Tuesday, May 24, 2016

(1) In Wessex

St. Edward the Martyr (notice the snake in the drinking horn)
The prospectus for this series of posts can be found here.  

If you are fortunate in your travels, then things will not go as planned.  But don't fret it, and by all means, continue to plot your course.  I certainly do.  Just don't expect things to fall into place that way.  The unexpected is usually more interesting, and if nothing else, a needed reminder that we are not in control of everything, or really much of anything at all.  In this case, driving on the left in the U.K. is not a problem; nor is the steering wheel being on the right.  And I actually like roundabouts.  What I had forgotten, or perhaps not experienced to this degree twenty years ago, is the sheer intensity of the traffic in the south and southwest of the U.K.  (Driving in Wales and the North, however, is much less stressful.)  Simply put, there are too many people driving too many cars on too narrow roadways.  

Rural England is as picturesque as you would imagine.  You really cannot savor the bucolic countryside, however, for you must watch for oncoming traffic, on a road only marginally wide enough for one vehicle, with another automobile right on your tail, and with no place to pull over for a view or a picture.  You just have to keep whizzing along.  And going through the middle of most every village drops your average time down to the 30 to 40 mph range.  Finally, it rains here.  A lot.  I arrived on Tuesday and first saw the sun on Sunday.  And so, I was forced to drastically prune my intensive itinerary from the very beginning.

As I outlined in the prospectus, my goal was to visit sites associated with the Britain--both Celtic and Saxon--that predated the Norman invasion of 1066.  For old Wessex, I believed my journey must start at the immense Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, on the western fringes of Greater London.  This will take a bit of explanation.  By the early 1850s, a booming London no longer had room to bury its dead.  Investors purchased a large acreage west of the city for the "London Necropolis." For that time, it was the largest cemetery in the world (and still the largest in the U. K.), complete with its own rail line into London.  Every day the train brought coffins and mourners from the city out to Brookwood.  The North Station serviced "Nonconformists" who were buried in the unconsecrated section, while the South Station serviced Anglicans.  For about 80 years, the train pulled out of Waterloo Station every day bound for Brookwood, which became the final earthly destination for paupers and for respectable Victorians alike.  By the 1920s, the cemetery was starting to fall out of favor, and the Nazi destruction of the railway in 1941 hastened its demise.  In time, the owners took bankruptcy.  

Under new ownership, Brookwood is still a going concern, but nothing like it was in its heyday.  The cemetery resembles a slightly overgrown open forest, dotted with thousands of monuments.  Today it caters to what can only be called niche markets.  There are sections for most every ethnic group.  For example, if you are Latvian Catholic, there is a section set aside for you.  A very colorful Ismaili section is to the left of the main entrance.  And on it goes.  My goal was the Orthodox Christian section of the cemetery, adjacent to what had been the South Station and Mortuary Chapel.  For it is here, in an odd twist of history, that one finds the relics of King Edward, a Saxon king of the 10th century. 

This monarch, more properly known as St. Edward the Martyr to Catholics and the Orthodox, was the oldest son of King Edgar the Peacemaker and his first wife Ethelflaeda, elected king by the Witan upon his father's death, despite being a youth of only thirteen.    England had been enjoying a period of relative strength following Alfred's consolidation of power under the House of Wessex.  Strong kings followed--Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edgar--and now expectations rode high on the young king.  Edward was an upright and godly young man, well-regarded and on friendly terms with Bishop Dunstan and the monastic party.  While out hunting one day, he called on his step-mother Aelfthrith at Corfe Castle.  She met him at the gates, offering him a drink of wine, while giving the signal to one of her servants to stab him in the back.    Aelfthrith saw that her son Aethelred (as in the Unready) was elected king in Edward's place.  Aelfthrith had has body spirited away and buried without ceremony.

Edward suffered a cruel, unjust and untimely death, but he does not at first glance seem to be a likely saint.  Almost immediately, miracles were associated with him burial place.  The common people started referencing him as both Saint and Martyr.  Within two years, Bishop Dunstan had his remains removed to Shaftsbury Abbey, where his shrine soon became a popular pilgrimage site.  
Blessing the Irenes

Edward's martyrdom is a useful lesson in how quickly things can go horribly wrong for both people and peoples, for this one calculated act of treachery has rippled down through England's history. The half-brother, Aethelred the Unready, proved to be a particularly ineffectual ruler, at a particularly inauspicious time.  And this usurper in time took a Norman wife, who gave birth to their son, Edward "the Confessor."   The latter--the James Buchanan of Saxon kings--diddled away the kingdom, for all practical purposes passing it off to his Norman cousin.  In some ways, St. Edward the Martyr has become a symbol of all that what lost by the Norman conquest.

Almost 600 years later, the shrine of St. Edward was demolished with all the others during the English Deformation.  Shaftsbury Abbey, line all the others, was given to one of Henry's cronies.  In the 1930s, the owner of the property, himself an amateur archaeologist, discovered the relics of St. Edward, underneath the site of the ruined shrine.  He sought a permanent home for the bones and offered to give them to any church if they would meet three conditions:  1.  that they be recognize as relics, 2. that a shrine be established for them, and 3. that his feast day be observed.  He chose the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, as they were the only church that agreed to all of the terms, as well as the fact that it was thought they would be most similar to the church Edward would have known.  The church received title to the old South Station and Mortuary Chapel at Brookwood.  The Victorian chapel became an Orthodox church and shrine to St. Edward.  The section adjoining became an Orthodox graveyard.  

And so, my project really began at the Shrine of St. Edward the Martyr, and the veneration of his relics there.  The monks have done a good job in adapting the Victorian era chapel into a warm and familiar Orthodox temple.  The interior is all stone and timber, making painted iconography difficult, even if there had been the money for it.  Instead, the interior is covered with hundreds of small icons, none larger than 8" by 10", many of them no doubt gifted to the monastery.  I arrived about midway through the Liturgy, and standing in the nave, with the countless icons all around me, I had a very real sense of being "surrounded by a cloud of witnesses."  It was the feast day of St. Irene and St. Ephrem the New of Nea Makri.  The shrine to St. Edward, containing the chest with his relics, is on the north side of the nave.   
St. Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church

The four monastics were as friendly as could be.  The priest had a typically dry English humor.  As it was the feast day of St. Irene, they invited me to follow them to "the tombs" (the graveyard) where a blessing would be chanted over those with that name.  It was raining, but no matter.  As it turned out, there were six Irinas to be blessed.  Glancing at the tombstones, I noticed that two of them were princesses.  I did not recognize one, but I did recognize the princely family of Galitzen, or Golitsyn or Galitzine for the other.    I asked the deacon about her, and it turns out she was granddaughter of the last tsarist prime minister of Russia, shot by the Soviets in 1925 at age 75.  She lived in humble circumstances in London.  I also noted another name--Trollope.  I inquired, and sure enough, he was the great-great grandson of the author.  The monks sell these Orthodox burial plots, which helps support their monastery.  They also dig the graves with a backhoe parked nearby.  I was invited inside for coffee and breakfast.  I really needed to push on, but did stay for the coffee.  Fr. Sabas and I talked of
Shrine of St. Edward the Martyr
many things--the Norman conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the English Civil War and the ensuing secularization of the nation, how we both thought Trollope a better write than Dickens, the Puritan influence on the American character, the American Revolution and the utter and complete travesty that was Mel Gibson's "The Patriot," etc. And while I know that many Orthodox make way too much of it, he did say that in his estimation, the English church before the Normans was the closest to Orthodoxy among Western Christendom.  Before I left, he loaded me down with icon cards, as well as an enormous book on Orthodox religious art through the centuries.  As many Orthodox readers already know, these monks have aligned themselves with what we would characterize as a schismatic group--as I'm sure they would also characterize us.  The subject never came up, and that is how it should be.


