Syrian Christian Spirituality

by Bar 'Eato Briro Dr. D. Babu Paul

Syrian Christian Spirituality has to my knowledge not been defined so far. In fact the expression Syrian Christian itself seems to be a term differently understood by different people. I consider the term as signifying all native Christians who left the Portuguese in 1653. Of course there is a problem there also. Mar Aprem was, and is, known as Aprem the Syrian. And we have our church designated Syrian (though Patriarch Zakka has now changed it as Syriac). For the limited purpose of this paper I consider the expression to mean all native Christians who existed here before the arrival of the Christian foreigners of different persuasions after say 1500 CE.

That brings me to the next question. What sources do we have to speak authoritatively about the Syrian Christian spirituality? Of course if we expand the word Syrian to include our co-faithful in West Asia things become easier because we have enough names and traditions to pick from. However we are left with no modern tool to analyse the Syrian Christian spirituality as it evolved in Kerala. I therefore propose to work backwards from the present and try to understand what constituted our concept of spirituality.

The first point that I wish to note is that our spirituality was related to our ritualistic practices and sacraments. Our forefathers realized, in all probability without defining it conceptually, that the words of our Lord, whoever dwells in me and I in him bears much fruit (John 15: 5), defined spirituality. This intimacy with Christ would be possible only with the sacraments, particularly the Holy Liturgy. I remember that as recently as my childhood we used to have quite a few old people who regularly went to church during Lent for prayers, some thrice a day, some twice and most at least in the evening. The congregational impact of Lent was thus part of our spirituality. Times have changed. We now try to keep Sunday free by permitting people to meet the Sunday obligation by attending a Saturday Evening Mass. Naturally we may not any longer have huge crowds for prayers at the church except during the Holy Week. Yet the fact that even in metropolitan cities where commutation is not easy our people congregate in this 21st century to worship together during the Holy Week points to a strong tradition of congregational spirituality in a community where no one thought of going alone to heaven!

It however was impossible to develop spiritual exercises arising from reading of the scriptures. We claim that we have been Christians for two millennia. But our language Malayalam began to emerge as an independent modern language only over the last 500/700 years. There was no way to access the rich liturgical literature or even the Bible which were all available only in Syriac. This added to the importance of rituals in nurturing our spirituality. Those who have experienced it would recall, as I do, that prostrating forty times after every prayer during Lent gives you a tremendous sense of identification with Christ through His church. Theoretically we can argue that it means nothing without a change of heart but the fact remains that the sense of god-filledness that we experience on Easer morning after a Lent observed well does not have many parallels. Of course we can access literature and read the Bible now. That opens a whole new plane of spirituality.

This takes us to the second level of our spirituality. That is faith in action. Love for one’s neighbour. To know that one is indeed one’s brother’s keeper. Divine Love enables us to express concretely in our lives the spirit of the Beatitudes. Our forefathers had a genuine problem here. That is because we were basically “Hindu” Christians, not free from caste considerations. People speak about segregation in church. I think it was no more than the problem faced by early Christians in the Roman Empire when masters and slaves became Christians. The slaves became better slaves and the masters became better masters, but there was no abolition of slavery as such. Likewise our forefathers may have maintained the Christian fraternal equations without challenging the social environment but effectively modulating and moderating the demands of Christian love. We often speak about how unchristian the Pulappallies were. True, it was not correct to segregate the faithful based on the casteism of the Hindu society. But remember the Tiruvalla Edict where the Madras Governor ruled that an Ezhava convert has to abide by the caste rules even after conversion. Also remember the case in Karunagappally where a woman, formerly Ezhava, wore a blouse (CHATTA) while appearing as witness in a court of law where the chatta was torn to pieces baring her breasts by caste Hindus. We must admit that our fathers did not evangelise but when the foreigners evangelized they wanted to follow the line of least resistance, the LLR as we engineers call it! I feel that having pulappallies did not detract from our basic spirituality. The Therakathu Muthalaly –my grandfather-in-law- who converted a large number of Dalits organized a church for the converts. Had he not done that there would have been no gospel within the reach of the Dalits. We must relate events to times and contexts before entering judgments.

