashram.  Being in the company of this charming, beautiful woman who greeted us with garlands of flowers made us feel as if we were experiencing the heavenly banquet.  Because she had known both Fr. Bede and Abhishiktananda, founders of Shantivanam, her stories made them present as well.  We were saturated with mystery and grace, especially as we meditated in an “upper room” where Abhishiktananda’s body had lain before his burial.

The second highlight was the opportunity to meditate in the small thatched hut where Fr. Bede had lived and died.  Sitting alone in this sacred space brought enormous peace and the sense that Bede was not only still in our midst but moving us in ways we were eager to discover.  I later learned that Sr. Mary Louise was by his side when he was dying, reciting the “Jesus Prayer” which Cyprian had told us was Bede’s mantra.  She prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me…”  And he added in a whisper, “. . . a sinner.” Hearing this story years later - when Sr. Mary Louise died in 2017 -  somehow made our visit to Shantivanam complete. We were blessed beyond measure at Shantivanam, and blessings would only increase through memory, time and listening to its music.  Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Sylvia Deck

(Article originally published in New Camaldoli Newsletter a few years earlier.

You can see the article with more photos in the pdf below. Click to download.

Shantivanam Forest of Peace
Download PDF • 974KB

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