|NOVEMBER 2004||THOSE WHO LED US||
Metropolitan Abraham Mar Thoma was consecrated in the wake of the death of Metropolitan Titus II in July 1944, and his reign as the Metropolitan of the Church lasted only a little over three years. But, he had served as Suffragan Metropolitan to his predecessor for twenty-seven years from 1917 onwards. Thus over a period of thirty years (1917-1947) as bishop of the Church, he built an unsurpassable reputation for himself and for Church. Many people all over the world identified Mar Thoma Church as Abraham Mar Thomas' Church. Indian Christians, while traveling abroad, were asked often if they belonged to Abraham Mar Thomas' Church. So intimately was his reputation entwined with the identity of the Church. He was a living legend; people who ment him and knew him still remember him with reverential affection. This writer has a special reason to remember him affectionately, but more of it later.
Abraham Mar Thoma was born on 30 October 1880 to Ninan and Mariamma. His mother belonged to the Karicatt house of the Shankaramangaleth family in Eraviparoor. Ninan hailed from Marettu of Kallupara, a rich Jacobite family. He was given the name Kochavarachan (Abraham). His father died very early in his childhood and the young widowed mother returned to her brother's house at Eraviparoor with Kochavarachan and two of his elder sisters. His mother's family was Mar Thomites and, as a result, Kochavarachan took religious instructions according the Mar Thoma rites. He used to acknowledge the influence of his mother on his upbringing as a devout disciple of Jesus Christ. His mother's spiritual guidance was the prime reason for his commitment to Christ. He had his early education at Tiruvalla and Kottayam. When he was a student he used to attend the evangelical meetings conducted by Rev. Walker, an Anglican Missionary. During his student days at Kottayam, he shared his Christian experiences with other students and spent time with them in prayers. In later years, reflecting on his life at the CMS College in Kottayam he said, "Every nook and corner of this dear old college chapel is sacred to me." From Kottayam he went to Trichinapally and from there to Madras Christian College to complete his universality education. He continued missionary work and influenced many of his fellow students during his college days.
On 30 April 1911, Titus II ordained Him as Deacon N.M. Abraham at Tiruvalla. This was the first time a university graduate entered the ordained ministry of the Church. He was sent to the United States for higher studies in July 1912. He spent time in the United States, Canada and England and after obtaining M.A. and D.D. qualifications he returned to India in November 1914. He was ordained a priest of the Marthoma Church on December 1915 at Eraviparoor Mar Thoma Church. It was at this very Church, many years earlier, on an early Sunday morning that he had surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He was then appointed as a parish priest at Mar Thoma Church at Kayamkulam. Metropolitan Titus II consecrated him a Bishop of the Mar Thoma Church on 27 December 1917 in the presence of Thozhiyur Metropolitan Mar Kurilose and Anglican Bishop Dr. Gill. Thus, at the age of thirty seven, a child born as Kochavarachan to a Jacobite family became Abraham Marthoma, the Suffragan Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church and, as we shall see later, he turned out to be God's precious gift to the Mar Thoma Church.
Kochavarachan had to face very many problems because of his commitment to the Mar Thoma faith. His paternal grandfather was a very staunch Jacobite and he disinherited him because of Kochavarachan's refusal to return to the Jacobite fold. He felt at ease with doctrines and liturgy of the Marthoma Church and was prepared to give up everything including his inheritance to follow a call, a vision, and a personal commitment to his saviour. This part of his life can be summarized through a personal testimony that he gave at a youth league meeting at Trivandrum in 1929. He quoted the prophecy of Joel as Peter did on the day on the Pentecost: "I will pour out upon everyone a portion of my spirit; and your sons and daughters shall prophecy; your young men shall see vision, and your old men shall dream dreams"; (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28). The following is part of his talk.