I had next planned to visit the Abbey Church of St. Mary and St. Aethelflaed at Romsey, the only one not demolished by Henry VIII.  The townspeople had already purchased it for their parish church.  Romsey is a 12th-century Normal structure, but the lower walls are Saxon, and it contains 2 remarkable stone crucifixion carvings from that earlier period.  One, a gift from King Edgar, is thought to exhibit Byzantine influences as well as seemingly incorporating elements of the Saxon Tree of Life (Yggdrasil).  The Abbey has interesting historical connections, as well.  The abbey was originally founded by King Edward the Elder for his daughter Aelflaed.  Later, King Edgar refounded it for his daughter Aethelflaed, the half-sister of King Edward the Martyr.  The siblings have a brother, Edmund, buried at Romsey.  But as it turned out, I was running behind schedule, it was raining, and I missed my exit.  So I had to pass on Romsey Abbey.  
10th-century Saxon at Romsey Abbey


I pushed on to Wareham in Dorset, where I visited the Church of St. Martin-on-the-Walls, dating from the year 1030.  The small church was easy to find--literally being on the old wall around the city.  From the outside, the church has changed little in almost 1,000 years.  It is not the main church in the city, but after being reconsecrated in the 1930s, occasional services are conducted there.  About the time I arrived, a volunteer arrived and unlocked the church so I could enter.  I hesitate to complain, for she did let me inside.  But she is typical of a certain type of English woman of a certain age--thin, unadorned, straight shoulder-length hair, and nervously chatty.  I know she was trying to be informative, and I do appreciate that, but it was more the tone that annoyed me.  I suppose I have spent too much time in Georgia.  In the Caucasus, there is reverence inside churches, even those not in regular use.  Such are holy places and one does not enter them casually.  I have seen ruins of Georgian churches, both in that country and in Turkey, where visitors have lit small candles in the jagged, ruined walls, for even in that condition, the places are holy.  My English volunteer was rattling on about it as casually as one would an old barn or blacksmith shop.  I know that you cannot extrapolate from one experience and draw conclusions about an entire society (although that has never stopped me before), but I do believe her attitude is broadly typical of the English today.  They are proud of these historical structures, but they are just that, and only that--structures.  

Church of St. Martin on-the-Wall, Wareham


Like most English churches after the Reformation, the inside is whitewashed and sterile.  Preservationists had, however, exposed what lay underneath on the north side of the apse.  A faded mosaic depicted scenes from the life of St. Martin.  Where the whitewash to be removed throughout, who knows what might be revealed.  I recognize it for what it was--iconography (though crudely done in comparison to Georgian, much less other Orthodox cultures).  The English seem more comfortable with the term "wall paintings."
"Wall Paintings," Church of St. Martin

The volunteer pointed out another mural, painted in the 1600s, I believe, depicting the coats of arms of a number of English monarchs.  Above them was the word, Yahweh, which to press the point that the churches authority was rooted in the God of the Old Testament, and not, as the volunteer explained with a wrinkle in her nose, of that awful Roman Catholicism.  This later painting interested me not much at all.

Finally, the church of St. Martin contains an effigy of T. E. Lawrence.  He has always been a great favorite of mine after reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom many years ago.  The volunteer gave a rambling account of how the effigy came to be here--as Lawrence is actually buried in a country churchyard not far away.  By this time we had two other visitors, and I exited with the excuse of going to take some exterior pictures.  I had seen enough.
Effigy of T. E. Lawrence

From there, I continued on west into Devon, where I stopped at the Church of St. Candida (St. Wite) at Whitchurch Canonicorum.  This was not a Saxon church, but a later Norman structure. Its significance, however, is that it contains a complete shrine over the relics of St. Wite.  This church was a popular pilgrimage site for centuries.  During the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, these shrines to the saints were busted-up and destroyed all over England.  What was left of this sort of thing was demolished a 100 years later under Oliver Cromwell's regime.  The scope of destruction is hard to imagine, and is generally glossed-over in the triumphalist view of English Reformation history.  But over 90% of England's art was destroyed in a fevered frenzy of iconoclasm.  As efficient as the Cromwells were, both Thomas and Oliver, they somehow missed the shrine to St. Wite.  And so it alone remains.  I have never understood those who feel compelled to destroy a thing of beauty, whether it is a work of art, a tree, a hillside, an old building.  I just don't.  The church was locked up, so I was not able to view the shrine.  The churchyard contained several interesting Saxon crosses, however, and I spied a small statue of St. Wite just under the roof line.
St. Wite


I left old Wessex, and entered Dumnonia (Cornwall).  A couple of days later, I entered Wessex again, where I hoped to visit the grave of Evelyn Waugh, and the monument to Alfred the Great at Athelney.  The latter is a monument to Alfred's time there during England's dire struggle against the Danes.  Evelyn Waugh is not necessarily a favorite author of mine.  He did, however, write Black Mischief, one of the funniest novels I have ever read.  And there is a line from his Sword of Honour trilogy that has always stayed with me.  If I remember correctly, the female character Virginia was calling upon Guy's uncle, Peregrine Crouchback.  His butler ushered her into the library to await the elder Crouchback with the admonition (to the best of my memory), "There is plenty in here to interest one.  That is, if one is interested in things."  I have remembered that line of dialogue, for even at that time, I realized that it somewhat encapsulated my view of life.   

I had to abandon both of these goals, however, when I left my luggage at an inn in north Cornwall.  The innkeeper called me when I was seventy miles down the road.  I doubled back, and the loss of close to three hours eliminated these stops.  In my initial foray into Wessex, however, I was able to do a drive-by on the Giant of Cerne Abbas.  This neolithic novelty at least proves that the English were not always reserved and unassuming.
The Cerne Abbas Giant

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Time to Travel

I administer my last final today, and in five days time will be on a flight to places elsewhere. Being the son of my parents, I instinctively learned to hate pretense in all forms, and consequently try to be as low-key as possible about traveling, fully realizing that I am the fortunate beneficiary of particular circumstances in a particular period of time. That said, I have also consciously chosen this path and seen it through. My life is relatively uncluttered with much of the “stuff” of modernity--by and large just books in an old house, and a passport--no boat, no golf clubs, no guns, no hunting leases, no house full of electronic gadgetry, only one television, no ATV, and if I couldn’t make the point any clearer, I drive a Subaru. To be sure, I am painting with a broad judgmental brush here, but when I hear what others put out for those sorts of things, I smile inwardly when I compare it to the relatively small amount I spend on travel.

I also understand that there are some people who travel for leisure and relaxation. I simply do not understand this mentality. If you are tired, there is a bed at home with your name on it. No, travel should be something more substantial than indulging our hedonism. I travel to explore (literally to see what is over the next hill, whether it be in the next county or the next country); to learn; to feed my curiosity; to seek adventure; to watch and listen; to climb; to be silent; to get into binds and then figure your way out; and increasingly, to be in awe. And since 2003, my travels have largely taken on the nature of pilgrimages. This journey will be no different.

I plan to drive around rural England and Wales for about 11 days. After that, I will take the train across Europe to Romania, where I will do much the same thing for 9-10 days. I plan to stick to the out-of-the-way places, and studiously avoid anything that is suggestive of queues, tickets and tours. In England, of course, this means no cathedrals, castles or country houses, and probably anything managed by English Heritage. I’ll be traveling alone, which suits me just fine, and is probably for the best, as few people want to travel the way I do.

