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:
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:
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.
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.