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Following Christ in an Indian Way

The Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, known as the Bethany Sisters, work tirelessly in India.

With a twinkle in her eye, Sister Philomena looked at me. Responding to my inquiries about the nature of her religious community, which she serves as Mother General, she replied with tempered enthusiasm that the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, commonly called the Bethany Sisters, were founded “to follow Christ in an Indian way.”

Although such a purpose appears progressive, this religious community, which is paired with a community for men, was founded more than 75 years ago by one of the most gifted men of the 20th century church – Mar Ivanios, the first Syro-Malankara Catholic Archbishop of Trivandrum. While less than a century old, Bethany reflects the joys and sorrows borne for nearly 2,000 years by the Indian Church.

The future archbishop was born in 1882 into a prominent Malankara Syrian Orthodox family. Christened Gheevarghese, the Syriac form of George, he was singled out at an early age by his family and bishop as the hope of his community. He entered the seminary in Kottayam, Kerala, and was the first Syrian cleric to receive a graduate degree, receiving an M.A. in economics from Madras Christian College in 1906. Beginning in 1913, Father Gheevarghese occupied the chair of Syriac, church history and political economy at Serampore University College, a Protestant institution in Calcutta.

While at Serampore, Father Gheevarghese’s spirituality – which is said to have been inspired by Mahatma Ghandi and Rabindranath Tagore – reflected sunyasi, the Hindu process of leading a spiritual life. The young priest envisioned the creation of a community, composed of men and women, that would embody the charism of Eastern Christian monasticism with the essence of Indian spirituality. This monastic community would thus serve as a catalyst, Father Gheevarghese reasoned, for the renewal of Kerala’s Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, a principal preoccupation of his.

In 1915, under the auspices of the Anglican Sisters of the Epiphany, the priest gathered in Calcutta 11 prominent Malankara Syrian Orthodox girls to pursue religious formation and higher education. After five years in Calcutta, these novices, the nucleus of the Bethany Sisters, moved to Kerala to complete their formation.

In 1919, Father Gheevarghese resigned his teaching post and with the help of a few English friends purchased property in Kerala. There he founded the Bethany ashram (Sanskrit for religious retreat), a community of priests who, inspired by the biblical story of Bethany and the roles of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, would exercise contemplation, social action and evangelization.

“The Bethany monks,” wrote Thomas Inchakalody in the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, “set in motion a strong wave of religious enthusiasm in the Jacobite [Malankara Syrian Orthodox] community…

“In those days one could always see an uninterrupted line of pilgrims trekking their way [to the ashram] in search of spiritual solace and guidance.”

In an interview last February, Father Raphael, O.I.C., one of two survivors of the original Bethany ashram, described a “revolutionary” spirit at the monastery: it was something new to Christianity in India, combining the asceticism of the Hindu monk with a life in the imitation of Christ and a sense of Christian community.

“Having taken the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience,” recalled 94-year-old Father Raphael, “we Christian sunyami [monks] of Perumala led a simple spiritual life.

“All were vegetarian, slept on the floor, ate from simple earthen pots, had only two sets of clothes, observed virtual silence and were at prayer five times a day.”

On Sundays the priests went into the community to preach, but they spent the rest of their week in deep contemplation.

In 1930, Mar Augustine Kandathil, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Ernakulam, wrote that the priests “were self-sacrificing, pious and learned, devoting themselves to infusing some spiritual life in the Jacobite Church, which for centuries has been torn by all sorts of dissensions and litigations.”

Until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century, Kerala’s Syrian Christians flourished as a unified church. They proudly traced their faith to the church founded by St. Thomas the Apostle, who arrived on the shores of the Malabar coast (present-day Kerala) in 52 A.D.

Isolated from the churches of the West, the heirs of St. Thomas maintained contact with the Assyrian Church of the East, sharing with this church their Eastern Syriac liturgy, which had been developed by the Jewish-Christian community in Mesopotamia.

The Thomas Christians welcomed the Portuguese in 1498 as companions in the faith. While retaining their ties to the Assyrian Church, the Syrian Christians nevertheless reaffirmed their full communion with the Church of Rome. The Portuguese, however, established a Latin (Roman) Catholic hierarchy that, in 1599, imposed Latin doctrine, hierarchy and law and suppressed the Eastern Syriac liturgy cherished by the heirs of St. Thomas.

Resistance to the Portuguese, explained Cyril Mar Baselios, O.I.C., the present Syro-Malankara Catholic Archbishop of Trivandrum, culminated in Cochin in 1653 with the historic Coonan Cross Oath.

A kind man whose gentle face hides a formidable intellect, Mar Baselios recounted that all who touched the cross and a long cord attached to it cast their vote to depart from the Latinized church. These Syrian Christians may have attempted to contact the bishops of the Assyrian Church of the East. In any event, in 1665 they accepted a bishop sent by the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, who imposed the doctrine, law and liturgy of the Western Syriac tradition.

After this great schism of the Indian Church, there were at least four unsuccessful attempts to reestablish full communion between the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of Rome.

Father Gheevarghese’s spirituality and personal commitment to renewal triggered yet another interest in reestablishing full communion with the Church of Rome. This “reunion movement” gathered steam, particularly when Father Gheevarghese was consecrated bishop on 1 May 1925.