Other than to change planes at Heathrow, I have not been in the U.K. since 1996. Like many travelers before me, I caught “Eastern fever” and have not looked back. Since 2006, I have spent most of my overseas travel time poking around the Caucasus.

So, after all these years, why return to stolid old England? For starters, I sometimes feel like an unpaid, one-man tourist bureau for the Republic of Georgia. While this favored country of my heart entices me on many different levels, Georgia can also be very intense. Sensory overload is a real thing, and perhaps I just need a break. God willing, I’ll be back on track next year.

I take a long view of history, and of course this applies to church history as well. I plan to do a little compare-and-contrasting. The robust and visibly resurgent faith of the Georgian people resonates with me. They have their problems, to be sure, and the Georgian Orthodoxy is not without idiosyncrasies. But it is not romanticizing to acknowledge that the roots of Christianity run deep in their soil.  Even in the face of repeated invasions and subjugations, the faith has never departed that "broad and mellow land."  More unbiased observers might qualify this assertion somewhat, but I think the basic premise holds. The Orthodox Faith is alive and well on this eastern frontier of Christendom.

Were I to make a similar statement about the opposite historic frontier of Christendom—the British Isles--it would be met with widespread and much-deserved incredulity. There is no country on earth more choc-a-bloc with churches than Britain, yet they are often merely historical artifacts of a past with diminishing contemporary relevance. Often lovingly maintained and curated, many of these edifices are no longer the touchstones and beating heart of a living faith. At best, Christianity seems to be a faint whisper in the land. Clearly, I speak in broad terms, and individual situations may run counter to the overall trend.

The countless studies documenting the collapse of Christian belief in the U.K. all paint a bleak picture. Even nominal Christians are in the minority. The fact that the percentages are as high as they are is the result of African and Eastern European immigration. Native-born British who self-identify as Christians are a fast-diminishing demographic. In view of modern British history, one could posit that peace, prosperity and power are not necessarily the building blocks of a faith that will last the ages. I say this non-judgmentally, for American are fast on their heels. Our own de-Christianization--to the extent that we ever were such, in any meaningful sense, for it was always more proclaimed than practiced--is a fascinating spectacle to behold. In short, I want to spend some time in a post-Christian country where this is already the established order, if perchance to catch a glimpse of our own future.

And yet it was not always thus. As is often the case, I take a contrarian view of British history. The Whig View of History doesn’t hold much water with me. Working backwards in time, I think the Glorious Revolution was anything but. I find that the iconoclastic destruction unleashed by the English Civil War was as severe and unthinking as that of the French Revolution, or today’s Islamic fanaticism. The English Reformation under Henry the Horrible and Black Bess ripped the heart out of a traditional way of life—and according to one historian, "dug a deep ditch between England and her past."  The edifice they created in its wake--a bit of this and that--made for a great show, but has proven itself particularly ill-equipped to stand the test of time. Finally, in terms of cataclysmic consequences, I rate the tragedy of 1066 right up there with 1204 and 1453. Clearly, I take my historical cues from the likes of Eamon Duffy, Christopher Dawson, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

My view of the Normans is probably too colored by repeated viewings of The Lion in Winter. I take a dim view of the cursed Plantagenets and the Norman Conquest which spawned them. And it was just that—a conquering and a subjugation. Some important things were lost along the way, I think. One need not romanticize either the Celtic Britons or the Anglo-Saxons. The island before 1066--Wessex and Mercia and Wales (Gwynedd and Powys and Dyfed and Gwent) and Dumnonia and Kent and East Anglia and Northumbria (Deira and Bernica)--could be a brutal and treacherous place. And yet in its own way, it was a grand and glorious land, giving birth to a remarkably rich civilization emerging from the synthesis of native and invader. Even their treachery contained an element of nobility and honor, something the continental Normans could never quite pull off.

The history of “Dark Age” Britain--what I will call Old England--is well worth remembering. In a nutshell, my take on it runs something like this: The Britons of old--a Celtic culture encompassing Britain, Ireland and Brittany--survived the withdrawal of the Romans. The Christian faith hung on as well, in a form that was uniquely its own. The fall of the old order, however, unleashed an internecine struggle for supremacy among the tribes, laying the land wide open for the first invaders--the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes from across the North Sea. They established their beachheads, and it was soon evident that they were in Britain to stay. Most natives (but importantly, not all) took refuge in their western redoubts--the Welsh kingdoms, Dumnonia (Cornwall), and Brittany.

This was the era of Arthur--not a mythical legend susceptible to Hollywood spin, but a real Welsh chieftain, whose place in a particular family and history is known. If the hagiography is to be believed (and I see no reason not to do so), his extended family almost single-handedly (re)evangelized Dumnonia and Brittany.

Despite the initial savagery, the Saxon invaders put down roots and intermarried with the natives. Christianity, while pushed back, was not obliterated. The arrival of missionaries from Rome in the late 7th-century aided in the re-Christianization of the land. In short order, something known as “English” began to take shape--a fusion of native Celtic and Saxon interloper. Even though Rome used all means to bring the English church into greater conformity, the faith in the Isles was still distinctly its own. One hallmark of this era--as in all Orthodox lands--was the abundance of local saints.

Arts and culture flourished--centered primarily in the Northumbrian monasteries, which was considered the great center of learning in the West, rather than Gaul. Kingdoms rose and fell, but five of the Saxon ones vied for preeminence: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent and Wessex. First Northumbria, then Mercia and finally Wessex took the lead. In the late 8th century, the first Viking raid occurred, and these Danish invaders proved even more fearsome than the Saxons had been. But like their predecessors, and despite the initial and sustained savagery, they settled down in the land, intermarried and became part of the “English” fabric. The house of Wessex battled the Vikings for many years, but finally gained a workable division of the island.

In 1066, an avoidable dynastic crisis allowed William of Normandy to press his claim to the vacant throne. With his victory at Hastings, everything changed. In the long run, the English did not become Norman, but rather the other way around. After the initial land-grab and disenfranchisement of the previous order, permanent changes were imposed by the new Norman overlords. The distinctly English church now became much more an extension of Gaul. The new bishops replaced the native saints with Continental figures; St. George replaced St. Edmund as the patron saint of England.

One result of this religious transformation was that the well of local saints dried up. Few new saints emerged, and the new Gaulist Catholic order discouraged it. And the 1066 date lines up conveniently close (if not a bit too convenient) to the accepted Catholic - Orthodox schism of 1054. There is a certain arbitrariness to using the 1066 cut-off date, but the fact remains that the saints of Anglo-Saxon England and before were also saints of the Orthodox faith. The question of saints after 1066 is a mute one, for their number is too few to even be a factor. Some might argue that I approve of one invasion (the Saxons) and disapprove of another (the Normans). Well, nobody ever said that the practice of historical interpretation was fair.

Under the new regime, many things changed, but on the local level, life often went on much as before, and the practices of the old English and Celtic Christians continued--most notably, their devotion to the saints. This continued on for centuries, until the tragedy of the English Reformation when the connection was finally cut. From this crucible, modern England emerged and started down the path to becoming “British.” Perhaps the obsession with money and real estate had its roots here as well. Something had clearly changed from before, however. I am seeking a glimpse of what went before, if perhaps I can make it out in my mind’s eye.

