Kottakkayal or North Paravur of the Ezharrappallikal or The Cherubim and Seraphim: Post XXVII – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012

Ayasofya Seraphim

Kottakkayal or North Paravur/Paravoor is another location where Saint Thomas founded a church. There are two churches here. The Roman Catholic Syro-Malabar Church holds the ‘historic site’ whilst the Jacobite Church (The West Syrians under he authority of the Patriarch of Antioch) is a 16th century church with the tomb of an important Syrian Saint.

 Kottakkavu

Outside of Larger Portuguese Church

The Syro-Malabar church, shown above, is another example of an Eastern Syrian church that isn’t. It is Portuguese Latin with, as usual, Western Saints many of whom are Counter-Reformation. I was so upset by this church’s claim to be ‘Syro-Malabar’ I refused to take any photographs. It looked like many rural churches I have seen in Portugal and there was nothing inside that would have made me think I was in India. The East Syrian priest I was with was unable, when I asked him, to find anything in the church that was either East or West Syrian or even Indian. Yet at least it was a proper older church. The smaller, ‘original church’, around the back, was the site of the church founded by Saint Thomas. It is brand new and, as I pointed out in a previous column, was still built in a Portuguese style!

Old new Church

Interior

Notice the angles outside the door and inside the building (you can double-click on any photograph to enlarge it). I wish I had enough time at the moment to render one of my Michaelmass sermons into a  proper column about the general trend in the church to reduce the nine Choirs (or Orders) of angels to vapid, insipid, powerless images. St Gregory the Great reminds us the angels are teleological. They are what they do and the church has identified them with the powers of creation. In other words the Orders of angels are the laws of nature – the church’s physics if you like.

Seraphim  by SamuraiX Hiko

More precisely the angels are the functions or patterns that ‘connect’ things together - including us. There is one pattern that holds the planetary bodies in motion (Newtonian Physics) and another that holds all things together at a base level (Quantum Mechanics) and another holds the various systems in the body together, another that connects us through thought and understanding or consciousness to the world around us, another that helps us discern how to properly interact  with one another and the created order, yet another connects us through love etc., etc. So when we understand something it is a connection or an angel the same way that the electro-magnetic forces in nature are, not the work of an angel, but actually an angel. I will not go on at length about which of the nine orders does what as you get the drift by now. I will, however, remind you roughly of what they are.

FIRST SPHERE -The first three are around the throne of God and are the primal forces of creation itself.

  • Seraphim (the Burning Ones) – The lovers of God
  • Cherubim – The knowers of God
  • Thrones/Ophanim – The seers of God and His Justice

SECOND SPHERE - The next three deal with the laws of nature and power.

  • Dominions – Laws of Nature
  • Virtues –  Balance
  • Powers/Authorities - Conscience

THIRD SPHERE - The last three deal with life and men, primarily as messengers.

  • Principalities – The pattern of life and Guiders of the nations
  • Archangels – The messengers and soldiers of the Great Will
  • Angels – Those that connect heart and mind to creation.

Doctor Dee

The Rev’d Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court Astronomer called mathematics the language of the angels as did many of the other scientists/alchemists of his age. It is a way of talking about science that, by being poetic and emotive, captures the heart as well as the mind and thus can be discerned by those who are not professional scientists. The philosophical concept of the angles, especially in the understanding of the Church Fathers, was not sickly new-age sentiment.Yet it has been reduced to this. The Anglican Church of Canada’s book For All the Saints is even apologetic about the belief in Angels in its introduction to the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels and mentions believe if Angels as being similar to belief in unicorns! Arrrggg!

Angelic Choirs by Hildegaard of Bingen

Thus one of the most dynamic images or poetic languages the church has at her disposal to relate to the modern world is reduced to fat babies (cherubs or putto or putti plural come from Greek mythology as agents of Eros reinterpreted and distorted by Baroque and Rococo art and are profane images as opposed to the fierce awe-inspiring Cherubim of Ancient Near-Eastern mythology shared by the Jews, Christians and Muslims).  The one thing all our Angles have in common is that they are all terrible or awful in the proper use of these words. The manifestation of the Angel played by Emma Thompson in Angels in America is not a bad example. An angelic manifestation should be like the detonation of an atomic bomb.

