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14 May 1914 was a red letter date in the annals of the Chris­tians of Kerala. It was on that day the Holy Family Congregation, the fifth indigenous Religious Community of Kerala, had its beginning. The Congregation celebrated the Platinum Jubilee in 1988-89. Its members number today more than thousand Sisters, spread over 125 Houses in and outside India. They, imbued with a special charisma for family apostolate, are doing various services in the Church and for the Society.
A simple rustic woman named Thresia, vibrant with intense love of God and man, was destined to be the foundress of the Congregation of the Holy Family. Thresia, later krtown as Mother Mariam Thresia, was born in Chiramel Mankydian family at Puthenchira in 1876. A challenging conviction had been haunting her from early childhood that God had chosen her for a special mission. An unusually fervent spirit of prayer and a continuous urge to do good to her fellow beings were evident in her from tender years. Her life was a fine combination of deep prayer experience and a burning desire for family apostolate. This boded well for the evolution of an original life style in the newly founded Religious Community. Fr. Joseph Vithayathil, her spiritual father, was of immense help in actualising her vision, which she had in mind for a long time.
The writings of Mariam Thresia-a short autobiography, letters, exhortation, prayers and addresses-unveil the life story of the blessed woman. They unfold the story of the mystic whom God chose to found the Holy family Congregation in intimate collaboration with her spiritual director. Life of Mariam Thresia composed by the latter is an excellent witness to her solid sanctity and her heroic practice of charity.
Popular Concept and the Real Thresia
Mariam Thresia was a saintly woman, widely known, dearly loved and well honoured for years in Puthenchira and. Kuzhikkattussery where she spent all her life, and also places around. What fired the imagination of the people in the locality were strange stories about this ‘Mankydian Nun’. She has been enshrined in the minds of people as an exceptional woman experi­encing extraordinary phenomena. She was seen hanging on the wall without touching the ground, wearing the stigmata on her body. She experienced even physically diabolical obsessions as well as heavenly visions. Some of the biographies have also helped to project this popular concept of Thresia. If we make an objective study of her life we will realise that Thresia had a personality quite different from this popular concept of it. The supernatural experi­ences of Thresia are some of the realities of her life. It is not any of these events that we see as the real core of her personality and essence of her spirituality; they are only signs of physio-psycho manifestations of divine intervention.
Thresia’s life was interwoven with mystical experiences. Evil spirits tormented her over a long period of time. She had to suffer its severity not only in her mind but in body as well. On the other hand, we find her having overwhelming experiences of heavenly visions, locutions, stigmata, etc., which were given to her as gra­tuitous gifts by God. Such incomprehensible events are not rare in the lives of many saints, as manifested in St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Theresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi.
We are naturally reminded of the temptations of our Lord in the desert. All the three temptations, which, according to the Gos­pels, He underwent, were physical and external. After the tempta­tions an angel of the Lord appeared to Him and served Him. So also we are led to remember the Gospel account of an angel consoling Jesus at the end of His mental agony in the Garden of Gethsemany.
Theologians, scholars, scientists, psychologists and holy men have their own views, interpretations and opinions regarding such mystical phenomena. We can only be tongue-tied and stand in reverential awe at the mysterious ways of God for his chosen ones.
In the life of this blessed woman we come to know a series of mystical events such as the Holy Family visiting her, visions of hell and purgatory, exchange of hearts, change of name, reception of floral crown, piercing of heart with lance, insertion of ring on her finger, and stigmata. They are some of the supernatural experi­ences of Thresia, which are very much identical to the experiences of many a mystical saint. But it is good to understand that they are neither indispensable for the attainment of sanctity nor essential criteria to measure the degree of one’s sanctity.
Life History of Thresia
Thresia was born in a noble family of Chiramal Mankydian on 26 April 1876, as the daughter of Thoma and Thanda. She was baptized on 3 May of the same year in St. Mary’s church, Puthenchira. Her fifty year long life can be divided into four stages:
1. 1877 – 1888: Birth and childhood-She grew in the ‘fear of the Lord’ and sanctity, under the spiritual guidance of her saintly mother. She loved her mother dearly, but sometimes she had to act against her will in her pursuit to follow the will of God and to grow in the likeness of Christ. Her mother passed away when Thresia was twelve, in 1888, throwing the whole family into the abyss of deep sorrow.
