Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Unknown Saint

Mariam Thresia took to standing in a crucified position, and blood appeared spontaneously on her hands and feet — the stigmata of Christian lore

She died 70 years before Mother Teresa, in the unremarkable Kerala village of Puthenchira, far from the flashbulbs of a conscience-stricken press. Another Servant of God, another woman who found her calling in ministering to the sick and dying, another unforgettable heroine to the forgotten. But there was no state funeral for her, no Nobel Peace Prize, not even a profile in the big-city papers. Mother Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan died, aged 50, of a banal wound that would not heal because of her untreated diabetes.

Seventy-four years later, she was beatified in St Peter’s Square by Pope John Paul II, the penultimate step towards sainthood. I sat shivering under a grey Roman sky in the Vatican, amongst tens of thousands thronging the square for the outdoor ceremony. The atmosphere was a cross between a baptism and an Oscar Awards presentation. Five venerable servants of the Church were to be beatified, and as their names were called out, raucous cheers rose from their supporters in the crowd, many of whom were draped in scarves bearing the colours of their would-be saint. There was a particularly noisy Latin American contingent, and a surprisingly voluble Swedish group bearing the blue and white of their national flag (fortified rather unfairly, I thought, with a large number of Indian nuns wearing Swedish colours). When Mariam Thresia’s name was announced, a ragged little round of applause emerged from the handful of desis sporting the orange-and-yellow scarves of her party.

Then the Pope shuffled in, and the pomp and magnificence of the Vatican took over, as the organ music swelled and sonorous Latin chants melded with the raised voices of the congregation singing the praises of their Lord. And then the curtains parted to unveil five immense tapestries hanging from the Vatican balconies, the last of a stern Mariam Thresia in her nun’s robes, clutching a crucifix and regarding the worshipers with an ascetic eye.

How did this woman transcend the obscurity of her geography and genealogy to receive beatification at the hands of the Pope in the Jubilee Year 2000, only the fourth Indian ever to have been beatified? The story of Mariam Thresia is a remarkable one. Born in 1876 into a family in straitened circumstances — the result of a grandfather having had to sell off all his property to get seven daughters married — Mariam Thresia was one of three daughters.

Her father and a brother reacted to adversity by turning to drink; Mariam Thresia turned instead to faith. Moved at an early age by intense visions of the Virgin Mary, she took to prayer and night vigils, scourging herself in penitence, donning a barbed wire belt to mortify her own flesh, forsaking meat and ‘‘mixing bitter stuff in my curry’’ (as she later confessed in a brief spiritual autobiography). She took to standing in a crucified position, and blood appeared spontaneously on her hands and feet — the stigmata of Christian lore. Like Saint Teresa of Avila centuries earlier, she suffered seizures during which she levitated: neighbours would come to her family home on Fridays to see her suspended high against the wall in a crucified pose. The Catholic Church was initially suspicious; the local bishop wondered if she was a ‘‘plaything of the devil’’, and in her late 20s she was repeatedly exorcised to rid her of demons.

But nothing shook her faith, and soon enough her exorcist, the parish priest of Puthenchira, became her spiritual mentor and ally. Before she turned 40 she was allowed to found her own Order — the Congregation of the Holy Family — with three companions. By the time she died in 1926 the 3 had grown to 55; today there are 1,584 Sisters in the Order, serving not only in Kerala but in north India, Germany, Italy and Ghana.

Mariam Thresia was driven not only by her intense visions of the other world but by an equally strong sense of responsibility for the present one. She made it a point to seek out the sick, the deformed, the dying, and tend to them. She bravely nursed victims of smallpox and leprosy at a time when they were shunned even by their own families, caring for people whose illnesses were hideously disfiguring and dangerously contagious. In a caste-ridden society she insisted on going to the homes of the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor, and sharing her food with them.

When these outcasts died, she buried them and took charge of the care of their orphaned children. Her devotion to good works won her a devoted following: it was said she emanated an aura of light and a sweet odour, and that her touch could heal. But she could not heal herself of a wound caused by a falling object. She died just as her tireless work was achieving visible results in the growth of her congregation.

Shashi Tharoor

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