An Ancient Church, and a New Venture of Faith in It

An Ancient Church, and a New Venture of Faith in It

By Mother Edith, O.M.S.E.

Cut off from the rest of India by a mountain range six to seven thousand feet high, lies the long narrow strip of coast-land called Malabar. It is a land of great natural beauty, with high blue mountains to the east, while on the west the sea runs inland in a chain of lagoons fringed with thick groves of coco-palms, and it is crossed by several large rivers sweeping swiftly from the mountains to the sea. The southern part down to Cape Comorin is the state of Travancore, and the northern part is Cochin, each ruled by a Maharajah of its own, under British protection.

This beautiful but secluded land is the home of the earliest Christian Church in India, the ancient Syrian Church of Malabar, founded according to local Christian tradition (and modern research is tending to confirm its very ancient origin) by the Apostle St. Thomas himself, who after his mission to King Gondophoros in northern India, is said to have visited Malabar and made converts among the Brahmins there, before passing over to the Coromandel coast to meet his death by martyrdom at Mylapore, near Madras. Tradition also tells of an influx of several hundred Christians from Syria under Thomas of Cana in 345 A.D., and of another colonist party of Syrian Christians who settled about 825 A.D. at Quilon, one of the chief trading ports; just as two colonies of Jews from Syria settled in early times in the port of Cochin. Our English King Alfred sent an embassy with gifts to the Christians of St. Thomas in Malabar, and one of the documents belonging to the embassy is preserved in the Record Office in London.

The heathen rulers of the land in early times granted various privileges to their Christian subjects, giving them the place they still hold among the aristocracy as next after Brahmins; but at other times they oppressed them, and made very stringent laws which are still in force to prevent Brahmins from becoming Christians; a Brahmin who does so loses not only all his property, but the guardianship of his own children. Yet still this little Christian community, far from Christian neighbours and support, continued to exist in India for more than a thousand years. Then in the sixteenth century, during the time of the Portuguese domination on the west coast, all the Syrian Christians, except a few who fled to the mountains, were compelled by the Portuguese to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, and conform in their worship to the ritual prescribed by Rome; their own original Syriac liturgies and books being taken from them, and as far as possible destroyed. But after 80 years of Portuguese dominion the Dutch gained possession of the trading-ports of Malabar, and the Portuguese were driven back northwards to their possessions at Goa; and that district has ever since been the great Indian stronghold of Roman Catholicism, and was the last place in the world where Christians were burned for heresy, the Inquisition only coming to an end there in 1818.

During the Dutch supremacy in the 17th century the fugitive Syrians came back, and such of their ancient liturgical and other books as had survived were brought out from their hiding-places, and many of the Syrians who had conformed to Rome under compulsion returned to their ancient faith and manner of worship, reestablishing connexion with their spiritual kinsfolk at Antioch and Edessa, although a still larger number remained in their new communion with the Church of Rome.

Thus the primitive Syrian Church of Malabar was reduced to being only a poor remnant of its former self, deprived of half its members, of most of its books and places of education and churches, and of almost all its resources, and unable to obtain real help from the Church at Antioch, itself then suffering under Moslem oppression. The marvellous thing is that it survived at all. How poor and oppressed yet faithful it was at the beginning of the last century we learn from the letters of the Oriental scholar, Dr. Claudius Buchanan, who in 1817 visited it from Calcutta, and brought news of its condition to Bishop Heber, who was greatly interested. And then returning to England (taking with him to Cambridge various Syriac manuscripts, and some very ancient charters inscribed on copper plates) Dr. Buchanan pleaded for help, especially educational help, to be sent to these isolated yet steadfast Christians of the east.

For nearly another century Malabar remained an isolated and almost unknown part of India, communication being cut off on the landward side by its high range of mountains, and seaward by the silting up of its harbours. But the last few decades have seen a great change; the capitals, first of Cochin and then of Travancore, have become accessible by rail from other parts of India; and right down the country the Maharajah’s highway, with its splendid new bridges over the swift river, carries a constant stream of motor traffic from one end to the other of this land, where the former mode of transit was chiefly by slowly-punted boats down the peaceful lagoons.

