It was the spring of 1993. I had finished high school and recently received my scores from the final examination that would be the primary basis of my admission into college. The top colleges in Cochin were admitting students with scores far higher than mine and I was concerned that I may not really get into a good college after all. Education in Cochin at a good college comes at a price- either that of influence or of sheer academic merit. The fierce competition meant that there were few parameters for admitting a student than test scores- that made the job easier and less subjective, while of course, deficient and short sighted of other qualities. While I had decent scores the intensely competitive environment meant that my first choice of institutions may not be realistic- and I did not relish the prospect of attending one of the lesser known schools.
While I was contemplating this my dad suggested I try applying to colleges in Madras or Bangalore (of which I was even less hopeful as these were bigger cities and I wanted to attend the best schools). I applied to Loyola (a Catholic college) and Madras Christian College (an evangelical/Protestant one). Loyola rejected my application despite the fact that I was from a Catholic family with some influence in the church. MCC called me for an interview which didn't really go as well as I had hoped it would. To my surprise I was accepted, and MCC became my college where I did undergraduate studies in Commerce for the next three years. Looking back I see a transcendent purpose to this- I cannot otherwise comprehend how I could have been admitted into MCC after an interview in which I actually tripped on the carpet and almost fell prior to taking my seat (in my mind I can still hear Prof Charles Suresh David's suppressed giggle). While that may not have been the lowest point, the fact still remained that this was a college in which the forces of influence and competitive merit played a huge part. My competition had better scores and those who didn't had solid Indian Protestant (notwithstanding denominations) or the right Tamil caste credentials. I had none of these; so as I said this was part of a larger plan which I did not see then.
But Before This Happened..
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."So begins the book 'Angela's Ashes', talking of a Catholic upbringing in Depression-era Brooklyn where Irish immigrants moved from the slums of Limerick, Ireland. This somber note is of course a harkener to the dark days of the narrator's Depression days, marked by poverty, cruelty of one's neighbours and moral ambivalence. While my background is neither Irish nor poor and this passage is way overstated to actually resemble my life, it was staunchly Catholic. Catholics who read this will know pretty readily what I mean by 'staunchly'. I stuck to the 'faith of my fathers' even when I had questions that seemed to be unanswered by the only brand of Catholicism that I knew then- the incredibly institutionalized, syncretistic-with-Hindu-thought, socially significant, theologically anemic religion that is practised in Cochin, Trichur and other areas of Kerala. From my earliest childhood I had learned not to ask difficult questions or challenge the church's teachings. I remember once I remarked that the communion host couldn't possibly be the physical body of Christ, I incurred my parents' sharp censure- which left me confused as to the nature of Holy Communion- and of course, I got no real anwers. I do not mean to criticize my parents or even the Catholic church in Kerala. I do not know if the theological depth of the clergy or the laity was enough to give an answer to these- the constant refrain to my questions was that I should first read up on the Bible, the church's teaching, church history and so on before I asked them.
As a fallout of this and other factors in my family (which I will make clear enough shortly) I experienced a crisis of identity during my years at MCC. These were marked by loneliness, an estrangement in relationships, confusion in life as to what made it coherent and meaningful, a need to belong to social groups that I esteemed and yet, a reluctance to conform to anything at all. I was confused, and through it all, with some encouragement from my aunt I took to praying with the Rosary beads, imagining that Jesus and Mary were actually standing in front of me, listening to the endless words playing in my mind over and over.
A pastor at our church recently remarked that the biggest distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism is not Salvation by faith or the influence of the institutionalized church or concepts like intercession from the saints or Mary's coronation, ascension or anything like that- he said it is idolatry. Despite the answers a Catholic could give (as I did then) this is true in many ways. Idolatry is taking what belongs to God and placing it elsewhere- be it the communion host, the church, the pope, the sacraments, the rituals, the 'obligations', our works apart from our faith, our baptism/confirmation/funeral rites- anything at all. I agree with this whole-heartedly. But I did not see it that way then.
My family life was a mixed bag with its highs and lows. My elder brother's autism led to strains that made life tough for my parents. It affected their marriage, their jobs, their attitudes toward God's sovereignty and their kids. My sister and I learned to respect our brother and make allowances for his often violent behaviour. We were also constantly challenged to perform very well academically. The Catholic upbringing also meant strong moral values, which were further upheld by guilt and the constant specter of eternal damnation for lapses. Such morality was not enjoyable for me, but there was some good that came out of it. I could see that many of my friends were morally wrong and there was nothing in their lives to convict them of sin. I do consider this to have done me some good, in terms of learning to understand that sin leads to meaninglessness and despair. My Dad worked with in the public sector and was mostly working and living away from Kerala. He and Mom made the decision to let us kids and Mom remain in Cochin as the strain of travel would prove too much for us, especially my brother. In addition to this fragmented family atmosphere, the moral pressures, the academic pressures and the process of growing up in my siblings' shadows- I wasn't very well up to the mark in any of these imperatives, and met noone's expectations, even mine.
