I made it into Chennai a few days ago. It feels a world away from Tiruvannamalai. The population went from 200,000 to over 6 million. Chennai is India’s fourth largest city and it feels very much like a city whether day or night.
I arrived at Gurukul Seminary just in time to take part in their Alumni Workshop titled: Health Stigma and Discrimination: Christian Mission with People Living with HIV and AIDS. I was very impressed by the theologians that presented and even more impressed by the group of children from a place called SHELTER here in Chennai. It’s a home for kids living with HIV/AIDS. A woman whom I understood to be a house mother who was also infected with HIV,and one of the older kids spoke of their experience. Being infected with HIV by her husband, watching a parent die, feeling the intentional rejection by their communities and their schools, wanting desperately to just be a part of community …
Gurukul Seminary is somewhere in the middle and slightly north part of Chennai. It’s a campus full of trees and surrounded by high-rise buildings. It makes for a relatively quiet campus which is close to some shopping and looming in every direction … the city,
The surrounding high-rises have added to the flooding problem though … when it rains, which it is right now, the rain stays past its welcome. Check out the campus chapel.
Jesus you are everywhere…I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard about Jesus while visiting a Swami when we took a stop on our 14 km Hindu pilgrimage walk around the Mountain of Shiva from 8 PM – 1 AM with about 500,000 other pilgrims. Unbelievable! I was blown away…
I was planning and looking forward to this Full Moon walk (which happens during every full moon.) I had heard it was a mass of prayerful people walking, walking, walking barefoot, quietly sometimes singing, orderly but in mass, and that it was something you have to see to believe. My “advisers” were right.
The official map, which you do NOT need, because everyone is going in the same direction (actually you will have a rather difficult time going the opposite because of the volume of people – you just have to keep moving) … anyway the map lists about 40 holy sites along the way, you can stop at any, all or none of them. We made a few stops, not many but clearly the highlight was visiting with Suriyalingam Swami, a Brahmin priest (Hindu.)
He invited us all into his home which was a room of maybe 7 x 10 feet with no furniture; he already had three other men sitting with him. All nine of us, a pastor, a priest, theological students and volunteers, came in and sat on the floor with them.
We’d all barely settled on the floor when the prayer and praise of Jesus began. Suriyalingam Swami claimed that Jesus might be saying to us (the collective us) “I am looking for you, why are you not looking for me?” He retold the story of a crucified Christ beautifully and with passion. He led us in the Lord’s Prayer and asked that we come to visit him again because when we do, we bring Jesus to him.
Jesus you are everywhere.
Even with all that I don’t understand and find downright puzzling about Hindu Temples and Ashrams, I have still found them to be surprisingly inclusive and welcoming … welcoming to the tourist, the spiritual seeker and those of every faith. Since I have been in India, I’ve been welcomed, blessed and fed by residents and caretakers of Ashrams and even prayed for by name by a Brahmin Priest. None of this was done to gain favor or to convert me, but instead because we meet strangers and friends on the journey of life, why not welcome them …?
For your presence is a blessing and your presence is an offering; not in the way that one should never give or support but in the way that a relationship is nurtured in presence; presence to others and presence to God.
I have met devout Christians who live in ashrams here in Tiruvannamalai as unquestioned Christian members of the community. I am intrigued by a space like an Ashram (which might be more akin to a retreat center or meditation space, it is not a Temple or a church.) Ashrams allow a space to be differently together seeking God.
I wonder if more followers of different faiths could seek God differently together, maybe we wouldn’t fight about our different faiths and understandings through violence, judgment and hate … maybe we could instead be more of a blessing to each other.
A wall inside the Quo Vadis Interfaith Dialogue Center.
The Arunachaleshwar Temple in the middle of Tiruvannamalai. Looks something like an Old Testament description of a temple…
The rather popular, with the Westerners and Indians alike, Sri Ramanasramam Ashram.
Well actually there are many many Ashrams here. Are you familiar with Ashrams? I mean more than seeing the movie Eat, Pray, Love…? Ashrams are places of spiritual hermitage. It is an Indian and a Hindu tradition. I have visited many of them since I have been here. They’re mostly peaceful, reverent, introspective and respected places.
There is also a Christian Ashram Movement. Mostly connected to the Catholic Church, these Ashrams are Christian, Indian and peaceful, reverent and introspective as well. I just returned from one of them. Shantivanam.
It is a two-bus trip about 6 – 7 hours south of Tiruvannamalai that I managed to make because of my traveling companion Sister Sanjeevani who was returning to her Convent which was across the street.
Shantivanam has Fathers and Brothers who maintain basically the life of a hermit. There are three daily services and much time for quiet.
Even the meals are in
I was the only guest for the 3 days I was there. It was lovely and peaceful yet I am certain I am not called to the life of a hermit … though that wasn’t really in question was it?
I asked some of the staff here at the Quo Vadis if it was quieter or at least less busy in the village today and yesterday. It seemed less noisy to me… They looked a bit puzzled by my question and stayed silent for a short while, then one replied, “maybe your mind is now calm.”
Then it was my turn to be silent.
No one has ever said that to me… but maybe my mind is now calm and adapting to this place; largely because of where I am staying and the wonderful hospitality and education I am being given.
I’ve mentioned before that I am staying at the Quo Vadis Interfaith Dialogue Center. It is a pleasant peaceful place in a large village (pop. approx. 200,000) of honking horns, mooing cows, barking dogs, firecrackers, PA broadcasts, motorcycles, buses and auto rickshaws. The village with its Ashrams, Temple and Mountain draw many tourists from India and the west. The Quo Vadis is a place where western travelers seem to stumble upon. They come for a good meal, some study in the library, and even some direction or a little conversation. I am fascinated by these visitors, these spiritual seekers and spiritual tourists. Some afternoons and even early evenings I just sit myself down where everyone enters Quo Vadis. If I sit alone, I will meet someone. Spiritual seekers usually and often ex-Christians, some with a vehement opposition to the church and others with a general openness to all things spiritual and the wisdom of all faiths.
I can’t help but wonder as I talk and meet them, how many of their stories match the stories of the vast numbers who have left our western churches over the last decades … what’s interesting to me is how many of these now seekers where either born Christian or called themselves Christian at one time. They struggle with the church and the institution, they have not given up on God.