Ashram in the canefields

Come to Christ the Light Ashram near Nadi, Fiji.

Christ Jyoti Ashram - Christ the Light Ashram - lies on low hills close to the most westerly tip of the island of Viti Levu. From this vantage point the Ashram has an immense sweeping horizon of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The area is also known for being dry, hot and windy, with a rather barren look about it.

It is canefarming territory and the immediate countryside is landscaped by neatly cultivated blocks of sugarcane. Dotted here and there are stands of mango, coconut and tamarind trees, indicating compounds of the mainly Indian farming families in the district. There is a strong ‘biblical’ flavour about the place as you see women drawing water from wells and men ploughing the fields with yoked oxen.

A block of land

The block of land on which the Ashram stands is known as Namata. It was acquired by the Catholic Vicariate of Fiji after the Second World War. The priest instrumental in this was Fr Claudius Lukhur who was the son of Indian indentured labourers. As a young adult he converted to Catholicism and after seminary
studies in India, he was ordained as a diocesan priest for Fiji. He began his ministry among the small number of Catholic Indian families widely scattered all over Viti Levu.

He had a dream of gathering his people together to form supportive communities in which their faith could be more easily tended-to and nourished. The block of land was purchased with this in view but this dream was never realized.

A Bishop’s dream

In the early 1970s Archbishop George Pearce, SM, wanted to reinvigorate the work of evangelization among Fiji’s large Indian population. He visited India and made contact with a religious congregation founded in India precisely for evangelization - the Indian Mission Society.

Together they planned for a parish-based mission in Nadi Town with an associated Ashram. The Ashram was to be not only a centre of spiritual renewal, but also a centre for the catechetical and pastoral training of lay leadership within the Indian Catholic community. After a fruitless search for a suitable piece of land in the vicinity of Nadi Town, the Archdiocese made land at Namata available.

The newly-ordained Archbishop Petero Mataca continued to offer the dream of an Archdiocesan Ashram strong support and under his direction the Ashram buildings were constructed and in 1977 the Archbishop had the joy of blessing and opening the complex.

A new chapter

The coup d’etat of 1987 badly affected the Indian Catholic community and many lay leaders were among the thousands of Indians who emigrated from Fiji. This impacted significantly on the life and work of the Ashram. Faced with growing evangelization needs in India, the Indian Mission Society withdrew from the Ashram at the end of 2002.

The Ashram has recently entered a new moment of its history with Archbishop Petero Mataca asking the Society of Mary to take up the work of the Ashram. The Marist Province of Oceania gladly accepted this and it began managing the affairs of the Ashram from January 2003, with a Marist community formally established in January 2004. The Ashram community presently consists of three Marist religious and two lay persons.

The Ashram has re-committed itself to a decidedly contemplative lifestyle and ministry.

At the core of this contemplative mission is the community’s own commitment to a simple daily Rule of Life, which gives the Ashram its essential character. This involves commitment to a balanced life of personal and liturgical prayer - daily Eucharist and the Hours of the Divine Office - to manual work, common table, times of silence and ministering to guests and retreatants. Guests and retreatants are invited to participate with the community in this daily Rule of Life.

A variety of people come to the Ashram. Some come in organized parish-based groups for weekend retreat experiences. Other groups come for specific programs, such as for the 30-Day retreat with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, which is offered annually at the Ashram. Others again, come individually for varying lengths of time stay just to seek a contemplative space for prayer and reflection, for reconciliation or direction, and to join in with the community in its daily Rule of Life.

Sugarcane farming

A feature of life at the Ashram is canefarming. The Ashram maintains a small canefarm which provides the Ashram community with a way of entering into the life of the mainly non-Christian neighbours, collaborating with them in harvesting and generally coming to know their way of life, their issues and concerns.

In fact, in the quiet simplicity of their way of life, our farming neighbours make a major contribution to the contemplative environment of the whole district.

The Ashram is a privileged place to taste something of living in God’s providential love.

Fr Michael Fitzgerald is Rector of the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva.

Permission to reprint from Marist Messenger, December 2007/January 2008.

Read more stories from the The Far East, March