Let us pray, peace be with us:

"The Cross that has been the cause of our good and by which our mortal humanity was set free,
O Lord, be for us a strong fortress. And by this Cross, we shall overcome the wicked one and All his devices."

(Syro-Malabar Qurbana)

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        THE NAZRANI
                                          “The Truth will make you free”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Vol. 18, No. 5                         New Delhi                                   August, 2008        --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

ASCETICISM AND MONASTICISM AMONG THE THOMAS CHRISTIANS

                               Bishop Mar Abraham D. Mattam

 

In the East Syriac Church, it was mainly the monks that went everywhere in the forefront preaching the Christian message by their example and preaching.  In India too, we should think that, the monks played an important role in the spread of Christianity.  St Jerome spoke of monks coming from India (Hambye, p. 321).  John, the Metropolitan of Karpathos, is said to have sent an exhortation to some Indian monks about the merit of monastic life, in the 8th century (Hambye, p. 321).  Paulinus of St Bartholomeus OCD in the 18th century testifies that he saw ruins of monasteries in Malabar at Angamale, Edappally and Mylapore (Placid, Syriac Treasures, p. 71).

 

The spirit of fasting and penance was very evident in the life of the Thomas Christians of India.  Numerous European missionaries, impressed by the ascetic practices of the Thomas Christians, write about it to their superiors and compatriots. The Thomas Christians held in high esteem the ascetic practices and abstinence and they observed fasting and penance with  fidelity.

 

From the various accounts of fasting and abstinence by the missionaries and visitors the days of fast observed by the Thomas Christians may be enumerated as follows:  The Great fast for 50 days prior to Easter, 25 days fast during the period of Annunciation, the fifty days fast of the Apostles, the fast of Assumption, the fast of the Ninivites, the fast before the nativity of our Lady, the fast before the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the fast of Wednesdays and Fridays, the fast of 12 Fridays after Christmas, the fast of Elias, the fast of the Virgins, the fast of Transfiguration, the vigil fasts of the Nativity of our Lord, Pentecost, Ascension, assumption, the feast of St Hormisdas and the patrons of the respective churches (cf. Aerthayil, The Spiritual Heritage of the St Thomas Christians, Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore 1982, pp. 157-174; A.M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, vol. 1, Bangalore 1989, pp. 210-213).  Thus the Thomas Chiristians observed around 225  days of the year as days of fast.  As an example we may cite here Fr Dionysio who wrote from Cochin.

 

They (the Christians of Malabar) are friends of fast by obligation.  They fast in lent and on the vigils of Nativity and Pentecost, Ascension and the fast of our lady and St Hormisdas.  They fast also on the vigils of the feasts of the saints of their respective churches.  For devotion they fast 15 days before the assumption of our lady and all the Advent and on the three days of Ninivites.  In Lent the fast begins from Monday after carnival.  On the days of fasting they eat neither fish nor extracts from milk, nor do they drink wine.  They abstain from conjugal rights…They take the principal meal at 3 or 4 o’ clock in the afternoon (Quoted in Aerthayil, op. cit pp. 157-158).

 

During the period of lent they abstained completely from egg, fish, milk, and milk products.  On the days of fast they ate food once in the evening.  The Synod of Diamper praises the Thomas Christians on the manner of their observance of the fast during the season of lent and exhorts them to continue the custom with all earnestness.

 

“The Synod doth approve of the holy and laudable custom observed by the Christians of this diocese, of eating neither eggs nor cheese, nor anything made of milk, nor of fish, and of abstaining totally from wine and from their wives during the whole time of lent….” (Synod of Diamper, Session VIII, decree 11. S. Zacharia (ed), the Acts and decrees of the Synod of Diamper 1599, Edamattam, 1994, p. 187).

 

Monastic Life:

 

There are sufficient evidences to prove that there existed in India monastic life form the very early times.  However, it may not be that very easy to determine how much monasticism was widespread in India.  The most ancient document referring to the monastic life is the one written in the middle of the 4th century by a monk by name Zadoi.  He calls himself as Zadoi, the priest and the Abbot of the Monastery of St Thomas in India.  In this document Zadoi describes the life history of a monk John who was a member of the monastery.  He also refers to 200 monks who were members of the monastery.  There are interesting details about the place where the monastery was situated.  The whereabouts of the monastery of St Thomas over which Zadoi was the Abbot were not clearly stated.  It is said that the monastery was on the shore of the Black island.  And it is said that a few Jews were living near it and that the island is near the town “Milon” and the people collect pearls from the sea (cf. H. Hosten, S.J. Antiquities from San Thome and Mylapore, Calcutta 1936, pp. 292-294.  A. Mingana, The early Spread of Christianity in India, Reprint form The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. X, no. 2, Manchester July 1926, pp. 20-22):

 

“Europeans pronounce it as Coromandel and this may be the very place which gave rise to the name Karamene, Kalamene, Calamina, the place where St Thomas is said to have been martyred.  Cardiva (Karativu), the ‘black island’ off the west coast of Ceylon, has little chance, when there is also Mylapore and Calamina to satisfy” (H. Hosten, op. cit. p. 293-294.

