1924 – 1992
Catholic, Guernseyman, Benedictine monk of Prinknash Abbey, poet and seer.
Dom Sylvester was best known for his contribution to the creative, cultural 1960s.
He belongs to the iconography of the time. Alan Ginsberg visited him at Prinknash, John Cage became a welcome guest. He liked to position himself in the line of Benedictine poets and artists from “the monastic literati of the ancient west who created civilization”. Yet he was unable to resist “the sweep of so called avant-garde creativeness” and in the liberal climate of the 1960s and 70s he held hands with “the monk-prophet poets of other cultures”[i].
He wasn’t the first to make ‘typewriter art’[ii], but as a pioneer in Britain in the 1960s, his work was christened ‘typestracts’ by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.
At best they are abstract: they use a spectrum of coloured typewriter ribbons and stretch the mechanical limitations of the medium. They reflect the vanguard of optical, kinetic, patterned work in contemporary international art. He excelled in this discipline. His work has not however been reviewed by the art world since his death, other than in the context of 1960s culture[iii]. Some who have come across him see him as a visionary artist, a natural subject for Tate Britain. In 1971, however, it was the V & A Museum Prints Department that arranged a travelling exhibition of his work.
He also emerges from the monastic rose-garden as a man who engaged with the spiritual needs of the present age.
In his early childhood a small event led Dom Sylvester to ‘see’ that Christians and Jews are one family. Later, as a novice monk, incapable of not digressing wherever the curiosity of insight led him, he started to read available books on Zen Buddhism. He found that without denying or limiting the symbols of his vocation, this reading led to deeper insights into the meaning of Benedictine monastic life, contemplation and education.
Dom Bede Griffiths, 17 years older than Dom Sylvester, was an ordained monk of Prinknash when Sylvester joined the community. Introducing a DVD to celebrate Bede’s 80th birthday in 1987, Dom Sylvester says “Dom Bede and I shared an interest in what Indian & Benedictine monasticism had in common … and whereas my own field has tended to be that of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Dom Bede had already been able to devote many years to a study of the Vedanta”[iv].
Bede and Sylvester were however like ships that passed in opposite directions across the tectonic meeting of spiritualities and aesthetics of East and West. Unlike Bede, Sylvester already knew India: stationed in Bangalore in 1945-46 with the Intelligence Corps he was more interested in what the East could offer the West. Bede went to India in 1955 and remained there: he integrated a Benedictine life with Hindu culture, finally settling at Shantivanam in the southern Tamil Nadu[v].
Sylvester combined a scholar’s capacity for learning with a clarity of mind (vision) that came from his spiritual training. But he was never academic. He was ideally suited however to work on revisions needed to complete an English translation of the French Jerusalem Bible for the publisher Michael Longman (Darton, Longman & Todd). Longman had already commissioned translations from a variety of authors (including an O.T. chapter by J.R. Tolkien). In 1961, the editor, Fr Alexander Jones was struggling with problems of consistency of style, terminology and textual accuracy. Over the next 4 years, Sylvester and his old friend, Alan Neame worked with Longman and Fr Jones to complete the translation of the text and to update the extensive notes.
With the changes of the 1970s, Dom Sylvester found more time to devote to developing a perspective towards the spirituality of our time, a for which he coined the phrase ‘the wider ecumenism’[vi].
The word ‘ecumenism’ implies the removal of sectarian divisions from religion and refers specifically to a movement to bring the Christian denominations into a single fold. A similar movement is found in Buddhism: called ‘Ri-me’, meaning ‘not-taking-sides’. The Dalai Lama has been concerned to dispel misunderstandings that can arise from superficial comparisons between traditions[vii] whether internal or consequent to the migration of the major world faiths. Dom Sylvester recognized that his vision of wider ecumenism was in step with that of the Dalai Lama.
