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In Memory of Father Albert Nambiaparambil CMI

On the Seashore of Endless Worlds Children Meet

In Memory of Father Albert Nambiaparambil CMI

by Marcus Braybrooke

  Fr. Albert Nambiaparambil – Photo: International Interfaith Dialogue India

Fr. Albert Nambiaparambil – Photo: International Interfaith Dialogue India

Father Albert Nambiaparambil, “the prophet of religious harmony,” as The Malayala Manorama, Kerala’s leading newspaper, called him, died on February 6 after a brief illness. He was 86.

Albert made an important contribution to interfaith fellowship in Kochi (or Cochin), where he lived for many years; across India, especially in his work for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI); and worldwide, both as a member of the Vatican Secretariat for Dialogue in Rome and by his active support for many international interfaith organisations, including co-founding the World Fellowship of Interreligious Councils (WFIRC) and serving as its secretary general.

Father Albert was a member of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) congregation. He was inspired by Saint Chavara Kuriakose Elias, a nineteenth Syrian Catholic saint and social reformer who respected different religions and cultures. He joined the CMI congregation in 1950 and was ordained a priest nine years later. He obtained a doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome and taught in Dharmaram College in Bangalore, Karnataka, during 1963-1969.

Fr. Albert worked in various parts of the world to bring harmony among different religions. In 1971, he founded the first of four “Chavara Cultural Centers” in the Indian state of Kerala. He was also an early supporter and leader of United Religions Initiatives, founding a number of URI cooperation circles in India.

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My wife Mary and I have known Fr. Albert for over forty years, so re-reading his Pilgrims on the Seashore of Endless Worlds has brought back many memories.

Albert made clear that his thoughts were shared not in the detached cool mode of a research scholar working out a thesis on dialogue, nor of a spectator watching the whole scene of dialogue from outside. Instead, he vividly describes and reflects on some of his experiences over his many years of sharing in the encounter of religions. The issues discussed all arise from actual experiences of dialogue in an Indian context. This is why they are still relevant for interfaith practitioners today.

It was from Albert that I learned to appreciate the poetry of Tagore. Albert was particularly fond of quoting Tagore’s words “On the seashore of endless worlds children meet with shouts and dances.” “Can we believers of different religions,” Fr. Albert asked, “join as children, with our own smiles and dreams and shouts and prayers? Or is our tribal ‘god’ preventing us from playing?”

In emphasizing the importance of people of different faiths living and sharing together, he stressed the need to set aside any sense of self-sufficiency or superiority. “Dialogue should begin from the felt-need of another… A dialogue partner has to be a beggar.” He recognized, however, that we all come to interfaith meetings with our “baggage – the doctrines, the beliefs, the revealed truths the heritage of my religious family are not lost sight of… but our baggage is to be shared.”

  In this archival photo, a much younger Fr. Albert, on the right, joins his colleagues in ‘lighting the lamp’ going from darkness to light, a ritual which preceded all the meetings of the World Fellowship of Interreligious Councils. – Photo: WFIRC

In this archival photo, a much younger Fr. Albert, on the right, joins his colleagues in ‘lighting the lamp’ going from darkness to light, a ritual which preceded all the meetings of the World Fellowship of Interreligious Councils. – Photo: WFIRC

Fr. Albert received his share of criticism. Some Christians felt their faith in Christ was compromised if they joined in prayer with people of other faiths. Many gatherings in India begin with the lighting of a lamp – often accompanied by the Sanskrit words tamaso ma jyothirgamaya (“lead me from darkness to light”). Some Christians objected to this, as they did also when on a visit to a temple they were offered prasad (a sweet from the god). Fr. Albert, however, never forgot Vinoba Bhave’s challenge to Christians: “You join hands with others in the field of education, of politics, of social work. But when the call to prayer comes you go this way and that way as if in a lathi (cane) charge.”

The issue was also raised in relation to a song of which Gandhi was fond that links different names for the Divine, including Allah, Rama and Jesus. Some Christians were happy to join in, but others were not. Guidelines, issued by the Catholic Bishops – probably drafted by Fr. Albert – recognised that both positions could be defended but believed that the enlightened conscience of the Christian would have no problem with the words.

On the Seashore

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.

The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.

They build their houses with sand, and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.

They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl-fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.

The sea surges up with laughter, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach. Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children, even like a mother while rocking her baby's cradle. The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.

– Rabindranath Tagore

On the other hand, Fr. Albert admitted to being uneasy if the wrong impression is given that all differences between faiths have disappeared in no time. He recalled that Monsignor Rossano, at one time Secretary of the Vatican Secretariat for World Religions, said that a Christian engaged in dialogue has a two fold task: (i) to be faithful to his own heritage and identity;  and (ii) to be open to the other spiritual traditions. In his opinion, any dialogue that compromises with either of these and thus resolves the tension, if any, by a short cut will destroy the spirit of true dialogue.

Fr. Albert was also aware of the deep resentment of many Hindus at the conversionist activities of some missionary colleges and hospitals. He rejected any attempt to use dialogue as a tool for so-called, “forced-conversion.” At the same time he affirmed the right of an individual to change religion if this was a sincere decision. He criticised the ostracism and abuse from which some converts suffered from members of their previous faith communities.

Other interfaith activists complained that if dialogue is not part of a program aimed at the economic liberation of the downtrodden, it is a waste of time. Certainly, Fr. Albert shared that concern and was fond of quoting Gandhi’s Talisman: “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man who you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate will be of any use to him.” Yet he also stressed the importance of the ‘Live-Together’ sessions in which faith partners shared their personal life stories and their religious, spiritual, and life experiences. Indeed, it is the support that such friendship gives that strengthens us to continue, in the midst of many difficulties, to hold fast to the vision of a better world.