I want to seek out the relics of an once-enchanted land—in Wessex, Mercia, the Welsh kingdoms, Northumbria and East Anglia--the old Saxon churches, the stone crosses and the holy wells of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman Conquest. “Then lived here saints that after were denied, By Norman lusts, then greed and faithless pride.” Churches were whitewashed, shrines stripped, and monasteries decommissioned. The sites become no less holy, however, simply because they’ve been forgotten, or worse, forsaken--"the parish has a saint’s name time cannot unfrock," and the “truth of Saints can never pass nor die.” To be sure, such a pilgrimage will have a different feel than in Georgia. But the saints who glorified and reflected Christ in their lives are alive, not dead, for as we are told, “I am the God of the living, not the dead.” The Cromwells --both Thomas and Oliver--did their worst, and it was very bad indeed, but the saints live on and their testimony continues.

Formerly, when men lived in the beauty and bounty of Earth, the reality of Heaven was very near; every brook and grove and hill was holy, and men out of their beauty and bounty built shrines so lovely that the spirits which inhabit Heaven came down and dwelt in them and were companions to men and women, and men listened to divine speech.

If I have learned one thing from my journey out of an intellectualized, interpretive, mental construct of faith--indeed, my own English heritage--it is that true holiness exists, and lingers on after the saints in places of worship and devotion. I hope to find my way to some of these “thin places” where I can reverence the saints of old, to remember the dead, and maybe in a small way keep these stories alive.

Of course, England is mostly the land of my forebearers. We’ve been in America for so long (and this story I largely know), that our antecedents on the other shore are only dimly understood. In my lineage there’s a Hessian soldier, a German Dunkard, a couple of Irish scoundrels (and the real thing--none of this Anglo-Irish or Scots-Irish), some Scottish hellions, and a Welshman or two. My surname (and the part of my family that I cling to above all the others) is supposedly Scottish, though the evidence suggests that they were more probably Saxons out of Bernicia, with roots in Lindesfarne itself. All that said, the vast majority of my DNA comes from the midlands and south of England. While in the Border regions, I do, however, plan to visit the non-juror church where my 6th-great grandfather and 5th-great grandfather were baptized in 1665 and 1686 respectively.

As for the Romanian leg of the trip, that needs no explanation.  Who doesn’t want to go to Romania? I crossed the Danube from Bulgaria into the country once, and that has whetted my appetite for more. As in England, my Orthodoxy will guide my explorations in Romania, and I hope to linger among the famous painted monasteries in Bucovina.

As these journeys may just be of some interest to a few, I hope to discipline myself to post something here as I go. We shall see.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Possessing the Azure

Fr. Pavel Florensky and Sergie Bulgakov by Mikhail Nesterov

     Several years ago I took on the project of reading The Pillar and Ground of the the Truth by the noted Russian polymath Fr. Pavel Florensky (1882-1937). My mind doesn't naturally gravitate towards either science or philosophy, so much of the book was simply beyond me.  The sections I could comprehend, however, were simply astounding.  This magnum opus of his early writing is one of the most consequential books I have ever read.  Sometimes I wonder about the selections I would take with me if I were ever forced to leave my house with a single box of books.  My mental list always includes Florensky.

     And so, I was excited to recently find Avril Pyman's Pavel Florensky, A Quiet Genius:  The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da Vinci at Eighth Day Books.  "Genius" is a word that we sometimes toss around too lightly.  Such is not the case with Florensky.  Whether as theologian, scientist, philosopher, priest or writer, the designation is most deserved and was certainly acknowledged by his peers.  He was quiet and gentle, a sensitive soul who seemed to cherish friendships about all else.  Despite his intellectualism, Florensky apparently did not suffer from excessive pride and egotism, and seemed to be most at home as a parish priest.  Given his brilliance and talents, Bulgakov--upon hearing that he had married and sought out obscurity as a priest--likened Florensky to a holy fool.  

     I was pleasantly surprised to learn of his connection with Georgia and the Transcaucasus.  Although born in Azerbaijan, Florensky was more or less raised in Tbilisi and Batumi.  He was baptized in St. David's Church at Mtatsminda, one of my regular destinations in Tbilisi, and in fact the church there that I most closely identify with. Descriptions of his explorations in the countryside around Batumi brought back memories of my own experiences there.  And though his father was Russian, Pavel's mother was Armenian, from a well-established Tbilisi merchant clan.  Their roots, however, were in Nagorno-Karabach, a region in which I have some familiarity.

     When the Revolution came, many marveled at Florensky's serenity.  To a remarkable degree, given the circumstances, he carried on much as before.

Florensky believe ardently that nihilism, which he understood as...the denial of the divinity of Christ and with Him of all creation, would eventually run its course and break up on its own inner emptiness so that, in his beloved mother country, 'hearts and will turn again, not idly and half-heartedly but with the avidity of deprivation, to the Russian idea, the idea of Russia, Holy Russia.'

And:

Instead of anathematising the militant atheists, Florensky accepted what was happening in his native land as a judgement on a culture which had already become deracinated from the 'cult' on which it was founded.  Believing implicitly in the Church's abiding, ontological greatness and sanctity, he sought, at this moment of Her humiliation, to bear witness, with all the cultural range and lyrical feeling at his command, to the beauty of Her adornments, songs and rituals, to the imponderable profundity of Her Sacraments and to the homely radiance spread from the sanctuary of the holy places throughout the Russian lands.  Drawing on the well-spring of systematically cultivated memory, innate aesthetic sensibility and the energy of his religious praxis, Father Pavel applied an alert, formidably concentrated mind to the task of encapsulating in words the essence of what could be salvaged from the present shipwreck.  At the same time, he sought to puzzle out the infinitely complex past, present and future relationship between cult and culture, to diagnose the entropy of encroaching chaos and to proclaim the entropic power of Christ.

 In time, the noose tightened around him.  Florensky was imprisoned by the Soviets from 1933 until his death in 1937.  He took his lot in stride, and his many letters home did not admit to the desperation of his situation.  Pavel took solace in being allowed to work in a laboratory during his early imprisonment.  His complacency was shattered, however, in March 1934, when he learned that the Soviets had entered his family's apartment and confiscated 2,684 books.  They were to return in three days for the remaining volumes.  Florensky's life ended in that terrible year, 1937, in a Soviet prison outside Leningrad, with two gunshots to his head.  His body was unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave with his fellow victims.  Pymin concludes that "if this was martyrdom, it was the very twentieth century, existential martyrdom of a sentient, living human being, ground down to silence and consigned to an anonymous grave."  Florensky was a great man, but more importantly than that, he was a good man, and he deserves to be better known today.

   
My favorite quotation from the book is the following, where Pavel Florensky shows himself to be a true son of the Caucasus:

From this comes my-I'll say it in plain words-my contempt and hostility towards all the contemporary world...Evlach...where I was born, is situated in the Transcaucasian steppe, bounded to North and South by snowy mountain ranges.  The Caucasian range and the Armenian mountains are like diamonds, their sparkling sharpness quite beyond the imagination of those who have no experience of mountains, the ultimate perfection of their distant outlines thrusting up into the eternal, unquestionable, incorruptible, eternal in a way those who have no experience of mountains simply cannot conceive, into the depths and velvety infinity of the azure sky.  And amidst these mountains lie the torrid open spaces, all woven from the metallic, resonant trills of cycadas and grasshoppers, from an abundance of growing things, fish, game, beasts of the hoof, predators, poisonous insects, snakes and sweet scents, famous for their karabach horses, the best in the Caucasus, and their dashing brigands, the most desperate in all Transcaucasia.  In the free space of my soul there are no laws.  I do not want law and order and set no value on it, for I know myself to be a brigand to the core of my being, who should not be sitting in a study but galloping through the stormy night, galloping with the whirlwind, without purpose...I want to take possession of the Azure, to embody it in myself.  Yet never to forget that the Azure is ABOVE me, the Kingdom of Eternal Peace, a calm, serene Kingdom that pours itself into my soul.  And, submissive only to the Azure, I still need symbols of my limits.  It is the snow-peaks that frame the steppe which make me aware of my freedom and of my limits.  The snowy peaks thrusting up into the Azure situate it closer to me--and further away...I will not come to terms, cannot come to terms with anyone who shuts off my view of the peaks with wooden fences or obscures them with smoke.  Authority - fatherland - kingdom - priesthood - powers spiritual - these are the snowy peaks of my conscious being...
     For authorities issuing forth from the belly of Leviathan I have no recognition other than the toe of my boot.  But it is precisely the immanent that is springing up now from every crook and cranny.  The Church Authority, the sacraments, the meaning of dogma, God Himself - have all become immanent, are all losing every vestige of real being outside ourselves, are becoming projections of ourselves.  Everyone is busy undermining the heights, misting over the earthly firmament, piercing the Azure.