 

There are people who think that the India referred to in this document is either Arabia or Egypt.  However, taking all aspects into consideration and various testimonies like that of Gregory of Tours, one may conclude that the black island is Mylapore situated below or near Karamanal, a village on the coast north of Madras, the name of which means ‘black sand’.  There are many historians who speak of a monastery at Mylapore where the tomb of the apostle is situated.

 

Gregory of Tours

 

The first western writer who makes mention of the monastery of St Thomas seem to be Gregory the Bishop of Tours who died in the year 594.  He writes “According to the history fo his suffering the Apostle Thomas is said to have been martyred in India.  Much later his blessed body was transferred to the city that the Syrians call Edessa, and there buried.  Thereafter, in that region of India where he had first been buried there are a monastery and a church that is spectacularly large and carefully decorated and constructed” (Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs, Translated and introduction by Raymond Van Dam, Liverpool 1988, p. 51).

 

The Christian Arab Historian Amr

 

Amrus Mathaei Filius speaks about the tomb of St Thomas at Mylapore and a monastery there. “It was however known to the Nestorian authors of the fourteenth century that a monastery of St Thomas existed in India.  So the Christian Arab historian Amr (A.D. 1340), speaks of the saint as follows: his tomb is in the island of Mailapore in India, on the right-hand side of th altar, in his monastery” (Mingana, op. cit. p. 23; cf also Assemanus, Bibliotheca Orientalis, Rome 1725, III/2, 34).  Mignana comments that the word dair, used by ‘Amr is almost exclusively used to express a monastery, and, to or knowledge, never a church or a shrine.

 

St Jerome

 

In a letter written form Bethlehem to his spiritual daughter Laeta, St Jerome refers to the monks coming in groups from the monasteries in India, Persia and Ethiopia (cf. Jerome, Letter, CVII, n. 2. in P. Schaff and Henry Wace, (ed) Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol VI, Second series, Michigan, 1979, p. 190).

 

The statement may look rather exaggerated.  But, it must be admitted that monks from India also visited the holy land and particularly Bethlehem along with the monks from Persia and Ethiopia.  So also, since Persia and Ethiopia are mentioned separately, Jerome is clearly referring to India.

 

Cosmas Indicopleustes

 

The testimony of Cosmas a merchant turned monk is also very valuable and important.  Cosmas was an Alexandrian merchant who later became a monk.  He traveled extensively in the countries beyond the Red Sea between 520 and 525 and visited places like Sokotra and India.  He writes about monks and solitaries in India as well as in other places.  In his Topographia Christiana, written around the year 530 AD he says:

 

“Even in the island of Taprobane (=Ceylon) in the inner India where Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and a congregation of believers though I know not if there be any Christians further in that direction.  And such also is the case in the land called Male (=Malabar), where the pepper grows. And in the place called Kalliana there is a bishop appointed from Persia, as well as in the island of Dioscoris (=Socotra), in the same Indian Sea…and so likewise, among the Bactrians and Huns and Persians, and the rest of Indians…and they have martyrs and recluses leading a monastic life” (Mingana, pp. 29-30. Italics by the author).

 

From the statements of Cosmas it is clear that there were people in many places in India who led monastic life.

 

Joseph the Indian.

 

A certain priest form Malabar known as Joseph the Indian, speaks of the existence of monastic life and of monks living in hermitages in India.  Between 1501 and 1503 he visited the countries in Europe. In 1507 a book was published in Italian: Paesi Nouamente retrouati.  This book gives the details of the information by Joseph the Indian about the Church in India.

 

“The have the heritage where the black monks live in perfect continence. They have also many nuns.  The priests live very chastely. If one is found lacking in chastity, he is deprived of the right to celebrate the Mass”.

 

The Testimony of Persian Bishops:

 

Metropolitan Mar Yabh Alaha, Mar Thomas, Mar Jacob and Mar Dinha from Persia reached India in the year 1504.  Having visited the tomb of St Thomas they wrote to the Patriarch. In the letter written by them in Syriac after visiting Mylapore and Malabar they wrote a letter in \Syriac to the Patriarch. The letter gives a lot of information on the church of Thomas Christians in Malabar (Mingana, op. cit. p. 39; Assemanus, op. cit III/1, p. 594).  Regarding the monastery they said:

 

“As to the monastery of St Thomas the Apostle, some Christian men have gone into it, have inhabited it, and are now busy restoring it; it is distant  about twenty five days form the above mentioned Christians; it is on the shores of the Sea in a town called Mailapore, in the country of Silan, One of the Indian countries.  The Countries of India are very numerous and powerful, and their distance is about six month’s journey. Each country has a special name by which it is known and our country in which the Christians are found is called Malabar (Mingana, op. cit. 39).

