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Beware of the Yeast

by Fr. Thomas Ninan, New Delhi, India

I found this of immediate concern for our Church to take notice of and take appropriate actions in our respective places, so as to avoid dangerous results. Probably, we are already aware of this, and many of us probably feel OK about this – a largely socially acceptable norm in our Church. But sensing a dangerous road ahead, would like to caution all of us quite early.

Let me see, how to start this.

Imagine you were sitting in a room with 5 others and suddenly someone comes up to you and asks you to pull off your sweater because HE feels it is very warm in the room. You actually are feeling quite comfortable within your sweaters but this is what you are asked to do. Now probably your first reaction would be to look at the other three in the room of how they would be responding, much more than about your own feeling on this. And many of us would probably sacrifice our own comfort by taking off the sweater because the others did it or more so to please everyone / the person who asked you or even to avoid discrimination. And what will happen in such a case is you will continue to feel uncomfortable at the expense of the so perceived or rather imposed comfort of others.

We see a similar situation within our Church among our generations brought up in the outer Kerala regions across the world. There is a great feeling of threat among our core Malayalis (those brought up in Kerala), when a diaspora Malayali starts talking in English / Hindi / language of the land. They are immediately branded as an outlaw, as someone who has lost his / her culture or as someone who cannot make significant contribution in the largely Malayalam speaking Church. Putting it in another way, a diaspora Malayali is easily branded as someone who doesn’t know the faith and tradition of our Church, mainly because he doesn’t know Malayalam. And so whatever comes from them is treated as either blasphemous or at best insignificant. Many even go on to put the blame to the parents of these diaspora Malayalis who have been unable to teach them Malayalam and hence the faith and tradition of our Church.

Today, many understand the requirement of learning Malayalam, our Mother Tongue as the top most priority in their quest to learn the faith and tradition of our Church. Many parents feel ashamed of the fact that they could not teach their children Malayalam. And sadly, there is already a significant portion of our generations, who feel it is too late to learn Malayalam and hence feel abandoned, threatened and branded as outsiders within our Church. And here, let me share painfully some of the terms referred to this last group,

“kallammar,”
“kochchupillar,”
“ivane sookshichonam,”
“ivarkku enna ariyam,”
“sookshichonam, ivare vishwasikkam pattattilla,”
“ningal edu category ya, o id matteda – Malayalam korachu korachu ariyam,”

and so many other common phrases widely used. A few have found the courage to develop a thick skin and survive even after knowing about such references, relenting to take off their sweaters and keeping mum about their own discomfort amidst laughter and such continuous references.

I don’t think this is a problem in Kerala, where they truly understand the inability of a diaspora Malayali to communicate in Malayalam and more significantly are accepted as one of their own Church, their own family. But we find this situation in many places in outside kerala parishes, where such a chemistry seems to be maintained by priests, elders, parents and many youngsters to maintain the so called “Orthodox vishwasam,” “nammude reetikal,” and more so to have their own ways worked out within the Church. Probably that is why our Church continues to struggle to be effective witnesses of Orthodox Christian life in the outside Kerala context.

Here, I want to make something very clear, this comes out of my own conviction and learning – God given I believe. Learning Malayalam is one thing and learning the faith and tradition of our Church is entirely a different thing. Though I learnt to read and write Malayalam at a very young age, I can confidently share that much of what I learnt about the faith and tradition of my Church was not dependant on my knowledge of Malayalam. And this has helped me immensely today to discern the true value of Orthodox Christian life in a person, irrespective of whether he / she knows Malayalam or not. I was inspired by an exemplary Priest into Church ministry who really didn’t see my inability to speak in Malayalam as a problem. And I didn’t have to depend on my knowledge of Malayalam when the Brethren, the Pentecostals, the Catholics invited me to join their faith but rather upon the deep conviction given by my Lord to be rooted within the Orthodox faith, little that I knew of in those times. So, I want to tell my diaspora Orthodox Malayalis and more significantly to the core Malayalis in outside Kerala region that learning Malayalam isn’t really a necessity to be a part of the faith and tradition of our Church. This, in fact, is a wrong concept and interpretation, attempted by many to retain their own identity rather than to help communicate / promote the faith and tradition of our Church. This is a dangerous yeast which can only cause division within our Church.