"My dear young friends, this afternoon, I would like to tell to you some of my personal experiences. It is difficult to speak freely about one's personal experiences. Nevertheless, one should not hide experiences that can be of use to others. Moreover, my spiritual experiences, divine guidance and blessings belong to Malankara Mar Thoma Church. You may think that I am a very intelligent and scholarly guy because of my M.A. and D.D. qualifications. But let me confess that I was not a clever student at all: I failed my matriculation and intermediate examinations. My friends used to say; "no wonder Avarachan fails in his examinations, he uses all his time for speaking engagements." I was interested in evangelical work and prayer meetings when I was a student and became organizing secretary of various religious associations. I had a feeling from my childhood that God has chosen me for His work from my mother's womb. When I was asked in my Sunday school who I would like to be, I had no hesitation in saying that like to be an 'Upadeshi (preacher)'. It was my sole ambition in childhood.
I do not know the exact occasion or the circumstances of my conversion to a spirituality oriented life. However I do remember making a specific commitment to revival meeting conducted by Walker missionary at Tholassery when I was a student at Government English School at Tiruvalla. I have repeated these pledges when I was studying at Madras and staying at the Fenís Hostel. However, at an earlier occasion, when I was preparing to go to Madras for my studies and facing certain financial difficulties, I had an encounter with Jesus Christ, this is what I want to tell you today.
You may ask whether I have seen Jesus Christ; yes, I have, but not in an ordinary way, I have seen Jesus in a way far better than seeing with external eyes. I spoke to him; he told me certain things very clearly. I could never ever forget this amazing encounter with Jesus. I was born in a Jacobite family of Kallupara. My father died when I was a child; therefore, I grew up in my maternal family house, Karikattu, at Eraviparoor. My mother's family strongly believed in the reformation principles of Abraham Malpan. Therefore, I grew up in a very spiritually enlightened family environment. My uncle took care of my education. He never hesitated to encourage me in educational pursuits. However, I was aware of the financial burden that my immediate family and I were placing upon him.
When I was preparing myself to go to Madras for my studies, fully realising my uncle's burdens, I decided to approach my peternal grantfather for some financial help. He was a very rich man and I thought that I had a birthright to his wealth; but he was not inclined to help in any way. Therefore, I went to his house at Kallupara and explained my predicament and asked for some assistance for my studies at Madras. He showed no interest whatsoever in my inclinations and interests because of my religious affiliations to the Mar Thoma Church. I was hear-broken, and I left my grandfather's house very early on that Sunday morning. I walked all the way from Kallupara to Eraviparoor Church dejected and wondering what to do next. After some time, I found myself near Eraviparoor Church and I decided to go in and pray. I stayed there for quite some time, and prayed with a very heavy heart. I felt like Jacob at Bethel. Then I had a wonderful vision. I opened my heart and mind to my God and I spoke to him with tears pouring out on my cheeks. Then I became silent for a while in the presence of my Lord. Then God spoke to me, 'Abraham, you are a good boy; you have a certain degree of devotion and you have an interest in my affairs. Therefore, I will be interested in your answers to these questions. Do you believe that I am sufficient for all your needs? Instead of departing on your grandfather and uncle, are you prepared to depend totally on me? Are you prepared to go forward and believe in my total sufficiency? Even if you lose financial support from your uncle and others, are you prepared to trust in my sufficiency? Are you prepared to trust me Abraham?" I started to panic, but worked in my mind various ways and means of traveling to Madras and finding money for paying college fees and my stay there. My Lord kept pressing me for the answer. After this struggle, I made a firm decision and then I prayed to my God in these words, "My dear Jesus, I believe that you are sufficient for me in everything." Thus at that moment I dedicated myself to him.
