Holy Spirit Graphic

August 30, 2010

One challenge facing Christianity in the post-colonial era has been the need to express our faith in ways that are meaningful in widely diverse cultures without undermining the core of the faith.

This is easier said than done. More than a few attempts have foundered because Christian community leaders have gone too far in accommodating the Gospel to the culture.

In India, perhaps the world's most religious country, the task of inculturation is particularly urgent. There are millions of Catholics and other Christians, but they are almost lost in a sea of Hinduism, Sikhism and other faiths.

One attempt to bridge an emphasis on the Holy Spirit with Hinduism is that of Sister Vandana, a Sacred Heart sister who is a leader in the Catholic ashram movement. In the early 1970s, Sister Vandana set up an ashram on the Ganges River along with other Sacred Heart sisters and some Anglican nuns.

The first thing they learned is that an ashram is nothing like a convent or a monastery. Rather, it focuses around a guru who has attracted followers who want to learn from his or her spiritual ways.

Sister Vandana's ashram is focused around, not the Eucharist, as regular Catholic community would be, but the Holy Spirit. Its main religious activity is not liturgy, but meditation. "This is the great discovery the baptized, as indeed any Godseeker, has to make – that the God of heaven and earth dwells within the human heart," she writes in Waters of Fire.

Waters of Fire is a fascinating book. In it, Sister Vandana analyzes St. John's Gospel's treatment of the Holy Spirit. "Water and the Spirit are ever inseparable in John's thought, as they were indeed in God's designs from the very creation of the world." John's Gospel, she says, is particularly suited to the Indian psyche because of its spiritual, mystical approach.


She finds many parallels to John's discussions of water and the Spirit in Hindu writings. For Hindus too, water is not only life-giving, but sacred in its uses.

Sister Vandana puts great emphasis on the baptism of Christ. Christ's baptism in the Jordan is "his awakening to the Self." It is Christ's "inner purification" by the Spirit.

By this point it should be clear that something is not quite right. Whatever her personal convictions, Sister Vandana presents Jesus as a guru who has undergone inner purification rather than as God incarnate. It is Jesus who leads us to the Spirit, rather than, as in Catholic teaching, the Spirit who leads us to Jesus. The ultimate goal of spirituality is "awakening," rather than eternal life with the Triune God.

Jesus does promise the coming of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit only descends on the disciples after Christ's ascension to the Father in order to maintain Christ's presence in our midst.


According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The Spirit prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his death and resurrection.

"He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, in order to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may 'bear much fruit'" (n. 737).

If there are shortcomings to Sister Vandana's approach, she also says much that we need to hear. She speaks again and again about God's extravagant love for his people, something symbolized by the Bible's extravagant use of water and other aspects of creation.

She calls us to respond to God with extravagance: "The Gospel is incompatible with half measures and only when it loses its savour can Christianity be turned into a comfortable religion." From Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, she says, we can conclude that Jesus offers not simply a taste of living water, but to turn a disciple "into a living stream – a Jeevan-Dhana – (in order) to slake others' thirst."

Sister Vandana calls us to a deeper spirituality and challenges Christians to learn from the tremendous dedication to the interior life of many Hindus and Buddhists. She calls us also to a faith of the heart, rather than one that remains in the intellect. We are not packages of information, but living, breathing people whose actions flow from deep within.


Sister Vandana was not wrong to try to elucidate the Catholic faith by showing parallels in the writings of Hindu spiritual masters. But she might also have tried to show the divergences between Christianity and Eastern religions.

For us in the West, there is enormous spiritual wealth to be found among those spiritual writers included among the doctors of the Church. For us, the best way forward is to take seriously those Christian writers who today receive such scant attention.