Monday, January 04, 2016

This probably isn't going to end well



I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions, but if I were to do one, I think I would resolve to avoid all 2016 political predictions.  To begin with, the rules no longer seem to apply.  Anything can happen and probably will.  I no longer say that Trump or Cruz could never be nominated.  Either of them very well could and may.   Fortunately, being nominated does not equal being elected.  That would have to happen in an America I no longer recognize.  I still think a Trump nomination spells doom for the GOP, if not an outright party split.  And if they do not nominate him, Trump may very well go the third party route.  The Republicans have no one else to blame but themselves for this predicament.  This is a toxic brew they’ve been nurturing, and now Trump has harnessed it and made it his own.

And secondly, all of my predictions for what happens on the first Tuesday in November are simply too grim to contemplate.  It is going to be bad enough when it happens, so why acknowledge it beforehand?  In the past, I have always voted for the candidate I deemed least likely to do something incredibly stupid in the Middle East.  With Barak Obama, that has turned out to be a “less than/more than” situation, rather than an either/or situation.  And his “less than” is a lot “more than” I would have liked.  But even that criteria doesn’t hold this time around.  Today I listened to both Ben Carson and Chris Christie in separate interviews.  Each refused to condemn the 40 beheadings in Saudi Arabia.  The former stated that we should be more supportive of our allies, the Saudis, and implied that our playing footsie with the Iranians justified this action.   The latter, when pressed about the flimsiness of the charges against the 40 unfortunate captives, stated that he had no sympathy for Iranians.  Nice.  So that is what passes for conventional wisdom in the GOP field, I suppose.  But what is my alternative?  Hillary Clinton???  The rest are just chicken hawks.  She’s the real thing.  Anyone who believes she is not the most hawkish candidate in the field simply hasn’t been paying attention.  So, if I followed my former logic, I would be supporting either Trump or Cruz, who are the least bombastic when it comes to military action in the Middle East.  That is how crazy things are this year.  I’m so confused.

In lieu of predictions, I will venture just a few caveats and leave it there.

1.  Democrats discount the level of broad discontent with the Establishment Party at their own peril.  Likewise, they would be wise to address the genuine lack of enthusiasm for their putative nominee, Hillary Clinton.

2.  Republicans should not confuse the GOP base that drives their nominating process with the actual electorate that chooses the President in November.  They are two different things.

3.  Whoever wins, the impasse continues and we will remain largely ungovernable.  And all things considered, maybe that is for the best.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Aidan's Fine Horse and the Loss of Memory


Icon by Marchela Dimitrova
I am given to historical enthusiasms. I become fascinated with a particular era and then go deep into the subject, absorbing all that I can along the way.  I am not fickle with my interests, however, for I do not lose curiosity in one area just because my attention moves to a new obsession.  [Of course some historical subjects interest me not at all: French history after the 12th-century, the Enlightenment and its devotees, Japanese history, and to uphold my contrarian reputation in these parts, I would certainly add military history in general and the American Civil War and World War II in particular.]  My current attraction seems to be focused on Saxon England, or more broadly the entire British Isles, pre-1066.


As one would probably guess, the written record is thin; but what there is is absolutely extraordinary.  I am talking about the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in the 8th-century.  This is no dry and ponderous ecclesiastical chronicle, but a lively history of both the Saxon church and state in its formative years. One of my favorite stories dates to about 650 AD and involves St. Aidan and St. Oswin, then Bishop of Lindesfarne and King of Deira (Northumbria) respectively.  Bede relates the story as follows:


He had given Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey, although the bishop ordinarily travelled on foot.  Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse with all its royal trappings to be given to the beggar; for he was most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched.  When this action came to the king’s ears, he asked the bishop as they were going in to dine: ‘My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use?  Have we not many less valuable horses or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specially selected for your personal use?  The bishop at once answered, ‘What are you saying, Your Majesty?  Is this child of a mare more valuable to you this child of God?’  At this they went into dinner and the bishop sat down in his place, but the king, who had come in from hunting stood warming himself by the fire with his attendants.  As he stood by the fire, the king turned over in his mind what the bishop had said, then suddenly unbuckling his sword and handing it to a servant, he impulsively knelt at the bishop’s feet and begged his forgiveness, saying: ‘I will not refer to this matter again, nor will I enquire how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.’  The bishop was moved and immediately stood up and raised him to his feet, assuring him of his high regard and begging him to sit to his food without regrets.  At the bishop’s urgent request, the king sat down and began to be merry; but Aidan on the contrary grew so sad that he began to shed tears.  His  chaplain asked him in his own language, which the king and his servants did not understand, why he wept.  Aidan replied: ‘I know that the king will not live very long; for I have never before seen a humble king.  I feel that he will soon be taken from us, because this nation is not worthy of such a king.’


The story is an understandable morality tale, simply told:


  1. The king gave the priest a horse.
  2. The priest gave the horse to a beggar.
  3. The king questioned this action.
  4. The priest upbraids the king, reminding him that the beggar was a child of God.
  5. The king earnestly repents.
  6. The priest is moved by the king’s humility.


Such a tale would not be confined to pastoral homilies, but would more naturally be told around the family hearths of the Northumbrians and Mercians and their descendants. Simple stories like this helped mold and bind oncoming generations to the real faith of their elders.  And it is a story I should have heard myself, that is if there is any substance to the remote mists of my own family lore which places my forebears in Lindesfarne itself. But no such tales of faith ever came within many hundreds of years of filtering down to my generation.  This is a shame, I think.


It would be easy to blame our loss of historical and/or religious memory on the English Reformation, for truly so much fault does indeed lie there.  Conventional wisdom has always viewed the English Reformation as an altogether Good Thing, indeed the very headwaters that gave rise to the refreshing torrents of Enlightenment and Progress.  In this telling, the pious and godly Englishman threw off the oppressive yoke of the Pope of Rome, rejected the superstitions and foolery, turned their backs on the intercession of the saints, and for the first time, truly embraced the word of God.  Or not.  A parallel narrative does exist, one less self-serving and triumphalistic, as it is considerably more rooted in fact and less dependent upon propaganda. In this telling, the English were largely satisfied with their Church, that Henry VIII’s mad obsession with obtaining his divorce drove all other considerations, that the Reformation was a decidedly top-down affair that was preoccupied with the dismantling of the monasteries and their considerable influence, the confiscation of church properties and treasures to reward political supporters, and bailing-out an English government bankrupted by Henry's wars. I recommend, of course, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars on this subject.  I also highly recommend by the same author The Voices of Morebath, which examines how the English Reformation ripped through the fabric of life in a small Devon village.  For better or for worse, England was changed forever. Perhaps this set them on the road to empire, but much was discarded and lost in the process. Indeed, the Reformation was "a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past..." The ramifications of this, I think, have been immense.