When I reached home that morning, a local trader was waiting there to give me just enough money for my train fare to Madras. After that morning of self-surrender in the Church, all my difficulties disappeared somehow, and I felt invigorated with a new life and a new light. God gave me further instructions for leading a useful life. He asked me spend time regularly very early in the morning for studying the Bible and praying. I was fond of my morning sleep and therefore I told him it would be difficult to get up in the morning. But Gold told me that He would wake me up at correct time. He did so correctly the next morning and I have been able to maintain that spiritual discipline ever since. He told me yet another thing. "You just crossed the threshold of your childhood, now you are a young man with certain sexual feelings, inclinations, and emotions. You should be very careful with your dealings with and feeling for women. You should never take any unnecessary freedom with them whether they are strangers or relatives. You should respect older women as your mother and love younger ones as your sisters. Do not take any excessive freedom with anyone. I remembered the verse in Job (Job 31:1") "I have made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look upon a young woman?" I decided to obey my Lord on His instructions. I did not know that time that I would be called to become a bishop; however that decision helped me in my celibate life and ministry. Young people should be careful in avoiding unhealthy and impure thoughts. You should remember that Satan uses lazy man's hands as his weapons. You should not waste your time; you should always be engaged in some useful activities. I have disciplined myself in this way. I remain active until I get tired and ready for bed. With disciplined effort one can avoid many difficult situations. Young people should give special attention to develop healthy and blameless relationship with men and women. Your wisdom and godly devotion should guide you in this endeavor. In the absence of such discipline people may destroy their potentials. God also instructed me to prepare a schedule for my prayer life. Therefore, I have a special routine for intercessory prayers. I pray for specific people, places, programmes and projects on different days of the week.
I can tell you with absolute confidence that in all these years of my life, God's grace has been sufficient for me. I have no hesitation in repeating after St.Paul, "Thy grace is sufficient for me." Since then I have traveled the length and breadth of India, I have traveled through foreign lands and through deserts and forests; under all those varied circumstances my Lord was more than sufficient for my needs. I had great joy in telling you today of my recollections. of that encounter with God on an early Sunday morning in a Church at Eraviparoor. It was my Bethel; I wish all of you similar personal encounters with God in your lives. I related my experiences to you with the hope that it would be of help in your spiritual journey. I would be grateful if it were to beome helpful in your journey as well. God bless you and prepare you for His glorious service."
He used these intimate personal testimonies in introducing Jesus Christ to young people and to encourage and prepare them for Christian service and evangelical work. His personal testimonies became a paradigm for evangelical ministry in Kerala. This has become part and parcel of life in parishes. Lay people used to gather in houses on a regular basis and people used to gather in houses on a regular basis and people then sang a few hymns, read bible portions and then gave moving testimonies of their faith in Christ. Alexander Mar Thoma in later years also encouraged this tradition though the establishment of Edavaka Mission.' He had three wishes as a young man:
Kochavarachan's grandfather, on hearing about his interest in education and God-centered life, seemed to have commented that if his ambition were to a become a bishop the he could bring the Patriarch from Antioch to consecrate him as a bishop of Jacobite Church. But this was not the intention of Kochavarachan because he often used to say, "Seek not great things for yourself; do not expect things from God, but attempt great things for God." This was his motto, for he knew that he stood every chance of losing his birthright from his father's estate if he continued to remain faithful to his vision with respect to the Mar Thoma Church.
He was also concerned that his rigid stand worried his mother from the point of view of the financial security of the family: herself and her two daughters. As the only son of the family, it was his responsibility to provide for the needs of the family and ensure their social and economic stability. Therefore, the traditional thing for him was to become a responsible young man and to follow the prevailing norms of the community: pursue economic viability, get married, and also provide for his mother and sisters. His mother did not object to his Christian Commitments. She was, on the contrary, proud and grateful for it. But she wanted him to do his Christian work from within the framework of a traditional family life. His determination to remain a celibate worried her and others in the family circles greatly. One, on seeing his mother in tears about his choice to remain a celibate, he comforted her with these words, "what is life if it is not service; what is service if it is not for Christ?" Thus he convinced his mother that there was room only for Christ in his life. When he decided to accept Episcopal consecration, he sought permission from Titus II for his mother to stay with him at the bishop's house so that he could care for her as well; and this was readily allowed.
He led a disciplined life. Being uncompromisingly strict with himself, he could be strict also with others. He worked very hard throughout his life his temper. His temper and his immediate repentance were amazing traits of his personality. His personal assistance, Varghese was at the receiving end of his short temper and spontaneous apologies. Immediately after the death of Abraham Marthoma, his faithful assistant Varghese commented with tears, "he has gone, it is loss for everyone, but I feel that I lost everything. There is absolutely nothing left for me; I am a weak and sinful man, but My Lordship, Metropolitan Abraham Mar Thoma, was a saint in every way. I am looking forward to joining him in his place of rest."
