Sunday, February 26, 2012

A century of faith and practice: Very. Rev. Dr. Curien Kaniyamparambil Corepiscopa.

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church is buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. This recent burst of energy is not from its youngsters and young leaders but from its oldest priest, affectionately known as Kaniyamparambil achen. The church is celebrating the 100th birthday of this illustrious priest who has moulded the lives of hundreds of priests and bishops and given pastoral care and support to thousands of people in the church. His accomplishments are many like the number of books and articles he has written. The honours that he has received and his accomplishments are indeed many and known. But what can indeed be done again and again is to write about him from the personal experience that one has garnered. This will never end because Kaniyamparambil achen is so many things to so many different people.

1. An academician par excellence- Kaniyamparambil achen has been a vociferous reader and writer all his life. His urge to write is second to none and the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church simply does not have anyone who has written as much as him. This is a quality which is difficult to beat. His generation of people was a generation which had an oral tradition and reading and writing was not part and parcel of this tradition. Corepiscopa achen turned this around single handedly by starting to read and write from a very young age. The younger generation should appreciate his translation of the morning prayers before qurbana as a work that only someone like him could do. His simplicity comes through in language even as he manages to maintain the depth of meaning. It is a writing and poetic style which is very difficult to imitate. His academic interest took him to the direction of doing something for his own church and thereby his research in Syriac, church history, faith and traditions have all been for the coming generations of the church. His Malayalam translation of the Syriac Peshita bible shows this commitment to the church in unimaginable ways. The honorary doctorate that he received is not a simple decoration but evidence of the scholarship that this church father possesses. Indeed this is difficult to comprehend for a generation which does not know what true scholarship means! The half century of books that he has already published is evidence of his will to write for the church. Even today he continues writing like an old man in a hurry! It is of special interest that many young priests have made use of him to write their theses and assignments. I am specially honoured that the college I am teaching in now has one of his books in its library.

2. A perfecter of the art of simplicity and prayer- Many of achen's congregation members and spiritual children (including myself) will remember that whenever we have prepared to say good bye to him, he has stood up to pray for us and led us to a higher spiritual realm. His written works always start with “Daivathinu sthuthi” (Praise/thanks be to God). His favourite verse is “The Lord is in need of this donkey.” Kaniyamparambil achen believes that simplicity takes one closer to God. He wishes to be of help to God whenever and wherever. Those who have had the pleasure of his pastoral ministry know that achen's simplicity and approachability brought great dividends to his flock. He prayed and interceded every single day and his faith is the faith of a true Christian. His faith taught us that we should believe without seeing and that faith is not just some inexplicable experience but is simple and everyday as well. Achen’s faith in and intercession to St. Mary is second to none. He can be credited with the Wednesday Qurbana and intercession to St. Mary in many parts of Central Kerala. The Holy mother has indeed interceded for long life for this beloved son of hers.

3. A delightful preacher- Achen taught many of us the importance of preaching. We grew up hearing his sermons and knowing how to develop our thoughts from the bible verses. He was a popular preacher and took it upon himself to teach his congregation what he knew, in the hope that all who listened would not go astray. Many young priests learned to preach from him and the importance of preaching during a qurbana and how one should develop one’s sermon are invaluable lessons that one learnt from him.

4. A supporter of his friends and well wishers- It is always good to come back to someone whom you know will support you. All through his years of pastoral ministry, his congregation grew up in the assurance that he would be there when they came back home. This constant presence still continues and offers hope to hundreds of people for whom seeing him itself offers a rare calm and gives much hope to their lives. Apart from this, one can always count on achen to support you through whatever ups and downs you go through in life.

5. A role model of a true priest- Kaniyamparambil achen offers a true and firm model of what and who a priest should be. As priests, we grow up with the faith, traditions and practises of the church. Along with this, seminary education teaches us what we should and should not do. But if one wants to see first hand on how to be an ideal priest it will help to learn from achen. His prayer life, commitment towards sacraments, behaviour to people and deep spiritual love teaches us a lot on who a priest should be.

6. A priest accepted by all- Achen has been accepted by all in the church. One can say that it is a rare exception that a priest could be accepted by all people in the church. So much that there could be no doubt as to who the priest trustee of the church could be. One need not search further to know the greatness of this very mature priest. If one were to conduct a transparent poll in the church today I am pretty much sure that people across regions would vote for Kaniyamparambil achen as the most loved, respected and accepted priest in the whole of the church.

7. An upholder of sense, calm and peace in the church- Achen is from Kanjiramattom but lived the majority of his life in Thiruvalla. There is a substantial difference between the culture of the North and South regions of Kerala and this is reflected in the church as well. Kaniyamparambil achen managed to transcend this and one cannot help but saying that he could do this because of his commendable nature of constructing a sense of belonging to the place he was attached to. Achen should be honoured separately for his ability to transcend human made boundaries and build a strong network between the North and the South. The true teacher Gamaliel, as he was called by the Catholicose Mor Baselios Paulose II of blessed memory, truly taught us that we can be a one, strong and united church and that separate regions don’t matter. Achen’s presence made the welcoming of pilgrims from the North during the Manjinikara festival even more pleasant and easy because here was a priest who could go beyond small things and lead us to bigger and better things.

