Valson Thampu

It was about forty years ago. I was studying in Bishop More College then. An air of subtle excitement descended on the college. We were told that one Paul Ramban would address the students in a few days’ time. Life was simpler then: no TVs, no Internet, and no nothing. The very prospect of listening to a guest speaker was exciting.

We waited for the day. We waited for Paul Ramban. The day came. It turned out to be a feast. Else, I would not have remembered it now, years later. Paul Ramban spoke gingerly and with extreme simplicity, as though he was worried about the low standard of English in Kerala. But he spoke with great love. It was obvious: he enjoyed pouring himself out in endless streams of thought, yearning to share the best with us. We were sinking, minute by minute, under the spell of the great Ramban’s eloquence. I do not remember much of what he said on that occasion. But I do remember that he imprinted my young mind with an indelible impression of human greatness. Only two others have struck me in a similar fashion since then: Mother Teresa and Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom of the Mar Thoma Church.

I did not get to see the great Ramban for several years thereafter. In fact I was never, if you like, to meet the “Ramban” again. By the time I met him in Delhi, years later, Paul Ramban had become Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios. The Metropolitan straightaway made me feel that there was a special place for me in his heart. Perhaps that was his way with all people. I am almost sure that it was. You shall know why, by and by. The Metropolitan was easily the most respected peace thinker and activist I knew in those days. Peace was a magnificent obsession with him. This subject loomed large in our discussions every time we met. Occasional ill-health brought him to St. Stephen’s Hospital, where Dr. Lucy Oommen - for long its angel of mercy and presiding deity- was the Metropolitan’s ardent admirer. The Metropolitan getting admitted to the hospital was almost like a great personal honour for her. Hospital is meant to be a place of rest. It was as though the Metropolitan’s mind never needed any rest. So while his body got the much needed respite, he would let the agility of his mind run wild over a world of ideas. He believed passionately that Christians who were spiritually alive could not remain indifferent to the mission to spread a culture of peace all over the world.  I owe my own peace activism to a large extent to the Metropolitan’s influence. This is a debt of gratitude that I need to place on record.

There is an ever greater debt that I owe him. What impressed me most about this great soul was his ability to hold the spiritual and the secular – the Word and the world - in harmony. He had an integrated vision large enough to embrace the whole world in love. Sure enough, he was firmly and deeply rooted in the spirituality of the Orthodox tradition. For that very reason, he was able to rise above the parochial and exemplify a freedom of spirit and generosity of heart that spoke winsomely to people across continents, cultures, classes and creeds. He was like the parabolic mustard seed. He took root in a context and sent his branches truly unto the end of the world. The result was a catholicity of vision, a universality of interests and a versatility of mind that only one word in the English language can do justice to: genius. Believe me, this man was a genius. A true genius!

The significance of what the Metropolitan stood and struggled for dawned on me, not very clearly or conceptually but somewhat intuitively in the early days. But, like Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy, I have followed this ideal ever since. This comprises the poetic justice in my writing this personal tribute to the Metropolitan. He taught me that to be able to serve your community best, you need to go beyond its boundaries. He taught me that the dichotomy between the religious and the secular is spiritually untenable. He also taught me, at the same time, that relating positively to the secular world should not blind me to the limitations of the secular worldview. If today I am called upon to play a small role in the life of our country, it has a reference to the wider sense of mission I have learned from the Metropolitan.

This is a personal tribute: let me stay personal.

The year: 1991.  The HIV/AIDS pandemic had broken into the Indian scenario a few years earlier. Being somewhat aware of its nightmarish implications for our country, I decided to do whatever I could to contain its spread and devastation. Hence the idea of producing a documentary on the subject –the first and the last I was to make- to spread awareness about this rising national menace presented itself. My strategy was to create a climate of opinion that would throw the spiritual and ethical resources of our culture and society against this enemy. So it occurred to me that the opinions of religious leaders from various traditions should figure prominently in the documentary and the script was prepared accordingly. The location shooting began: and I hit the dead-end. No religious leader would agree to be interviewed. Almost all of them, except the Metropolitan, confessed total ignorance. Mercifully, he agreed readily and gladly. And what an interview it turned out to be. He stood out from the rest –professionals, experts and opinion makers- as the most perspicuous and persuasive communicator. When the documentary was screened before a distinguished audience in the Speaker’s Hall of the Constitution Club, Shri. Ajit Kumar Panja, the then Union I&B Minister, who released the film, could not help sharing his special appreciation for the bishop!

The second instance is more recent. The Indira Gandhi International Seminar of 2002 was in progress. This is one of the most prestigious seminars in this country. Getting invited to be a discussant is in itself a distinction. But what gave me far greater joy was the fact that at least two of the discussants –both of them non-Christians- referred to the Metropolitan’s concepts and contributions, which made me feel rather proud of myself. My memory went back to the 1994 Keswick Convention in Calcutta. In the course of the week-long stay there, several of my hosts and acquaintances there told me that because of the great work done by Mother Teresa, Christians had a positive identity and they could hold their heads high in the city. I could hold my head high at the Seminar in Delhi. Thank you Metropolitan.