 

Regarding the place of their stay in Mailapoer the syriac term “Umra” is used and it is usually used to refer to monasteries.

 

Paolinus da S. Bartolomo OCD:

 

The Portuguese missionaries started coming to India from the beginning of 16th century.  A Carmelite priest Paolinus OCD has written about the monasteries that existed in South India prior to the coming of the missionaries.  After stating that monks from Persia used to come to India, Paolinus says that there were monasteries in Edappilly, Angamalee and in Mylapore on the Coromandel Coast, which were abandoned with the arrival of the missionaries (Cf. Paolino da S. Bartolomeo, Viaggio Alle Indie Orientali, Roma 1796. p. 80).

 

It may be noted that married people also used to go into monasteries or into seclusion in their own houses in order to spend some days in prayer and silence.

 

                                                                                                  (to be concluded)

 

 

 

THE ASSUMPTION OF MARTHA MARIAM

 

On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption. Thus His Holiness solemnly proclaimed that the belief whereby the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the close of her earthly life, was taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven, definitively forms part of the deposit of faith, received from the Apostles. However, this article is based on the tradition prevailing in the Eastern / Oriental  Churches from the Apostolic times.  

 

After the Ascension of our Lord, Iso’ - Msiha, the Most Holy Mother of Christ remained in the care of the Apostle John the Theologian, and during his journeys She lived at the home of his parents, near the Mount of Olives. She was a source of consolation and edification both for the Apostles and for all the believers. Conversing with them, She told them about miraculous events: the Annunciation, the seedless and undefiled Conception of Christ born of Her, about His early childhood, and about His earthly life. Like the Apostles, She helped plant and strengthen the Christian Church by Her presence, Her discourse and Her Prayers.

 

The reverence of the Apostles for the Most Holy Mother was extraordinary. After receiving  the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles remained at Jerusalem for about ten years attending to the salvation of the Jews, and wanting moreover to see the Mother of Christ and hear Her holy discourse. Many of the newly-enlightened in the Faith even came from faraway lands to Jerusalem, to see and to hear the Holy Mother.


During the persecution initiated by King Herod against the young Church of Christ (Acts 12:1-3), the Most Holy Mother and the Apostle John the Theologian withdrew to Ephesus in the year 43. The preaching of the Gospel there had fallen by lot to the Apostle John the Theologian. The Holy Mother was on Cyprus with St Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead, where he was bishop. She was also on Holy Mount Athos. St Stephen of the Holy Mountain says that the Holy Mother  prophetically spoke of it: "Let this place be my lot, given to me by my Son and my God. I will be the Patroness of this place and intercede with God for it."


The circumstances of the Assumption of the Holy Mother were known in the  Eastern/Oriental Churches from apostolic times. Already in the first century, the Hieromartyr Dionysius the Areopagite wrote about Her "Falling-Asleep." In the second century, the account of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Mother to Heaven is found in the works of Meliton, Bishop of Sardis. In the fourth century, St Epiphanius of Cyprus refers to the tradition about the "Falling Asleep" of the Holy Mother. In the fifth century, St Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the holy Byzantine Empress Pulcheria: "Although there is no account of the circumstances of Her death in Holy Scripture, we know about them from the most ancient and credible Tradition."


At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Mother was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of Christ had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.


Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Mother went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer. More than once, enemies of the Savior sought to hinder Her from visiting her holy place, and they asked the High Priest for a guard to watch over the Grave of the Lord. The Holy Mother continued to pray right in front of them, yet unseen by anyone.

In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Holy  Mother returned to Bethlehem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.


The Most Holy Mother prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Holy Mother lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Mother offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word "Amen." The Mother of Christ took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.


The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin's repose was at hand.


Going in to the Holy Mother, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Mother glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart's desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.


During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the Most Holy Mother, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each one of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. She wished eternal bliss to each one, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.


Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Mother.


Seeing Her Son, the Mother of Christ exclaimed: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden" (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.


Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: "Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God's Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor". The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.


Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Mother, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.


Bewailing their separation from the Mother, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.


With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.


Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Christ, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. Burning with envy and vengefulness toward everything that reminded them of Christ, they sent out their own servants to disrupt the procession and to set the body of the Mother of Christ afire.


An angry crowd and soldiers set off against the Christians, but the circular cloud accompanying the procession descended and surrounded them like a wall. The pursuers heard the footsteps and the singing, but could not see any of those accompanying the procession. Indeed, many of them were struck blind.


The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Christ of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of Christ. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of Christ, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.


When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.

For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, our father in faith, Marthoma Sleeha was not to be present at the burial of the Holy Mother. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, Marthoma Sleeha lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Most Holy Mother. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Mother to Heaven.  No wonder, the Marthoma Nazranis have been celebrating the feast of Assumption of the Most Holy Mother from the very beginning of the Christian era.