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Born fifth son of the seven children of René Mahieu and Anne Vandelanotte, Francis Acharya was baptized John Richard Mahieu. He had his early education and college studies in Brussels. At the age of twenty he went to England for higher studies. In 1931, John Richard was very much impressed by Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to London, when Gandhi came to participate in the second Round Table Conference as - some English politician said - 'a half naked fakir'. The young man sympathized with Gandhi’s non-violent fight for India’s independence. As his own spiritual development unfolded, he saw in Gandhi a fellow traveler on the path toward a more spiritual and more harmonious world civilization based on a balance between action and contemplation, combining the best of East and West. In 1932, Mahieu had to complete his compulsory military service, in Belgium. During this time, he decided to become a monk, join the Cistercian (Trappist) Order, and go to India to lead a contemplative life in an ashram. He asked his father’s permission which was denied: his father was totally opposed to such vocation. In 1935, the young man joined a group of pilgrims going to Rome.
In an audience with Pope Pius XI, he expressed his desires and asked prayers for his future vocation. In September, 1935, at the age of 23, John Richard joined the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Scourmont, near Chimay, Belgium. He received a new name, Francis, with St. Francis of Assisi as his chosen patron. After his novitiate formation, Francis made his first vows and was sent to the Gregorian University in Rome to obtain a degree of Bachelor of Divinity. He then did further theological studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He made solemn vows in 1940 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1941. Soon thereafter, he was appointed novice master at Scourmont. At this time, the abbot of Scourmont was planning to start a Cistercian monastery in India, which corresponded well with the wishes of Fr. Francis. Somewhat later, the abbot’s interests began to turn toward Africa. Nonetheless, Fr. Francis was given permission to undertake a foundation by himself in India.
It was very difficult to get a visa for India from Belgium. However, Scourmont had a daughter house in Wales and Fr. Francis was given the opportunity to go to this monastery on Caldey Island as its novice master. After three unsuccessful applications for a visa for India he was eventually granted one through the recommendation of Vijayalaksmi Pandit, who was High Commissioner in England. Impressed by Fr. Francis’s wish to work for the encounter between Christianity and Hinduism and by his determination to start a Christian monastic foundation rooted in the ashram tradition of India, Pandit Nehru, who was then the prime minister of India, approved the application on the condition that he not proselytize.
Fr. Francis set sail for India and arrived in Bombay on July 12, 1955.Swami Abhishiktananda welcomed him. In Bombay Fr. Francis Mahieu’s initiation to India was begun with visits to various ancient sites: Buddhist caves at Kanheri, the island of Elephanta, and Ajanta. At Elephanta, Fr. Francis and Abhishiktananda were profoundly impressed by the central cave, a magnificent temple with immense bas-reliefs (7th century) carved in the solid rock, dedicated to Shiva Maheshwara in his different manifestations. They passed the night in the cave, where the sight of Maheshwara Sadashiva (a huge carving of Shiva with three faces) had moved Swami Abhshiktananda to ecstasy. However the meeting of the two monks, so long anticipated, was not entirely happy, probably on account of the inner turmoil that was tormenting Swami Abhishiktananda at that time. In any case, after visiting Ajanta, Abhishiktananda went on alone to explore north India, while his companion returned to Bombay. Fr. Francis spent about one year in the ashram at Shantivanam with Jules Monchanin and Swami Abhshiktananda; he considered this year to be a period of novitiate for him in India with the two earlier pioneers on the same path. Afterwards, in November, 1956, Fr. Francis left Shantivanam for Kerala.
Foundation of Kurisumala Ashram
It was at the invitation of Zacharias Mar Athanasios, the Bishop of Tiruvalla, that Fr. Francis came to Kerala to start the ashram. In the course of time, Bede Griffiths joined him there. On December 1, 1956, the two of them started the new foundation Kristiya Sanyasa Samaj,Kurisumala Ashram at Tiruvalla in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. Eventually they were successful in obtaining 88 acres (360,000 m2) of land and on March 20, 1958, the eve of Saint Benedict’s day, Fr. Francis, Fr. Bede, and two seminarians traveled sixty miles to the site, high up on the holy mountain of Kurisumala. Well contented with their hilltop, they spent the next few months in a hut made of bamboo and plaited palm leaves with no facilities, no furniture, and a floor covered simply with cow dung. While the center of their lives was the prayer of the Church and celebration of its feasts and mysteries, they had to find a way of supporting themselves, so they soon started a dairy farm with cattle imported from Jersey.
On August 6, 1968, Fr. Francis took Indian citizenship. Later the same month Fr. Bede, after ten years in Kristiya Sanyasa Samaj,Kurisumala Ashram, left for Shantivanam with two brothers, Br. Anugrah and Br. Ajit, to take over that ashram from Swami Abhishiktananda. By 1974, Fr. Francis’s health was declining. For several months he underwent Ayurvedic treatment, staying in a Hindu doctor’s house at Geethabhavan, Kottayam. In 1979, he traveled to Belgium, back to the monastery of his youth, Scourmont Abbey, and in a hospital near the abbey he had a hip operation, which was not very successful. He returned to Kurisumala and soon the other hip was also affected. Already at an advanced age and battling against pain, fear, and ill health, he started and completed his masterpiece, the Prayer with the Harp of Spirit, four volumes translated from the ancient Syrian book Panqitho, with certain adaptations to Indian culture.
Kurisumala Ashram, A Cistercian Abbey
In 1996, Fr. Francis went to Rome, together with Bishop Geevarghese Mar Timotheos, to ask the General Chapter of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance to affiliate Kurisumala as a monastery of their order. After the necessary procedures were carried out, Kurisamala Ashram became a Cistercian Abbey on July 9, 1998, with Fr. Francis being installed as the first abbot.
Dom Francis Acharya’s final days on earth were a hasty preparation for departure to the threshold of eternity. On the morning of January 31, 2002, rapt in bliss and having received his Lord in Holy Communion, his soul departed to the heavenly Father. His mortal remains were kept until February 4 at Pushpagiri Medical College, Thiruvalla.
More than ten thousand people of different castes and creeds gathered on the top of Kurisumala to offer their last homage to the pioneer of Indian Christian Sannyasa.
An Acharya of Indian Christian Sanyasa
As Dom Francis was a man of prayer, a votary of divine love, he fully realized the power of prayer and the strength of virtue. As a person who had succeeded in transforming his whole life into an incessant prayer, he had acquired an interior silence which enabled him to sense the voice of God and abide in the interior recesses of his soul. His spirit of prayer and hard work were extraordinary, especially during the early years of Kurisumala Ashram. And during the few years before his death it was edifying to see him support himself on two walking sticks and take full part in the community prayers and public functions. He also found time to impart his spirit to guests and visitors with a few well-chosen words. Though a Westerner, Fr. Francis manifested the strength of will to modify himself to suit his chosen country in dress, language, food, and life-style. This was a great and rare accomplishment. To those living in the bosom of mother nature, engrossed in a spiritual search characterized by asceticism and meditation, his very life was a model. He was one of that exceptional race of people who could discern divine revelations through manana nidishyasana. Heir to a life of luxury in his motherland, Belgium, he had given all that up, his home and homeland. He was a great man who renounced what was his own and accepted ours, becoming one of us Indians, assimilating the patrimony of India and encouraging us to make it ours too.