The Follies of Youth
Almost all teenagers go through some existential angst as to the search for meaninful relationships, anxiety about a secure future and the inherent need in all of us to make sense of life. I went through all of that, and then some. To bring order to all of this, I first dabbled in pop psychology that my Dad's books told me about: positive thinking, behaviour modification (according to Dr. Wayne Dyer), Og Mandino's religion-influenced philosophy of compassion in business and several others. Dad also initiated me into philosophical schools represented by Eastern thought- I spent some time training at the Vivekananda Kendra near Bangalore learning yoga, Hindu hymns and philosophy. In college I tried to incorporate Silva mind control techniques into my life- unsuccessfully, thanks be to God. After reading humanist Erich Fromm I thought I had finally found the bridge between Christianity and Eastern thought, in that Fromm used the Bible to support his own ideas of God. To a kid who was searching for a means to steady his life, all these quite appealing. As GK Chesterton remarked in his poem 'The Convert', they were-
Being not unlovable but strange and lightOld riddles and new creeds, not in despiteBut softly, as men smile about the dead.
The Final Step
There are among us those who would argue that some of us are philosophically disposed, others are content to live happy, normal lives or simply more pragmatic and wisely pre-occupied with their time to bother about abstractions. This assumes that the philosophically disposed simply theorize and not live out any of their platitudes and indeed, that it is not possible to live like that. My own dabbling in the above activities was not due to any interest on my part in them , rather they were introduced to me as ways to put my time to good use and to get rid of negativity from life. The motivations were purely personal and not to indulge in abstract thinking. Even those who claim to be pragmatic actually hold a distinct philosophy of life although they would scoff at the idea. Pragmatism is a philosophical school that considers that effects of our actions to be the factors of truth and meaning. Those who are content to be happy and normal do have a bedrock of myriad convictions that keep their spirits high. Besides, happiness (in contrast to joy) could very well be an emotional state rather than a constant outlook in life. Some of us are more melancholy than others and some not- this doesn't make a good argument for everyone to emulate the shiny, happy people. I love to see smiles and laughter in others; and after 12 years of being a Christian, laughter is much more natural to me than it ever was, so do not misread me here- I just mean to say that people have different reasons for being happy; it cannot be considered as a standard therapy for problem. Many modern churches should think about this- if a person is suffering from a cancer of the soul, the only remedy many churches now offer is simplistic statements like 'Smile, Jesus loves you', 'Put away your glum face and dance', and so on. Laughter does good as a medicine, but it is not the cornerstone of salvation. Besides happiness is not the determinant of physical, mental, emotional or spiritual health. There are innocent, happy babies; clappy-happy churches; rowdy, happy binge drinkers; trigger-happy thugs. Happiness is not their appeal to a hurting world.
My final resort (as I suspect, of many others as well) was easing up on my moral strictures and high claims. I began to suspect that maybe the shiny, happy people were right and I shouldn't bother so much about do's and dont's. I was sliding towards other distinct philosophies without knowing it- Nihilism, the idea that objective moral values do not exist, and Hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the most important pursuit. I had previously always felt guilty when I got drunk, but now I felt it was what I should have done from the beginning. Mercifully, I was very short of money, and could not longer afford living outside of the MCC residence halls (which I had quit after my first year in order to pursue additional courses in downtown Madras), so I applied for a room at my previous hall. In the meantime I roomed with my friend in Selaiyur Hall.
His Steady Unrelenting Approach
Wasn't it always this way? Didn't we feel his voice in all our past? When Christ finds us we think back on all that has been and realize that in all our follies He was there, even we are actively trying to run from Him! CS Lewis writes of his own experience:
"You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night,
feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady,
unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.
Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. I
gave in, and admitted that God was God ... perhaps, that night, the most
dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
A couple of months before this time one of my closest buddies on campus had experienced an encounter with the Lord and talkedto me about excitedly. I concluded he was crazy and once and for all lost to the world of normal, sane people. He took me to a church to pray with the elders there, but that experience, although it shook me up (because one of them let me know that my high-sounding philosophical speculations were worth nothing), left a bad taste in the mouth as to what Christians are like. On October 6th 1995 at a time when I was down and out trying, sitting in my friend's room at Selaiyur Hall, another student talked to me from 8 PM at night until 2 AM next morning about Christ's love for us and what his vicarious death and resurrection means for me. He led me to the Lord and over the next few months many others were similarly led as well.
