I have been thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit over these past few weeks. Just after Easter I set out from a damp and cool London to travel to the Himalayas. As I was leaving I was asked by Thinking Faith to write an article on the Holy Spirit in contemporary spirituality. So as I sat, day after day, in a small hut in Northern India looking out at the Himalayan peaks, I contemplated the ‘spiritual exercise’ set before me. This was not difficult. Each day I was awoken by the vent de l’esprit as the high Himalayan wind brought cooling relief, and was reminded of the old Latin hymn for Pentecost, Veni Sancte Spiritus:In labore requiesIn aestu temperiesIn fletu solatium (‘Give us rest from our work,coolness in summer heatand consolation in distress’)
The ashram where I was staying had been started by Vandana Mataji, a co-worker of the French Benedictine, Henri Le Saux. Born in 1910 to a poor Breton family, Le Saux had a long interest in India and Indian spirituality. At an early age he joined the minor seminary at Châteaugiron in 1921 before entering the Benedictine order at the Abbey of Sainte-Anne de Kergonan in 1929. In 1948 he sailed to India to begin a monastic community with his fellow French priest, Jules Monchanin, their aim being to live the ancient Western monastic life within the frame and ambit of classical Indian ideas, philosophy and spiritual practice. The monastery they founded, normally called Shantivanam (‘The Forest of Peace’), survived their passing and today flourishes; however, while they both lived there it largely remained (as both priests liked it) a quiet and empty hermitage. Both priests began wearing the kavi of the Hindu renouncer in the 1950s, at which time Henri Le Saux took the name Abishikteśvarānda (throughout this article I have used the normal English version of his name, Swami Abhishiktananda, omitting the diacritics). In 1968, Swami Abhishiktananda decided to head north to the source of the Ganges where he spent the final years of his life alternating between a small hermitage he had built there and trying to convey his message to a new generation of seekers.