Following Christ in an Indian Way

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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With a twinkle in her eye, Sister Philomena looked at me. Responding to my inquiries about the nature of her religious community, which she serves as Mother General, she replied with tempered enthusiasm that the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, commonly called the Bethany Sisters, were founded “to follow Christ in an Indian way.”

Although such a purpose appears progressive, this religious community, which is paired with a community for men, was founded more than 75 years ago by one of the most gifted men of the 20th century church – Mar Ivanios, the first Syro-Malankara Catholic Archbishop of Trivandrum. While less than a century old, Bethany reflects the joys and sorrows borne for nearly 2,000 years by the Indian Church.

The future archbishop was born in 1882 into a prominent Malankara Syrian Orthodox family. Christened Gheevarghese, the Syriac form of George, he was singled out at an early age by his family and bishop as the hope of his community. He entered the seminary in Kottayam, Kerala, and was the first Syrian cleric to receive a graduate degree, receiving an M.A. in economics from Madras Christian College in 1906. Beginning in 1913, Father Gheevarghese occupied the chair of Syriac, church history and political economy at Serampore University College, a Protestant institution in Calcutta.

While at Serampore, Father Gheevarghese’s spirituality – which is said to have been inspired by Mahatma Ghandi and Rabindranath Tagore – reflected sunyasi, the Hindu process of leading a spiritual life. The young priest envisioned the creation of a community, composed of men and women, that would embody the charism of Eastern Christian monasticism with the essence of Indian spirituality. This monastic community would thus serve as a catalyst, Father Gheevarghese reasoned, for the renewal of Kerala’s Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, a principal preoccupation of his.

In 1915, under the auspices of the Anglican Sisters of the Epiphany, the priest gathered in Calcutta 11 prominent Malankara Syrian Orthodox girls to pursue religious formation and higher education. After five years in Calcutta, these novices, the nucleus of the Bethany Sisters, moved to Kerala to complete their formation.

In 1919, Father Gheevarghese resigned his teaching post and with the help of a few English friends purchased property in Kerala. There he founded the Bethany ashram (Sanskrit for religious retreat), a community of priests who, inspired by the biblical story of Bethany and the roles of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, would exercise contemplation, social action and evangelization.

“The Bethany monks,” wrote Thomas Inchakalody in the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, “set in motion a strong wave of religious enthusiasm in the Jacobite [Malankara Syrian Orthodox] community…

“In those days one could always see an uninterrupted line of pilgrims trekking their way [to the ashram] in search of spiritual solace and guidance.”

In an interview last February, Father Raphael, O.I.C., one of two survivors of the original Bethany ashram, described a “revolutionary” spirit at the monastery: it was something new to Christianity in India, combining the asceticism of the Hindu monk with a life in the imitation of Christ and a sense of Christian community.

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Tags: India Sisters Priests Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Vocations (religious)