I especially find the Syrian use of insipid angel imagery deeply depressing as they have the most powerful use of angelic imagery in the world. Both East and West Syrian worship have dynamic angelic themes as one of their main threads running through all their liturgies. For example here are a couple of the prayers used at services of Holy Qurbana in the East Syrian rite of Mar Addai and Mari.  

Cherubim-Blake

Prayer before the Chancel and Sanctuary for Sundays:

Before the glorious throne of your majesty, O My God, the high and exulted chair of your honour and the fearful judgement seat of your love’s severity and the absolving Altar which was established at your direction and the place of the habitation of your glory,  We your people, the sheep of your pasture, with thousands of Cherubim who glorify you and ten thousands of Seraphs, Seraphim, Archangels who minister to you,  bow down, worship, confess, and glorify you at every hour, O Lord of all Father, Son and Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.

Angels of Fire by Viviana Puello

The Beginning of the Anaphora of Mar Addai and Mari:

Worthy of praise from every mouth and confession from every tongue and adoration, exultation from every creature is the worshipful and glorious name of your glorious Trinity - O Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For you created the world in your grace and it’s inhabitants in your mercifulness, you saved men in your compassion, and shown great grace unto mortals. Thousand upon thousands of those on high bow down and worship your majesty, O My Lord, and ten thousand times ten thousand holy angels and spiritual hosts, the ministers of fire and spirit glorify your name and with holy Cherubim and spiritual Seraphim offer worship to your lordship.

Dore-Angelic Host

You would think they would use images that the ones I have included from great Byzantine church of Haggai Sophia, Hildegard von Bingen, Dore, Blake or even modern artists like the two I have included in this column. Instead most of the angles in most of the churches here look like this (the East Syrians are, of course, free from this taint as they do not use images). I did not take that many photographs of them simply because they were unattractive and I do not as a rule take photos of unattractive things unless I find them amusing. The angels I have encountered here have just been depressing. To be more precise, many of the angels depicted in the churches here are not angels but putti and thus pagan sexual images and not Christian angelic ones. Somehow I do not think they understand this – but then again this also goes for churches throughout the world. Still, I find it a fascinating juxtaposition that the Syrian Christians can sing the great angelic hymns of St Ephraim of Edessa and use powerful, evocative angelic imagery daily and not see the disconnect between what they are singing or saying and the images they have decorated their churches with and thus see with their eyes.  

IMG_1922

Back to the point, at least the Syro-Malabar church had one old thing. A Persian cross. Then again no one was quite sure how old it was just that it was really, really old!

Old Persian Cross

I loved the juxtaposition of these schoolboys in uniforms leaving their private Roman Catholic school and wandering past a Theyyam poster advertising ritual possession by pre Hindu deities (see Post II). Ah, India.

School Boys with Theyyam Poster

The other church in North Paravur, Saint Thomas Cheriapally, was founded in 1566 and is a lovely church if a little dark and dingy inside.

North Paravur

The Back of the Church

Multi-tiered Oil Lamp

Jacobite Interior

The church contains the tomb of a historically very important man in the history of the Church in Kerala – the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem St.Gregorios Abdul' Galeel. This was the West Syrian bishop who came to India in after the Koonen Cross oath was taken. It is said he ‘regularised’ Archdeacon Thomas’s consecration as the first Mar Thoma Metropolitan. Regardless, one can date the continued influence of the West Syrians on the Nasrani Christians from his arrival in India. The strain of West Syrian Christianity associated with the Mar Thoma Metropolitans and the Mor Gregorios is usually referred to as ‘Malankara’, even though all Saint Thomas Christians are technically ‘Malankara’. Mor Gregorios died in 1681 and was declared a Saint by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I on 4th April 2000.

Lamp next to Saint's Tomb 

Tomb of St Gregorious

Seraphim from Haggai Sophia