The third level of Syrian Christian spirituality involved, according to me, steps in sanctification. The mission of the church is to ensure salvation of men. Salvation as we know comes from faith in Christ and the grace from Christ. It is the duty of a Christian to announce by word and by action these two aspects of spirituality, namely faith in Christ and grace that comes with, and from, Christ. We do not know how the sacraments were administered here in those early centuries. We would all like to believe that St. Thomas came (fair enough, possible) and that he ordained an episcopacy and priesthood here (very unlikely if we use the modern definitions of these terms). Yet we were not without sacraments, because if we were we would not have survived into the sixteenth century as a vibrant church. But we do not know how. May be our Paschal Bread- indriappam- is a relic from that hoary past when we had no ordained priesthood but depended on the family tree to lead us in worship and sacramental life. May be there are many other customs. If a member of the family becomes a priest he initiates prayers but if he is not the oldest member of the family he takes permission from the karanavar before he begins shem abo… I have seen my father doing this when his uncles were present for evening prayers when the extended family got together say for a wedding or some other family function. Of course we were all male chauvinists I imagine; no permission was taken from women who were elder to the priest! This system of an ordained priest virtually seeking approval of the karanavar to initiate prayers at home could be a fall out of our local social custom of respecting elders, but I feel that the custom where when ordained priesthood ‘came home’ due respect was accorded to the ordination by the family and to the social customs by the ordained priest, still a junior member of the family, shows a beautiful integration of our social and ecclesiastical viewpoints.

The process of sanctification began at home. We had regular family prayers. At the end of such prayers it was customary for the head of the household to deliver a message. Perhaps not a sermon as such. It was more likely a “Family Synod” where any one could bring up a topic of spiritual or moral significance and there would be discussions such as custom would permit and a summing up and perhaps a homily by the karanavar. This practice helped each member in the process of sanctification. Correct application of the principles of Christ to the day to day situation was important as part of our spiritual exercises.

It is God’s design that men should work in harmony and try to renew the temporal order to make it more and more perfect as each day passes. Therefore we must in this generation try to relate these practices to modern problems. The temporal order has become more complex compared to the agrarian economy that nurtured the Kerala Syrian Christian spirituality. The hierarchy of values has changed. Economic interests have changed. Culture is often under siege. Trades and professions are constantly under evolution. Political institutions and international equations affect the individual more than ever before. As Paul says all that is natural and supernatural are gathered into a unitary whole in Jesus Christ (Colossians, Chapter 1) to ensure that Christ would have primacy, but this does not detract from the autonomy of the temporal order, contrarily it adds to its energy and defines the integral vocation of human beings. That is where spirituality comes in. Man over a period has often slipped into the idolatry of science. Our institutions have been corrupted. This is where our spirituality becomes a divine tool to reorder the universe.

Derived from the Indian heritage, and electrified by the Christian traditions, our spirituality always had an emphasis on meeting God. I feel that the heritage of St Thomas is perhaps an influence that led our forefathers albeit unknowingly to identify this ‘meeting God’ as the corner stone of spirituality. Thomas wanted to see the Master. The Master understood. Thomas declared that he would trust no fantasy and no phantom. He would insist on his sensory faculties to touch and know for sure. To touch one has to see proximately. And Thomas saw. Yet we find that in the end Thomas did nothing of the sort that he shocked his fellow disciples with! True, Jesus offered to accommodate Thomas’s quest. That offer was enough for him. He surrendered with the words MY LORD and MY GOD. That was a declaration of meeting God. The three persons from Kerala whom we consider saints, Blessed Chavara, St Gregorios of Parumala and St. Alphonsa of Bharananganam had this desire to meet God as part of their spirituality.

Chavara Spirituality, which Mundadan describes as “unique and specific” to him, emphasized meeting God in person. Chavara went blind towards the end and Mundadan says that it was as if he had finally closed his eyes on things of this world so as to concentrate on the vision of his Master. In Chavara’s Atmanautapam are 168 verses describing the incidents in the life of Jesus and each alternate line ends “I long to see (Jesus)”. To illustrate one may quote four lines:

The Good Shepherd, seeking his flock
That had gone astray, I long to see
The Lord of Goodness, proclaiming Himself
As our loving friend, I long to see.

Biographers of St Alphonsa would have similar instances to quote, in terms of her experience.

