|JUNE 2004||THOSE WHO LED US||
The Most Rev. Dr. Alexander Mar Thoma was born on 10th April 1913 in Kuriannoor, a fertile village on the Pampa river wedged between Maramon and Ayiroor, two important centres of reformation. The baby was pet-named Chandy or Kunjachen. His father was Rev. M.C. George of Maliekkal and his mother was Aleyamma of Angilivelil, Maramon. Rev. M.C. George was a leading clergyman of the Marthoma Church. Kunjachen had five siblings: four sisters and a brother.
His father, Rev. M.C. George, passed away when the young Kunjachen was just 10 years old. This was turning point in his life. Being the eldest son, he had to assume responsibility for the family at a tender age and stand by his god-fearing mother in the struggle to bring up six young children under economically strained circumstances. He was sketched this early period of his life in his autobiography, "under the shadow of God's grace". It is an amazing book that testifies to the world on how he lived all his life under cover of God's grace.
Kunjachen did his schooling in Kuriannoor and Kozhencherry. He was voracious reader of books in Malyalam and English and his reading list was very wide which included religious books as well. Through the help of a maternal uncle he was able to proceed to University studies at Maharaja's College, Ernakulam and he passed the intermediate examination in first class. While at Ernakulam he was in the habit of attending lectures of Hindu scholars and gurus, as he was keen to understand Hinduism in order that he can discuss religion with his fellow students, many of who were Hindus. Thus began his abiding interest in interfaith understanding.
He got a scholarship to the Union Christian College, Alwaye - an ecumenical educational institution - born of the pioneering efforts of the leaders from Jacobite, Mar Thoma and Anglican churches. His scholarship covered only the college fees but a generous cousin, daughter of Rev. A.V. George of Anglican Church, provided the funds for his boarding expenses. Kunjachen (M.G. Chandy) was attracted to Gandhian ideals and simple living at this time, which he followed all his life.
After his graduation he had to seek employment to support the family and he wanted to be a teacher. After various efforts he secured a teacher's job in the CMS College High School, Kottayam, where he later became the boarding master. A former resident, Jacob, of the hostel recounts an interesting incident during the days of the Second Word War when food was scarce. The narrator of the story, a boarder in the student's hostel, complained mildly of the insufficient portions of steamed-plantain (ethaka). The response from the boarding master, M.G. Chandy was, he should, rather than throwing away the thick plantain skins, scrape and get the most out of it, and make up the shortage of food. Jacob used to narrate this story with good humour and affection in later life to point out the economy and simple life of his teacher who became the Metropolitan. At CMS School and College in addition to regular lessons he taught yoga as a relaxation and physical exercise for the boys.
After 12 years' work as a teacher both in the CMS High School and College, he was desirous of doing a post-School and College, he was desirous of doing a post-graduate degree for advancement in the teaching profession. At the same time Metropolitan Abraham Mat Thoma, who was a friend of his father, persuaded Chandy to join a theological college. He had reservations, as he was not sure to commit himself to priestly work as implied. After careful deliberation and prayer he agreed with the Metropolitan to proceed for theological studies at United Theological College., Bangalore in 1945. There he met Mr. Philip Oommen who was to be consecrated with him a bishop in 1953. There was a Marthoma community in Banglore at that time and it was found necessary to provide a priest to care for their pastoral needs. Metropolitan Abraham Mar Thoma persuaded him to accept the ordination for serving the Marthoma Congregation in Banglore and continue his studies, which he agreed to, to be known thereafter as Rev. M.G. Chandy.
As a clergyman and theological student he did certain unusual things like organizing a fellowship group, which met under a tree in Cubbon Park, known jocularly as "Fellowship under the tree". Further he assisted in the formation of the Hoskote Ashram. While he was the clergyman at Banglore he was also able to witness the great ecumenical commitment of Indian Churches in the formation of Church of South India (CSI) in 1947.
He wanted to continue theological studies and had an offer of admission from Union Theological Seminary, New York. But he did not have the required finances. His younger brother came to his rescue by providing his traveling expenses. Rev. Chandy booked a cheap passage in a Chinese cargo ship from Colombo to New York. He took the STM degree from Union Theological Seminary and started his Ph.D studies at the Hartford Seminary where his doctoral thesis was on "A study of the vision of God in Bhagavat Geetha."