8. A strict follower of authority- One could learn from achen that the church follows authority and respects the hierarchy in the church. It was evident that even when a particular order from above may not have made perfect sense, he obeyed the position and authority associated with the order. This may have been taken advantage of during the early days of the schism in the church but nevertheless he does show us a different view point of the oft quoted ‘first obey then question.’

9. An accommodator of others- The brilliance of Kaniyamparambil achen is accepted by all today. We have indeed seen many instances of others seeking the shadow of achen’s presence to come into the lime light on their own. Many have thus used achen’s prowess and acceptance as a way of coming up. Achen has never prevented this even though I am sure he was aware of this all the time. His genuine character has always given this space for others to grow in his lingering and cooling shade. To be a scholar oneself is one thing but to be able to allow others to grow in that scholarly shade is unique to achen’s bountiful character.

10. There will be only one Kaniyamparambil achen- Achen cannot be replaced or outdone. I remember people telling me during my ordination that I should try to be another Kaniyamparambil achen! For me this is something that is simply not possible and something which should not be tried. There cannot be another priest who will come up to the stature of this noble priest. There are and will be great priests and bishops in the coming years but no one will do what Kaniyamparambil achen did. In his hundredth year we must realise that he is our most unique, talented and gifted priest of this century that we have passed. This honour belongs to him and him only. We will do well to stand aside and feel happy in the accomplishments and greatness of this very revered priest. The church has done well to honour him with a specific order of Arch Corepiscopos. It is unique and I hope it stays so for years to come. Till then shall we all pray for the mighty pen of our honourable Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil achen to continue writing.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The beginning of lent

The beginning of lent in the Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church starts with the Shubkono service which calls for being at peace with those who we are in contact with. The service is indeed of great significance and the holding of hands and offering peace to everyone brings in a serenity in the midst of the all the affliction we may be experiencing. The specialty of the service is in the reconciliation we seek with our brothers and sisters and those who assemble in church. One can obviously take this a step further by doing the same to people in the work place, school and college. The humility which this brings can obviously bring about much healing not just to the person who reconciles but also to the person who is reconciled with. The inherent meaning at the symbolism of kneeling and asking God for mercy also prepares us to humble ourselves.

Many divisions and problems can be done away with this act of reconciliation. It is important to know that reconciliation makes more sense when it is done from a position of strength. When one looks around one cannot ignore the fact that we are advised never to give up our position of advantage when we are trying to come to a peaceful agreement with someone. Countries and communities will therefore find it difficult to come to terms with a peaceful settlement by giving something away. The true spirit of lent though calls for this giving up of our strength and positions. Lent being a sacrifice also makes sense more to those who have something to sacrifice in the first place. One should be sensitive in not preaching to others to observe lent while continuing in one’s strength and using that to preach down to others.

This sacrifice leads to a strengthening in terms of one’s spirituality. This cannot be gauged in terms of the usual world we live in where strength means beating others into submission. The story of the wedding at Cana is also a sacrifice committed by Jesus for others. This is a sacrifice which takes into consideration the need of others and looks at what we can do for them. Such sacrifice of blood and sweat makes the wine taste better and stronger. Strength is given off by Jesus for the sake of others. It is a strength he possesses but is willing to give away.

The importance of working together during lent also attains importance through the story where St.Mary, Jesus and the workers all together work to strengthening the guests. Such is the strength of community lent as well. It should not matter that we are doing it personally but should rather matter that we are doing is as a team and working towards the accomplishment of a single goal. This will bring about a draining of one’s strength for the replenishing of energy and strength of another. This noble thought of being weak so that someone may become strong rings through the song Amazing Grace with the words “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” For the one who is being reconciled with, the thought of a caring being and the possibility to find oneself and be able to ‘really see’ is liberating.

Every lent becomes a time to re-invent what we have done. The basics are always the same but the interpretations have to change so that as we grow, lent also makes more and more sense to us. This is indeed an inspiring thought. We are becoming part of a movement. This is a movement to make the poor rich and the weak strong. For this we have to lent(d) ourselves and feel the energy and inspiration that Jesus’ disciples felt when he asked them to join the movement that he put forward. May reconciliation lead to the washing away of our sins and gaining of the lives of those who lost it for us.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The role of media and religion in society in the midst of the ‘Christ the revolutionary’ debate.

