Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Heroic Virtues and Vattasseril Thirumeni

Article on Vattasseril Thirumeni by C.K. Kochukoshy I.A.S 

 Note: The article appeared in the magazine The Star of the East in 1984. Vattasseril Thirumeni was declared a Saint by the Holy Church in 2003, 19 years after this article was published. The Star of the East was an ecumenical journal dealing specially with the oriental and eastern orthodox churches.

Heroic Virtues and Vattasseril Thirumeni

Whenever the memory of the late Mar Dionysius flashes through my mind, the first idea that strikes me is the concept of heroic virtues associated with some of the Christian saints of the hoary past. We normally imagine that a saint of any religion is one secluded from the hurry-skurry of mundane life, sequestered in a hermitage, praying and meditating and blessing people who flock to get his darshan. A different type of a saint may be a theological Pundit with knowledge as his forte, all the time studying and interpreting the scriptures, making profound statement on the faith, morals and discipline of his religion and consciously leading a puritanical life. We may also visualize a still different holy man, a live-wire organizer who always runs to the succor of the oppressed, who extends a helping hand to all those who need it. He exudes the image of a good Samaritan doing some social good every day as a philosophy of his life. Holy in their own way, what distinguished some of them from the early saints of Christendom however, was the predominance of heroism in the virtues the latter which gave a new glittering dimension to their sacrifices, personality and image. These heroic virtues arise from an extraordinarily deep commitment to the causes they espouse and an unflinching faith in God which make them bold to suffer any privation for His sake. To present day tacticians, it might appear that such heroism had not been quite warranted and their causes could have been served more economically with much less sacrifice. Take for example the case of St. Peter. He told his captors to crucify him with his head down, a much less convenient posture for execution than the normal one if only he had just kept quiet, he would have been crucified in the normal way as his Lord. But Peter heroically asked for a more cruel form of death inviting more trouble for himself. Heroic virtue therefore, is not merely facing challenges with courage and conviction, but doing so with a bang and without any regard for consequences. There is no scope for any doubt about the depth of commitment involved. The ideas of maximum returns with minimum necessary expenses which guide modern business administration do not exist in the realm of heroic virtues.

Perhaps with a tinge of filial affection, I believe that if Mar Dionysius had been born in some earlier centuries in a different geographical context, his name would have already adorned the list of saints who are believed to be constantly interceding before God on behalf of sinful mortals like us. Even so, the really great souls of the past have left behind them vivid shadows of their lives which have an invincible tendency to appear longer and longer as decades and centuries pass by, very much like the steadily elongating shadows created by the afternoon sun. It is under the influence of this elongating shadow that we are forced to think of Mar Dionysius every year and to assign to him the sobriquet “SUN OF THE MALANKARA CHURCH”. It is he who persuaded the Patriarch of Antioch to transplant the old Catholicate from Tigris to Kerala. This was no doubt an overdue recognition of the autocephaly of the Indian Church as in the case of any other Orthodox Church. All these churches have national bases and are autocephalous. In any case, this would have been inevitable when India became free in 1947, despite the desire of a small section of our brethren to preserve the anachronistic umbilical cord with Antioch.

One of the most distinguished historians of the current century, Z. M. Paret, has graphically describe the trials and tribulations of Mar Dionysius, in his efforts to uphold the dignity of the Malankara Church. The image of Mar Dionysius  which emerges from the pages of Paret’s history is that of an extraordinary Knight of the Garter in the realm of church and endowed with an intellect far superior to any of the Knights: A native Bishop, resisting all pressures to wrest agreements surrendering their temporal rights to foreign authority, naturally exasperated the Patriarch who had believed that such agreements were necessary after the Royal Court decision ruling out any such powers for him in Malankara. The intense desire of the Patriarch to secure temporal powers and the equally intense opposition to it spearheaded by Mar Dionysius collided, resulting in the excommunication of the latter. For half a century, the atmosphere in Malankara was surcharged with emotion. All patriotic elements lined up behind Mar Dionysius giving him solid support. The late O.M. Cheriyan offered the first prototype of present day gherao against the Patriarch and thwarted for the time being, all designs against the Malankara Metropolitan. But events were moving fast and Mar Dionysius was finally excommunicated, alienating from Antioch, the sympathies of a large section of the church. This eventually led to the traumatic split in the church.

A permanent solution to the problem of foreign domination was to obviate the very necessity of depending upon Antioch for all ecclesiastical purposes, once and for all. It may be recalled that this dependence had started only in the seventeenth century for the consecration of our bishops fully in conformity with canonical law for which benediction of an episcopal authority was deemed essential. H.H. Abdul Messiah the senior Patriarch of Antioch was kind enough to acceded to the request of Mar Dionysius and bestowed on us the heritage of the old Catholicate of the East at Tigris which had become defunct a few decades ago. This background will help us in understanding the intensity of the agony suffered by Mar Dionysius before and after his excommunication. When he was told that his excommunication was in the offing, he is reported to have quipped that he would as it were a gold necklace. He was right in this metaphor because the subsequent invalidation of the excommunication by the judiciary and also by the establishment of the Catholicate in Malankara shows that it was nothing but a blessing in disguise. Even some of our own people who had reservation about the Catholicate at the time are today rallying round the very same institution with a reduced weight and luster compromising with canonical law. It was the sheer boldness intellectual honesty and other heroic virtues of Mar Dionysius which have secured for our Church the stature of an independent entity and ensured its phenomenal growth in the twentieth century. If Mar Dionysius had succumbed to the temptations and signed the agreement aforesaid, even today we would have been under the tutelage of a foreign hierarchy, creating more problems and suffocating our initiative and self-respect.

