Monday, June 1, 2009

Dreams come true

Modern technology, the Internet, lets you meet people all over the world. It also lets you share in the adventures and their joys. One of my Internet friends is Shinosh Geevarghese Philip (Ponpally), Kuwait. He was able to live one of his deams which he recounts in the following article.

Dreams Come True

Visiting nations and communicating with people, has been a desire that I cherish. Being a member of the Syriac Orthodox Church, to be able to meet with the Spiritual Head of the Church, had been my dream. Ever since childhood, my desire to meet with HH, deepened. During the Apostolic visit of His Holiness 1982, I was not born. Nevertheless, as and when I listened to my mother’s narrations and read souvenirs published on HH’s historic visit, I used to wish and wistfully pray that our Holy Father might visit Malankara once again to bless his spiritual children. In 2000, when HH visited Malankara to attend to the Bishopric Golden Jubilee of the Chief Metropolitan of the East, for me it was a dream come true. The great meeting organized at Puthenkurizhu turned out to be the venue where Almighty let me see HH, for the first time when I was a seventeen years old. As one of the Hundred and One members of the ‘Syrian Melodies choir’ under the patronage of Kottayam Diocesan Bishop H.E. Thomas Mor Themotheose , Almighty granted me the grace to sing a welcome song to HH on that day. Though I was not able to witness the Mass led by HH and 16 other celebrants (Pathinezinmel Qurbana) that took place at Chingavanam, the only solace was listening to the audio recording of the Mass. I have heard this recording at least five hundred times.

Even after the blessed meeting in 2000, my thirst to meet with HH was not quenched. ‘If the ‘Bava’ were able to stay in Malankara for ever’ I craved like a juvenile lad. The year 2004 turned to be another blessed year when HH visited India. In spite of the fact that I was at the zenith of my personal grief at that time having lost my beloved father and Brother in law, my inner desire to meet with HH drove me to Marine Drive Ernakulum and to the premises of Morth Mariam Church Manarcad where HH was honoured. In Ernakulum I overwhelmingly watched HH lighting the lamp that marked the Silver Jubilee of his ascension to the Patriarchal Throne. At Manarcad, when HH offered the Holy Mass and declared Morth Mariam Church, the mother church of Kottayam Diocese, as a Cathedral and as an International Marian Pilgrim Centre, it was yet another occasion when my heart was filled with adoration and thankfulness to HH for his acts of sanctity and love for his children in Malankara. I, in particular, remember HH’s great oration protesting abortion and his words on Holy Mother Mary, who bore and gave birth to Jesus in spite of the fact that she had conceived at a time when she had not known a man, still ring in my ears.

Four years passed by. HH, the angel of peace, visited Malankara once again to participate in the concluding meeting that commemorated the Priesthood Golden Jubilee Celebration of HB Catholicose of India. Since, I had left India for Kuwait to assume a career; I was not able to witness this historic apostolic visit of HH. Nevertheless, accessing Internet Radio Malnkara of our ever growing church, through other web portals, TV media and through the almost daily reports of my close friends, I kept hearing and watching the great event remotely, though. Even during those days, my heart whispered that I should meet with HH in person, one day……

Christmas 2008

As for me, Christmas 2008 turned out to be the most unforgettable and blessed commemoration of our Lord’s Holy birth. On Christmas day at 11:30 I got an opportunity to leave for Syria along with Monachachen, in whom I find my elderly brother. From the moment the Jazeera Airways took off from Kuwait Intl. Airport, my heart started pounding with excitement thinking of the great places I was about to see, for the first time in my life. I felt as if I were in a dream world. As the pilot chose to fly at a low altitude and as I had a side seat, I was able to have a clear view of the scenes below through the aircraft window. We landed at Syrian time 12:50 in the Damascus airport.

The airport looked very old fashioned. It took a very long time for us to complete the formalities and collect our baggage. We had made pre arrangements for a guide to pick us up from the airport. It was quite easy for him to spot the two Indians emerging from the airport. He took us straight to Maaloula, an antique village nestled down in a mountainous region of Syria. The mountain tops on the way looked really unusual. We felt that they were petrified human faces, in a row. The populace of Mallolah claim to be one of the few communities that keep, Aramaic, the language presumably spoken by our Lord, alive. For the same reason, stepping into the ancient village of Maaloula, was quite an experience, as if stepping into a distant past. The caves on the hillsides and the ancient buildings scattered on the slopes add antiquity of the village. We had an opportunity to visit St. Serges and St. Bakos Church, one of the oldest churches in the world. A lady explained to us about the traditions of the Church and concluded her speech by reciting our Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. Another remarkable experience was a walk through a very narrow ravine, apparently formed by splitting of the mountain. Tradition has it that the mount was split by a divine intervention to let St. Tekla disciple of St. Paul, escape from the clutches of her own father who chased to kill her for embracing Christianity. Thin water courses gurgled on our sides and I posed in a cave for a photo. At the other end of the ravine, our guide and driver had been waiting for us. We did some shopping in a souvenir shop and soon were on our way to Seydnaya.