Rod Dreher's blog, and particularly his Benedict Option project has become a clearing-house for those of a traditionalist bent who concern themselves with the preservation of both faith and civilization (and the two cannot be separated). This loss of collective memory about who we are and what we have held to be true is a recurring topic in his posts, including recent articles here and here.  From these posts, I have assembled a collection of quotes, but I encourage you to read the full articles.

Rod Dreher: 

 those that think that the faith will always be here are extremely naive, because it does not take into account the fragility of historical memory in modernity.

We need to bring the narratives of the lives of theese Christian heroes of ages past into our imaginations today...We need to remember...Christians who do not collectively remember their stories will lose their identity…


Jane Jacobs:

[our time as the beginning of a] Dark Age...characterized by mass forgetting.  We have deliberately cut ourselves off from our own history; the past has no hold on us.  We have maximalized our own freedom by minimalizing any narrative that tells us who we are and what we must do...There is no ‘Great Chain of Being.’


Rod Dreher:

To be an American is to live in the present...it seems to me that we don’t seriously
plan for the future now, as in projecting ourselves imaginatively forward into the next generations and allowing our present choices to be guided by a consideration of the effects they are likely to have on our children, their children, and their children’s children.  To do so would limit the Self, and that is one thing we cannot have.


Octavio Paz:  

The real evil of liberal capitalist societies is the predominate nihilism, not a nihilism which seeks the critical negation of established values, but a passive indifference to values.


Nietzsche:  

The eye of the nihilist is unfaithful to his memories; it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves.


Rod Dreher:  

What kind of condition do we enter when our religion embraces wholeheartedly the modern refusal to remember?  Can a religious sense so construed be an effective bulwark against nihilism?  I do not think it can.  Piety that is based on Moral Therapeutic Deism is worse than no protection at all...they’re giving them armor made out of paper and past, and a sword forged from Play-doh.


Robert Louis Wilken: 

Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message...the community’s life is Christ within society.  The Church is a culture in its own right.  Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture, Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

Rod Dreher:

Resistance requires remembrance...If we Christians in the West do not lay claim to the past, and make it a living, vital part of our present, we are not going to have a future.

Who knows, one of these days I may be blessed to have grandchildren. If I do, and if I still have my wits about me, I plan to sit them on my knee and tell them (among many other things) the story of Aidan and the beggar and Oswin and the fine horse.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bounce Houses for Jesus

I recently had the great pleasure of taking a road trip with a favorite cousin.  We drove eight hours each way, and I can honestly say that the conversation never lagged on any leg of that journey.  We talked and talked and talked, about anything and everything.  Cowans require black coffee, but we are otherwise self-starters when it comes to the conversational arts.

Of course, we found our way to discussing matters of faith.  My cousin is a serious Catholic.  I use the word “serious” rather than devout because we are either blessed or cursed with an arid, acerbic wit that more or less precludes any of us from ever being categorized as “devout”.  I will just say that she takes her faith quite seriously, and has admirably raised two seriously Catholic offspring to boot.

In the course of her career, my cousin has been thrown much together with mainstream Protestant and/or Evangelical co-workers.    We discussed some interesting situations and conversations that arose from her often being the lone Catholic outlier.  And in the course of this discussion, she expressed curiosity about my own particularly gloomy outlook in regards to general American Christianity.
 
My cousin has perhaps not followed developments on this subject as I have (and is no doubt better off for it).  And so, I went off on one of my religious harangues.  As there were only the two of us in the car, I inflicted it on no one but my cousin.  I outlined what I saw as the sloughing-away of our broad Christianity, all across the board—from the demographic implosion of the mainline churches (primarily Episcopalians, Disciples and Presbyterians), to the ever-leavening influences within Evangelicalism. 

To avoid any taint of triumphalism, I posited that the same factors would also decimate Catholic and Orthodox numbers.  The only difference, I believe, is that the apostolic churches have the historical legs to weather the storm and come out on the other side.  I envision no dystopian apocalypse.  The country will hum right along nicely, with people pursuing the same things they are pursuing now, only more so.  They just won’t be particularly Christian, and probably will not even feel the loss.  Of course, many of the other churches will still be around.  But in this country, you can apparently be something simply by saying that you are—the final triumph of the Will over Reason.  So, while many will no doubt still claim the name, they may not be recognizably Christian in any historical sense of the word.

This accelerating declension is harder to spot down here in East Texas and Dallas, where church is still big business.  But if you look around, the signs are clearly there.  The pool of adherents is diminishing.  Christianity is increasingly seen as something quaint and peripheral, and not even generally expected among people you know.  And if all anyone knew of the faith was the public face of it in this country, then who could blame them? (Think Joel Osteen’s smiley-face on the Barnes and Noble shelf, Mike Huckabee’s grandstanding with Kim Davis in Kentucky, or Robert Jeffress’ cringe-inducing public prayer at the Trump rally in Dallas).  If I didn’t know better myself and thought this was all there was to it, then my attitude would be that of Flannery O’’Connor--“then to hell with it!”

To bolster this view, one need look no further than a recent article in our local paper’s Religion section.  If I did not know that it was on the up and up, I would take it for a parody.  A young preacher has been called as the new pastor for a sizable Methodist church in our city.
 
To be honest about it, I have long harbored an illogical prejudice against this particular congregation.  Many years ago I did a job for the church’s long-time pastor.  He never made the slightest pretense of paying my invoice for the service I provided him—not a dime.  And so, when I would see him quoted in the newspaper through the decades, this is what I remembered!  And then about 30 years ago, I bumped into an acquaintance at the coffee shop one morning.  He is about 20 years my senior and is a member of this congregation.  After talking about a play or something they were hosting at this Methodist church, he asked me where I attended.  After I told him, he proceeded to take me to task for my church’s negligence when it came to women’s rights and the role of women in the church.  I was a bit taken-aback by it and fortunately did not respond as I was inclined to do.  Let’s just say that my personal knowledge of his background led me to discount any advice he would give on this particular subject.  So, there they are—my ingrained prejudices!

That said, I certainly wish them no ill will.  The fresh young preacher from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology desires “to lead the church in the direction it wants to go,” and states that “the grand plan is to reach out beyond the church walls to strengthen the community…[by] sponsoring soccer and softball teams, putting on block parties, partnering with local ministries and developing more relationships with local schools.  In addition…there are plans to provide community workshops about issues such as bullying, identity theft, financial planning and debt reduction….As part of reaching out to the community, the church wants to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations and minister to people in their 20s and 30s.  Some of the plans to do this include having free family movie nights with popcorn and drinks and a barbeque and bounce house night for the neighborhood.”

The new pastor obviously felt a need to tag something at least vaguely spiritual in all this community outreach.  He expressed a desire to “really connect with people and help them grow in their relationship with Christ…. ‘It’s what Jesus did…Jesus went out and met with anyone and everyone.  We need to do the same.’”

The services themselves ought to be fun, noting that “he tries to make the services interactive and incorporate multiple senses.  Some examples include using flash paper for a Bible story that involved fire and passing out Fig Newtons for a story that involved a fig tree.”  No doubt he had to dig deep for that one.

You get the picture.  I have a prediction for the young pastor—none of this is going to work.  One thing that jumped out at me from the story was the fact that they had canvassed the neighborhood in a one-mile radius, finding that one half of the residents were unaffiliated with any church and saw no need to be.  A few years from now, this thoroughly upper middle-class neighborhood’s statistics will be even worse.  Nobody will be brought in by these tricks.