Meanwhile within the country itself another great change had been going slowly forward during the last century of its isolation. In response to Dr. Buchanan’s appeal to England, the C.M.S. sent out Missionaries to Malabar, by whom his hopes of raising the standard of education among the Syrian Christians have been amply fulfilled; although the type of mission-of-help to the ancient Church which he had in mind was perhaps too far in advance of the ideas of the day for its achievement to be possible at that time. Thanks, therefore, mainly to the influence of the schools started in the eighteen-twenties by the C.M.S. the Syrian Christians of Malabar are to-day a well-educated community (they were by inheritance an upper-class and intelligent one), and many of the high posts in the state are now filled by Christians; while the education thus started has gradually spread through the whole country, till the state of Travancore (which, needing no army, can devote 1/5th of its revenue to education and hospitals), has now the highest average of literacy for both men and women of any part of India; and Syrian Christians who go out from their country to study at other universities take high places in the honours lists. A Syrian Christian lady, who was one of the most brilliant students at the London School of Medicine for Women, is now State-physician in Travancore, with a seat on the Legislative Council (the first woman in India to have this), and is in charge of a splendidly-run State Hospital for women; while another Syrian Christian, an ex-fellow of Balliol, is used by the Government of India as an adviser on financial matters.

Contact with the outer world is now freely open to Malabar; the land is full of eager young students; and since high-school and college education is carried on there in English, all that can be read in English is theirs to lay hold of and discuss; and every year great conferences are held, attended by thousands of students, and addressed by people from all parts of India, and sometimes from America, and new influences of all kinds are being brought to bear upon them.

Syrian Christians form 1/7th of the total population of Travancore and Cochin, and number about 770,000; of these 403,000 (more than half) are Romo-Syrians, and 250,000 are Syrians in the direct line of spiritual descent from the earliest Christians of Malabar, who call themselves the ‘Orthodox,’ but are popularly known as the ‘Jacobite’ Syrians, both rather misleading names from a historical point of view. Another large body of 110,000 are Mar Thomites, a semi-Protestant, progressive sect, who separated themselves from the main body in 1889; there is also a small body of Syro-Chaldeans in Cochin state, and several smaller sects. A certain number of Syrians have joined the Anglican Communion through the C.M.S., but the greater number of the adherents of the C.M.S. are not Syrians but converts gained from heathendom.

The above short statement shows what deep cleavages exist within the Syrian community, but it is not of this sad side of things, but rather of a venture of faith in the “Orthodox” branch of the Syrian Church that I have been asked especially to write, in the hope of gaining the sympathy and prayers of many of the faithful for the first community of Sisters in this ancient Church.

In the Malabar Syrian Church, as in the Greek Church, the parish priests are married, but all the bishops are monks. There are, however, no monasteries, for they are monks of the Order of St. Anthony of the Desert, each living alone, as in the earliest days. The bishops have no possessions, but at each church and seminary a room, as simply furnished as the prophet’s chamber, is provided for the bishop to occupy while he is there, and this room generally communicates with a gallery at the west end of the Church, which serves the bishop as an oratory; wherever the bishop is, the faithful of that place provide him with food during his stay, and they convey him by boat or palanquin to the next place he is visiting.

The liturgy in use is the East Syrian form of the liturgy of St. James and it is said mostly in Syriac; so all priests before their ordination study Syriac in the seminaries, and bishops are required to have attained a yet higher degree of scholarship in Syriac, which is the ecclesiastical language; all the entries, for instance, that they make at the end of their “Pontificals” recording the use of the services in it for making a monk, or consecrating a church or a bishop, must be made in Syriac. Their Pontifical descends from that of St. James of Edessa; and, besides the Order for making a monk, it has also one for making a nun, which until lately had not been used for 400 years, since the time of the Portuguese ascendancy.

The Romo-Syrians of Malabar, however, have about fifty convents of Indian Sisters as well as seventeen monasteries, all connected with western Religious Orders, and a desire for religious life in community has been growing among the “Orthodox,” both in men and women, and has already reached it first expression in the foundation of the order of the “Imitation of Christ,” under the guidance and inspiration of Fr. Gevergese (George), who has lately been consecrated as the first missionary bishop of the Syrian Church with the name of Mar Ivanios. Mar Ivanios (who besides being a Syriac scholar took the M.A. degree with honours at Madras University), has gathered round him at Bethany for the past sixteen years a keen band of young men, of whom 20, after long probation, have been admitted to the Brotherhood, 6 of them having been also ordained as priests and 5 as deacons. Their aim is to follow our Blessed Lord in His two-fold life of much prayer and of active work for the coming of the Kingdom; and their work, especially among the outcasts, is already bearing fruit.

But besides the men who gathered round Fr. Gevergese to devote themselves with him to the religious life, there were those among their sisters and cousins who were feeling drawn by the same call from our Lord to the life of absolute dedication. What could be done for them? Fr. Gevergese turned, for help to the Oxford Mission to Calcutta, with whom he was already in touch through the O.M. Brothers’ coming yearly to speak at the Students’ Conferences in Travancore.