Seydnaya, is a suburb of Damascus city. Before night fall, we had to reach our destination. On the way to Seydnaya, we had opportunity to visit ancient Churches and passed by villages where you still could feel antiquity. The Churches and the residential areas were brightly lit to commemorate Christmas. Finally we reached Seydnaaya, where the five storied Patriarch’s palace is located. I felt like kneeling down and kissing that blessed ground. Nonetheless, I did not dare to do that. Finally, I had reached my dreamland. That thought itself was a gratification. We entered the reception area of the grand palace. The hall was decorated with Christmas lights, a nativity scene and a huge Santa Claus. We waited for Deacon Markose from India, who currently serves as Malankara affairs Secretary to HH the Patriarch of Antioch. From the time we reached Damascus, we had been in touch with the Deacon who had arranged for our accommodation in Seydnaya. Deacon turned up with a smile and warmly welcomed us. In spite of the fact that we had been in touch with him only though phone and emails and had never met him before in person, we were astounded at his friendliness and concern. Deacon Markose, who used to be an engineer chose a monk’s life and currently learns Syriac at the seminary within the palace. When I listened to him fluently communicating with the Priests, Monks, Deacons and Nuns in impeccable Syriac, I was literally stunned for my knowledge had been Syriac is liturgical rather than communicative. The most interesting fact is that the Deacon does not speak Arabic and the inhabitants of the Seminary who know Syriac, mostly speak Arabic and hardly any English. In such an environment, Markose Deacon’s linguistic skills in Syriac works perfect in mingling with them.

Deacon took us to the Guest House where he let us choose spacious rooms to stay and gave us a vivid account of the building. We were surprised to note that he had thoughtfully carried along with him Arabic bread, packets of coffee, tea, sugar and an electric kettle for our use. Asking us to join him for dinner he left. At 7:30 we met him at the reception of the Patriarch’s palace. Deacon guided us to the Dining Hall that was at the basement of the building. Along with the friendly monks we had dinner that chiefly comprised Arabic versions of sandwiches, chips and soft drinks. We were told that HH lives on the third floor of the five storied building. In the same floor, we came to know that there is a chapel named after Mor Aprem (known as the harp of the Holy Spirit).

On the 26th at 6:00 PM, Deacon had scheduled a meeting for us with HH. In the morning we attended a solemn service at the chapel in commemoration of St. Mary, mother of our Lord. The Rev. Fr. Yuyakim Remban conducted the service under HE Mor Savarios Sakka, who has now retired from active services.

The driver had promised to collect us at about 8:30. Hence towards the end of the service, we left the building. While waiting for him, we had an opportunity to visit the Church that is located next to HH’s palace the main attraction of which is the golden Throne of St. Peter – the seat of HH. It is a small, yet, magnificent Church.

Soon we were on our way to Homs, an antique city. The main purpose of this journey was to visit an ancient Church where, St .Mary’s girdle is preserved. The driver, though an experienced person, lost his way after reaching the city area. He had to repeatedly seek assistance of the city men to guide him to the Church. Probably in panic, he wrongly entered a one-way street and ended up paying a penalty. Interestingly enough, the policeman after penalizing our driver, guided him to reach the Church. And finally, we reached our destination. It being Christmas season, the Church compound was fully decorated. A large nativity scene stole the show. People in turn were posing for photographs before the nativity scene. We had our turn too. We entered the ancient Church built of stones. On the stone walls of the Church, hung ancient paintings out of which one painting of St. Mary and Infant Jesus took us by surprise. The digital camera we carry has a function to identity human faces. While focusing, it shows a rectangular yellow outline around each human face. If focussed to an inanimate object or even an animal this line will not appear. Nevertheless, while focussing to this particular painting, surprisingly, a green outline appeared around the face of St. Mary and Infant Jesus. Why did it happen so. We have no explanation…….We then visited the holy area where St. Mary’s girdle is kept within a glass chamber. Beside this Holy remaining, there is a certification issued by the archaeological evidencing that the girdle is 2000 years old. We sat in area where there is seating arrangement and spent time in silent prayers. As for me, as an ardent devotee of St. Mary, this was a great moment in my life. Shortly we left the Church building. The Church compound happens to be the Head Quarters of Homs Hama Diocese whose Head HE Mor Silvanos Patros was present in its office on that day.