On his return to Kerala he was appointed the vicar of the Manganam Church and within a year he became the principal of the Mar Thoma College, Thiruvalla which was just being established. So he had to be involved in all the detailed planning for buildings, access road, all equipment and the library, as well as the collection of the required funds. He was able to do that very successfully and thus laid the foundation for a prestigious college, the first organized by the Marthoma Church.
While he was serving as Principal he was called to accept consecration as Bishop. The background of the Episcopal selection is described in Chapter X. He was consecrated with Rev. P. Thomas and Rev. Philip Oommen on 20th May 1953 and they were given Episcopal names. Rev. M.G. Chandy became Alexander Mar Theophilus; Rev. P. Thomas was given the name Thomas Mar Athanasius, and Rev. Philip Oommen became Philipose Mar Crysostum. Alexander Mar Theophilus was the senior of the three in age. He became Suffragan Metropoltan in 1973. Metropolitan Juhanon Marthoma died on 27th September 1976 and Saffragan Metropolitan Alexander Mar Theophilus was consecrated as Metropolitan Alexander Mar Thoma, 19th Mar Thoma, on 23 October 1976 at M.T. Seminary, Kottayam.
Thirumeni was first and foremost a bishop, a disciple of Jesus Christ. St. Paul said, in the Church God has put all the places: in the first place Apostle, in the second place prophets, and in the third place teachers. Apostles, Prophets and Teachers are given pride of place in Church and it is rare, very rare indeed, that all these gifts can be found in one man. But Alexander Mar Thoma was such a man; there was a true combination of all these three ministries in his life.
He was an Apostle; an Apostle, by definition, is one who is sent. St. Luke normally applies the title "Apostle" to the Twelve, though he recognizes Paul and Barnabas too as Apostles. Hence the Apostolic office will always be primarily an office representing God in Christ. From the beginning, this office was held by Bishops, the primary leaders of the Church founded by the Apostles. This biblical image of the Bishop as a pastor, which means a shepherd, is a recurring one. So the model of a Bishop will always be that of a good shepherd as is described in St. John's Gospel. Our Lord said to Peter, "Fed my sheep". This was a mandate that was one is given to all successors of the Apostles. The Metropolitan, the 19th Mar Thoma, was in that understanding an Apostle sent by Jesus Chris. He was called to lead the Church; called to send others into the vineyard for evangelical work; called to know when to correct others and when to overlook lapses. He was called to share the joys and sorrows of his people. Above all he was called to put he Kingdom of God before everything else. A Bishop is a man of God. It troubled Thirumeni when he saw the Church attacked, his own people quarrelling, or the young turning away from the teaching of the Church.
He was also to the Old Testament tradition of a 'voice crying in the wildernesses' such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jesus transformed this gift of prophecy in his guidance to his Apostles and gave leadership roles within the Christian community and within the society as a whole. Thirumeni was a man of vision who saw the social implications of the Gospel, the theology of liberation. His stand against alcoholism, his support for the Dalit community and the voiceless sections of the society were all examples of his prophetic ministry. At an age when most of us want to retire, put our feet up and have an easy life, Thirumeni was struggling, agonizing other how the Gospel can be proclaimed in a modern way, in an Indian way, to non-Christians in India without upsetting sensitiveness and dignities of other religions. Nearly a hundred years ago Sadhu Sunder Singh pointed out how India rejected Christianity in a Western Cup and emphasized the need to offer 'the water of life in an Eastern bowl'. Thirumeni understood the meaning of this aspect of evangelism more than anyone else did and this was reflected in his Study of Bhagavad Gita, simple lifestyle and fondness for Christian Ashrams.
Thirumeni was very proud of his 'Indianness'. Once, in 1982, this writer had the privilege of escorting Thirumeni for an evensong at Wedminister Abbey at the invitation of Archbishop Runcie and the Bishop of Southwark, Ronald Bowlby. We were expected to be at the Abbey at 3.45 PM for vesting, but on the way, police near the Westminister Bridge, because of some rational protest marc, stopped us. I was beginning to panic a bit. But had the presence of mind to tell one of the police officers that I had with me in the car the head of the Indian Church and that he is a guest of Archbishop of Canterbury for the evensong at the Westminister Abbey. Therefore, it is very important that he should be allowed to be at the Abbey for the evensong at 3.45 PM. The officer called his supervisor on the mobile. I heard him saying with a typical English sarcasm that he had to stop the car of a very colourfully dressed Indian Chief in his full Royal regalia and his Royal Highness the Indian Chief is saying that he wants to be at the Abbey for the evensong at 3.45 PM. His supervisor officer asked him to apologize to Thirumeni and instructed him to give us immediate motorcycle escort. They stopped all the traffic in the Parliament square and White Hall for our sake, and two motorcycle out-riders escorted us to the Westminister Abbey in time for the service. To cap it all, at the end of the service Thirumeni gave his benediction in Malyalam at this truly international ecumenical service.