Far away in East Bengal a little group of Indian women in connexion with the Oxford Mission were trying to prepare for the Religious Life, and he asked that a few Syrian girls might come there too, to study and pray and wait for guidance. The first to take the long six days’ journey to Barisal were three young girls aged 11 to 16, who came in the summer of 1916; they were followed by several others, among whom was a rather older but still young widow, who under the guidance of her uncle, a hermit-monk, had been living for some years a life given to prayer and good works. Fr. Gevergese arranged that whenever possible a Syrian priest and deacon should be at Barisal, so that they might not be cut off from the ministrations of their own Church, and three other Syrian girls, who were studying in Calcutta for the B.A. degree, came to spend Christmas with them, one of whom has since joined their Sisterhood. After a time the child who came at 11 years old was sent back to finish her high-school course, but she too returned afterwards to the community. The Bengal women found the arrival of these Christian girls from another part of India deeply interesting. Here were women not western but Indian, whose families had been Christians for centuries, so that they had grown up in Christian homes, and had generations of Christian tradition and training behind them; while they in Eastern Bengal were either themselves converts or children of converts, and had all lived surrounded by a wholly heathen atmosphere. One of them expressed the difference they felt by saying, “We can’t be good even when we try; while they don’t know how to be bad even if they wanted to be.”

The Christian home-life in Travancore is often very beautiful; the women, who are held in honour and educated, have charming manners, and are very gentle and affectionate. A noticeable feature of Syrian home-life is that every household comes together three times a day for prayer and worship led by the father of the family; even among the poorest the father of the family gathers the children together for these prayers before going out to his daily work, however early he has to start. And the Syrian girls who desired to be Sisters seemed to have great natural aptitude and gifts for the prayer side of their life. The great public corporate religious service of the Syrian Church is the celebration of the Holy Liturgy, which they call ‘Qurbana,’ the Gift, every Sunday and on the twelve great festal days of the year; all are present at this and take their part in the singing and prayers, but very few make their Communion frequently, except some specially pious persons. Beyond this there are very few services in the Churches except during Holy Week, and sermons are only preached occasionally, generally by a bishop; so that, although trained in offering worship both public and private, , the ‘Orthodox’ Syrian Christians have very little public instruction in their faith, or in the Holy Scriptures. Another difficulty in the way of Bible-study has been that the printed scriptures are translated into such difficult language that people say they can understand them much better when they know enough English to read them in our version than they ever could in their own vernacular. So a good deal of the time of the Syrian candidates at Barisal was spent in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and in learning how to give religious instruction to children, as this was likely to be an important part of their future work.

When the Brotherhood of the Imitation was well established in its community life and work, and the women candidates had spent over four years in preparation at Barisal, his Grace the Metran Dionysios, with the consent of the other bishops, allowed them to come and make an experimental, beginning of community life at Tiruvalla in Travancore, under the charge of an Oxford Mission Sister; but it was another five years before any of them were actually Clothed and consecrated as Religious, for the bishops felt that each step onward must be most carefully prepared for. But several of the candidates were by this time admitted to “discipleship in Holy Religion,” which corresponds to the western noviciate, although the Religious Habit is not given until Profession.

At Tiruvalla the house and chapel of the Novices adjoined the grounds of the Syrian Church High School for girls of the “Orthodox” community, so they gave religious instruction to the girls in the High-school, and in a vernacular school close by, besides having Sunday-school classes in connexion with the Parish Church; and later on they started a very interesting and successful day-school for children of the outcastes, who are in Travancore some of the most down-trodden and degraded people in the world.

Then in 1925, on September 21st, which in the Eastern Churches is the Festival of our Lady’s Nativity, the first three Syrian Sisters were ‘Clothed’ at Tiruvalla. A description of the service may be found in the Oxford Mission Quarterly paper for January, 1926; it took place in the Qurbana, and began at dawn, lasting for four hours. For one year more an Oxford Mission Sister stayed to see the Sisters well started in their new life, and then in September, 1926, another Sister was professed, and the eldest of them, the widow-lady, became their first Superior, and the little community of four professed Sisters and six ‘disciples’ or novices, began its own independent life.

The Sisterhood has as yet no formal Constitution, but has a simple rule of daily life approved by the bishops, and a ‘Guide’ as to the principles and practices of the Religious Life compiled from the teaching of St. Basil.

After a year the Oxford Mission Sister who had trained the Syrian Sisters went back to pay them a visit; she writes, “There is a most beautiful feeling of peace and joy and prayer, and everyone looks well and very happy. The Sisters are evidently succeeding almost better than we could have hoped in making their community a happy and united family, and a home of love. They seem to be just the best material for making Sisters, for they are naturally religious-minded, affectionate and teachable, cheerful, and calm, though they may not have the originality of English women.”

Mother Edith, O.M.S.E. “An Ancient Church, and a New Venture of Faith in It.” The Christian East 9.3 (1928): 103-109.