How does anyone actually prepare for pilgrimage? Of course it’s a cliché, “Life is a journey and faith is a journey”, however, in essence it’s a truth, which cannot be denied. When the journeying ceases, decay and death rapidly follow, but if our faith is to mean anything significant in our lives then we do need to be on the move. As an Anglican priest my own spiritual journey has been greatly enhanced by traditions other than my own. And like many I have spoken to, I feel the holiness of a place through the knowledge that the people, who have gone before, radiate their faith into the very bricks and mortar of shrines and holy places. It is the same for me when I visit the Benedictine brothers at Le Bec Helouin in Normandy, for my retreats.
South India is one of those regions steeped in Christian history and devotion, of which many in the west are blissfully unaware. It was here that I made my own journey of faith in preparation for sharing this with others on a pilgrimage in September next year with SoulofIndia. Firstly, I can see no point in visiting endless empty churches. I want to find other souls at prayer and on their journeys.
St Thomas’ Mount in Chennai is accessed by weaving through the city’s chaotic traffic and turning up an unmade road (no sign post) climbing to the car park. From here a short ascending walk in the heat affords the top of the Mount. Chennai is largely flat, but from here there is a panoramic view of the sprawling metropolis and to the west the Bay of Bengal.
Although in many ways a popular tourist attraction – there aren’t many in Chennai – this, the traditional site of St Thomas’ martyrdom, is one. Pre-Portuguese tradition of the 1400s tells of St Thomas’s journey across from Kerala in the west, to this easterly mount of his martyrdom. In spite of the flow of tourist, it has a stillness of its own, mainly due to the constant flow of individuals devotees quietly at prayer in the many corners of this complex. I enquire whether a mixed denominational group would be allowed to pray and sing here. Although it is a Catholic shrine, and I have no wish to offend, I am assured that if I contact them nearer the time of our group’s pilgrimage, all can be arranged.
In a similar way that St Paul used Greek understandings and imagery, the Catholic Church here, as elsewhere in the world, has embraced some of the local cultural peculiarities. Here, as a symbol of respect, they have adopted the practice of removing shoes to enter the church, as is required in Hindu Temples. Also the Brass Pillars seen in every temple are also seen here, but here with a Cross atop. Down on the plain the tomb of St Thomas also has an almost touchable stillness and holiness.
Vailakanni, to the south is a complete surprise. It has an almost Jerusalem atmosphere. The whole town revolves around the shrines. The streets are full and bustling with traders pilgrims and all of humanity each with their own reasons for being here. However, again the church buildings afford an oasis for prayer and reflection where the soul can blank out the noise of worldly endeavor and find that spirit through prayer. Pilgrims come and sit and offer supplication to Our Lady of Health. Fr Arokiadoss, received my request for our pilgrimage graciously, I will write nearer the time.
For an immediate contrast Bede Griffiths Ashram encompasses the closest Christian link with the Hindu religious traditions. A community embodying the Benedictine life and order, the calm and simplicity permeates the very soil. In their booklet, they begin “The Second Vatican Council in its declaration on ‘non-Christian religions’ said that, ‘The Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions’”.
The Ashram is a place of prayer and a place of meeting. I joked with Fr George that the Anglican Church was the link between Protestant and Catholic and the Ashram a link between the Christian faith and the Hindu religion. He graciously commented that he thought Anglicans and Catholics were closer.
After journeying west to Cochin and visiting the Church of St Francis, the oldest European church in India, dedicated originally to St Anthony, my last stop before returning was Kurwar. At St Joseph’s Church, two obviously well loved fathers work and minister to the town. I ask if I might receive the sacrament. After ‘sizing me up’ the senior fathers tells me, I am welcome. We both believe in the ‘real presence’ at the Eucharist and I am content in the familiar structure of the service. The homily by the second priest concerned Lazarus.
On pilgrimage Our Lord speaks mostly through the people we encounter. I am privileged to have met with men of outstanding faith and devotion. This in itself enhances my own faith. I look forward to sharing all this with other pilgrims next year.