By Suma Varughese February 1999 At the Divine Retreat Center near Potta, in the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala, devotees from all walks of life throng to witness the miracle of body, mind and soul healing The testimonies are fervid and fulsome-often unbelievable in their content. Tresia Joseph, 73, had a frozen right shoulder. Then she went to the Divine Retreat Center near Potta in Trichur, a town in the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala. ‘On the fourth day, I felt someone touching my right arm,’ she recalls. ‘At once I realized that it was the healing touch of Jesus. I moved my arm upwards, downwards and backwards. There was no pain at all. My Jesus had healed me completely.’ A childless couple, Rufina and Ralph Victoria from Australia, conceived a child after visiting Potta. While there, Ralph found himself led to the retreat hall to read the following passage from the Bible: ‘Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink or eat anything unclean. For you shall conceive and bear a son.’ Taking the hint, Ralph abstained from liquor for a year, with the desired result. Charlotte Mathias, who recently went to Potta, reports that on the last day of the retreat, Father Mathew Naikamparampil, founder of the Potta Ashram, called out to a man who had been blind in one eye for 34 years. Sure enough, he had regained his sight! The blind can see, the dumb can talk and the lame can walk. Has the Man from Galilee shifted residence to the salubrious seven-acre Divine Retreat Center, referred to as Potta? The buzz certainly suggests so. The word Potta crops up in conversations among Christians. Mention illness or spiritual quest, and someone somewhere has either gone to Potta or has known someone who has. Today, Potta is a byword for miraculous healing, cure for addictions, strong spiritual experiences, and a way of life founded on the Bible. The sprawling Potta campus can accommodate and feed 33,000 people-a reflection of the numbers who flock there for the weekly retreats. On an average, the Malayalam retreat attracts 10,000 people while the English one about 1,000. There are retreats conducted in various other Indian languages, such as Tamil, Konkani, Kannada and Hindi. Retreat centers are spread all over India-in Kalyan, a Mumbai suburb, in Farida-bad, near New Delhi, and at Ernakulam in Kerala. Besides, priests of the Vincentian congregation, the initiators of the movement, travel around the world, from Australia to the USA, from the UK to the Middle East. The main center at Muringoor is now even on the Internet. Not bad for an institution barely a decade old. The center was founded on January 1, 1987 by Father Mathew Naikamparampil after he had a vision of Christ while praying. In his book, Born Again in the Holy Spirit, Father Naikamparampil describes his vision thus: ‘Within minutes, I was like a pillar of light.’ The experience healed him of a lifetime of slights and hurts and motivated him to start the mission of healing. This resulted in the Potta Ashram, initially a small retreat house devoted to prayers and counseling. Today, the center attracts thousands from across the country and abroad. Dormitory accommodation and boarding is available at very cheap rates. The food is simple but wholesome. Rooms are reserved for invalids who watch proceedings of the retreat through close-circuit television. The philosophy of the Divine Retreat Center is based upon the Charismatic Renewal movement that started in the USA among university students in February 1967. It came to India in 1972 and soon became part of mainstream Catholic faith. The experiential aspect of worship arises from praising and thanking God aloud, accompanied by a lifting of hands. There is also an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, rather than the more popular elements of the Trinity-God the Father, and God the Son. In addition, the center emphasizes forgiveness. Says John Fernandes, a retreat participant: ‘Not forgiving leads to psychosomatic illnesses that heal when you let go of your hurts.’ Although couched in Biblical terminology, the retreat is founded on sound psychological and spiritual principles such as letting go, acceptance and gratitude. Says Mathias: ‘The sacrament of confession has a cathartic effect.’ Ask Dr Manu Kothari of KEM Hospital, Mumbai, and he tells you that spontaneous healing is a testimony to nature’s healing power. Believers, of course, see healing as the manifestation of God’s love. Says Catherine Fernandes, a visitor to the center: ‘Faith healing is God’s response to people who turn to him.’ The priests have an uncanny knowledge of who is healed. Says Mathias: ‘They say things like ‘the lady in the blue outfit, you have been getting severe headaches for the last few years, but now you have been healed’. And sure enough, a person answering to that description stands up.’ A visit to the Tabor Divine Retreat Ashram at Kalyan, a suburb of Mumbai, confirms these observations. The Tabor Ashram looms over the landscape with its giant thatched roof sheds. More than 4,000 devotees gather here on Saturdays and Sundays for day-long worships. I’m here on a Monday morning, bang in the middle of their weekly four-day retreats. An elderly woman is giving a discourse on forgiveness. She works the audience expertly-now joking, now serious. At one point, she becomes stern, almost implacable. Her finger points inexorably at the audience: ‘Has anyone suffered as much as Jesus Christ?’ On cue, the audience roars back: ‘No.’ The session builds up momentum relentlessly. Interspersed with songs on repentance, the priest asks us to examine our faults and seek God’s forgiveness. We are exhorted to lift our hands and praise God. Somewhat reluctantly, I do it, and find energy pulsating against my palms. There is a corresponding feeling of release. At some point, the 20-odd non-Christians go out for a separate session and the Christians are prepared for confession. Again, a routine aspect of service is transformed into a powerful experience by the intensity of purpose. The priest dons his sacramental robes. Singing becomes frequent and we are asked to join in with palms outstretched. Repeatedly and sternly, the priest tells us to suppress nothing, since an incomplete confession will not have much benefit. We are assured of total confidentiality and compassion. According to Father Jojo Maripattu, the weekly retreats are identical to their counterparts in Potta, except that there are fewer testimonies. At Potta, the retreats start on a Saturday when participants are grouped for a basic discussion on God. Devotees are invited to experience the love of God in the days to come. The climax is a session in reconciliation followed by counseling and healing. Wednesday and Thursday are reserved for one-to-one counseling. ‘The counselors are excellent,’ says Mathias. ‘Many of them are lay people chosen for their spiritual and psychological acuity. After listening to you, they unerringly choose passages from the Bible that contain a solution to your problem. You get an insight into yourself, and when that happens, healing takes place.’ The center also treats addicts, mental patients and AIDS victims. De-addiction patients are kept away from drugs and alcohol from the first day. The severely addicted are given mild sedatives for a few days before starting treatment. Physicians, psychiatrists and priests work together for holistic healing. Even the infirm and destitute find solace. When asked about their future Father George Panackal proudly harks back on the achievements of earlier participants and says: ‘Our staunch faith in prayer and the promises in the Bible are behind our ability to heal emotional constraints, create peace and make us conscious of life’s sublime aim. Since the aim is destined, the rest will follow through inner freedom and prayers of peace.’ -with inputs from Bindu Suraj
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