Saturday, March 20, 2010

Week 15: Reflections on Religion

This photograph was taken at Kurisumala Ashram near Vagamon in the Western Ghat highlands about 30 miles east of Pala where we live. Michael is tired from all of our recent traveling (see last week`s report), so this is me, Kristine, providing some reflections this week.

Although I returned to Pala from six days at Kurisumala over two weeks ago, there was little time to write about the experience, since the next week we went to Udaipur and Ahmadabad for conferences (Fulbright and Global Warming). The retreat was wonderful, but before talking about that, some history about the Syrian Catholic Church might be helpful.

As mentioned before, the Catholics in Pala often refer to themselves as St. Thomas Christians, that is, their religious conversion can be traced back to St. Thomas the Apostle. Indeed, many of their church structures can be dated to before the year 1000 AD, and before Vatican II, the language used in their liturgies was Syrian (close to Aramaic, the language of Jesus). When the Jesuits and other orders came in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were surprised to find many people in South India already practicing the faith. However, since the ritual was different, those of the Roman rite tried to impose both the centralized church structure (the St. Thomas churches are decentralized but connected to each other) and the rubrics of the Roman rite upon the Syrians. One particularly contentious issue was that of married clergy, which eventually Rome was successful in banning. (The clergy in India are totally celibate today). Besides celibacy, Rome restricted the Syrians from evangelizing, especially in certain areas. While these restrictions were somewhat mitigated by Vatican II declarations there is still contention about this issue. (On a personal note, I have been attending the Syrian rite in Pala. Daily mass is well attended and almost everyone receives communion. On Sundays, there is standing room only. In our travels, I have attended Roman rite churches, and the contrast is striking. On Sundays, the church is only half full and few receive Eucharist. In India, the Syrians appear the more compatible with the culture.)

Liturgically, there are some interesting variations. First of all, there are two altars separated by a veil which opens after introductory prayers are said, before the Liturgy of the Word. The scriptures reside on the altar of sacrifice (which reminds me of pre-Vatican II)-up against the foremost wall, in the sanctuary or what the Syrians refer to as the holy of holies. When the gospel is proclaimed, the priest brings the scripture (accompanied by two altar boys with lighted candles) to the exterior altar. The liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated on the altar of sacrifice with the priest facing away from the congregation during that time. While communion is sometimes distributed western style, with long lines going up to the priest, often the priest (accompanied by an altar boy with lit candle) weaves up and down the aisles of the church, distributing to the men first and then the women. On Sundays, there is typically elaborate use of incense. Their altar boys (usually four, grade-school age) could teach us about incense. The censure is usually glowing, if not on fire, and the youngsters swing it with athletic vigor. During daily and Sunday mass, the congregation usually responds with an oriental sounding (minor key) chant. On Sundays, however, the responses usually are accompanied by electronics -- Syrian Catholic karaoke (the synthesizer usually sounds like a harmonium). During communion, a hymn may be sung by a soloist or the entire congregation.

At Kurisumala, there were more variations in liturgical rubrics. While basically Syrian, most of the masses are celebrated facing the congregation, with the celebrants and the congregation (stools for those who wish) sitting cross legged on the floor. Along with the bread (one whole wheat round for the whole assembly)and the wine, flowers are offered. At one point about a dozen flowers are individually prayed over and offered up with the Eucharistic gifts. Incense is a daily affair, not only at mass, but also at the liturgy of the hours. (3:30am, no coffee or food, monks in saffron robes chanting in Malayalam, a cloud of incense, and butterflies winging around the chapel -- either I had gone to heaven or was in one of those David Carradine movies!) The monks typically chant the prayers which are often accompanied by harmonium (no karaoke!)

As you know, this trip to India has been a challenge for me-the heat, the humidity the mosquito bites, the problems with washing. Kurisumala was thankfully, a lot cooler but quite austere- hard bed, stools (no chairs with backs), early rising and rice and vegetable curry for most meals (at breakfast they actually had the best whole wheat bread-a rarity in India). No towels, sheets, soap or toilet paper were provided (although I brought my own- have learned to come prepared for all circumstances here).

However, what most impressed me about Kurisumala was what it stated in their brochure -- no fees are charged but donations will be accepted. They added that the daily cost of hosting a guest was Rs 50 -- about a dollar. This was so unlike what happens so often in retreat centers in the US. Three hundred dollars for a 3 day retreat.. (They often do say that stipends/scholarships are available, but you wonder: Is $300. the real cost of the retreat? If yes, would it not be better to lower the budget (simpler food, accommodations, etc...) so more folks would find it more affordable? Or is the price so high intentionally to attract a certain income group? Or is the market place determining the value? The Brothers were welcoming but not overly solicitous. I was happy to have a private retreat and they were content to let me be.

Two books that were helpful during the retreat was Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit (essentially, the Syrian version of Prayer of Christians) and Revelations of Love by Julian of Norwich. The good thing about the Harp was that the monks prayed this each day and not just with their mouths. Like Prayer of Christians, there are psalms and scripture readings, but also there are poetic prayers, many from St Ephrem to whom the Syrians attribute their theology. Often these prayers refer to events in salvation history, the cycles in nature, and religious philosophy. They inspire deeper reflection. There is a lot of physical activity and gesture in Syrian liturgy. For instance, at the beginning of most prayer times, while singing ``Holy are You O God, Holy are you the Strong, Holy are you the Deathless who was crucified for us, have mercy on us!`` the monks go from standing position to full prostration-three times. Except during Fridays in Lent, when they do it 30 times. Most of these monks are 40-60 yrs old. I have to admit, as a Westerner, the religious practice in India, whatever the faith, puts us to shame.

Julian of Norwich gave me a new perspective on suffering, as she contends that Jesus gives us suffering to one us with Himself. Since Jesus` greatest act of love was His passion and death on the cross, when we participate in that agapic mystery, we become one with Him. (Not the popular idea, that God wants us to be self-fulfilled; suffering is only the result of our bad karma, Jesus came to bring healing if we believe, etc…). Another revelation that Jesus gave Julian is that all manner of thing will be well. Julian is confused about this revelation. She asks Jesus: What about the teaching of the Church about hell and purgatory? What about the obvious results of sin and selfish free-will choices that are made? Jesus only responds that what may be impossible for her to conceive, is possible for Him and assures her that He will perform the great act so that all maybe well. While some might consider the radical implications of this revelation as heretical, to me it was a comfort. (I have often wondered how the God that preached forgiveness seventy times seven, could also maintain eternal punishment.)

During my stay at Kurisumala, there were two personal messages of grace. The first was regarding the bathroom. Upon arrival I noticed there were two bathrooms next to my room, both with Indian style toilets ( essentially, a hole in the ground with two places for your feet in front). As I sat in my room wondering how I would manage this, I saw that there was a door in the back of my cell-a closet maybe, where clothing might be hung. I opened the door and about three steps down was a bath room with a Western style toilet! Halleluia! Thank you, Jesus. The second occurred one morning when the chapel was filled to capacity. As I grabbed a stool to sit in the vestibule, I looked up and saw a cross above the entrance to the church. Not just any cross, but the cross (smaller version) that I took with me to Pala, the same one that was left in my prayer corner in Portland, the very same that graces Ascension, my parish church: The cross of San Damiano! (We have visited many churches and shrines and I have never seen the San Damiano anywhere except Kurisumala.) How well Jesus blesses us and makes us feel welcomed and at home!

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