Mar Dionysius was an intellectual giant with a penetrating theological mind. He was a Jnana Yogi. His brief and juicy dissertations on the fundamentals of Orthodox faith are very famous. He challenged the validity of his excommunication on grounds of natural justice and canonical law. His detractors grilled him in court, trotting out uncanny aspects of biblical legends to confound him. As a Bishop he could not afford to question the sanctity of any of the allusions nor their relevance. On the question of natural justice, they asked him whether God Almighty had obtained the explanation of Adam and Eve before they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. A lesser genius would have floundered miserably. His opponents were trying to prove that the Patriarch was right in excommunicating him arbitrarily. When many eyes and ears were glued on to him inquisitively, he astonished the Court and the advocates by saying that while Adam had confessed his guilt, he was totally denying it. He also added that according to canon law, only the Holy Synod had the right to punish him and not the Patriarch all by himself. They asked him whether there was any session of a Synod before expelling Adam from Eden. He cut short the glee of the questioner by pointing out that the authority involved in the case of Adam was God Himself  and in any case the decision to expel Adam was taken by God in His Trinity consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, a virtual synod of the three members in unanimity. Those who questioned him must have given him up unable to get anything out of him. His examination, cross examination, etc. took a very long time, running two weeks. But Mar Dionysius was never rattled. If any question was repeated to him, he reminded the advocate the exact earlier date on which he had answered the same and the accuracy of his memory was always found to be phenomenal.

The spiritual and saintly aspect of his personality has been almost entirely obscured by his heroic and intellectual image. The superhuman halo of his Karma Yoga is noted by all his admirers though a few of them also know the strength of his Bhakti Yoga. He had an unflinching faith in God which he did not like to exhibit. But he was a saint par excellence. The Malankara Church has yet to consider more seriously the question of his canonization. I have experienced his blessings on a few occasions which were definitely miraculous by any standards. My recently published book INTO AN HOUR GLASS contains references to these mystic experiences. The book itself is dedicated to his sanctified memory. During the tumultuous days of the summary case regarding the possession of the Old Seminary in 1911, an enemy agent set upon to do away with his life, one night climbed up a ladder stealthily placed behind his room in the upper story of the Seminary building. The mercenary fell down twice from the ladder on seeing the Metropolitan deeply engrossed in his midnight prayers and kneeling before God, unaware of the diabolic designs against him in operation. The murder mission having thus failed, Mar Dionysius continued to be in possession of the Old Seminary. Fear was not his weakness. Once, when he saw one of his priests being rough-handled by a muscle man trespassing into the seminary compound, he was so annoyed that he reacted like Christ in the temple of Jerusalem. He promptly administered, with the help of his walking stick, an argumentum ad baculum, to one of the priests of the opposite party who was stage managing the whole ugly operation. Attention of everybody was distracted from the business of trespass and the situation was saved for him. The coldblooded murder of one of his body guards in the very vicinity of the Old Seminary could not unnerve him, neither could a loaded pistol help point blank to his chest. He was made of sterner stuff. The question naturally arises as to what was the motivation that sustained him from succumbing to such severe onslaughts. On the spiritual side he was excommunicated, on the physical side he was under constant threat of liquidation and on the social side at least a section of his own church was ranged against him. Why did he brave all this and fight to the bitter end? No personal gain could have compensated an ascetic like him. These were his infinite faith in the destiny of his Church, in divine justice and the convictions imbibed from his predecessors like the Saint of Parumala and Mar Joseph Dionysius of Pulikkotil. He was determined to see that the poor, simple and ancient church established by St. Thomas was not allowed to wither away. He was inspired by the purity and righteousness of his faith and believed that it ought to be nurtured and allowed to flower in its own oriental environment in this country itself. He believed that this was his mission and he should protect his Church both from its internal and external detractors alike. Once convinced of this mission, he was willing to pay any price for its consummation and undergo any suffering for its sake. His heroic virtues arise from this situation. He suffered for this Church and the poignancy of his suffering, like that of Christ was that at least some people for whom he borne the cross not only disowned him but even belighted (sp?) in mortifying him.

His scholarship of the Syriac language and theology, his ability to understand and interpret the law of the land, his impregnable logic and incisive intellect and above all his devotion to God and his saintly life have made him a unique soul, still hovering over Malankara and his people, always ready to help them. More and more people are seeking his intercession and witnessing to its efficacy. I have experienced that often his intercessions are decisive and immediate and hence highly dependable, provided it is invoked with faith. He is already a saint for a large number of people like me and our number is bound to swell as time lengthens the shadow of his memory. If and when he is declared as a Saint, the like of him even in the saintly fraternity will be rare. The Hindu Scripture Bhagavad Gita, mentions three Yogas for self-perfection which is the goal of life according to its philosophy. These are Karma, Bhakti and Jnana i.e., action, devotion and cognition. Realization of God, they say is possible through any of the three paths indicated by these yogas. The soul is endowed with two wings, viz, Bhakti and Jnana with Karma Yoga to serve as the tail to maintain balance. This analogy of a bird projects the relationship between the three Yogas and the Soul. Despite his great devotion to God, it would not be proper to describe Mar Dionysius exclusively Bhakti Yogi. He himself had taken care not to exhibit his devotion to God, in any conspicuous way. Though a great scholar in Theology, he did not claim superiority over other on the basis of his erudition. Though a man of action willing to strike or help people as the occasion demanded it, he never pretended to be a Karma Yogi. But if we study the annals of religious history, there will be few men who have combined themselves so admirably the virtues of devotion, cognition and action as the late Mar Dionysius. Such a combination of heroic virtues is symbolized by the lofty bird to which the Bhagavad Gita commentators have alluded. Malankara Church should move now to honor the soul that had made the church what it is today.

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