our socrates: paulos mar
Paul George, Kochi
“An unexamined life is not worth living’ is a Socratic maxim. By this measure, may it be said that Mar Gregorios’s life was full and precious for he examined his life, the world around him, was rooted in the world of ideas and was immensely involved in it combining both theory and praxis in his role as teacher and bishop. A razor-sharp mind but a heart full of compassion and generosity especially for the underprivileged so much so that he became a darling of the Communists who chose to see and hear only this aspect of him -forgetting that his faith was his refuge and strength. In my discussions with him, he told me he had stressed the spiritual underpinning of humanity with his Communist friends.
I must come back to the Socratic in him for this is what I saw and liked in him Here was a man who was searching and full of questions. He surprised me with “How is your second adulthood?’’ just after my 40 th birthday. A new formulation, a new question. I was forced to think. The Socratic method was one of questions and finding answers through questions. The philosopher was like a midwife - helping in childbirth; the child here being the truth. The Christian parallel of the truth setting a person free is also the kernel of psychology and psychoanalysis - it is by knowing that one takes the first step of becoming free of a neurosis. One remains in ignorance at one’s own peril.
Mar Gregorios was of course, the unorthodox bishop. That was my earliest impression of him - first, when I met him as a child when he drove a Volkwagen car to our house, he was then Fr. Paul Varghese. Later I formed an impression of him as the ‘flying bishop’ - a man who flew across continents delivering lectures in universities. I was in Denver when he came to the Illif School of theology in 1979 after his remarkable presence at MIT where he had moderated the “Faith, Science and the Future” conference. I remember seeing him walking with books from the library - it seemed to me that he read more books in one week than some of us read in a lifetime. This was evident in conversations with him - he did not have time for gossip or small talk. He did not have enough time - he had many commitments and projects. Once when I asked him whether he felt overextended, he had the classic riposte - “yes, but it may be better than being under-extended.” Here was a man interested in art, aesthetics, politics, psychology, economics, quantum physics, philosophy, sociology, literature, history, theology and comparative religion. I was amazed at the breadth and scope of his interests and was motivated by his example. His life showed us how much an individual can achieve when he or she is willing to work hard. One of the speakers at his funeral services spoke of him as one who worked relentlessly.
I must recount an interesting episode here in Cochin. We were going for breakfast together and Thirumeni was opening his car door when a cyclist crashed into the door from the left side. We were not at fault but I was sure this was going to be a dispute involving some lengthy negotiation. Thirumeni got out of the car slowly. The cyclist got up, took one look at Thirumeni, got on his bicycle and pedaled away very fast. An unlikely scenario in Kerala. I was greatly relieved. Perhaps, Thirumeni’s presence had conveyed some-thing I am sure many have experienced this presence in different ways. It was quite a sight to see the self he embodied among children - when he became a child and played with small children. Thirumeni reveled in the presence of children, playing with them and entertaining them. His hearty laughter with its unmistakable sonority was heard in such instances. And indeed many who saw only the serious side of him did not know he could and did laugh heartily.
Gregorios Thirumeni and I saw each other as on passing trains. He was gracious to find time for me when I sought to see him and occasionally called me when he was passing through Cochin. A breakfast, a lunch or a dinner together was always a delightful experience. Once I was surprised and saw his kind-heartedness when he suddenly enquired about a family member who was in dire straits. Here again was proof of a man who eared deeply about those who were in difficulties.
There was also the example of his outspoken candour When I wrote to him for help with a job with the W.C.C. He wrote back saying I cannot in good conscience recommend you for a position with the W.C.C. as you have not demonstrated your commitment to Christ.” I was hurt and disappointed at that time but later saw this in the context of his principles and courage. It did not leave a dent in our friendship - friendship I say, for many years later, when he took me to the India International Center in Delhi, that is how he introduced me to a friend there - “meet my friend, Bobby from Cochin.” I was overwhelmed by his courtesy when he, despite my protests, personally drove me to the International airport in Delhi that night.
I feel grateful for the privilege of knowing Gregorios Thirumeni. He was a man who inspired many people, a teacher who challenged students to do their best, a man of great principles who abhorred mediocrity and above all a man of transparency. This word - transparency - was important to him - we discussed this many times, I recollect - the idea of being transparent to oneself and to others, which after all is a truly Christian mode of living.
It would be a tribute to Gregorios Thirumeni and edifying for us and our children to recognize the mindless consumerism we are caught up in. The extension or rather result of this is the waste we generate every day - especially non-biodegradable waste such as plastic bags. The earth is our dwelling place and we should not leave it polluted. Each of us has an obligation to fake care of the earth. The simple practice of carrying a shopping bag can help us say NO thank you to the lazy and wasteful practice of getting a disposable plastic bag with each new- item of purchase. Let us educate our children about the environment - to take care of the earth - land, air and water. We become proper stewards and caretakers when we do this. As with the water crisis.
A man-made crisis caused by sand-mining and wasteful exploitation of water. Who is to blame? Each of us is responsible as in Kafka’s Trial - we become collaborators in our own execution if we do not act. High walls will not stop polluted air when somebody burns plastic next door. Helping us become aware of such social and environmental issues, I feel is Thirumeni’s legacy to us.
The Orthodox Church and the world were lucky to have this Socrates. Let me hope that the many lives he touched with his shining example will continue to evolve and contribute to the welfare of man and glory of God. For those caught in church disputes involving buildings and cemeteries, we must remember his words “the church is Not the building...” For those who seek to understand him better, I would highly recommend his last book, albeit incomplete, LOVE’S FREEDOM The Grand Mystery. A Spiritual Autobiography. I quote from his last words in this:
“Live for the good others. Pursue not perishable gold or wordly glory. Wish no one any evil. Bless God in your heart and bless all his creation. Discipline yourself while still young, to love God and to love His creation, to serve others and not to seek ones own interest. Pray always that, Gods kingdom may come and all evil be banished from this created order” (p. 198, Love’s Freedom).
(From: Sahayatra, Nov. – Dec, 2004)