2. 1888 – 1902 : Thresia’s search for her vocation, her desire for hidden life, thirst for family oriented services, participation in the passion of our Lord, starting of diabolical seizures, the fulfill­ment of her cherished desire to get a spiritual director, are some of the notable facts of this period.
3. 1903 – 1908 : This is the most crucial period in her life. It is a period of powerful paradoxical experiences for her, such as diabolical attacks, severe trials, tribulations, frustrations, struggles on one side, and experiences of spiritual joy and calm on the other. She was able to open her heart fully with much confidence to her spiritual director for necessary advice and direction to guide her frail barque through the stormy sea, with deep faith, and tranquil­ity of mind. 53 out of her 55 letters were written during this pe­riod.
4. 1909 – 1926 : The founding period of the Congregation. Thresia was led through mysterious ways, before the actual plan of God about her was revealed. She made fruitless attempts to run away to the forest to lead the life of an ascetic solitary. In 1910 Thresia was admitted in the Carmelite Third Order and she was given the special permission to wear the veil while at home. Her search for her vocation continued. She could discern that she was called neither to the Congregation of Franciscan Clarist nor to that of the Carmelites. Her inner urge to live in a separate house was made known to her spiritual father for the first time in 1903. The latter approached the Bishop for permission many a time. Her in­ satiable thirst for a house for prayer and solitude eventually came to fruition in 1913. A house got ready for the purpose. Rev. Fr. John Ukken blessed this house, and Thresia along with her three companions started residing in it. They led a life of prayer and service, which formed their style of Religious life. Thus a poten­tial religious community was formed. Nobody could foresee then that Thresia was sowing a seed for a new Congregation or laying the foundation for C.H.F. On 14, May 1914, Bishop John Menachery, Thrissur recognised this community as the congrega­tion of the Holy Family and it was officially declared in a solemn ceremony at St. Mary’s Church, Puthenchira. Thresia was allowed to make her perpetual vows and given the religious name “Mariam Thresia” which was already revealed to her by the Blessed Mother in 1904. Her three companions were accepted as postulants in the Congregation. The people of Puthenchira rejoiced in witnessing to the birth of the Congregation of the Holy Family. She went for eternal reward on 8 June 1926.
Steps taken for the Canonisation of Mother Mariam Thresia
The Mother has been specially blessed with numerous spiri­tual graces. Since the fame of her sanctity spread far and wide, and many were the blessings received through her, Rt. Rev. Dr. George Alappat, the then Bishop of Thrissur, went through all the record on the life of Thresia written by Fr. Joseph Vithayathil. The Bishop approved the publication of a prayer for her canonisation. The fol­lowing year, on 8 June 1964, Fr. Vithayathil passed away. He was a man of discretion and perspicacity. His prudent decision that he would not take up the cause of Thresia during his lifetime has been thus realised. But he was sure that some day her cause would be taken up in right earnest. It is a standing testimony of her sanc­tity that in 1973 steps were started to study the cause of canonisation. In 1985 Rome declared that the steps were valid. The Servant of God was raised to the status of ‘Venerable’ on 28 June 1999. On 28 January 2000 the Holy Father declared her ‘Blessed’. The official declaration will take place on 9 April. Thus Mother Mariam Thresia is counted the third ‘Blessed’ of Kerala after the first two, Cyriac Elias Chavara and Sr. Alphonsa. She will be the first ‘Blessed’ of India in the new Millennium.
Spiritual Life of Thresia
According to the Christian concept, holiness is a gift of God. People can aspire for spiritual perfection. They can work towards it, through prayer, sacrifices and good deeds. All Christians have a calling to sanctity. But only some will take it seriously and lead a heroic life of virtue. They will be officially and publicly declared by the Church as ‘Blessed’ or ‘Saints’ after a long official process.
As we scrutinise the autobiographical notes of Mother Mariam Thresia, and her other writings, what touches us deeply is, her ardent desire to love God and to participate in the mystery of I Christ. The autobiographical notes start with the words: ” I had experienced an intense desire to love God from my early child­hood.”
Thresia felt an extraordinary urge within her to love God. The awareness of this urge gripped her whole self. It took the dimensions of a challenge. She pondered in her heart; How to face this challenge? How to overcome them? These thoughts almost continuously tormented her and led to a sort of conflict in her mind. She did not allow this conflict to remain as conflict but searched for ways and means courageously to face the challenge. She surrendered herself to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and started with all earnestness to pray and do penance. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament in the Church, confession of sins, receiving communion and live participation in the liturgical functions gave a great boost to her spiritual quest.