Abraham Mar Thoma was particularly concerned about the social attitudes and behavior of his people. A sharp observer of manners and morals, he gave special instructions on how to correct them; some of which are given below:
He led a disciplined a life; he continued his early morning meditation for many years. Getting up at 4.30 am for Bible study and prayers were a routine that he developed in his university days. He used the following books for his meditation: Streams in the Dessert, springs in the Valley, My Utmost for the Highest, Daily Light, and Abide in Me, Come Ye Apart, and in the Green Pastures. He maintained that routine under all circumstances, including his extensive travels both in India and overseas. During these silent moments of meditation he used to enter into intimate conversation with God and for him they were real, conversations and not imaginary ones. In addition to this early morning meditation, he used to spend Wednesday afternoons and evenings for fasting and praying. One day a month was specially kept for prayers. Once a year he used to take rest at a health resort or at a hill station. He used these occasions to spend time with his friends and young people to guide them in spiritual journey. The writer's father, Mr. K.G. Varghese, used to go with him to Courtland and this particular group included Rev. V.I. Philipose of Kundara (father of Rev. Dr. V.P. Thomas and an uncle of Rev. Dr. V.V. Alexander who started the London Mar Thoma Congregation in 1957), Rev. T.L.Varghese, Rev. K.C. Thomas, and Mr. T.V. Chandapillay. On these occasions, he was not only having some sorely needed rest but also equipping those with him by giving them leadership training. Life in the Church was nurtured through such a personal involvement with clergy and laity.
Abraham Marthoma and Titus II gave sound leadership during the Independent struggle at local and national levels. On account of this, they came into conflict with the state administration of Sir C.P. Rama Swamy Iyer (Sir. C.P as he was known), Divan (Chief executive) to the Maharaja of Travancore, to be part of a unified Independent India. He had plans to arrest Abraham Mar Thoma, but the administration was frightened of his popular support. Sir C.P.used the caste card and also exploited the differences that existed among Christian denominations. In this context Abraham Mar Thoma's speech at the centenary celebration of the reformation of the Mar Thoma Church at Trivandrum in 1938 was very significant. He started his talk by quoting the verse : "Father, as we are one they should be one as well." This he said was the express wish of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the head of the Church Universal. This unity is essential not only for Christians but also for all castes and communities. Nairs, Ezhavas, Muslims and Christians belong to a common brotherhood of man. If any one is trying to split us for political expediency, it is unfortunate. Christians should take a leading role for religious harmony and understanding. We should make our non-Christian friends understand that we have no hidden political motives in our spiritual activities and evangelistic work. It is because of our failure that they misunderstand us, and it is our responsibility to put it right. If any one spreads the rumor that Christians are interested in mass conversion for giving them an advantage over others, it is just a wicked propaganda. We should expose the falsehood of these allegations and demonstrative our traditional loyalty and patriotism to our royal family. We should demonstrate our loyalty through our unselfish service to others in the country. We should not demonstrate our anger, but should love and help our neighbors. Most importantly, we should love and help our neighbors. Most importantly, we should not fail in our mission to share Christ with others."
Abraham Marthoma gave another politically sensitive speech in 1943. At that time Sir C.P. was playing his caste card and suggesting that Christmas were disloyal to Maharaja and that they were only concerned with their loyalty to aforeign Christian Emperor in England. In his reply to the felicitation addresses on his silver jubilee as the bishop of Mar Thoma Church, Abraham Marthoma quoted the words of a greatly loved previous Maharaja of Travancore, Vishakam Thirunal, on the loyalty of Christian subject of the kingdom. Maharaja had told an audience in Kottayam that even if the Hindu God, Parasuraman, were to return, he would never see a community more patriotic and loyal to royalty than the Christian community of Travancore. According to an ancient legend, it was Parasuraman who received Kerala as a gift from the god of the Arabian sea. Metropolitan pointed out that Christians in Travancore for generations had remained loyal to the royal personage not for any reward or special privileges, but because they considered it their Christian duty and obligation as laid down in the scriptures. However they could not forget that they were also under the power and dominion of a universal ruler, a King of kings. Therefore, they were duty bound to respect the will of Almighty God, their Father in Heaven. People like him were expected to remind them of this universal truth.
