Starting from August 2007, I'll be staying in Kerala until May to experience our rich Syriac Orthodox tradition and become "keralized". On a random basis, I'll be posting my thoughts and experiences. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Journal 2

I planned to stay at my uncle’s house for a few days to adjust to the time difference. I found that the ideal time to land in India is early morning. This way I have no choice but to stay awake all day in order to meet everyone and get settled. Then once night approached, I had no problem sleeping. My body adjusted to Indian time rather quickly.

After a week with my family, the bishop I will be learning under, H.G. Aphrem Mathews, instructed me to meet him at the Patriarchal Center in Puthencruz, only a few minutes away. When I first saw the new center of our church, I was taken aback. What a grand structure! The view from the front entrance was captivating:

The two side portions are still being built. Once its done, it’ll be one of the largest religious centers in the state.

My thought then turned to meeting my teacher. Though I’ve spoken to him in New York, most of the things I know about him come from others: he’s unpretentious, sings beautifully, very knowledgably, speaks English well, and funny. Now I have 7 months to find out if it’s all true! The first quality was proven true instantaneously: his presence made me feel comfortable and relaxed. Whereas some come across as being formal and “by the book”, Bishop Aphrem was friendly and for a lack of a better word, down-to-earth.

Why Visit Kerala?

After finishing my formal education in New York, I wanted some practical/hands-on experience of our faith and culture. Reading it in book versus being there are two entirely different things. Thus this decision to go to Kerala. The state of Kerala is unique in that most of the Christians in India live here:

This faith miraculously survived from the days of the disciples amidst the otherwise large population of Hindus and Muslims. This was the reason why I wanted to visit this state; Christianity is ancient, mature, and well-preserved. Plus it's where I come from.

First Church Visit:

I got my first taste of my Syriac Orthodox faith when we visited a small village church with Bishop Aphrem for their anniversary. As a side-note, Bishop Aphrem is in charge of the high range region within Kerala. These are areas outside cities, mostly mountainous. And it somehow worked out that this place is also very beautiful. But the way to this particular church was not so beautiful. I had my suspicions when I saw that we would be traveling by jeep, not car. As the bishop put it, we’ll be well-massaged once we get to church! Though it was a few kilometers away, it took us over an hour, so you can image the condition of the roads.

As we drove into church, you should have seen and heard the welcome! Everyone was waiting outside while a band played songs. Fireworks were going off in the background, church bells ringing. What a grand welcome! I had to remind myself that it’s not me that they’re welcoming. :)

People in villages and rural areas are often perceived to be “under-developed” and poor. As I saw these people, they did, yes, look poor on the outside, but they were rich and “developed” in many other ways. For instance, though they may be uneducated according to our modern standards, their faith was firm. I spent two years learning graduate level theology, but these people know God in many more ways. If you asked me why, I could only reply, “come and see”.
Furthermore, they honored the bishop not because he’s Aphrem Mathews but because he’s God’s representative. It’s not so much the person they’re honoring but who he represents. Their faith was alive.

As service started, the church choir caught my attention. Consisting of a few girls . . . and before you jump to any wrong conclusions, these girls caught my attention because they were children with loud, confident voices; voices still innocent. Hear and see it for yourself:

After service, the congregation was all too friendly. No sign of pride, but humbleness only. They went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. As the bishop’s deacon put it, there’s something fulfilling about the services and overall atmosphere in these small churches that you won’t get elsewhere.

Different Yet Similar Experience:

A few days later, I got a taste of another church anniversary in a much larger scale. Our ancient church is called Syriac Orthodox because of its relationship with the Patriarch of the Syriac Church in Antioch. And when I say Patriarch, I do not mean the one person. Much more than the person is the way of life or identity he represents. Who and what I am comes from this ancient Semitic faith and tradition. This faith, as Scripture tells us, began from the days of the disciples: “And they were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26).

A testament or proof of this handing down or 'traditioning' of what we hold dear is the grand feast of one of the Syriac bishops who came to Kerala and died in Kerala, Mor Baselios Yeldho. He came at the age of 92 (92!) when the church was facing difficulties, traveling a far distance, especially on foot through the forest after arriving in India. Four others traveled with him but only two survived the dangerous journey. He soon died thereafter in 1685.
The memorial anniversary for this beloved bishop takes place in Kothamangalam Church where he is buried. People from all parts of the state travel to this church just to see and pray in front of his tomb. I witnessed this crowd. The entire city is decorated, as is the church:
All transportation leads to this church. Streets were blocked off around the church for people on foot only. I went in the early evening and then at late night of the same day. People never stopped coming. Many walk from far distances as a group or pilgrammage. After walking many kilometers, they then have to fight through crowds and then finally for a few seconds, they get a glimpse of the bishop’s tomb.