Remember, St. Thomas, the Apostle, didn’t give us a language, he gave us the gift of new life in Christ, which we hold on till today in unique ways. It should be our endeavor to practice and witness this true faith in the contexts we live in, whether we know Malayalam or not. And we need to realize the God given freedom to practice this faith in ways which are suitable to us in the different contexts, rather than depend upon irrelevant practices communicated by people who are ignorant or probably choose to turn a blind eye to the life context in the diaspora.

Isn’t this the Real Yeast?

Orthodox faith is meaningless if it gets limited to just the way we do our worship. If it needs to be understood, practiced and witnessed in different contexts, then it definitely needs the following core elements :-

1. Contextualization
2. Application
3. Discovering

Contextualization

This implies integration of practices within our liturgy and practice of faith, which are relevant or well communicable to the particular place or region. This happened in Kerala when our forefathers accepted the faith from St. Thomas, the Apostle, and they felt so comfortable in interpreting and witnessing their faith with symbols, songs, dances and practices that were close to their lifestyle and culture. Why has it ceased to happen among our people in the outer Kerala region across the world? Why have we failed to tell the story to our child in the most exciting way that the child can understand, enjoy and learn? Why have we preferred to avoid and play it safe by refusing our neighbor who is curious to know what we are doing and would like to learn what we are doing? Probably, we have the answers written right within us – “we know for sure that these are hardly relevant to our neighbor,” or “we ourselves are not sure and convinced that what we practice is relevant and fruitful for us.” Somehow, we have failed to enjoy our culture, our tradition, and our faith by segregating our faith practices to an untouchable level, which we are glad to keep it enclosed in a safe box, making it as unapproachable and irrelevant as possible.

Application

This implies to relating what we do in the Church to our daily life. Most of us know what we should do and what we should not, the learning comes through many ways. What is significantly noticeable in the outer Kerala region is that very little of this learning comes from the Church – probably it is negligible. So what goes on in a Sunday, is simply “drama,” so as to prove a point to the others who come to the Church, or probably to please God lest He may feel unhappy and punish us for not coming to Church.

The gist is, many of us don’t feel at home in our Church and significantly many of us don’t feel at home in our Church. There is a wide gap, which many feel it comfortable to have. We prefer not to ask the “Why” of our faith, because if we do, then we have to answer some serious questions which will demand certain changes in our daily life. Somehow, we seem to be taken up by the widely growing feeling that “religion has nothing to do with my personal life.” Probably, we have not been bold enough to ask certain questions before the religion we should be practicing. Let us not shy away from reality and be followers of just a ritual. If we have not found answers to our questions, then be sure that it is not the end of the tunnel, the way is still ahead and there is light at the end of it, only if we want to continue and walk.

The faith we practice in reality should have implications on our daily life and the prayer life that we lead.

Discovering

This implies to keeping that arena of our mind alive, which helps us learn continuously. One will find this stage most active in children. No wonder Christ says, unless you become like one of this little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God. If our faith loses this aspect, where we take it for granted what we believe and practice, then what we practice will soon turn into a ritual which will be quite insignificant to our life.

The tragedy today is that we have reached a stage where we are having to try our best to integrate our religious practices into our daily life, where both exist independent of each other – mutually exclusive. Today, we are comfortable enough to practice a faith that is mutually exclusive in nature. The moment a disturbance happens, we would rather find ways to avoid facing it because facing it will cause us much discomfort. There can be no discovering in faith, without discomfort. Such a discomfort will be most welcome, if we practice an attitude that will help us discover new depths of faith. And faith without depth will definitely be insecure.

The Yeast I have spoken of, both categories, is not something new, but that which all of us are well aware of. All that is required from our part is to discern the wrong yeast, make a conscious effort to separate it and integrate the right one in our lives. I am sure, we will have many more aspects within these to add, from our experiences which should be shared for the benefit of all. Let us pray for the continued guidance of the Spirit of God upon our Church in practicing and witnessing the true Orthodox Faith.

Source: STOTS issue Dec. 2007

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