Sunday, December 31, 2006

In the Footsteps of Saint Thomas

Our pilgrimage in India began Saturday with a tour of sites in Chennai (formerly Madras) associated with the apostle Thomas (the doubter, and legendary writer of the Gospel of Thomas). Local tradition says that Thomas came to India in 52 AD, first to the Malabar coast of Kerala and then on to Tamil Nadu to the east. When the Portuguese arrived in the late 15th century, they discovered Christians in Kerala who venerated St. Thomas. Legend says that Thomas was persecuted for preaching the gospel and hid in a cave. He was captured and taken to a nearby hill where he was killed in about 72 AD by the lance of a soldier of the local king. His body was buried in the city and a basilica was constructed on the spot.

First our large white tour bus took the 14 of us up Saint Thomas Mount where a church dedicated to Our Lady of Expectations was built in 1523 by the Portuguese. (Real pilgrims walk up the path to the top but we're still getting used to our roles.) Pope John Paul II came in the 1980s and preached to a throng of Christians gathered around the hillside. The view of Chennai, a city now of six million, was spectacular. Besides the chapel, the summit contains a large banyan tree, some kitschy religous art, and a store selling religious articles. There has been much construction and reconstruction since my last visit two and a half years ago, and there is now a beautiful side chapel for the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated several months ago, but it was locked. The chapel is small and contained a number of Indians visiting and worship. Behind the altar is a cross carved in stone by the Apostle Thomas, and we have seen it reproduced everywhere. It is said to have "bled" during the 16th and 17th centuries. There is also a painting of the Madonna and child, reportedly by St. Luke, which Thomas brought with in to India.

From Saint Thomas Mount, we traveled past the "Prayer Park" down the hill to another smaller hill which is called the Little Mount, and there we visited the cave where the Saint hid from his pursuers. There is even his palm print on the ceiling, and nearby a miraculous well and another bleeding carved cross, according to the nearly toothless attendant who was happy to relate the legends to an audience of pilgrims from America. A large church has been built over the cave and it was filled with Christmas decorations, a large creche and tree.

Our final stop in the footsteps of Saint Thomas was the basilica, San Thome, in the Mylapore superb of south Chennai, not far from the beach where the tsunami of 2004 killed several hundred poor Indians in this area. When I was last here, the large church was under construction, but I was allowed to descend the steps below the altar to see where the saint was buried. But now, after much construction and reconstruction, the church is a gothic masterpiece (where are the Indian architects who can adapt religious buildings to their culture?) and there is a new modern, marbeled entrance to the tomb from the back with a small chapel underground where people prayed in front of the tomb of the saint. There was also a relic, a bone from the Apostle's remains, in a reliquary (just as there was in the chapel on Saint Thomas Mount also). I recalled all the other chapels in which I had prayed at the tomb of saints, in Italy, Mexico, Guatemala and in Vietnam. A sign advertises that there are only two other basilicas built over the tombs of apostles: St. Peter's in Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain built over the tomb of St. James. We wandered around the large grounds where there was much activity. The church was filled with tourists and the faithful. Construction was going on next door, and I watched a woman in a sari pile nine bricks on her head and carry them into the building, again and again. Men in dhotis, folded to look like shorts, bent rebar. A group of children came by our bus and enthusiastically posed for photos. A woman proudly displayed her newly christianed baby while a nun smiled.

Our day ended with a Eucharist in a small private dining room off the "Cafe in the Park" restaurant in our hotel. Father Raneiro, prior of New Camaldoli in Big Sur, told us that the Gospel readings spoke of arrivals which coincided with our arrival in India on a momentous voyage of pilgrimage. We prayed our familiar words of liturgy in a strange land. Afterwards we sat together for dinner, sampling a variety of local delicacies, veg and non-veg. The dessert selection was to dream of!

Most of us our continuing to adjust to the new time zone, our bodies still partly back in London or California. Swami Sivarupananda from Grass Valley was to arrive last night, and hopefuly Sr. Michele's luggage which was left behind in London by British Airways. The baggage snafu took several hours to unravel early Saturday morning and we did not return to the hotel from the airport until nearly 4 in the morning. Because of the lack of sleep, we cancelled mass in the morning and the full tour of Chennai and opted for the half-day tour of sites important to the memory of Saint Thomas.

A few moments stand out. During our long wait at the airport for the plane to arrive with the bulk of pilgrims, a man asked us to take pictures of his son when he came through the gate. He had been studying in Maryland and had not been back home for several years. When he arrived and we took photos of him being greeted by his parents, their joy was unmistakable. They were incredibly grateful. And by the steps to the cave of Saint Thomas at the Little Mount, we watched a group of boys playing a cricket-like game with a tennis ball and a pile of stones. They ran and jumped and screamed and were ever so happy to have their photographs taken. Playfulness seems to survive despite poverty. Our bus passed through areas where pigs and goats roamed the streets and women in bright saris stood by communal wells with colorfully-colored buckets. We saw a young girl dancing for joy to some inner song down a dirt street. The vitality of life is almost overwhelming in India.

This morning we depart for the south. First we will attend morning mass at the San Thome Basilica, and then we will drive down to Shantivanam where a New Year's Eve mass will be held at midnight. Father Cyprian emails that he is waiting eagerly for our visit.

Computers will probably be hard to find in the rural area surrounding Shantivanam, so it will be a few days before I can resume this blog. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all my faithful readers!!

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