Under His Wings
by Bar 'Eato Briro Dr. Babu Paul
The first pilgrimage that I can recall was to an island called Parumala. I was seven, may be eight. I went with Ammachy, my maternal grandmother. We crossed from Pannaikkadavu in a small boat, may be a kothumbuvallom. The river was in spate. Or was it the normal thing those days for rivers to be so menacing? After all they were the days prior to environmental degradation and the dams. I was scared. I was not familiar with rivers or boats. I was born in a Perumbavoor suburb that was away from Periyar. Malayattoor or Thannippuzha would have made me familiar with Periyar. But I came from a hamlet east of Perumbavoor. For us the river was miles away and we went to Periyar only after we became big enough to cross the river in bamboo rafts and fish with country made explosives they called thotta. I became familiar with the river when I went to Alwaye College as a fifteen year old fresher. Every hostel in the College had its own bathing ghat. Tagore kadavu, Holland kadavu, Chacko kadavu. Tagore was the great poet. Holland was an old Englishman gratefully remembered. Chacko was KCChacko, the Black Saint of Alwaye, one of the four founders, who shared the gold medal for MA(Philosophy) with Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, later President of India. There was a hostel named after each of these. And each hostel had a kadavu earmarked. And even after we became familiar Periyar frightened when in spate. I remember the flooding Periyar. Water gushed forth. As if suddenly released from some storage. So fast. And carrying logs and uprooted trees, leaves and all, and carcasses. One stayed fifteen feet away from the mighty river. In awe and fear. Was this the same placid river that received us in joyful mood and allowed us to take breast strokes on her torso? Anyway that was to be many years later. For now the seven year old was scared. The only consolation was that he was with his grandmother. And having never seen a grandfather he guessed that grandmothers were just as powerful, and affectionate. And that she would not let her grandchild sink. All the same it was prudent to pray. Discretion is the better part of valor. And so pray he did. To Mar Gregorios. Whose tomb was the destination of these two pilgrims, the grandson and the grandmother. Did the tiny boat tilt a wee bit as the boy made the sign of the cross emphatically to, hopefully, please the God a little more? Scared he still was. And was he not relieved when he set foot on terra firma on the island! At long last, that is.
That journey was the beginning of a bond that has survived the test of decades. Now I sleep under his care, and wake up to see him awake. I have a facsimile of his signature on my desk. I write nothing without touching that to make his grace and wisdom guide my hand. A practice that I developed from mid 1970s or so. I touched it before I signed my pay bill every month, and before I signed any major file. And I have his last picture at my prayer booth and also beside my bed. Each has a story behind.
In the nineteenth century the diocesan boundaries were not deemed legally rigid. If there was a metropolitan camping in a parish when a pally yogam, an exclusive privilege of St. Thomas Christians, called the Law of Thomas or Thomayude niyamam , held a meeting the visiting Metropolitan authenticated the proceedings. Today no metropolitan would dare to do that. And no diocesan metropolitan would tolerate that! Mar Gregorios of Parumala used to frequent my home parish. On one such occasion he affixed his seal and signature to a Palliyogam minutes. My father who was Vicar there for thirty-two years , almost at a stretch, showed me the old book and with his permission I took the photocopy. The picture has a more circuitous history. It is from an original photograph showing four favourite disciples of Mar Gregorios next to his mortal remains just before his funeral. The disciples were, as they came to be known later, Mar DionysiusVattasseril , Mar Koorilose, Mar Athanasios of Alwaye and Mar Geevargese II Catholicose. This picture was available with a priest, a cousin of mine, may his soul rest in peace. He took it to some photographer in Kottayam for recopying. There a monk of the church(our church praises the Lord in two styles, Damascus and Devalokam, the monk speaks to his Creator in Devalokami script) chanced on it. He smuggled it out and showed the treasure to Mathews I, then head of the group. He ordered a copy for himself. That is exhibited at Devalokam now. The monk got one, and though no monk I got one too.
This picture reveals the fact that Mar Gregorios had his eyes open and body bent at the time of his funeral. Rigor mortis had already set in when the devout disciples saw the Guru’s mortal remains. To my mind there is a divine plan here. The saint had said that he would not be alive the next morning. And all the four disciples had decided to watch over him the whole night. At some point of time a veil of sleepiness descended on all the four. Like the disciples in Gethesemene they dozed off. And then the Lord appeared to personally lead Mar Gregorios to heaven. On seeing the glory of the Lord filling the small room in Parumala Mar Gregorios tried to get up and his eyes reflected his amazement: so this is the one in whose praise I walked my life, he must have thought. That is his last gift to us his devotees. The picture that tells a story. The eyes do not appear dead. They are alive. Shining. Communicative. He watches over me as I sleep alone in my room every night. I feel every night that I sleep in his presence.
Mar Gregorios brought from Jerusalem the holy relics of St. Cyriac (Mar Kuriakose) the infant martyr who along with his mother St. Juliet(Marth Yooleethy) died for the sake of faith. My parish had a hillock where Mar Gregorios enjoyed watching the sun set on the western horizon. It was his favoured place for meditation whenever he was at Kuruppampadi, our parish. He therefore enshrined the holy relics there and put up a Cross. Later when Patriarch Zakka visited the parish in 1982 His Holiness directed that Holy Mass be offered there every Friday. Today even that has become a pilgrim centre. Children are taken there before they start schooling. The queue for nercha there has already covered every Friday until 2009 or so.
Let me recall an incident from those days involving my ancestors. My grandmother’s house is next door to the church. Those days with neither a telephone nor a motor car available the actual arrival of any Metropolitan would be known only after the event. Naturally the first few meals came from my grandmother’s place, which was also traditionally the home of the Vicar, and often the Trustee. And the church had a large compound where the village kids played about. My grandmother had a sister, just a couple of years elder to her. Mar Gregorios suggested a marriage for her. He took a mango and cut it into two, giving her a half and giving the other half to a handsome young deacon of the parish. For some reason the two families did not take it seriously. Mannanda, the young girl, was married to a prominent family in the parish. The deacon also married somebody in due course. Mannanda died within a year of her marriage, without issues. And the deacon lost his wife within forty days of his becoming a priest. In our church while married men can be ordained an ordained priest cannot marry afterwards. I would not say that this was the curse of the saint. On the other hand I would like to say that the saint had devised a way to ward off the tragedy which unfortunately was not seen by the two families.
I am aware that people of different faiths and of no faith would read this. I also know that in every belief system there are similar experiences. In every socio cultural context there may be similar stories and legends. For me however the intercession of Mar Gregorios is a real life experience. I do not visit Parumala frequently but as part of my devotion in the morning I imagine myself standing at the tomb of the saint and recite a prayer which runs as follows: O Lord my God, Make me worthy of your peace, and the peace that you bless your saints with so that I become pure enough to worship you and your Cross. By worshipping You and through the intercession of your saints may I be granted pardon for my many sins of omission and commission. Lord answer my prayer for the sake of Mar Gregorios.For those who depend on other saints or the celestials and deities in the Hindu pantheon similar experiences may be available to be cited. May God bless them all. As a theologian I am a pluralist but today there are no theologians except the hardcore fundamentalists who are not inclusive theologians and therefore while it may offend Christian fundamentalists when I say this( they would anyway be offended by my adoration for Mar Gregorios) no mainstream Christian theologian, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox would find me blasphemous or heretical. As for Hindus they have always been inclusive anyway.