In my conversation with my cousin, I remembered commenting that I had never not believed in God.  I had always believed and never gone through a period of doubt.  Mind you, I have rarely lived as if I believed, but that is a topic for another post.  What I did not mention to my cousin was that for as long as I can remember I have also been convicted of my own need for repentance.  I am blessed beyond measure to be in a place (a Church) where I can work all that out.  But for the life of me, I do not see any room for it in the community center masquerading as a church outlined above.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Travels with St. Panteleimon


Icon of St. Panteleimon and relics, Abustamani
I am now securely back at home and in my regular routine, consisting mainly of long talks with my wife while sipping coffee in the sun room, teaching my college classes and going to the office a little, weekly lunches with my oldest friend, the occasional visit with my hard-to-catch nephew, and finally, working my way back into the comfortable and necessary cycle at church.  I am truly glad to be home, for this is and will be my home.  For better or worse, I am rooted to a very particular place.  But as I am wont to do, whenever I am here, my mind returns there, and by there I mean the Caucasus.  I will always be just a visitor when in Georgia, but at least I am one who feels at home.  In some ways, I am more comfortable in my own skin over there than I am in Texas.  No doubt I will return as often as I can, and for as long as I am able to do so.

In thinking back over recent Georgian travels, it has given me no little pleasure to realize that I have an increasing connection with St. Panteleimon.  I was heretofore only vaguely familiar with this 4th-century saint, and not at all in the habit of invoking him in my intercessory prayers.  In short, I was not primed in any way to expect any interaction with this particular saint.  He has now become, however, a touchstone for me in Georgia.  I will explain.

***
Back in 2014, I spent two nights in the Black Sea resort of Batumi, Georgia’s showcase to the rest of the world.  The city combines a bit of New Orleans-like charm and Miami beach appeal, with a too generous dose of Las Vegas glitz.  There’s enough here to enchant or offend most any sensibility.  I love the place.  The fact that Donald Trump would probably love it too ought to concern me more than it does.  But on this particular Sunday morning, I accompanied my friends Jay, Poti, Soso and Misha up into the semi-tropical hills behind the city.  We attended Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Transfiguration--built in 1912 by the city’s Greek community, closed during the Soviet period, and reopened in 1995.  The
Fr. Vaseli and friends, Batumi
iconography was about 60% complete at that time, now being done in the Georgian style.  For those who are interested in such things, about 125 worshippers were in attendance, of which about 55% were women and 45% men, about 10% were elderly, 30% were middle-aged, and 60% were young adults and their children.  After the service, Poti introduced me to Fr. Vaseli, and we had a nice visit considering the not-insubstantial language barrier.  He gave me the following blessing:  “As this is the Church of the Transfiguration, may Christ transfigure your life.”  I had forgotten that until I reread my journal, and was a bit ashamed that I had neglected to remember perhaps the most important thing I could take away from there.  Fr. Vaseli also gave me two icons and a plastic jug of wine.  Later that day, I found myself walking down a Batumi street carrying said jug of wine and two icons.  How Orthodox is that?  The first icon was of Sts. Gabriel, Ioanne, and Giorgi-Ioanne.   This is not surprising, as these 20th-century saints—one a “Fool for Christ” on the streets of Tbilisi, and the other two beloved monks at nearby Betania monastery-- are among the most popular in Georgia today.  The other icon was a small painted wooden block of St. Panteleimon.  At the time, I thought this an odd choice, as I would have expected one of the Georgian saints, or perhaps St. George.  I was quite pleased with it, nonetheless.  At that time,  I intended to give it as a gift to one of my godsons, who had chosen St. Panteleimon as his patron saint.  But I never followed through with that.  I grew attached to it and found something else for my godson, keeping this icon for myself. 

***
The ossuary at Zarzma Monastery
Later on that same trip, I made a return trip to Zarzma Monastery, in remote Samtskhe-Javakheti.  This very active monastic complex is one of my favorites, and one I now try to visit every trip.  The monastery dates from the 8th century.  The oldest extant church was built in the 10th century, complete with a inscription over the entrance commending the Georgians who helped Basil II put down the revolt of Bardas Phokas in 979.  The main church—the Church of the Transfiguration—is the newest, constructed in the 14th century.  The iconography within is exquisite,
having never been whitewashed during the tsarist years.  I particularly appreciate the murals depicting the donors—rather sly-looking Chorchanelis and/or Jaqelis who do not appear at all reverent.  The monks open a small chamber to the right of the altar and show the uncorrupted remains of an unknown 9th century monk from Atskuri.  Somewhat obscured behind the main church is the ossuary, containing the bones of countless monks, staked neat as cord wood.  To top it off, the courtyard contains—along with the garden and bee hives—several ancient animalistic stone sculptures, which may in truth be pre-Christian. 
Old Abustamani
In researching Zarzma’s history, I became acquainted with the story of Grand Duke George Alexandrovich.  I am generally well-disposed towards monarchy (except, of course, for the last three centuries of its English manifestation).  That said, royalty in particular often disappoints, leaving my sympathies stranded much more in the theoretical realm, than in the actual.  But Grand Duke George, son of Alexander III of Russia, and younger brother of Nicholas II, is a classic case of “poor little rich boy”—and in this particular instance, I mean the richest family in the world at that time.  Witty and outgoing, George was considered the most intelligent of the Tsar’s children.
  Unfortunately, he developed tuberculosis at age 20 while on a diplomatic mission to Japan, and his health remained touch and go until his death at age 28.  The Romanovs maintained a small palace—Likani—just outside the resort town of Borjomi, and young George was dispatched there to recuperate.  Like many visitors before him, the young man immediately took to the region, and as they say “went native,” or as much as it is possible for a grand duke of Russia to do so.  He preferred to remain in Georgia and resolutely refused to leave, being lured from his adopted country only rarely, and then only at the command of his mother, the Dowager Empress.  Grand Duke George constructed a modest hunting lodge at Abustamani, located at the base of the forested mountains that divides Kartli and Kakheti from western Georgia.  The village is remote--or as my friend Dato would say "remoted"--located quite some distance south and west of Likani—though much closer to Akhaltsikhe and Zarzma Monastery.  Here George was free from even the limited protocol at Likani.
George Alexandrovich in Georgian attire
  He enjoyed the lodge, his Georgian companions, and frequent visits to the monks at Zarzma.  Grand Duke George oversaw the cleaning of the iconography within the Church of the Transfiguration at the monastery.  The impression it makes today is due in large part to the work he authorized in the 1890s.  In fact, he decided to build a replica of Zarzma at Abustamani, and started construction of same, though it was only finished after his death.  Because of his presence there, the village shortly developed as a resort area in the last years of the tsarist regime, and would continue as such during much of the Soviet era.  All that ended by the fall of Communism, if not long before, and from what I could gather, the village was now largely derelict, the old sanatoriums and resort facilities crumbling with neglect.  Even the hunting lodge was no more—or at least partially so.  A fire had broken out and consumed most of the building.  I learned that there was some interest in rebuilding, but no one had any clear idea about how that would ever be done, or paid for.  A women's monastery came to occupy the grounds after the fall of Communism.  I also read a brief reference to a 9th-century chapel on the grounds as well.  Clearly, Abustamani appealed to my curiosity and warranted a detour to check it out.
The hunting lodge before the fire
 

My excursion turned out to be well worth the time.  The old resort town in the forested foothills is tumble-down to be sure.  But the decaying gingerbreaded pavilions and summer houses, and extensive galleried sanatoriums attested to its former glory.  The church of “New Zarzma” was in fact, the Church of Alexander Nevsky.  From the outside it was indeed an exact replica of Zarma.  But the similarities ended once one stepped inside.  The iconography was unlike any I have ever seen, the epitome of the romanticized 19th century Russian style.  These murals were in fact the work of the famous Mikhail Nestorov.  To my untrained eye, the saints and angels looked as if they could have been copied from what one would expect to see in illustrated fairy tale books.  Though not my preference, the iconography is certainly unique, and in its own way, a bit stunning.  