Abraham Mar Thoma saw no conflict between our patriotic duties and our Christian obligations. Whenever there is a conflict of interest we are duty bound to be obedient to our heavenly king. This was a simple but clear-cut instruction to Christians on the question of dividend loyalties between a secular and religious authority. The benevolent Hindu kings of Travancore were considered to be humble servants of their diety Ananthapadmanabhan. They were ruling the kingdom on behalf of their God and were very devout Hindus. He continued, "Christians all through their history had to face difficulties and challenges from Roman emperors to the present times. But none of them could destroy the Church; Christians came out of each of this period with renewed strength and determination. Please remember that martyr's blood is the seed of the Church. If ever we are put through such trials and tribulations we should have the courage to face such challenges boldly; I am sure the young people of our land will volunteer for such an eventuality. These are challenges affecting the members of all religions. And we should fight together. Although I am getting old and am not all that well, you can be rest assured that I will be in the front line with you to fight any divisive action against religious freedom, which we have been enjoying in this land for generations." This clarion call to all freedom loving people was delivered in the capital city of the state in the presence of thousands of people including the secret agents of the government. This was indeed bold and dynamic leadership; many lay people of the Mar Thoma Church were at the forefront of the freedom struggle. Thirumeni kept in touch with them and encouraged them.
He was meticulous planner and prepared himself for every initiative in elaborate detail. Whenever he met new people, he tried to ascertain if they could be used in any way in his mission to evangelize the country. He was always fishing for the Kingdom of God; and it was difficult to resist his bait because the bait was nothing but his own faith and devotion to his Master and Lover. He used to say special prayers before he met people so that he will be able to use appropriate words for that meeting, which is a pointer to the sanctity and significance he attached to his interactions with people. As a celibate, he was very careful in his dealing with women. It was his principle never to interact with any woman alone, but always only in the presence of someone else. Once he was resting in his bungalow when a group of women went there to meet him without prior appointment. He started a polite conversation with them after carefully seating them on the veranda outside his room, but immediately woke up his Deacon who was sleeping in the next room. After the women left, they returned to their respective rooms for rest. The Deacon was slightly annoyed because he did not know why the bishop called him. So he went to the bishop and inquired if there was anything that his Lordship wanted to tell him. With a smile, the bishop explained that the tradition required that a celibate bishop talked with women only in the presence of others. "Although I trust myself, it is my responsibility to be a role model for others." He was a very handsome man; and probably worked more among women than any other bishop of Mar Thoma Church. His motto was, "I sanctify myself for others." His disciplined life and attention to details helped him enormously to earn the respect and trust of everyone in the society.
Abraham Mar Thoma wanted to achieve three things in his ministry:
Metropolitan Abraham Mar Thoma was very much enthusiastic about our young people going abroad for studies, employment and business. He had told them to write to him and keep him informed of their progress and he never failed to reply to their letters promptly: a disciple that both Juhanon Metropolitan and Alexander Mar Thoma continued.
His death was a great loss for the nation because of his involvement and the silent leadership that he gave for the struggle of Independence. The country was only just beginning to breathe freedom after the declaration of independence on 15th August 1947. Metropolitan Abraham Mar Thoma had in front of him many more freedom struggles to fight on political, social, communal and economic fronts in Travancore State because of the cunning strategies of Sir C.P.'s administration. Nevertheless, the patriotic freedom fighter had the good fortune to live in independent India, even if it was only for two weeks. Some people maintain that religion and politics should not mix; but Mar Thoma Metropolitans had always showed different way. Abraham Mar Thoma and his successor Juhanon Mar Thoma were great role models in this respect. The destiny of the Mar Thoma Church is probably to fight for the marginalized and voiceless people of our country. Abraham Mar Thoma was indeed a legend, a holy man, and a saint who sanctified himself for others. It is difficult to sum up his life. He was one of the foremost Christians of his generation, a courageous spiritual leader of India who could empathize with other religious traditions, a guiding star for a spiritual journey, tower o strength and a complete, God-centered human being who believed in the sufficiency of His grace. He was indeed God's great gift to the Mar Thoma Church, to the Indian Christian community and to the nation at large.
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