While on this let me also make an incidental reference to the canonisation of St. Alphonsa. We celebrated the canonization of St. Alphonsa as if it was a great temporal glory of the church in India. Canonisation is an act where the human beings recognise what God had known all along, that a certain person was a saint. We have no tradition of canonization as the Latin Church has. In fact our system was what existed even in the west until the procedures for canonization were laid down a few centuries ago. The procedure itself was deemed necessary because the practice even in Europe was for dioceses to recognise their saints. Obviously it often led to malpractices. Therefore rules were laid down. The practice itself is Roman. Emperors used to declare as ‘gods’ people whom they adored, and sometimes even those whom they killed, to appease their consciences and public opinion. Be that as it may the western system of canonization has an advantage that a frail nun who suffered in silence can now be worshipped in public. In our eastern tradition a masnapsa is the key that opens the door to sainthood! At the same time I do not know whether we should pursue the Latin practice at all. In fact even the concerned Roman church legislation permits our tradition by recognizing what it condescendingly calls equivalent canonization. On the one hand we speak about major archiepiscopal status and on the other we willingly, and often cravingly, seek approval from the Latin Church on matters which should be decided by our traditions and practice. In the Syrian Orthodox tradition in India the practice of canonization was kick-started by the late Geevargese II, Catholicose at Devalokam, when he declared Mar Yeldo of Kothamangalam and Mar Gregorios of Parumala saints in 1948 or so. In fact Patriarch Elias III had declined to officially canonize Mar Yeldo when pressure was mounted on him in 1930 saying that such judgmental opinions were better reserved to Almighty God. It is another matter that now the very same Elias III stands canonized! It is not my intention to act as a Devil’s Advocate in the matter of canonization at all. What I wanted to say was that more important than a Roman canonization should be an effort to understand and seek inspiration from St. Alphonsa. Her spirituality is to be understood and emulated as part of the Syrian Christian heritage in spirituality. I may refer to this later in this paper.

The essence of Alphonsian spirituality, to my mind, is the humility involved in silent suffering to make illness a meeting point with God and a springboard to transmit that Divine Love to the mass of humanity known, and personally unknown. This process of using one’s suffering as a point to meet God and to pray for others may not be an exclusive trait of Syrian Christian spirituality, but from somewhere it has come into our heritage in a special way. I quote two instances from my own family. My maternal grandmother, whom I deem my patron saint, suffered a lot. She was married to a wealthy businessman whose business crashed soon after my mother was born and who did not live much longer. My grandmother thus became a widow in her twenty-first year. And my mother grew up as the only child of a young widow. She stood first in Travancore for Matriculation and was admitted to the Tanjore Medical School but there was no way the young widow and the younger daughter could have traveled to Tanjore in 1920s. So she was idling at home since Kottayam had no facility for women’s higher education those days. Bishop Choolaparampil heard about a bright girl and asked her to teach in St. Anne’s School. Thus a humble career was born. Then came her wedding. And for twelve years they had no children. My grandmother finally moved in with our family in North Travancore. Her life obviously was a fit case for any epic poet to write a tragedy. But she sublimated it by praying for others. She may have prayed for her family of course but I recall that she used to get prayer requests from a lot of women in our locality. She converted her tears into her offering to God. My father was an ordinary well educated priest for the outside world but I knew how he assumed as his own the agony of others, the victims in Vietnam, the victims of Naxalite violence etc. He would spend long hours praying for the suffering world quietly. I my self discovered this fact just a few years before he died. I can see a common point where these three Syrian Christians used prayers for others as a tool for improved realization of their own spirituality. They tried to meet God while praying for others.

And as for Gregorios the very picture of his funeral explains this longing to see the Master. Gregorios the evening prior to his death had told his favourite disciples, four in number, that he would die before sunrise. They kept awake, all four of them, Malpan Vattaseril, and Rambans Paulose(later Coorilose of Panampadi), Paulose(later Athanasios of Alwaye) and Geevargese(later Catholicose Geevargese II), -- another interesting sidelight for the Malankara Christians: Parumala Thirumeni was neither anti nor pro Patriarch: his favourite disciples were equally divided two and two!!!-- but a mysterious veil of sleep fell over the disciples and by he time they woke up rigor mortis had set in. Therefore the Guru was buried with eyes wide open, as if in a trance and ecstasy, and in a posture as he was trying to get up from bed. That was the vision that Gregorios was granted in this life: the Master personally came to meet him, I like to imagine, and the glorious contentment of the saint is preserved for ever for us to meditate on in his last picture. I have this picture on my bedside and at my home altar and I find it very inspiring.

This aspect of Syrian Christian spirituality which emphasizes a personal meeting with God is also in consonance with the nine steps conceived by Indian sages in the process of God-realisation. These as we know are

Sakhyam and

Hearing God’s name, chanting it (recall I C Chacko’s Christusahasranamam: Christum kanyasutam vande mrityum mrityumjayam param et al) ,always bearing it in mind, serving him, worshipping him, prostrating before him, being servile to him, becoming his friend and finally becoming one with Him would ensure that the devotee meets God in person. No atmanivedanam or even sakhyam would be perfect without that meeting. This explains the age old practice among Syrian Christians where people flock to churches for Bhajana. “Bhajana irikkuka” is even now a common practice in the Syrian Churches in North Travancore. Go to any major church during the Paschal Lent and you will find men and women reading the Bible and Prayers there, fasting till evening in most cases and at least till sext every day. I happened to step in at my home parish in Ankamali Diocese this year after a long lapse of time and I was pleasantly surprised that in the year 2009 the church was nearly full with people who were on Bhajana. It was nothing organized by priests. Each one brought his own tools for prayer and meditation; I even found one young college lecturer reading my VEDASABDARATNAKARAM; he said he was repeatedly reading my description of death by crucifixion and meditating on the Passion. That is what remains of our forefathers’ efforts to meet God in person through intense meditation.