Dreams come true

One of the Rembans (Monk), his name was Betros, led us to HE. The moment HE saw us HE recognized us to be people from Kerala and asked as “Sukham Aano?” It was hilarious to hear Malayalam from a Syrian Bishop’s lips. I said “Sukam Thanne” The Remban, on our request, took our pictures along with HE who was kind enough to pose with us. After spending some time in friendly conversation, we left the church compound. We visited another ancient Church named Mor Elian, a beautiful small church bedecked with ancient paintings on the walls and within its sky dome. In an interior part of the Church, lies remaining of St. Elian, within a raised tomb. Our Homs visit had come to an end. Once again, we were on our way back to Seydnaya.

We travelled through the mountainous roads that stretched through miles. The sand dunes glistening in the sun, the rows of pine trees and olive trees took me to a realm of serenity. Since the road crossed Maaloula, we had an opportunity to gaze once again at the ancient village nestled down in the mountains. Before evening, we reached Seydnaya.

Fulfilment of my desire

The hour had come. At 6 pm, Deacon Markose took us to the third floor of HH’s palace. At that time, we were told that a meeting HH had with the Metropolitan of Beirut HE Daniel Mor Cleemese was still going due to which we had to wait a little longer. We spent some time with Deacon Markose in the Chapel discussing on the maiden book ‘Trails of the Shepherd’ which Mohan Achachen has written. The book shortly will be released from New York. At 6:30, we were beckoned to HH’s Office Room. Exhilarated, I was rather in a dream world at that moment – I gazed at the Spiritual Head of my Church transfixed whom I had so far seen only at distance on the occasion when he visited India. I did not know what to say for words seemed to have clogged in my throat. The moment my childhood dream had come true -- a blessing that does not come the way to thousands, an occasion to personally meet with the vicar of our heavenly father on earth, to kiss the arms of the blessed Holy Father. First HH wished “ Merry Christmas” Then HH gently asked from where we are. The realization that we were from Kuwait, made HH ask whether the Church in Kuwait was functioning well. It was clear evidence how concerned and how loving HH is about his spiritual children. When we talked about the new book, HH blessed Mohan Achachen and graciously assured him of his prayer support for the success of the book. It was a time for my big brother to be overwhelmed with joy, tasting the goodness of HH.

Then came a bigger surprise. HH invited us to join him at his personal table, for dinner. I thought I would lose my consciousness at that point, for it was quite a rare privilege.

We were guided to the inner room. The table was small that could accommodate only four chairs around it. HH sat on one of the chairs. On the opposite chair sat Isaac Mor Savarios. HH asked us to sit on the remaining two chairs. If we had sat, it would have meant two other Bishops, HE Daniel Cleemese and HE Mathias Filaxinos, who were in the room, have no option but to sit on the back seats in the room. We politely told HH that we would rather sit in the back seats and let the bishops occupy the two chairs. Our request was granted. We sat on the back seats along with Deacon Markose. HH’s prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac. After the prayer H.E. Mathias Filaxinose served food to HH and to H.E. Isaac. Offering us plates, the young bishop gently asked “Can I serve you food?” ‘Goodness gracious, in which world am I in, who am I to be served food by a bishop?’ Plunged in those thoughts I must have swayed my head in consent. H.E. served us food. Then H.E. looked at my plate again and said “Excuse me. I served you less food. With your permission, shall I serve you a little more” There was no way for me to say no to H.E.’s affectionate gesture. More food was served. It was a rice dish with nuts and meat in it, served with gravy. One spoonful of the food filled my stomach for I was still in the dream world. HE Filaxinose closely watched whether we were comfortably eating. Probably because of the excitement, the food clogged in my throat. Realizing my predicament, H.E. served me bottled mineral water which helped me to swallow what was stuck in my throat. I, somehow, ate the food. After food, came another request from H.E. “Can I take your plate” For a moment I thought of the incident when our Lord washed the feet of His disciples in the Upper Room of Sehion. H.E. collected the plates from us. It was yet another convincing gesture that H.E. Filaxinose, who holds the position of the Principal of Mor Aprem Seminary which operates within the Patriarch’s palace, by all means, is a chosen High Priest who has responded to the call of our Lord to be a shepherd to exemplify the love of Jesus through his deeds and words. The instruction of HH to give us sweets, was immediately obeyed by the young Bishop. H.E. served us Arabic sweets and then fruits. After the food, HH prayed once more after which walked to the Visitor’s Room. We were invited to the room. HH with deep interest asked our whereabouts and background. HH, the ambassador of God on high, placed hands on our heads and blessed us. Before parting, HH sincerely asked to visit him again. Once again kissing on the holy hands, we parted with HH Ignatios Zaka Iwas the First, descendant of St. Peter the Father of Fathers and Shepherd of Shepherds.