Those who know the story of how this happened would marvel at it, but I don't want to focus on that one incident. The next few days I read the Bible (a study Bible with page notes detailing the story of redemption that a relative had given me years ago- see how the past connects with the present) and understood that my problem was not my upbringing, my estranged relationships, my academic or other shortcomings, moral strictures or anything. It was in short an astounding reality that I had overlooked- the fact that I myself was a creature of impulse, driven by something I was rebelling against and hurting due to it- a propensity to sin despite my best intentions not to sin. Sin was central to my living; indeed the more I tried to blame others for it the more the evidence proved that even in my most trouble-free moments, if I had enough money, and life seemed to be the best of all possible worlds, this seemingly other worldly propensity to sin was the one reality that was central. All my struggles- the need to be known and loved, less lonely, finding coherence in my life, finding fulfilment and signficance in what I did and who I was- led to the fact that I needed an answer to sin. Not just an abstract answer, but a decisive blow to sin. What did this mean?
It meant first that sin needed to be paid for. This is a simple concept and one people find it easy to write off. But we pay for sin all the time. We bribe a public servant, the nation pays for it or perhaps we got ahead of someone else who was in line first. We are unkind in our conversations with loved ones- they pay for it with the heartache and feeling of being unloved. We lie and chaeat to succeed, leaving in the dust someone who deserved the victory. Our actions have consequences and when someone else has to pay for our sins, we owe a debt to them. Our courts are clearly based on this principle.
Do we owe a debt to God when we sin? If after all sin is just flouting his moral law, why can't he, being the Almighty, just forgive and forget? When we say this we forget that sin is not simply something you take away from someone, but it is the violation of a person- much like rape is the violation of another human being. To violate God's person is to estrange ourselves from Him. Sin brings its consequences. The Bible calls the consequences 'death'- not just physical but spiritual death, entailing the lack of God's presence in our lives, the guilt of sin and the aching need for forgiveness. Unlike what most religions teach us, Christ's redemption does not require us to achieve a standard of goodness- rather it requires a heart that acknowledges its sinful condition and His loving provision for the sin- his payment once and for all on the cross. More than acknowledging this reality in our minds we also need to pray to Him to come in to our hearts and change us fundamentally, inside out. This is not a one-sided prayer. This invokes a supernatural action from God who answers the prayer. Anyone on the face of the earth who makes this prayer of repentance and receiving the redemption of the cross will be answered decisively and clearly by God. We who are unable transcend our sin and ourselves need to reach out for help from God much as a helpless infant would to its mother. God who is transcendant is also immanent in the person of Jesus and in a believer through the Holy Spirit. He is Immanuel, God with us, who has bridged our world and called us back to His presence. His continuing work after this moment of conviction and redemption is the moral transformation of our very will. We are set free from our sinful nature and over the rest of our lives we are constantly being changed in our wills, our attitudes and emotions to conform to the perfect image of Christ.
This is a mysterious process and the fruits of this can take time to see clearly, especially for those who have long seen the worldly person prior to redemption. But as we commit our will more and more to Him the more we are changed and our deepest longings are fulfilled.
It's been 12 years- and most people would ask me as to how it all looks now. After college several people have told me that this experience must simply have been a youthful fad and that by the time I hit 25 it would seem silly. I'm 32 now- and it's the greatest gift I've ever received. Others have told me that this belief isn't compatible with our modern work-a-day world, especially as I had chosen Business as my field. Indeed I went on to specialize in this, receiving an MBA and later doing a course in International Business. Work has been challenging and numerous occasions have come up to challenge my beliefs. I'm embarrassed to say that I have not passed all the tests, but I have passed some of them. As I mentioned it is a lifelong process of being conformed to His image. God forgives us and urges us to commit our wills to Him once again.
Joy has been my experience of God- it has put in perspective and healed my relationships and given me fulfilment. I have found occasions of success and failure in my endeavours, but the greatest pleasure is in doing things well and doing them righteously- as I'm convinced God delights in them.
I'm writing this in anticipation of a conversation I'm about to have with someone who is very ill- with Stage 4 cancer- whose relatives are urging him to believe that God will heal him, no matter what. I don't have the answer to that question- God is sovereign over sickness and health and we all have to die physically some day. But God doesn't behave as we want him to, much less as we demand him to. How does a person see beyond his sickness to his sin-sickness? That is the work of the Holy Spirit, something I must never forget- the God who raised the dead back to life is the one who inclines our minds to His truth.