After his consecration, the new bishop, who took the name Ivanios, challenged the bishops, priests and laity of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church to “bring all the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who formed one church formerly, into true union once again so that the biblical ideal of ‘one fold and one pastor’ may become a reality.”

Several months later, Mar Ivanios received the vows of three women, thus instituting the Bethany Sisters and completing his vision of a monastic community of men and women in the service of renewal.

In 1926, on behalf of the Synod of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, Mar Ivanios contacted the Holy See regarding the reestablishment of full communion between the two churches, provided that the Holy See would recognize the validity of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox priesthood and episcopacy, the right to preserve the existing diocesan structures and the right to use the Western Syriac liturgy.

On 20 September 1930, Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos, Bishop of Tiruvalla – along with two Bethany monks and a layman – were received into the Catholic Church. After a prayerful but painful period of reflection, the entire community of Bethany Sisters affirmed their communion with the Church of Rome. The properties on which Bethany was founded, however, were lost; the newly constituted Syro-Malankara Catholic Church began penniless.

The charism of Bethany, however, and its spirit of renewal carried Mar Ivanios and his small flock through some difficult times. Today, the flourishing Syro-Malankara Catholic Church numbers more than 300,000 people; while Bethany continues to enliven the hearts of thousands, attracting a number of young men and women to its ranks.

Joseph Kurumilla, a 20-year-old seminarian, decided at the tender age of 15 to leave his middle-class family for the simple life of a Bethany monk. He entered the ashram at 17, and has embarked on a path of religious and intellectual pursuit that will lead 15 years later to his ordination as a priest.

The Bethany Sisters’ motherhouse in Kottayam is a spiritual powerhouse where temporarily professed sisters spend a few years in prayer, study and work before taking their final vows. Pure and virtuous, the sisters are nevertheless wholeheartedly human and very Indian. They are fully aware of the outside world and eager to go and serve the poor and sick.

“Bethany is the church within the church,” Sister Philomena explained. “Its role within the Syro-Malankara Church is like that of the heart in the body. Its charism is the spiritual renovation of the Syro-Malankara Church, particularly through its apostolic activities. One of our main apostolates is education.”

Today the Bethany community operates some 100 lower and upper primary schools, 65 nursery schools, 28 secondary schools, 3 university colleges, a teacher-training college and several other vocational training centers. Mar Ivanios University in Trivandrum is one of the premiere institutions of higher learning in Kerala, educating more than 3,000 students per year.

Ecumenical activities, family visits, catechism, preaching, mission work, care for the sick (the Bethany community runs several hospitals, leprosy eradication projects and preventive health care programs) and care for the handicapped, the elderly and orphaned children are all important apostolates.

Sister Agnet, 25, a Hindu convert, took the courageous step of entering Bethany after studying the caste system at university. Although caste permeates all religions of Indian society, it remains most evident among Hindus. Sister Agnet explained how various political parties in India now identify with specific castes and religions; the politicization of caste and religion has led to interreligious tensions and violence. Although illegal, caste discrimination is very much a part of Indian society and, she adds, a most negative aspect.

Dismayed by what she learned and inspired by the Gospel, she embraced Christianity and entered Bethany. She faced strong opposition from her family, she recalled, especially from two of her brothers. Through her letters, however, she has now convinced her mother that she took the right path.

Sister Agnet has taken temporary vows, which will be renewed several times until her final profession of vows in three to six years. Prior to her final profession, Sister Agnet will remain at the generalate at Kottayam where she will begin her professional training according to her talents and the needs of the community.

Bethany’s junior sisters live by a very tight schedule punctuated by bells: they get up with the first bell at 5:00 A.M., start group prayer by 5:30, followed by meditation at 6:00. Half an hour later they participate in the Divine Liturgy, which is celebrated by a priest from the nearby Bethany ashram.

Breakfast is at 7:45; then at 8:00 they begin their chores – milking cows, gardening, preparing lunch or laundry. By 9:30 they are in class, studying liturgy, Scripture or English. At 10:30 they have personal prayer in their chapel, followed at 11:00 by a class on the rule of the community or the Bethany constitution.

At noon they have choir practice and prayer. Lunch is at 1:00, which is followed by free time. At 3:00 they are back in class, then rosary at 4:00, coffee break at 4:30, then gardening until meditation at 6:00, which runs into evening prayer. At 7:15 they have spiritual reading until supper at 7:30. Recreation time at 8:00, night prayers by 9:00, and a study period from 9:30 until lights-out at 10:30.

After spending an exhausting February day with the sisters, observing them in prayer and meditation, making altar breads and laboring in the gardens and kitchens, I was invited to some entertainments that were put on especially for me.

A performance ensued of Christian songs and dances in the ancient Indian manner and a hilarious dramatization of Jonah and the whale. One comic and voluble sister with a false beard played Jonah, while sisters made well-choreographed impressions of the sinking boat or gobbling whale. The community gathered to enjoy the spectacle to rounds of applause and laughter.

It was an altogether bubbly day spent with the Bethany Sisters, appreciating at first the spiritual sincerity of their life, their selfless devotion to service and, finally, their infectious exuberance and humor. Now I know what Sister Philomena means by “following Christ in an Indian way.”

Sean Sprague, a California-based photojournalist, has recently returned from an extensive trip to southern India.

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