Her Deep Rooted Faith
Mariam Thresia’s spirituality is very deep and wide. She prac­tised divine and moral virtues heroically. Her desire to love God and to fulfil her mission kept burning in her all through her life. “If God is God” is a phrase, we find, repeated in her writings. These words are an expression of her strong hope and trust in God. She always wanted “not her will but the will of God” be fulfilled in her. She believed that God sees everything, knows everything and everything will be well and beneficent for her even if it appeared otherwise.
The spirituality of Thresia centered on the passion of’ the Lord. Christian spirituality is a participation in the mystery of Christ. Many great saints of the Church meditated on the sufferings of Christ and cultivated a strong desire to suffer and die for Christ. “Either suffer or Die” for Christ was the motto of St. Teresa of Avila. For St. John of the Cross, it was “To suffer and to be humili­ated” for Christ. Thresia used to steep herself in the passion of Christ even from childhood. She was filled with a complete sense of nothingness and wanted to suffer for Christ with joy. Her mys­tical vision and life emerged from her recollection and meditation on the sufferings of Christ. She preferred sickness to health, fail­ure to success, pain to pleasure, for identifying herself with Christ. It was the desire to conform herself to the suffering Lord that prompted her to have recourse to a variety of penitential exercises, some traditional and other her own inventions.
To be united with Christ became a burning passion in her life. She cultivated a holy indifference to, or the spirit of complete detachment from worldly pleasures and honours. All this was in preparation for a total dedication to a life of prayer and service. This preparation was a long process. The Lord was well pleased with this servant of His and willed to bless Thresia with imprint­ing in her body permanently His five wounds. This happened in 1909.
Heroic Practice of Charity
Thresia’s life of prayer and contemplation paved the way for a total dedication to the service of the poor. Brushing aside all oppositions and prevailing customs and conventions, she took up the challenge of her special mission of family apostolate. She en­gaged herself in acts of charity, not for worldy appreciation but for love of Christ. She hastened to the midst of the poor and destitute, to the sick and to the sinners, to the downtrodden and to the aban­doned, with great apostolic zeal; to wipe out their tears and to lift them up from the rut of their sinful life and to fill them with Christ’s spirit. Many appreciated her ways, some despised her and still oth­ers branded her as an obsessed woman. But the undaunted Thresia, motivated by the spirit of Christ, visited the homes of all who needed her services, without regard for caste or creed, and attended to their spiritual and temporal needs: preparing them for happy death and for receiving sacraments; praying for them; doing sacri­fices for their recovery; even collecting funds to meet the needs of the poor. She hated nobody; she had no complaints.
Submission and Obedience
Two aspects of Mother Mariam Thresia’s spirituality are her submission and obedience to her spiritual father and to her eccle­siastical authorities. With patience she waited without any com­plaints to know the will of God submitting herself to the full con­trol and directions of her spiritual director, Fr. Joseph Vithayathil, and subjecting herself humbly to Rt. Rev. Dr. Menachery, Bishop of Thrissur, undergoing all the trials thrown at her, even when the Bishop stamped her hysteric. Her spiritual father had been her real guide and support, and a source of inspiration to forge through the trials and temptations and to lead her soul to Christian perfection. Like a child she opened out to him everything happening in her: divine inspirations, operations of the Holy Spirit in her, her confu­sions, struggles, diabolical attacks, revelations, apparitions, etc. She had her own vision of life and opinion. But in order to make sure of its validity and authenticity she always sought the help of her spiritual father.
Authentic Spirituality
Mother Mariam Thresia is a symbol of mystic spirituality steeped in the passion of our Lord. It is a spirituality founded on faith and hope, and moulded in the love of God and man. It is a spirituality having good foundation under the direction and con­trol of her authorities; a spirituality sprouting beautiful flowers of natural goodness rooted in the love of God.
When we analyse her life through her own writings it is clear that she has been a very mature woman having her own vision of life and strong convictions. Natural qualities related to her intel­ lect, mind, imagination and heart are really beautiful. She acquired much depth and width and beauty to her spirituality through her commitment and contemplation. The spirituality of Thresia was not a shallow spirituality entertained in a sentimental and imagi­nary world. Her life is not something planned for self-satisfaction. After getting moral certitude regarding the plan of God through her spiritual father and Church authorities, she surrendered herself completely to God and to the service of the people of God. It is because of this, that her mystical spirituality and founding cha­risma have become authentic.