Dom Armand Veilleux, OCSO

Emeritus Abbot of Scourmont (Belgium)


The Liturgy in the Monastery of Kurisumala[1]


Kurisumala is a very fine example of inculturation, and that at several levels. The style of monastic life found there is the fruit of the meeting of the Christian monastic tradition in the Cistercian mode with the practices and soul of traditional Indian monasticism. In particular the liturgical life is the fruit of the meeting of prayer in the Benedictine tradition with the great liturgical tradition of the Syriac Church as well as the most contemplative layers of Hindu mysticism.

Eucharistic celebration

The Qurbana is the celebration of the Eucharist according to the Antiochene rite of the Syro-Malankar Church. It is celebrated in its full splendour every Sunday and on all the great festivals of the Lord, of the Virgin Mary and of the saints. It has an exceptional richness of readings of the Word of God. First there are readings from the Old Testament while the priest puts on the sacred vestments and the preparatory rites are performed. There are four readings drawn from the Law, the historical books, the Wisdom literature and the prophets. Next, during the first part of the Eucharist, there are three readings from the New Testament, the first taken from the Acts of the Apostles, the Catholic Epistles or the Book of Revelation, the second taken from the letters of Paul and the third from the Gospels. This celebration lasts at least two hours. For the first fifteen years it was celebrated every day in Syriac without any attempt to shorten or abbreviate it. But it was difficult to maintain the important equilibrium of the monastic day between prayer, work and lectio. Since the Council a simpler celebration of the Eucharist has been elaborated in Malayalam (the language of Kerala). This is the Bharatiya Puja, also called by visitors the ‘Indian Mass’. Puja (from the root puj, reverence or cult, linked to bhakti, devotion). This is the form of cult most ancient in India, the daily act of cult, celebrated either in private or as an assembly. In the latter case it is accompanied by bhajans, the singing of hymns and readings from the sacred books, and finishing with the distribution of small portions of food. The word puja is commonly used in Tamil Nadu to indicate the Eucharist.

Kurisumala2In the Bharatiya Puja, celebrated sitting on the ground, the first part of the Mass richly uses Indian religious symbols, fire, flowers and incense. Indeed, because of the cosmic dimensions of Hinduism, Hindu cult makes great use of offering to God the fine and beautiful things of creation. Flowers, incense, light are traditional signs of the offering of oneself and the union of the worshipper with God in love. Thus the arati is the circular movement of a little oil-lamp placed in a nest of flowers before a sacred icon, with brief prayers called mantras These mantras are also offered by the participants, who move their hands over the flame – or in the direction of the flame if they are far away – thus sharing in the light and afterwards putting their hands to their eyes. Incense is used in two ways, either in the form of sticks, called agarbathi, or in copper bowls with a handle which are moved in a circular motion above the offerings.

The anaphora has maintained all the traditional elements of the oriental liturgy: prayer of introduction, the institution account, anamnesis, epiclesis, intercessions, fraction and communion – all interspersed with brief hymns or responses from those present. Before the dismissal the celebrant invites the members of the assembly to bear witness to Christ by their lives. A Trinitarian form of adoration follows:

Om. Adoration to the One who alone exists
Om. Adoration to the God-Man
Om. Adoration to the Holy Spirit.

All conclude : ‘Om. Shanti ! Shanti ! Shanti !’ Peace, Peace, Peace.


A monastic Office slowly formed

Kurisumala3It is surely in the creation of the divine Office that Father Francis and the monks of Kurisumala have most shown their originality. At the time of the foundation the S’himo was used, the parish weekly breviary in Syriac, known as the ‘Breviary of Pampkuda’. But if Francis Acharya and his first companion, Bede Griffiths, knew Syriac well, the same could not be said of the new Indian recruits. From 1959 onwards Francis began to translate the S’himo into English, and this translation was published in1965 under the title ‘The Book of Common Prayer’. It was a prose translation, rather literal and so difficult to use for prayer. Francis re-worked it and took it up again some years later in his monumental work ‘Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit, the prayer of the Asian Churches’.

