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
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. 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.
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
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.
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
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!
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!
On Sunday, Zaki and I decided to attend service in
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.
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
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!