Another interesting part of our spirituality was devotion to Mary. We did not emphasise the Holy Family per se. That came after the Portuguese came. Our tradition was Madonna and the Child. This also had the support of Kerala’s matrilineal system of administering family affairs. We know that even in the matrilineal system it was the brother of the lady who ruled but the importance of woman was ensured. This agreed with the Oriental tradition which emphasized the role of the Perpetual Virgin in our Redemption. We never designated her co redemptrix but we recognised that she made Redemption possible the way it was destined to operate. I am aware of the modern secular scholarship on Mariological issues, Miri Rubin’s book MOTHER OF GOD: A HISTORY OF VIRGIN MARY and Marina Warner’s work ALONE OF ALL HER SEX, to cite just two, but a discussion on such thoughts and the feminist studies of Mariological issues are beyond our scope right now. The simple fact to be noted here is that our forefathers considered devotion to Mary as an essential part of their spirituality. Of course by the time we come to a discussion on what Mundadan calls Chavara Spirituality the concept of the Holy Family had become familiar to the Latin and Syro Malabar Christians here. And yet even for Chavara the value was one of love within the family. George Kaniarakath in an essay on Chavara’s vision of a Christian family emphasizes this: mutual love and consequent unity of mind and heart. He quotes Chavara from the introduction to the letter “Testament of a Loving Father” that family is a koinonia formed by blood relationship (see how Chavara manages to reconcile the Portuguese concept of the Holy Family and the Oriental concept of Madonna with Child; recall also the prayer in the Antiochean tradition- Good Friday, IRUPATHIRANDARA NAMASKARAM- where it is clearly spelt out that the body that was crucified was given by Mary; Joseph was no blood relation of Jesus who ascended the Cross with body and blood received from Mary, MARIYAMEENNETTORU MEYRAKTHANGAL, all 46 chromosomes of the body and blood that formed the sacramental offering at Calvary came from Mary physically, and hence the significance of Chavara’s emphasis on blood-relations’ values in family; I am aware that the Latin church is confused on this ‘chromosome’ issue!!; in fact we find people from P T Chacko to Pulikkunnel often relying on Trent decisions and explanations which are at variance with our traditions, that is not relevant here of course) and love, where there is love and respect for the parents and peace between God and man. Our spirituality emphasized the Christian family life. My father has told me about the practice in his parents’ generation of family prayers. His father would go out on work somewhere and would return for a late lunch, but he would not eat straightaway, he would go to the family pond to take his bath and after that ritual cleaning (Kerala style!) he would complete the prayers and forty prostrations where his wife would join him, and then she would serve him lunch and after he was halfway through the meal she would begin to eat her lunch. Obviously this was no isolated instance. Our forefathers realized that it would be miserable to live without prayer and god-sense in a family.

The basic Christian spirituality of the Kerala Christian is best described by I C Chacko in more than one slokam. The very first one speaks about the Presence in Eucharist. CHRISTUSAHASRANAMAM sums up the essence of Syrian Christian spirituality to the extent of the community’s basic understanding of Christ.

We have a tradition and a heritage. May God continue to guide us to enrich what we have so that the generations to come will have a more glorious heritage.



Michael said…
Rather odd to read of "Syrian" Spirituality relegated only to the distant heirs of Syrian missionaries in India! Of more interest to me, however, were the author's comments about the efforts of fellow members of his church to seek to adopt Roman Catholic practices at the expense of Syriac traditions. I am sure that there is an awareness on your part of the conflict within the Eastern Orthodox Church concerning Ecumenism. To simplify, the modernists support and participate in the Ecumenical movment, in various forums, dialogues, symposiums, concelebrations, intercommunion. etc., etc., and so on, ad nauseaum. The Traditional Orthodox (for want of a better designation) do not support the Ecumenical movement, and in fact, see it as dangerous, and in some aspects, heretical. Also, all of the talks and agreements between certain Eastern Orthodox Churches and various of the Oriental Orthodox Churches are seen by Traditionalists as part and parcel of Ecumenism and its abuses and heretical aspects. tbc

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