Monastic life had disappeared from the Syrian Churches of India several centuries earlier and there was no monastic Office. Besides this, there was not in the eastern tradition any book for the Liturgy of the Hours which monasteries and lay people could follow. What did exist was very rich anthologies of texts, among which each monastery made its choice to compose its own Office. This is what Father Francis undertook for his own monastery of Kurisumala.

He undertook research on the Fenquith, the very rich collection of contemplative prayers and hymns formerly used by Syriac monks, and of which the S’himo was only an abridged version for use in the parishes. It must be acknowledged that at the end of the sixteenth century the Portuguese authorities had conducted a merciless campaign for the eradication of the Syriac rite. At the Synod of Diamper (1599) all the books, ornaments and liturgical vestments that could be found were burned. It was at Mossul in Iraq that Father Francis eventually found, after research all over the Middle East seven copies of the Fenquith printed by the Dominicans in the previous century. The whole, in seven large folio volumes, comprised 4,000 pages of Syriac text. Francis spent a large part of the rest of his life in meditating, choosing, translating into English and publishing this liturgical treasury. The four volumes of the Office-book of Kurisumala in English total 3,000 pages.

Father Francis was not content with choosing and translating ancient Syriac texts. He composed a complete Office, for all the festivals
and all seasons of the year, preserving its mystical orientation and all the theological richness of the Syriac liturgy, but introducing into each Office, under the rubric of ‘Seeds of the Word’, texts drawn from the sacred books of India. For this he could appeal to the example of Paul VI, who in 1964 at Bombay had used a very beautiful prayer taken from the Upanishads:

Lead me from error to truth.
Lead me from darkness to light
Lead me from death to immortality.

As soon as the first volume appeared this great work received high praise from specialists in Oriental liturgy, such as Professor Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and André de Halleux of Louvain. This is the Office which is currently celebrated at Kurisumala, in English except for the ‘little hours’ and Compline, which are sung in Malayalam.


The Liturgical Year

In the Syro-Malankar rite the liturgical year begins on the Sunday nearest the last day of October. It is introduced by two Sundays of the Church, its dedication and its renewal. These are two preparatory
Sundays, on which the Church recalls what it is, meditates on its own nature as dwelling-place of God, a privileged place in its meeting with humanity. These two Sundays are like a prism where the whole economy of salvation is reflected, from the call of Abraham in the Book of Genesis right up to the vision of the new heaven and new earth at the end of the Book of Revelation.

The rest of the year is divided into seven seasons, each composed of seven weeks, namely

1. The Annunciation to the coming of the Lord

2. The Nativity, Epiphany and Baptism

3. The Fast of the Lord, his Passion, Death and Resurrection

4. The fifty days of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost

5. The mission of the apostles into the world

6. The Transfiguration

7. The exaltation of the Cross.

Each week a complete cycle of the mysteries of salvation is celebrated, taking up in miniature the cycle of the liturgical year. Obviously the Resurrection of the Lord is celebrated on Sunday. Monday is for the kingdom of Jesus and his proclamation by John the Baptist; Tuesday is for the Church, Wednesday for the Incarnation, Thursday for the Eucharist, Friday for the Cross, and Saturday for the Parousia.

Robert Taft, the great specialist of oriental Liturgy, in analysing the contribution of Kurisumala to the contemporary development of the Syriac office, stresses the fact that the inculturation at Kurisumala is something much wider than simply liturgical. On the subject of Kurisumala he writes,

In our day in the West much is written on the monastic renewal on Mount Athos and in the Coptic Church of Egypt. Nevertheless, in the course of the last thirty years another movement has developed discretely, perhaps less well known, but certainly one of the enlightened monastic experiences of our time.[2]



[1] This is part of the article published in the periodical ‘Liturgie’ of OCSO, nr 122 (August 2003, pages 103-118), reproduced with the kind permission of the editor.

[2] Quoted from the Italian edition, La liturgia delle Ore in Oriente e in Occidente, Edizioni Paoline, Torino 1988, p. 319.