He was concerned that Tibetan monks should be received with full hospitality. It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the Benedictine Abbot Primate commissioned the “Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique” (DIM). In 1983, Dom Sylvester was invited to join a new sub-committee in England. Jinpa Thupten Geshe, who is still central to the Dalai Lama’s team of translators and interpreters remembers an occasion when the Dom was “(in) conversation with His Holiness about his thoughts on the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness as well as the Tibetan Dzogchen view. His Holiness was rather struck by this and . . mentioned something about the fact that Merton shared similar interests.”[viii] Jinpa continues: “It is a pity that the Dom was not able to find a senior Tibetan monk or a scholar who could have engaged more deeply and on a more sustained basis. Perhaps the problem was that there wasn’t a partner from the Tibetan side who could match the range and depth of the Dom’s interest – spirituality, philosophy, poetry and so on – to truly appreciate the opportunity.”[ix]
Dom Sylvester’s work in this field led him to realize that the semitic West must learn to engage much more profoundly with the Truth revealed in its own traditions if the meeting between these two giants was to lead to a fruitful, mutual global embrace with the essential nature of humanity. It is perhaps significant that the only occasion on which Dom Sylvester and Jinpa Geshe found an opportunity to talk at leisure was in 1989, at the Beshara Centre in Frilford, Oxfordshire. The centre was at the time run by Aaron[x] and Martha Cass. From 1976/77, Dom Sylvester was regularly invited to address the 6-month course students at the Beshara School at Sherborne, Gloucestershire and from 1981 at Chisholme House, Roxburghshire.
The most complete, lucid and personal explanation of the meaning of his vision comes to light in talks given in the contexts of Beshara and of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society. It is to this body of work that anyone who wishes to follow and understand his lifetime’s motivation must turn. Widely known as ‘The Dom’ by Beshara students, he felt comfortable in the environment of the school. He was able to develop his ideas here freely, without the lingering shadow of dogma or doctrine. Titles (of talks given to the Oxford-based Ibn ‘Arabi Society (MIAS) have been published in the Society’s Journal. A small number of talks and book reviews are published in BESHARA, the magazine published between 1987 and 1991 by students of the school. Beshara Publications has published a volume of selected commentaries by the Dom – Commentaries on Meister Eckhart Sermons (Oxford, 2000). A further collected volume of his talks is in preparation.
[i] See under HOUÉDARD, dom Pierre-Sylvester, in Contemporary Poets, (St James’s Press,London 1970), page 528.
[ii] See: Alan Riddell, Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975. The dust-jacket of this book shows his italic ode for sr (dsh 710317)
[iii] see Andrew Wilson in “Art & the 60s” (Tate Publishing , 2004). “A Poetics of Dissent” p 93 ff.
[iv] Kurt Hoffman, DVD, “The Space in the Heart of the Lotus. (Inner Directions, 1987). Celebrating Bede Griffiths’ 80th birthday, Dom Sylvester’s introduction was filmed against the backdrop of the old abbey at Prinknash.
[v] Shirley du Boulay, “Beyond The Darkness”, a Biography of Bede Griffiths, page 146ff.
[vi] His contribution (published posthumously) in: Hirtenstein and Tiernan, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, A Commemorative Volume (Element 1993) says “. . the area which in 1952 I labelled ‘the wider ecumenism”. Elsewhere he says that the concept was discussed while he was at Sant Anselmo College in Rome (1951 – 54) with Dom Odo Brooke and others, but that at that time it was in the context of a movement of the first half of the 19th century, “The Wider Hope”. The first time that “The Wider Ecumenism” appeared in print was in The Aylesford Review, Vol VII/Number 2, (Summer 1965) p 118.
[vii] See for instance the foreword (page 8) by Sogyal Rinpoche and the Preface (page 15) in The Dalai Lama, DZOGCHEN, Heart Essence of the Great Perfection (Snow Lion Publications, N.Y., 2000/2004)
[viii] Geshe Thupten Jinpa, e-mail to author, 5th August 2011
[ix] Thomas Merton is generally acknowledged as a prime mover in interfaith dialogue. He died however soon after meeting the Dalai Lama in 1968: a meeting of great significance to the movement.
[x] See Authors’ list on this site