The media in all its forms does have a very important role to play in society. As the fourth estate and as a gatekeeper it has to make sure that the people of the country get to hear the truth. Knowing the truth is the right of people and telling the truth is the responsibility of the media. Over the years the role of informing and educating people has given way to entertaining people and thus infotainment and edutainment are the rule of the day. As part of the news that should have news value some particular frameworks are being used. This includes writing news based on impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, and conflict. Sadly, news is made to adhere to the above mentioned so that the audience can be attracted. The most unlikely then is created to attract the attention of the listener/viewer. Noam Chomsky brings out the government-media nexus as well and calls this "manufacturing consent."

Religious institutions also are founded and based on certain foundations which call for the liberation of the poor and the helpless and seek to work towards an egalitarian society. But one cannot help but question the lack of concern of religious institutions towards this cause and the shift towards the creation of conflict and enmity as a way in keeping their existence relevant and continual. In this sense two important institutions in society are taking more or less the same path.

The ‘Christ the revolutionary’ usage which should have not made much of a noise is now at the center of attraction of society in Kerala. For this the term ‘revolution’ has been misrepresented and made into something bizarre which Christians can/should never accept. What is wrong with the word revolution as such? Every religion has in some way or the other been formed with a revolution rather than an evolution. The creation of the controversy has brought about binaries of good and bad, religious and irreligious, sacred and profane, Christian and non-Christian and even UDF and LDF. (Political groupings in Kerala). This is the way media houses create news now but should religions follow suit? And should the word revolution and revolutionary be associated with one party only?

The initial push which has led to the creation of a religion and followers would have always been a protest against something which already prevailed. All established and powerful religions except primal religions were in some way or the other formed as a protest against a powerful dispensation. With religions being organized this original protest has been shifted out of the essence of religion. Those who talk about revolution and protest have now become an embarrassment to established religions.

Both media and religion have the responsibility to stand for the ordinary people of the land. This need not be given to one political party or grouping because this could lead to the poor being left in the dry. Those who are discriminated against need all the support they can get and all have the responsibility to pitch in. Christ in this sense belongs to the poor. The Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of St. Matthew talks of the poor, the meek and the persecuted. Jesus makes a clear remark in favour of them and calls them blessed!

The issue to be discussed is that Christ belongs to all who seek him and he makes a preferential option in favour of the poor. In this sense, revolution and protest also belong to all those who are discriminated against and who suffer injustice. It does not belong to one political party. It is time to go beyond old stereotypes and clichés and offer the truth to people. Only this truth will set us free.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why are we uncomfortable with Jesus the revolutionary?

It would be preposterous to say that Jesus is in the news again! When was he out? The CPM state meet has brought out a problem that was never one in the first place. What is the problem? Is it that Jesus is seen as a revolutionary, is it that he is seen as a revolutionary who shares the same space with other revolutionaries or is it that Jesus is seen as occupying the sacred space of Communists in Kerala? The Christian church and all its denominations put together have come out with the response that one would expect. That is to say the opposite of what any left party would dare to say.

Is our faith supposed to be so fundamentalist that we should not allow anyone to be close to and have an opinion on Jesus, which may differ from the one we have? Or are we scared that Jesus will be hijacked by the ones who question religion and therefore will de-sanctify what we have sanctified and kept holy for centuries together?

So is Jesus a revolutionary? What does the bible say? What should one say of a person who chose to work for the poor, touch the untouched and question the powerful? Why shouldn’t such a person who chose to become human be called a revolutionary? Is the word revolutionary such a problematic word? The truth of the matter would be that the church as it exists today will obviously have a problem with the usage revolutionary because it finds itself on the other side of the revolution. The church has thus become a place where caste, gender and a myriad of other disparities are conformed to and in some cases encouraged. In such a context Jesus the revolutionary becomes a burden which the church does not want to handle as it involves criticising itself.

Jesus’ association with human kind itself is a coming down of his God self. Despite being one in his divinity and humanity, he brings himself down up to the point of the cross. Human history is filled with other instances of people who have risked everything for the sake of others. A leader is one when she/he associates with the people of the land. A God in exclusion and a God who is far away then has strong competition from the God who chooses to be with God’s people. If the church protests against Jesus' representation near other revolutionaries of the left, then it should also protest when the compassionate face of Jesus is pushed out of the church and its environs.

The development of any religion is not the choreographed development brought about by several denominations. It is rather a development which comes through due to the acceptance of reality by the people of the land. If the left parties in Kerala led by the CPM feel close to Jesus, why should we barricade Jesus and use tear gas on the left cadre? Christianity professes to be a peaceful religion. It is time to show that now!

One should understand that there is socialism inherent in every movement. The Congress led UDF should also know that theirs is also a coalition that had socialist values and still has in some respects. Every government and every religion in this sense is socialist. Just as Jesus is not the exclusive God of Christians, socialism is not the exclusive agenda of the Marxists. The ongoing debate has only resulted in an issue for discussion for the media, church and political parties. One should not forget that revolutionaries do more and talk less!