“Though I Sang in My Chains Like the Sea” Part II: Post XIII - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Road to Emmanus by Duccio di Buoninsegna 1308-1311

It all goes deeper than just walking and sitting though. Being in the ashram and watching the monks go about their round of work and prayer, I have also become very aware of things that I can only say I find slightly embarrassing.  Actually a better word would be ashamed. I am aware here of how much of my life has become wrapped up in itself - a self referring feedback loop (one of the curses of single priests, or that at least is the excuse I give myself to feel better about it). It is not that I did not know this before, I even try and make fun of it so as to weaken the negative impact on others, but somehow here it has been thrown into bas-relief. I feel like a harlot who has spent ages fussing about with tacky jewellery and vulgar makeup and clothes to go stalking proudly through the streets only to turns a corner to find herself suddenly face to face with the Empress in all her finery. It is this dressing up of the poverty of the ego to masquerade as vain pomp and glory that makes me feel shame. 

Face to face with – something: the sheer mass of humanity here; the ancientness of India; the minority position of the church here; the overwhelming religiosity of the Indian people; their generosity; their naturalness; their poverty? Perhaps it is just the ‘otherness’ of a different culture. I do not know what ‘it’ is, but I know it makes me feel small and that the life I have been living in Canada is a little less real than I would like to admit. It makes me suspect like I have been winging it, and badly, like a high school thespian.

‘It’ is exerting an influence on me like gravity and calling to another part of me long neglected. My self awareness is increasing, thoughts I have not though for years, sometimes decades, are rising like bubbles loosed from the peat to the surface of a bog. In the last two weeks names I had long since forgotten are being retuned to me one after another like gifts of my own past. The Professor of Sanskrit from the University of Krakow in Poland came to pay his respects to His Beatitude. When I told him I had spent four years in the Sanskrit department at Edinburgh he began to wax eloquently about Professor Brockington (who is still Professor of Sanskrit there), a man I have not seen in 16 years, and his books which I had read several times over as a university student. The name of Raimundo Pannikkar, the name of the man my aborted half arsed Doctoral Thesis at Cambridge was on, has come up in conversations or in my reading several times. The draft title of my Doctoral Thesis was “The Cosmotheandric Principle in the Thought of Raimundo Pannikkar”. I am sure I have not heard the word ‘cosmotheandric’ since I went down from Cambridge thirteen years ago. To my amazement, it came up this morning.

Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthampa Mandapam

Last week I found myself, quite by accident, (my driver wanted to stop to eat lunch and so left for half an hour) on the side of the road. When I turned around I was standing in front of the Shrine to Shankara in the town where he was born over 1200 years ago. Shankara, as the father of Advaita Vedanta, is one of the most important and influential philosophers to have ever lived. He is the equal to Plato if not his better. He is also the man whom I spent at least two years of my life studying eighteen years ago. What are the chances my driver would randomly drop me off there to kill half an hour? Is someone trying to tell me something?

Isa Upanishad

My memory is also playing along. Passages from the Upanishads are slowly coming back to me (Tat Tvam Asi). I find bits of Sanskrit loosening themselves free in some dark recess of my mind and coming suddenly into the light. There are vistas of thought and grace that stretch out to an horizon that, somehow even after years of study, I had forgot existed. The remnant  knowledge of some of this may have remained in me but the soul went out of it ages ago. I cannot remember why.

Tat Tvam Asi

Of course the obvious thing to say is ‘what did you to expect to happen?’ After all I spent the years from sixteen to twenty-nine actively studying either the philosophy, religion or history of India. It is, as again Swami Dayanada (Fr Bede Griffiths OSB) called it, “the other half of my soul'”.

Feelings of excitement, eagerness, and hope that I had when I was first beginning in the ashram and with the Franciscans are starting to circulate again. It is almost as if the passions of my youth seemed to die away when face to face with the imminent decision about my future began to take hold when I was at Cambridge. The fear and avoidance that began then, I though was stopped when I pursued my vocation and then later joined my religious community. Yet now, I am not so sure. I also wonder if  I ever picked up this significant thread again of where my life, up until then, had been headed.

Do not get me wrong, I do not think that what I have pursued, my ministry, is not equally part of the thread of my life. I am simply saying that it seems to me today that two parts of me became divorced and I lost touch with a part of myself that equally made me who I was. By dividing the thread I may have lost something essential. Looking at my mind and thought over the last ten or twelve years it seems a bit like watching a battery lose its charge slowly run down. Or like a rat taking the wrong turn in the maze and drifting to the point that he forgets there is even maze let alone a way out of it.

I feel this today because what I have considered proper, nourishing spiritual food for journey suddenly seems insubstantial. My theology and my spiritual practices have become routine, mundane and very small. I do not even think I believe that the round of offices and sacraments are even leading me to transfiguration anymore. I do them simply out of duty because I am a priest and a brother. It is not that I deny the efficacious quality of them it is just that that is no longer why I do them. I read the scriptures but have become more interested in the historical and theological study of them than trying to hear the Word of God.

By the grace of God, today I heard the clinking of my chains for the first time in many years and when I looked down I saw them in focus and not just out of the corner of my eye or by just guessing they were there by some sinking suspicion or intuition. I saw them again clearly and remembered exactly what they were.

I know all of this for one simple reason. When I said evensong this evening I actually heard His words clearly and plainly. No, that is not quite right. I should say I heard Him in His words. It came suddenly in the middle of the Gospel lesson appointed for the day, plodding along as usual and then, like stepping unexpectedly over an unseen precipice - hot tears and the swift transfiguration of the landscape into something vast, mysterious and glorious. How apt are the Scriptures:

“Did not our hearts burn within us when he opened to us the scriptures?”

Road to Emmaus, by John Dunne

I do not know how or why but the words burned – exactly the right word – burned within me.  I have felt the possibility of it for days now smoking just beneath the surface - a crystalline insight here, the spark of an old idea there. So, in hindsight, I am not overly surprised. In comparison to that brief moment of clarity: of the smallness of what I actually am; the vastness of who He is in the complexity of His creation; the great pain and need of the world; and through grace the promise of what we are called to be; I can only say of my life that I have been sleep walking for years. God grant me the grace to ‘wake now from sleep’ and begin the struggle for freedom and joy for myself and all of God’s creatures once again.

“O as I was young and easy

In the mercy of his means

Time held me green and dying

though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

From Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas

The Sea