A Wooden Cross, Silver Beard and A Golden Heart: Fr. Paulose T. Peter

My parish arranged a pilgrimage trip to Canada few months ago. Among the places we visited was a Church in Montreal. The biggest attraction there was the relics of Brother Andre who was believed to be a great healer. His personal possessions are on display at a special location in the church just like those of ‘Parumala Thirumeni’. The heart of Brother Andre is preserved and displayed for visitors to see, kneel and pray at that location. The heart of Barnabas Thirumeni was more golden than the purest metallic gold. The temperature has to be raised to about 2000degrees Fahrenheit to melt pure gold but the golden heart of this saintly man melted at the very sight of the sick, the poor and the downtrodden.
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, especially the Northeast American Diocese, commemorates the first anniversary of the passing of Valya Thirumeni, Mathews Mar Barnabas. It was one year ago today that the golden heart in his fragile frame stopped beating. The tongue that prayed for others, the hand that touched the sick and blessed many, the mind that was kept close to the poor and the powerless, the one who was light and lamp to his sheep became silent and motionless, meeting the inevitable end prescribed by the law of nature this day a year ago. His relics hallowed the grounds of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s church at Valayanchirangara. During the thirty four years of episcopacy, his fondest metal was wood, a wooden cross and a wooden staff. Statured short, he was practically a bag of bones that survived on frugal food, not even close to being physically handsome though beautiful inside out. His blood sugar was most often out of control and yet the heavenly Father kept his system live and kicking to a full double eight years of life with a silver beard and a golden heart.
Having given us the sum total of his life from 1924 to 2012, when we look in the rearview mirror how best do we remember him? Will he be remembered as the young bishop who trudged the hills of Idukki to lift up one of the poorest dioceses in the Church? Perhaps as one who travelled the length and breadth of Idukki in a bus, never owning a luxury car even in the United States of America? May be, as someone with a rare blend of humility and simplicity whose sumptuous meal consisted of plain rice, vegetables and pickles no matter where in India or America? Or as one who wore the simplest of clothes washing them by himself given a chance? Could he be remembered as the Episcopos who handed a ‘kalpana’ of blessings with a shaking hand but unshaken in his conviction to help build that church by writing a personal check? Perhaps, an uncompromisingly disciplined man of strenuous prayer life, reminding himself and those around him even in the midst of a full-fledged meeting that it is prayer time when the clock strikes 6 pm? Could well he be remembered as ‘Nathaniel in whom there was no guile’? The young generation would perhaps remember him as an old fashioned bishop who had a new vision for future generations and who insisted that priests should preach in English in the Americas and girls must read the Old Testament prior to Holy Eucharist. Perhaps at best as the bishop who held no possessions for himself but who wrote off all his belongings to the Diocese he loved. To top it all, as the saintly man who got up religiously at 5 am to pray, who always insisted travelling in the lowest class breaking that pledge ONE TIME ONLY at his trusted assistant’s insistence on his final trip to India with two small boxes that contained all of his possessions for 18 years in the United States, whose simple life spoke volumes, whose role model was Pampadi Thirumeni and whose hobby, while professor and warden at the Old Seminary, was to bike to visit patients, regardless of their religious orientations at Kottayam Hospitals and who, in the words of his successor HG Mor Nicholovos Zachariah, was the “symbol of simplicity”.
All of the above is true and there is plenty to add by anyone who had a chance to know Valya Thirumeni closely. When all the credits and debits are done, Barnabas Thirumeni, in my view, was a man of God who firmly believed that all good things happened in his life was due to the grace of God. Caring for others and sharing with others was the love of his life. Sun shines not for itself but to give light to others. River does not flow for itself but to help generations of people. So was Thirumeni. Lived for others, not for himself. Amassing things for himself was alien to his nature. He came to America with bare minimum things and he left it with even less. His sermons were flooded with the theme of love and growing to perfection as God is perfect. He never could conform to this world. “He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal”. (John 12:25) Let his memory be eternal.
I recall visiting Thirumeni at a hospital in Queens, New York, where he was admitted several years ago. He pulled my hand and put it on his head and asked me to pray. I obeyed. That was the first time I prayed on a bishop at his request. Francis Assisi was once asked what the duty of every Christian was. He replied: “Preach the Gospel but use words only if necessary”. Barnabas Thirumeni preached the Gospel all his life and he used words only when necessary.
New Yorkers go to other cities and locations for sightseeing. They never visit the prime spots in their own backyard while people from all over the world stream into New York for sightseeing. Barnabas Thirumeni was a backyard person in our own neighborhood but in many ways we were blind to his worth and values. Now that Thirumeni is off the scene, I hope that the legacy he left behind will continue to inspire us.
A wooden tomb, whether by deliberate design or by mere coincidence, is a fitting monument to that five foot saintly man whose greatest possessions were a wooden cross and a wooden staff. A man of convictions as hard as wood, he could not be swayed by popular opinion or affluence. He was stingy in spendingmoney but filthy rich in the fruits of the spirit. If there is any project that you want him to shoot down, the surest successful approach would be to convince him that it is an expensive affair. That project will soon lie on its deathbed awaiting its funeral.
For me, Thirumeni was a teacher in class room, warden in the Seminary, ‘Chachan’ in family, Chaplain at my hometown hospital at Kolenchery, Metropolitan of my Diocese but above all he was a rare human being who encapsulated the best of values making him the epitome of goodness. Whether or not he will be remembered for his generosity, spiritual discipline, great compassion, prayer life or simplicity, he will certainly be remembered as the saintly man with a wooden cross, silver beard and a golden heart.

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