The third instance is as recent as January 2005. The second meeting of the National Steering Committee for Curriculum Review of the NCERT was in progress in Delhi. Women and men of distinction from around the country were in attendance. A Hindu lady scholar from TamilNadu sat next to me. I was in my cassock. The very first thing she asked me was, “Did you know Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios?” The way she put this question to me carried the sub-textual insinuation that I would be a “nobody” in her estimation if I did not know the man she lionized. I lost no time in claiming the Metropolitan as a personal favourite, upon which she told me how her teacher in Delhi, Prof. Jayashree Mathur, whom I happen to know quite well, introduced her to the Metropolitan and how she developed an abiding veneration for him. The point I am making is that the Metropolitan continues to live in the memories of many more people than most of us may know or care to find out. If so, we need to ask why. Perhaps the best way to answer this is to tell you why I remember him with much respect and affection. I shall be brief and only inventory some facets of this versatile genius.

Clarity of thought and expression was the hallmark of this great man. He was a brilliant communicator. Give him a pedestrian subject or the most complex idea; he will couch them in expressions so transparent that even a child can understand. He was a man of enormous scholarship; but he carried his knowledge light.  He never sought to impress; he was keen only to express. He did not hide behind the arras of authority to make up for deficiencies in understanding or apologetics. Instead, he made sure that he explored the argument in depth and expressed it with power and precision. Almost always when I listened to him, I would remember the words from Genesis, “Let there be light”! He proved that simplicity of expression and clarity of thought are the two legs on which profundity walks into human hearts.

Then, he was truly creative! He was a sculptor of ideas. And he thought in depth. Small wonder the West listened to him with respect. He could synthesize the best of the East and the West. He could do that, I suspect, because he was so deeply rooted in the Eastern tradition of spirituality. The mark of a creative mind is its ability to bring out hidden possibilities and resources. This makes such a person at home in every context, as the Metropolitan was. Give him any subject or context; he would transform it into something beautiful. He could see what most others could not. Yet he could share his insights with us in words that were wholly our own. The Metropolitan was truly a world citizen. Beyond that he was a spiritual statesman. I have had the privilege of being taken into confidence in respect of the Metropolitan’s innumerable encounters and enterprises involving world leaders. Nothing would prevent him from accepting the best from whichever tradition or source it came. Nor would he withhold his best from anyone in the world.  He symbolized the Christian presence in contexts to which most others won’t or dare not venture. I wish to believe that this is an authentic expression of the spiritual vitality of the Orthodox tradition. Through the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I have developed a deep appreciation of the depth and profundity of the Russian Orthodox tradition. It is this spiritual tradition that underlies the uniqueness of the Russian intelligentsia, marked by its adventurous moral passion and universal vision. The Orthodox tradition is much more than the veneration of orthodoxy! It is a dynamic and searching dialogue between the old and the new, the depth and the surface and between the immediate and the ultimate. This spiritual dynamic is, alas, fast becoming a lost art at the present time. It is in this respect that the memories of a great soul like the Metropolitan should make a radical difference. The Catholic core of the Orthodox tradition needs to be re-appropriated and re-articulated at the present time.

Finally, the Metropolitan taught me that spirituality does not have to shun politics. Rather, boycotting politics amounts to spiritual irresponsibility. There is a great need to enunciate a spiritual foundation for secularism in the Indian context. The Christian mission in the sphere of politics is to imbue the culture of politics and governance with spiritual values so that human welfare remains the unwavering purpose in both. I met the Metropolitan in the Orthodox Centre a few months before he departed from our midst. He was totally bedridden. I sat by his bed. He talked at length about the conferences he had conducted a year prior to that on alternate systems of medicine. He gave me the literature that he had brought out on the subject. He talked very reflectively about the need to be more eclectic and hospitable to those who are not exactly of our own persuasion. He was physically very weak; but his mind was amazingly clear.

Well, that was the last impression he left me with: the clarity of his mind. That is the insignia by which I prefer to remember him: a man of clarity. That was what he was. Clarity, as C. S. Lewis says, is a function of truth. It is an aspect of godliness. The Holy Spirit, after all is not a spirit of confusion or disorder; but of discernment and clarity. Those who lay special claim to the gifts of the Holy Spirit but remain utterly confused would have been, perhaps, converted to honesty and sanity if they had met this man. But, alas, such people chose to keep a distance from him. I too have a tinge of regret. If only I had made better use of the Metropolitan’s goodwill and his eagerness to involve me more and more in his many missions!

It is eminently appropriate that the Sophia Society continues to celebrate the memory of this great man. ‘Sophia’ means the love of wisdom. It is a quintessential human trait. We cannot be fully human or spiritual if we do not love wisdom, as King Solomon would have gladly testified. But ours is not an age of wisdom, but of information explosion. Where is the knowledge, asks T.S. Eliot, that we have lost through information; and where is the wisdom that we have lost through knowledge?  The Metropolitan was an inspiring invitation to earnestly desire wisdom and to pursue it life-long. Wisdom is the ability, among other things, to see inter connections. It remands a transcendence of the narrow, the petty and the reductive. It involves the spiritual discipline that Jesus defined as, “Seek, and you shall find”. Nothing short of reinforcing this fast-dying discipline of seeking wisdom and spreading a spiritual culture conducive

to this noble goal can honour the memory of the Metropolitan. The task at hand is not only to look for great men and women here and there whom we may honour. It is also to encourage all people –created in the image and likeness of God, mind you- to love and pursue greatness so that the vision of the prophet may come true: “Their old men shall see dreams and their young men and women will see visions”. The Metropolitan was a brilliant shaft of light that illumined human greatness for a while; and his memory continues to be an earnest invitation for us to do justice to the uniqueness of our creation and the greatness of our spiritual destiny.

The author is a Member of the National Commission for Minority. Educational Institutions & Member, National Integration Council.