In the lower floor of the palace, we had a conversation with Deacon Markose from whom I learned about the ecumenical visits of Patriarchs of other Churches to Aprem Seminary and about HH’s return visit to their offices. In addition, I heard from Deacon Marcose that HH is very well respected in Syria even by the political leaders. Once a year, either the Syrian President visits HH in his Palace or HH pays visit to the President’s House. HH equally pays attention to the downtrodden and the oppressed. About 3000 Iraqi refugees are given accommodation near the Palace, under HH’s patronage. I felt extremely happy when I heard that HH personally pays attention to the well being of those refugees who had to leave their motherland on grounds of religious persecution. HE Isaac Zaka Mor Savorios of whom I have mentioned earlier, making use of his international connections, supports HH collecting funds for the refugees and helping them to migrate to European nations. While HH graciously accepted the rasheesa we offered for the refugeses’cause along with an icon of Ponpally Punniyalachen as keep sake, I kept praying for long life of HH.

We retired to the guest house near the palace. After a peaceful sleep we got up early in the morning. Deacon Markose had promised to accompany us till Damascus. Our guide came on time with his car and our return journey started. We entered the ancient city. With him, we had brisk visits to a few significant locations. We visited a huge mosque which used to be a Church. After Muslim seizure, they turned the Church to Mosque. In spite of the attempt of the captivators to wipe out signs of Christianity, three relics still remain indelible. The first one is a baptismal place located within the mosque. Attempt to demolish this Christian sign was blocked by a divine intervention. It is said that upon each attempt of the captivators, blood started gushing out from the floor and finally out fear, they gave up their attempt. The second is a monument under which St. John’s head is buried. This remnant, as well is located within the mosque. The third sign is writing in Greek language, in one of the exterior roofs of the Mosque that proclaims that Jesus, our Lord, will come again. The existence of these three signs draw lot of Christians to this, otherwise Muslim Centre.

We did some more shopping from a souvenir shop located near the mosque.
Our next visit was to an ancient market place. As we walked through the market, once again I felt as if I were stepping into a distant past.
We continued our journey to the ancient walls of Damascus. On our way, we visited the Head Quarters of HH where Deacon Maarkose had some work to do.
The next spot was the House of Annanias, the very place where Annanias prayed for St. Paul after having become blind at the sight of Jesus on His way to Damascus to seek permission to destroy Christians. We spent silent moments in the house which is partly underground, remembering conversion of Saul to Paul. God transformed the life of a man whose intention was to destroy Christianity to a man whose mission turned a life for Christ.
At the gate of Damascus Deacon bade farewell to us. His affection and care shall remain in our lives always.
Our driver took us to the airport. Within two hours, as the plane took off I gazed at the disappearing landmarks of Syria beneath, with a silent prayer that I should come back again.

Our journey to Syria turned to be a pilgrimage for us during which we met many a number of great personalities who have given their lives to serve the Lord. The Rambans in Aprem Seminary do not crave for luxuries or for the position of bishops. What I have seen in them is the compassion of Jesus and what I have heard from their lips are praises to the lord. I must say, the Rambans in Aprem Seminary are role models. I wish to write, in particular, about a Ramban whose name is Sleeba. Every morning he takes a tractor and goes to the olive orchards in the Palace compound and work for long hours tending to the olive trees. I must relate another incident; the act of HE Mathias Mor Filaxinose, who with a smiling face, was found re-arranging the chairs after a programme, on the day we had first arrived at the Bishop’s palace. It was this same bishop who had served us food in HH’s chamber. All of them, the monks and sisters who live in HH’s palace display humility through their deeds and words. Their central point pretty much, is HH at whose feet, I humbly place this travelogue.


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