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, November 1, 2007

Journal 3

During a casual conversation with my teacher, the bishop informed me that for 10 days he’ll be in Dubai for a church anniversary. So I could stay at my family’s house . . . but then I thought this would disrupt my main intention, so I asked him about other options. This is when he told me about St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute or SEERI.

SEERI

Christianity in Kerala is unique in that all seven churches share the ancient Syriac patrimony. In fact, these churches bear the identity in their name in some way, no matter if it’s the Roman Catholics, whose majority members are called Syro Malabar, or the Protestants, whose majority are known as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Though unfortunately only one church, the Malankara Syriac Orthodox still stands with the Syriac Patriarchate, the other six churches do not deny their common origin at least in name.

SEERI was formed to keep this identity and language alive in Kerala. Courses are offered in Syriac language, literature, history, patristics, spirituality, etc. Most of the students take the two-year master’s program in Syriac language and literature.

I was pleasantly surprised by the positive atmosphere of this institute.

Prayers are set in the morning, afternoon, and evening with food thereafter, all in a timely and orderly fashion. Noon prayer is completely in Syriac; I could not but notice how our prayers come from this ancient language.

The students were all too friendly, making me feel right at home. My first contact was with one of the sisters. When she was introduced by the director as a PhD student, she kept a very serious face. I jokingly commented to the deacon who came to drop me off that all her studying has made her stiff-necked . . . then to my surprise, her true personality came out amongst other students. She laughed and smiled, always the one with comments. It just shows how first impression may not be that accurate.

Syriac Studies

My intention for the next ten days was to read as much as possible on Syriac literature since exposure to Syriac fathers was limited during my two years in New York.

The Syriac Church is often referred to as the hidden pearl. How true this is! The text I read, thought limited due to my command in English only, was rich. These writing ranged from the 4th century till the 13th. One of the fathers I want to briefly introduce to you is someone who is truly a genius: Mor Gregory Bar-Hebraya.

Bar-Hebraya (13th Century)

If there’s someone who had knowledge on every known subject, he’s the one! Just to give you an idea: he wrote on Greek philosophy, completed an encyclopedic history of the world up to his time, wrote on hundreds of subjects on church teaching, plus he learned and practiced medicine on his own. And then there’s astronomy; by astronomical calculations, he accurately predicted the year he would pass away! This exceptional bishop did all this while successfully reorganizing his diocese after Mongol invasions.

To give you a taste of his writing, one of his books translated to English is on the subject of prayer and fasting. He writes about how true prayer is union with God that brings ecstatic joy . . . think about that, prayer bringing indescribable joy. He then says:

“For him who does not know what he says in prayer, keeping silent is much better than speaking.”

He tells it like he sees it.

My ten days in SEERI was not used just in reading books, but as things worked out, one of the students became a great friend.

Zaki

His parents chose the appropriate name, Zaki. He’s small in statue like Zacchaeus of the NT (Luke 19) and like him, he’s very much giving. He comes from Turkey, the area where Syriac Christianity began. Having been born in a village, then lived in a monastery for schooling, and thereafter worked for Bible Society amongst hostile Muslims, he had so much to share. And this is stuff you can’t find in books.

Since he's been in Kerala for twelve months, Zaki knew the city well. In fact he knew of places the locals don’t even know about! Now imagine this: a white Turkish man guiding and directing a Keralite all around town! That’s me and Zaki; he led and I followed. Along the way, he introduced me to many things. For instance, we made regular stops at a roadside area that sells tender coconuts. For 12 rupees, you first drink the sweet water and then they break the coconut into two so we can eat the inside. We must have had one every day!

Malayalam

One of my primary goals is to learn the Keralite language, Malayalam. This is the language that’s spelled in English the same both ways: Malayalam. I try to learn mainly by reading newspapers. In fact, one the common sights every morning in Kerala is people reading the newspaper; if you look at the front porch you’re bound to see it. By reading the paper, I get to accomplish two things at once: find out what’s happening around the world while practicing the local language.

While on this topic, Zaki shared with me about how he knows many languages from his extensive travels. When he decided to spend two years in Kerala, he thought he could learn another language. But as he puts it, there's not a harder language in the world! After 12 months, he still can’t speak Malayalam; it’s too difficult to pick up. At least this made me fell much better because my progress is slooooow; now I know it’s not just me!

Manarcad

On Sunday, Zaki and I decided to attend service in Manarcad Church, only a few kilometers away. This cathedral is one of the famous churches in Kerala, declared recently as a pilgrimage center. Their anniversary from Sept. 1-8 brings an incredible number of people every year. You have to see the altar at this church (its looks so much better in person):

When Zaki went up to do one of the readings, all eyes were on him because, of course, he stood out. He took the church back in time with his Syriac chanting.

Beyond the history, beauty, and fame of this church was the much more awesome experience of celebrating Eucharist with full participation of the congregation. The choir quietly led (without all the annoying background sounds) and the faithful followed. This is what our liturgy calls for: everyone chanting and singing with one voice. As the songs were sung in unison, the church really became the church, the One Body of Christ.

Travel to High Range

We enjoyed our company so much that Zaki decided to come a few days with me to stay with Bishop Aphrem. And we planned it so that our visit to his diocese in the High Range Area was that same day.

During this time together, I was the teacher of Malayalam to Zaki. The student has become the teacher! He had much to share about the Syriac Church in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. It is but a miracle that Syriac Christians still survive in this area. Throughout these conversations I could sense his deep love and devotion to his church despite its shortcomings. This is what being faithful is all about; loving the church despite its negatives while at the same time working towards its progress.

The high range area was quite beautiful, especially in the morning as the fog settles in:

That morning we both climbed to the top of that mountain, all the way up to the source of its waterfall. The journey was tiresome, sweating the whole way; at some points I thought I can not go any further . . . but once we got there, it was all worth it:

At the first level:

Mid-way (the stick was quite helpful!):

At the very top:

Now this is why they call Kerala, God's own country!

14 comments:

Abu said...

Georgekutty, are you not afraid of snakes on the mountain?

Anonymous said...

I like the journal entries, keep it up.

Good to hear you're doing well.

- jimmy

Varghese Thuruthel said...

George, did you find any interesting plants on your long journey up the mountain? You know the ones they refer to as "herbal" medicine?

Well I hope you are doing well and staying safe.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

George,

We miss you man. Keep up the posts and start wearing some chappels when walking in the mountains. You look like a HOBBIT!

Talk to you soon.

Joby & Nidhy

Hasum said...

I am enjoying all the journals. It is interesting to see Kerala through your eyes

S. said...

Man i kind of envy you

DZV said...

Wow, great posts, and picking up the Syriac- shino b'shlomo.

Jaimon Skaria said...

Hi George,
Good to hear that you are doing well in "God's own country".Keep up the good work especially the journal.

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Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!

Anonymous said...

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Let us rejoice if this post actually makes it by the forum admins. There's really no harm here. I'm just drunk :)
There once was a time when I blogged about this stuff like crazy. Not many people came to my blogs.
This page rocks, keep up the good work.

When you kill a bug, ten more come for the funeral.