Thirumeni always enjoyed the humour of this incident when ever I had the opportunity to remind him of this in later years. He was indeed a great Indian chief, a title given to him on the Westminister Bridge by a London police officer. He was thinking all the time how Christian faith can speak to the needs of our world. He lived and worked under the divine grace all his life, "kripayude thannalil". The role of the prophet is not to e a crystal gazer, like the fortuneteller, but to interpret the signs of the times; to facilitate the action of God here and now so to point to the future. He did this so well and so regularly through his monthly letters in the Tharaka. They were real treasures. It was this prophetic vision with which Thirumeni supported and gave all the encouragement to Zacharias Thirumeni to create a Christian Ashram at Santhigiri. Thirumeni knew fully well that the 'carrot and stick' kind of evangelism has no place in India now and is fast approaching for us to adopt an Ashram-based evangelical ministry.
It was again with a prophetic vision that Alexander Marthoma Valia Thirumeni helped, encouraged and advised a few of us to organize a FOCUS (For Christian Understanding and Solidarity) group seminar for the Diaspora Marthoma Christians in February 1999 at Santhigiri. Thirumeni saw the need to build the lay leadership of the Church and he was concerned about the marginalisation of a very effective and talented segment of professional people from from a 'lost generation of leaders' in our Church. Therefore, Thirumeni took special care in chairing the very first meeting of international committe of the FOCUS Movement at Diocesan Centre in New York on the day of the consecration of the Sinai Diocesan Head Quarters. Rt. Rev. Dr. Zacharias Mar Theophilus and Rt. Rev. Thomas Mar Timotheos were present at this meeting. It was at this meeting that the Metropolitan advised us to organize regular international seminars on topics of interest for the spiritual growth of the laity and for building an international network of Marthoma Diaspora communities.
Thus the fruit of his ministry and leadership are to be found in parish after parish of the Marthoma Church around the world. The participants of the FOCUS seminar from ten countries were deeply grateful to the Metropolitan for the support and encouragement that they received from Thirumeni. He was disappointed in not being able to attend the first seminar at Santhigiri in February 1999 because of his ill health. He initially wanted to host a dinner for the delegates of the seminar as a father preparing a feast for his visiting children. A representative group of foreign delegates from the seminar visited Valia Thirumeni at Poolatheen on Saturday, 13 February 1999 and presented him with a short report of the seminar and the abstract of their deliberations. Thirumeni very graciously promised to implement some of the recommendation after consulting the Synod and the Council. In spite of his poor health, Thirumeni hosted and interacted with the delegates. He stressed the need for a continuity of our efforts in organizing further seminars in future.
For many of us it was to be our last meeting with this great Metropolitan of our Church. It was indeed a very memorable experience and a very significant opportunity for the foreign participants of the seminar to feel the kindness, sincerity, concern and love of a great Metropolitan of the Church. Most of us had tears in our eyes when we did farewell to the saint. Here was a Thirumeni with his people, listening and giving comfort and hope to them: a pastor of pastors enquiring about his world-wide parishes and his people. Our prayer at the time was simply this, "May God give him strength to guide us into the new millennium." We are grateful to God for hearing our prayers.
He was also a great teacher. Thirumeni took his teaching role seriously. Once upon a time a man looked into the reverse side of a mirror and, not seeing his face and head, he becane insane. Thirumeni through his teaching was able to point out time after time, how unnecessary it was for the man to become insane by poring over the reverse side of a mirror. Throughout his ministry, he taught how foolish and unnecessary it is for God's love on the wrong side of the mirror of life. He started his career as a school teacher at the CMS high school, Kottayam before becoming a priest. Later he became the founding principal of the Marthoma College at Thiruvalla. Thirumeni understood from childhood that a religious upbringing is the only basis for good education. Such an education would help us to understand the meaning and the need to live under the 'cloud of unknowing'. "to taste and see that the Lord id good/". This would also allow us to to appreciate the 'foolish and unknowing wisdom' of St. Paul: "That all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.
