ധ്രുവദീപ്തി: Christianity //
St. Chavara // His Vision about Women //
Fr. Dr. Thomas Kadankavil CMI
Though the modern ideas of liberation and empowerment of women were unknown to Chavara and his contemporaries he was well aware that the stability and sanctity of families depended mostly on well-groomed women in siciety. One of the main reasons for starting a religious congregation for women at Koonanmavu was that besides attaining personal holiness, they could also be instuments in educating girls who would become wives and mothers of Christian families.
| Fr. Dr. Thomas
In the 19th century social life of Kerala, women did not enjoy equality with men in any area. Their education was limited to that of aquiring basic skils in reading and writing at the single-teacher village school called Kalari. The training given to them was mostly focused on cooking, child-rearing and household works. They were given away in marriage at avery tender age too. In christian families women did not have any right or title to the family property. Only the sons could inherit the property. The tradition amoung the Syrian Christian was that women could not hold property or forms of wealth in their on name. What she receives from her family as the 'girls share' (DOWRY) becomes the property of her husband and his family and they handle it the way they wanted.
A women's main duty was to make the family atmosphere homely and enjoyable through the proper exercise of her twin roles as wife and mother. In short, women were expected only to work and do their duty as wife and mother. They had no rights, no voice, either in the family or in the society. Girls belonging to lawer castes were not admitted even to the single teacher village schools. Women were not allowed to go for amusements or other culturel events that took place even in the Church compounds. Father Bernard , the eminent church historian remarks that women did not participate even in the retreats that were conducted for the people at the church. Even BL. Chavara admonished that girls, twelve years and older should not be taken to social functions like death aniversary celebrations, feasts and other liturgical celebrations, dinner, weddings etc. They should be rather kept at home and given instruction in some usefull trade or craft(Letters, p. 114, No.1).
We all know that in the Indian society the position and status of women has not improved much even at the present time. Even today women are not represented in the parish councils of the syrian church. They are excluded from theological studies. Thus catholic women have been very backward ecclesiastically, socially, ecconomically and educationally. It is in the context of this unfortune situation that chavara's vision on women in favour of educating them becomes revolutionary and far ahead of this times.
Chavara's Personal Relation to Women.
a)- His own mother : Some of the earliest memories of Chavara of his mother are given expresion in his work ' Compunction' of the Soul. Concerning the dedication his mother made of him to Mary he writes:
And while on nectar mother on the earth fed me
Mary at her feet fondly kept me safe.
Accept him as your humble slave
To your maternal love, I entrust him.
My humble womb's worthless 'tender fruit'
So saying, me her infant child
At Mary's feet, she humbly laid (P.lines 3-9)
In section 1from lines 44 to 88 we have a very vivid descreption of how Chavara's mother taught him devotional prayers:
And, while my infant tongue, 'began to lisp'
up to the sky, her finger pointing oft
The holy names of Jesus, Mary, and Josef
She, my noble mother made me repeat (p.3,lines 67-70).
Never once did she use the rod to chastise
Nor with a harsh touch did the smite me
Her eyes, they wielded the mighty power to hit me
Or needs be, to fondle me, in approval (p3,lines 81-84)
b)- Mother of God
It was from his mother that Chavara got his devotion to the blessed Virgin Mary and the holy family. It is with a heart full of devotion and gratitude that Chavara recalls his being dedicated to Mary. Throughout Compunction of the soul we see Chavara lost in the ecstatic devotion to the Blessed Mother.
c)- Devotion to Teresa of Avila.
|St. Teresa of Avila
Chavara always addressed St.Teresa as "my mother". He was convinced that his mother had accepted him as one of her spiritual sons. To learn the meditation techniques of St Teresa, Chavara showed interest in learning Spanish. He wished to read the Interior Castle in its original language. He writes about this in his Colloquies with the Heavenly father: "St Teresa, as a mother in spirit and mistress of contemplative life, would certainly see to my spiritual need. For she is the author of the Interior Castle with its seven mansions. She knows how to teach teach her children the way taking them through it. So I beseech your help, O mother, in comprehending the language or the subline inner meaning of the Interior Castle or inspiring the same into my heart"(P.2).
In his letter addressed to the community of the sisters he again referred to the Interior Castle of St.Teresa. " Then the bride will love more and more and the bridegroom will rejoice over it and adom her with ornaments. Thus commences the divine union from then on there will be no fear.
3)- Mediative prayer
It is enough for the mediative time being used to aspire to this fourth degree of prayer. Our mother Teresa attained the seventh stage. Some of her sisters reached up to the fifth and sixth.We must reach at least the fourth".
d)- Devotion to Repentant Holy Women:
Extremely humble as he was, Chavara always felt that his compunction was not in proportion to the magnitude of his sins. He, therefore, cultivated a special devotion those repentant holy women who, renouncing their old sinfull life became acceptable to the lord. He prayed " As my sorrow bears no proportion to the magnitude of my sins, I take heart to go to my heavenly Father by offering to him, with my sorrow and grief, the penance and penitence of the great penitence like Mary Magdalena, Mary of Cortona who have always been helpfull to me in repentance for my sins".
