Sunday, February 10, 2013

Manjinikara festival: Hope and hospitality as good news for society

Manjinikara festival is a festival commemorating the death of St. Ignatius Elias III who came to India to propagate and encourage peace in the Malankara church. His arrival and subsequent stay ended with his departure from this world. The place where he breathed his last and where he was eventually buried became a pilgrim centre called Manjinikara which is now visited by lakhs of pilgrims every year. The festival this year culminated yesterday with Holy Qurbana.

The actual arrival of the Holy Father was at an important time in the history of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in Kerala. He tried his best to broker peace between the warring factions in Kerala. His genuine wish to bring everyone together was seen as something which could only come from the mind of a genuine church father.

His death was seen as a special event foretold by himself and for which those around him were already ready. His departure also led to a host of sightings and miracles which made the local populace believe that he was special. This then became popular among the people of the church and they came from far and wide during the festival time. The universal Syriac Orthodox Church then declared the Holy father as a saint of the church. The flow of pilgrims has only increased every year despite the hardships that one has to endure during the pilgrimage.

For me the festival time clearly reflects two things. One is the hope of the people who walk and two is the hospitality of the people who live on both sides of the road to Manjinikara. People come from the Northern and Southern parts of Kerala and also from outside Kerala to join in this walk of faith. The walking distance could be anywhere between 30- 150 KM’s, in some cases upto 220 KM's and even more. The people on the way stop to rest, pray and eat food. This is done at churches and at houses which happen to be on the way of the pilgrimage.

The walk starts from the local church and will be done in groups so that people can take care of each other. Groups include children, women and men. This is not an exclusive walk of men or of any category of people. Rather one will see the young and old, women and men and poor and rich walking the distance. Everyone will have their own prayers, wishes and tasks to get done and they will intercede accordingly. The walk involves sacrifice, pain, risks and an effort to keep going. Many people get pain in their legs and body, get swollen feet, feel feverish, exhausted and wasted. Yet they continue walking to the destination with a single minded devotion that come what may, they should reach. Women and children are exposed to not just the sun but to the dangers of being outside and in full public view and yet all fears are set aside knowing that their beloved saint is ever interceding for them. The pilgrims definitely have their own set of problems.

The hospitality on the other hand is offered by those who are staying on both sides of the road en route to the pilgrim centre. These are people belonging to different religions, different churches and different castes. They prepare all sorts of refreshments for the pilgrims and offer everything free of cost. Food, shelter and basic amenities are all offered to absolute strangers. This time I also happened to be home in Thiruvalla while the pilgrims passed. I therefore opened our house to perfect strangers. I did not know even one of them and yet at the end of the day they also felt like family. I had my own reservations just like anyone else would have before opening their entire house to perfect strangers. But the reservations were soon submerged in the stronger emotion of hospitality which should be offered to guests. This is the hospitality I received while I went to different churches, houses, seminaries, places and met total strangers who offered their resources without even battling an eye lid. It is the hospitality I received from my teachers, colleagues, students, friends, family, bishops and a host of other people. This is also the hospitality I enjoyed while walking to Manjinikara myself. It was a cultural miracle where people simply helped each other and asked for prayers from one another. In an age where we suspect the goodness in one another, this is something which simply defies logic. Why would one open their house to a complete and total stranger/s and yet that is what hundreds and thousands of people do. Churches also become the true model of hospitality they are supposed to be, where anyone who comes is offered water, food, rest, medicine and anything they would need to continue their journey.

The entire pilgrimage is laced with miracles. It starts with a miracle and ends with a miracle. The miracles include old people walking for long distances, children tagging along, the weak refusing to stop even when they feel very tired, the love shown by people in several villages and towns, the hospitality of house holds, the reaching at the final destination and the individual changes experienced after reaching and well after the pilgrimage as well. People expect a visible change in their lives and they walk interceding to St. Elias III that these visible changes may be made possible through his intercession. Just as we make sense of Jesus of Nazareth we make sense of Elias of Mardin.

Those who walk are not just from one church but belong to various churches and even religions. The destination which is a hill near Pathanamthitta is serene, quiet, calm and spiritual. It is apt for meditation and healing. But the pilgrim season makes it a different period when so many people commune to the hilly spiritual centre at the same time. The amazement of the pilgrimage is so much that one does not know which one to concentrate on, the faith of the people or the hospitality of the onlookers. Both in their own way constitute the foundation of religion and humanity.

Perhaps this is what society is missing these days. It also makes a strong case for the conduct of such festivals and the pilgrimages accompanying it. It tells people that hardships are a part of life and one should not shy away from it. It reminds us that there is goodness in us and we will express it if given the opportunity. It is just that we are given the wrong opportunities and are in the wrong places. I am thankful to St. Elias for having made the first journey, the church that encouraged others to then make it, the people who came out in large numbers to make it, the larger society which embraced it and the vast number of people who popularized it. I have again faith in people that come what may we still are not the beasts we are made out to be and there is something positive about us despite all the negative reports. The Holy father who chose to travel to Malankara, intercede for us.


Anonymous said...

Lalitha Jayachitra, facebook, 10-2-2013, 1:43 A.M.- Jerry, You've got a very original style of writing! i felt very soothing in my soul, as if reading a devotional. needless to say that I always enjoyed your hospitality both in Tiruvalla and Bangalore. I'm sure, Pranay (& Rohan too) will endorse it.

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Chitra, I would unassumingly say that hospitality is learned and shared. So anything we happen to have (albeit in a small manner) is already what we get from you and several others. The feeling this time for me was one in which I was taught that hospitality is when you let go of all that you perceive as yours and offer that to others. It is so difficult and festivals such as these teach me how much more humble and hospitable I should become. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Whitney Howarth, facebook, 10-2-2013, 5:20 A.M.- Bravo!

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Thanks Whitney.

Anonymous said...

Lalitha Jayachitra, facebook, 10-2-2013, 8:50 A.M.- I have amazed at hospitality at significant times, especially the ones who have taken me home absolutely as a stranger, should say perfect stranger, i like that expression, which have taught me generosity in magnificent ways. Being hospitable is worth pursuing.

Anonymous said...

Aji Varghese, facebook, 10-2-2013, 5:47 P.M.- Acha, very well written article/blog. Being my home parish the importance of the church and the festival is lost a bit for me but thanks for reminding what I've been missing.

Anonymous said...

Prince Mathews, facebook, 10-2-2013, 9:53 P.M.- Achen, let me congratulate you for having undertaken the walk, first of all...this was my fourth year of walking to Manjinikkara...what struck me for the first time, when i began walking four years ago was the hospitality shown by strangers to strangers...and that is what attracts me to this pilgrimage every year...apart from the peace and tranquility one experiences as you enter the premises of this church after the looooong walk...hope to continue it as long as God wills...May the Blessed father continue to intercede for his children...a very well written blog, coming out of your personal experience. well done!!!