In the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky
Leaving the church, we ventured up to the far end of the village, finding the monastic complex, including the ruins of the old hunting lodge and the small 9th century chapel.  The gate was locked shut, however, and there was no way for us to enter the grounds.  And so, we turned around and left without having visited the monastery, though I had every intention of returning one day.


This year, I did that very thing.  I was traveling with friends Michael, Adam and Dato.  Frankly, I was doing a bit of apologizing in advance to Michael and Adam, as Abustamani seemed an obscure destination in an introductory trip to Georgia.  As it turned out, there was no need for apologies.  They got it.  We visited the ruined pavilion, and the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, which impressed my friends as much as it did me the previous year.  We were pleased to discover that the gates to the monastery were now open.  Dato started conversing with a novice nun who came out to be our escort.  I did not know before, but now learned that this was in fact the Monastery of St. Panteleimon.  A few rooms of Grand Duke George Alexandrovich’s old hunting lodge remain, with much of the burned out sections exposed to the elements, and the occasional pecking chickens.  The nuns have constructed a new annex onto the back of the house.  We were told that they wish to rebuild the lodge, but there is no money to do so.
Our guide at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon

The young novice escorted us to the 9th century chapel, accessed by a footbridge that spanned a fast-flowing mountain stream.  Dato conversed with her all along the way, and made occasional translations.  As it turned out, he was telling her about us.  Georgians are surprised to learn that there are actually American Orthodox Christians, and it gives them great pleasure to hear of us.  She was probably no older than 25, and had a radiant smile—something I have noticed time and again in the presence of Georgian nuns.  

At first, I was a little disappointed in the small chapel.  I had mistakenly thought that some old iconography remained inside.  This was not the case.  The old chapel had been newly plastered on the inside.  Except for the large icon of St. Panteleimon on the stand in the center of the church, the only other iconography consisted of a few framed prints hanging on the walls.  We all took our turns venerating the icon of St. Panteleimon.  The young novice continued to beam and talk at length with Dato.  He would occasionally translate to us the gist of their conversation.  She then went to the icon stand and carefully opened the cover, removing a small rounded capsule.  Dato explained that this contained an actual relic of St. Panteleimon—a small piece of his skull (I understand the main relic is on Mount Athos.)  She held it her palm and each of us had the opportunity to come forward and venerate it.  Simply writing these words cannot convey the emotion that was running through us all at that time.  I turned my face to the wall for a while and struggled to retain my composure.  I realize that this is incomprehensible to those who are not Orthodox--this connection with the saints and their relics.  But they are real and vital to us, and wherever I encounter them--whether in Abustamani, Georgia, or in Macon, Georgia—I feel connected to the Faith of the Ages, and deeply humbled by its saints and martyrs.
All that remains of the hunting lodge

We walked back outside and the young novice had us linger while she retrieved some gifts from the Abbess.  We stood in the courtyard of the old hunting lodge, and after a while she returned, still smiling, and gave us each bags with holy oil and large candles made personally by the Abbess.  She even prepared a separate package for my godson back in the U.S. who took the name Panteleimon.  We took our leave, with the four of us—Dato, Michael, Adam and myself—all on something of a spiritual high.  On the drive down from Abustamani, we each tried to give voice to that which we had just experienced.  We knew that something quite special had come our way, and that it would be hard to explain, as my grasping for words here clearly demonstrates.

After I had been home for a couple of weeks, I enjoyed a quiet lunch with two of my best and oldest friends.  We have a favorite restaurant, and always opt for a quiet table near the bar.  One of my friends wanted to hear a story about Georgia.  With some misgivings, I decided to tell about my visit to the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, for this made as lasting an impression on me as anything I experienced while there.  I had doubts about my audience, however.  I could easily relate the experience to other Orthodox ,while sitting around at coffee hour after Liturgy, but I was afraid it would not translate well in Protestant circles.  One friend was an old-school Anglican, now refugeed out to the Reformed Episcopal Church or some such; the other a staunch Calvinist.  When I got to the part about venerating the relics of St. Panteleimon, the latter almost snorted in derision.  I halfway expected this, and made some lame attempt at a clever reply.  I felt like saying that he could hang with John Calvin if he wanted, but I would take my stand with the likes of St. Panteleimon.  Not only did he not recognize the name, but was proud that he knew him not.  Despite this brief brush with replaying the Reformation, the conversation soon moved on into more familiar territory.  I can’t fault my friend without condemning myself.  For there was a time in my life when I would have been equally derisive and dismissive.    

***
Months later in 2015, I found myself in Tbilisi again on two separate occasions.  I have been to Tbilisi any number of times, and have visited at least a dozen churches in the center of the city.  Each has a special attraction to me, but over time I have become especially drawn to Mamadaviti church (Church of St. David).  The church was originally founded by St. Davit Gareji, one of the thirteen Syrian Fathers of the 6th century.  The current church, however, is much newer.  The iconography is largely from the Russian period of the 19th century.  But the church has an impressive vantage point, perched on a slope of Mtatsminda, with Tbilisi spread out below.  The National Pantheon is located in the churchyard as well.  This began in 1829, with the murder of Alexander Griboyedov and his subsequent entombment here.  His grave and that of his Georgian wife, Nino Chavchavadze, are in a special crypt in front of the church.  The tomb of St. Ilia the Righteous is hard up against the side of the hill, close to the church.  I enjoy walking through the cemetery and seeing how many people I can identify by reading the Georgian script.  This visit I was able to pinpoint the graves of both Lado Gudiashvili and Otar Chiladze. 
In the crypt for Alexander Griboyedov


From the writings I share here and elsewhere, I present myself as something of an even-tempered sort, not wildly excitable, nor subject to deep depressions.  But I am subject to flashes of anger, and can tumble into the depths of despair in short order. I tend not to write about those times.  A particular recent Saturday in Tbilisi was as dark a day as I ever remember having.  These touchstones remain alive in my memory, if not the exact day, then certain the month and year:  July 2005, November 2011, and now July 2015.  I didn’t exactly wander the streets that day, but I wasn’t far from it.  I felt a need to keep moving, however, and so it is no surprise that I eventually found my way to Mamadaviti church.  I wandered among the graves for a while, and viewed the city from the railing next to the retaining wall.  I heard chanting, and realized that this was Saturday afternoon and vespers were beginning.  My friend Soso chants here, but was not in town this particular Saturday.  I quietly entered the sanctuary, and eyed the small group of worshippers that was beginning to form.  I was the oldest person there.  When it was my turn, I went forward and venerated the icons of Jesus Christ and the Theotokos in front of the iconostasis, and then found a quiet dark place to stand near the southwest corner.  I felt much better for being there, of course.  Just listening to the Georgian chant and letting my eyes wander to the various icons in the sanctuary calmed my soul and soothed my weariness.
In the Mtatsminda Pantheon
  In time, I came around to noticing the icons in my back corner, and went around to each one to venerate.  One thing you notice about Georgian iconography is their attention to contemporary saints.  Mamadaviti Church was no exception, with an icon of St. Ekvtime just behind me, and a large icon to Ilia Chavchavadze—“St. Ilia the Righteous” to my right.  To my right and slightly in front was another large icon, but to one of the early saints.  He was, of course, St. Panteleimon.  I was half beginning to expect him, and it gave me great comfort to venerate his icon and ask his intercession.  I knew I was in good company, and there was no cause for despair.