e)- Prayer of a Holy Girl for Happy Death:
Chavara used to say a prayer for a happy death composed by a holy girl who was converted to catholicism at the age of fifteen and died in the order of sanctity at the age of eighteen. This prayer which descreibes in detail the final stages of death and its agonies will certainly enable any faithful to face death with a calm and serene mind. Many Christian families used to recite it during their evening prayer for a happy death.
f)- Anasthasia's Martyrdom :
Anasthasia's Martyrdom is a poem that Chavara composed with a view to strengthening the faith and unity of the Kerala Syrian Church and Christian families when its foundations were shaken in the strom that the schism raised. Just as he selected the prayer of a Holy girl, He also selected, as the role model, a girl from amoung the many holy martyrs to serve as an edifying example to the faithfull.
g)- Mothers of Great Men:
Chavara has written the biographies of great men who have had significant influence on his life. In these biographies he has always made reference to the significant role their mothers have played in their personality development. In the Mannanam Chronicle we read the following about the mother of Father Thomas Palackal:" His father also died in the epidemic. He had one elder brother and two sisters. As the former was too young and incapable, mother suffered a lot to bring her children up. But she did not lose her patience because she was one of the most pious women of the time and had a younger sister to help her.
Similarly, while speaking about the life and circumstances of Anna, one of the first members of the convent at Koonanmavu, Chavara remembers Anna's mother and aunt too with great respect and admiration: " Father delegate got down Thomman Varikka, the younger brother of the girl's father who was looking after her properties. The Rev. Father undertook to clear all the debts and asked him to build a small house for them. He and his wife, who were very pious people, took great interest, but as they had no money the work dragged on.
The above are a few instances which testify Chavara's respect and admiration towards women who were great and hounarable in the eyes of God. Chavara held the lofty ideal that all women should be hounered and respected in the family, in the society and in the nation. Hence it is clear that he saw women's uplift as a very effective means to improve the quality of life in the families. He then acted with the conviction that the first towards this should be the formation of a group of consecrated women in the Church.
Establishment of a Convent and the Renewal of the Family.
A women is the light of the family. She has a unique role to play in giving a good formation to her children. With these convictions Chavara attempted to uplift women by founding a convent for them. These efforts, he believed, would ultimately result in the betterment of the Christian family as a whole. In the chronicle of the CMC convent at Koonanmavu the foudation statement regarding the aim of the convent is given as follows:
" to clear the debts and then to have the remaining plot enclosed and to put up a house where the two could be together. They could take care of their spiritual life, teach girls prayers and train them in certain handicrafts".
There are three elements in this foundation statement:
1)- Meet one's spiritual needs effectively. 2)- Achieve Christian formation through Christian instructions and studies. 3)- Learn and give training in trade or craft.
" To teach to pray" means 'to bring up children in the fear of God". St.Chavara knew that when women become capable of leading family prayer, children would get good character formation. When women achieve the capacity to earn, they get recognition and influence in the family. Thus when convent was furnished, there were not only the facilities for leading a spiritual life but also other tools for crafts, like "...nippers, thin wires, scissors, needles, thread, a penknife, inkpot, quill,paper, nails hammer, ...fork, knife pitcher and goblet".
The aim was to enable them to integrate prayer and manual labour and thus achieve the integral development of the whole person. The learning of the craft was meant not merely for the sisters, rather the sisters, having learnt them, were supposed to teach them to other children. This wider concept of the integration of spiritual life and some useful trade was very much in the mind of the founding Fathers of the CMC convent right from the the time of the founding of the bamboo mat convent. Later when they made plans to build a new, solid building for their convent they also had plans to start with it a school and boarding house. .. that the convent is to be built in two stories and that that the boarding house and the school building must be enclosed by a compound wall. With these objectives the foundations of the western and eastern walls of the convent were dug up again and broadened and strengthend so that the foundation may be strong enough for a two-story building.
Here we can see that the boarding house, the school, and the convent are part of an integral plan, a total vision. As early as 1868 a good number of girls had come to live in the boarding house. All these girls were not candidates for religious life. They came there desirous of good training in Christian life and in becoming good housewives. Accordingly they were taught such useful subjects as language, mathematics, cooking, music, Tamil, and Latin.Thus Chavara founded the convent with a view to achieving, through the renewal of the family and through the life and work of the sisters, the all- round development of the Kerala Church.
Although it was his own community that received the bulk of the benifits of his services, others also have their share in the fruits of the pioneering labours of this great soul. His God-orientation always started from his own person but it grew through the family and his own community, the country at large and finally embraced the whole church. Even if some people hold that St.Chavara served only his own community, it does not in any way diminish the universal appeal of his services.
What keep a family a true family are the virtues of love, peace, sacrifice, prayer and mutual understanding. The Family Directives and Regulations that Chavara prepared for the families and the instructions he gave regarding the upbringing of children are certainly in keeping with the insightsof modern psychology. Many of his admonitions still influence our families and serve as bright beacons that guide our lives. His insights regarding women women and his efforts for their betterment were certainly real challenges to the thought-pattern and practices of his time. The efforts St.Chavara had made for the renewal of family life shine forth brightly even today, keeping their own identity and uniquencess. //---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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