I was told that many of these people are Hindus, who also see this bishop as someone extraordinary. To this day, there is a Hindu family, healed by this bishop on his way to Kerala, who from that generation onwards lead the inaugural procession with a lighted lamp. In addition, elephants come to the church during the feast and bow down before his tomb! More importantly, you should see the faith of the people as they approach his tomb:

I observed parents coming to the tomb with their child, whispering to them special prayers to be repeated. Men and women, young and old, stand with tearful eyes of supplication. Some bow down. Others simply stand in reverance. This is faith in action!

When it comes down to it, no matter if the place is a small village church or a grand cathedral, God hears those who come to Him with a broken and contrite heart.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Journal #1: My First Week

For some reason, I actually looked forward to my long plane ride to India; maybe it's the time alone to read, watch movies, meet others, and rest. My initial flight from DFW ended in Switzerland, taking about 9 hours. I have to say that American Airlines was a disappointment. This was made more obvious when I then took Swiss Air. Swiss' service, food, and amenities were much more satisfying. They even offered free wine; I couldn't pass it up!

I then had a stop in Switzerland for 5 hours. When we landed, I followed the inviting sign: “Swiss Lounge”. I had to find a place to rest. When I got there, I heard the disappointing welcome: "Hello, are you a first or business class traveler?" :(
Their sofas looked so soft and comfortable! . . . thank God that the rest of Swiss airport was clean and well-kept.

My next flight took me to Muscat. Here I had to switch to Oman Air. What a change of scenery! As soon as I stepped out of the plane, it was obvious; this airport must have been built in the last century. Agents were still using paper filing . . . my only prayer was that my luggage would safely transfer.

A prevalent sight at this airport was their Muslim citizens. I have nothing against them wearing their traditional, very conservative clothing. But the conflict with this practice versus "modernization" was all too obvious. The Muslim women covered their heads, but pictures of half-naked women were regularly seen advertising perfumes and jewelry. I could hear rap music in the background while waiting in line. As we landed, Marriott's and Hilton's were all around the city . . . westernization is taking hold even in this otherwise very conservative land.

On Oman Air, my neighbor shared with me his life in Dubai. He's on the way to see his wife and two sons in North Kerala. Though he describes life in Dubai as restrictive, he's been there for the past 16 years. Every year that he makes his trip to India, he promises not to go back. But he goes back thinking one more year . . . the money is hard to pass up. His life consists of working two years then going to India to see his family for 4 months . . . what a life! So we talked about how certain things are priceless; thank you MasterCard!

Welcome to Kerala
I landed in Kerala at 6 am and was all too relieved to see my luggage come through safely. Going home, I noticed that highways were in impressive condition.

But then we took the local roads . . . still the same:

First Day

The first morning began with great news. The goat at my uncle's house just had two babies! In watching them, I noticed how a mother's love for their children is universal; she keeps them close, licking them constantly.

If you look at this picture, a dog is also in the stable:

My cousin tells me that the mother is great friends with it. But now with her babies, she's constantly poking at the dog violently to make sure he doesn't come too close . . . that's mom!

My Initial Observation

While traveling I couldn’t help but notice guys urinating on the roadside; it's hard to miss. How repulsive I thought; don’t they have decency?! After seeing this many times, guess what?:

There's something “freeing” about being able to go when I need, where I need! :)

Now this is a great transition to my next topic:

Daily Religious Life

Let's move on to a more serious topic. I noticed that faith is put into action regularly in the religious culture of Kerala. For instance, whenever one passes a cross, they make the sign of the cross. People do it instinctively as they pass by. There are many of these cross towers all around:

As a side-note, if these cross towers are #1 on the most seen sights, a close second would be this:

(it's a sign for liquor shops!) I guess it’s either God or alcohol in Kerala.

Besides the cross towers, I’ve noticed many cars, trucks, and buses have God's or a saint's name written on it. Businesses have pictures of Christ or saints prominently on their walls. All these are reminders of who they are. Of course, it's the faith within us, in our hearts that matter, but these tangible gestures and visuals couldn't hurt.

So far, I’ve been waking up at sunset. My aunt said that it's still common practice for locals to wake up at 5am for morning prayer. In fact, our nearby church rings its bell at this time. I take a walk for some exercise (I need it after all the food I’m eating!); plus walking helps in getting to know my surroundings. I hope I can keep up this routine.

These are my main observations after my first week in Kerala. I'll try to post as often as I can, and please post your comments, too. Hope everyone's doing well . . . God bless!