But our appreciation of great men is not to praise them in this sort of memorial editions or to put them in stain glass windows or in paintings; or to name buildings after them; great men are inspiration for us to follow. The greatest we can pay to Alexander Mar Thoma is to take those things seriously for which he lived: his causes and concerns, a 'middle way' in facing problems, a simple lifestyle, Bible study, edavaka mission, and evangelization. To honour him is to hold firmly the traditions and the doctrines of the Church, to be free and confident to risk anything for the sake of the Gospel. It is to know that faith of our Church so that we can be free and is confident to risk anything for the sake of the Gospel. It is to know that faith must be taught and theology studied with intellectual integrity if people are to be spiritually fortified and the truth proclaimed to an unbelieving world. The world will only believe us when we 'live out' our Christian faith or in other words we must 'walk our faith' rather than talk about the faith of others or to get worked up in revival meetings. We are called to be part of the solution, not the problems, of the world; for which we need divine guidance. St.Paul wrote to Corinthians, that kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. This power is the love of Christ that was fully expressed on the Cross.
For eighty seven years he walked under the divine grace on a noble path, which consisted of right-mindedness, right concentration, right view, right thought, right behavior, right speech and right lifestyle. This was indeed a noble path, which transcended the two extremes of light-hearted freewheeling liberalism and a self-torturing hardhearted fundamentalism. The third or middle ay helped him to contribute enormously to ecumenism and evangelism which was a key factor for expanding the restricted geographical, cultural and traditional boundaries of Marthoma Church into aglobal Church with unprecedented opportunities. Marthoma Christianís throughout their history in Kerala have shown their ability for cultural innovation and integration and it is in many ways uniquely poised for such a witness through the Diaspora communities in the world scene in the 21st century. Its character as an evangelical and reforming Church, but also as a Church rooted in the deep traditions of apostolic succession and other Eastern liturgical traditions should imbue Mar Thoma Christians with a profound sense of mission in the world arena. We have now reached a critical stage in this development, because of the visionary leadership of our last three Metropolitans and other Bishops. We can no longer remain satisfied as a Church of the Pampa River Basin culture with its limitations and peculiarities. A new global village with its challenges and opportunities is a contemporary reality. Valia Thirumeni was the first Metropolitan of a truly global Mar Thoma Church.
It is important to recognize Valia Thirumeni's contributions in this silent revolutions during the last quarter of the 20th century. It was during his stewardship that we were able to buy or build many churches and even a beautiful Diocesan Center in New York for the Diocese of North America and Europe. Late Rt. Dr. Thomas Mar Athanasius, Suffragan Metropolitan, the Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostum, the present Metropolitan, and the Rt. Rev. Dr. Zacharias Mar Theophilus ably assisted Valia Thirumeni during this period of the phenomenal growth of the Diaspora parishes. This task is now placed in the able hands of Coorilos Thirumeni. Thirumen's very last visit to the United States in 1998 was to dedicate the Diocesan Centre in Long Island and his people to the service of all peoples in that most powerful nation in the world. Building and nurturing a Diocese from nothing was one of the outstanding and most significant contributions of our Valia Thirumeni. Thirumeni very much appreciated and thanked many lay leaders of the Church, who had contributed to this mammoth task, a fact often forgotten by others. Metropolitan wanted the laity to continue to play a role by developing future leadership of the Church. Metropolitan wanted the laity to continue to play a role by developing future leadership of the Church. Metropolitan's life was an open book; he was a Bishop for 47 years and a Metropolitan for the last 23 years. We all knew him in our own personal ways. He also wrote a wonderful autobiography - "Daiva Kripayude Thanalil."
He was a very humble man; humility was the insignia of his personality. A few years back, at a family conference at the London Bible College in Northhood, a young man questioned Thirumeni about the theological position of a few seconds and said, "in my limited understanding, when one is under the influence of the Holy Spirit others would know it without any effort from oneself." This phrase, 'in my limited understanding' captivated this writer ever since, because they came from the head of the Marthoma Church who was supposed to know the alpha and omega of the teaching about the baptism by the Spirit. Here was a man with an unlimited understanding under the yoke of Christ's humility. A daily experience of the love of God was the secret of that winsome humility. Living under the spiritual 'cloud of unknowing' is a very meaningful expression of love of God. This is probably why Dionysius said: 'the most God-like knowledge of God is that which is known by unknowing.' It used to be a sign of humility and devotion to support one's own original ideas by citing scripture, but today it has become a way of parading one's cleverness and scholarship. Thirumeni recently quoted a triplet that he learnt in his childhood.
[Excerpt from the book 'Glimpses of Marthoma Church History' authored by Zac Vargese Kanisseril and Mathew Kallumpram.]
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