Sunday, July 30, 2006

At the Edge of Christendom

One thing the scriptures make abundantly clear is that the essential nature of the Kingdom of God is spiritual, not physical. Any effort to draw geographical boundaries around it is not only futile, but is to miss the point altogether. But for the sake of illustration in this story, I will attempt to do that very thing. One of the best days I spent in the Republic of Georgia was at the Monasteries of Davit Gareja, located smack on the border of Christian Georgia and Muslim Azerbaijan.

St. Davit Gareja was a pivotal figure in Georgian history. He led a group of 13 Syrian Fathers to Georgia in the 6th Century, establishing a series of monasteries in the remote wilderness. A story connected with the beginning of the monastery relates that Davit, along with Lukiane and Dodo, were saved from starvation. Several does and fawns came up to them, gentle as sheep, and the does allowed themselves to be milked.

The monasteries flourished, and exerted significant influence in Georgia, being a center of fresco painting and manuscript copying and translation. The monks suffered tremendously during the invasion of the Mongols, and later Tamerlane. They persevered and regrouped each time. In 1615, however, the Shah of Persia massacred the entire colony of 6,000 monks and destroyed most of the treasures of the monastery. The monks were well hidden in the caves, but one of the Persians caught sight of a solitary candle flickering in a cave, betraying their position. The monasteries were closed again during the Soviet years. Now, the community of monks is flourishing once more at Davit Gareja.

Davit Gareja is located only 60 km. (36 miles) from Tbilisi, but it might as well be a half a world away. I stood on an outcropping of rock, surveying the wide windswept valley and the rolling, treeless hills, trying to come up with an appropriate description. My son said simply, "It's Rohan." Of course, that is exactly right. LOTR aficianados will know exactly what I am talking about. In the silence, I half expected to hear the thunder of hooves as the Rohirrim crested over the summit.

It is a 2 hour drive from Tbilisi to the monastery--an 18 mph average which gives you some idea of the quality of the roads. The city of Rustavi lies halfway between. A quintessential Soviet planned city, Rustavi had 150,000 inhabitants before communism's fall. A wide boulevard divides row upon row of bleak, despressing, crumbling apartment blocks. They could have been built anywhere from Vladivostock to East Berlin, as Soviet architects seemed to have only 1 set of blueprints. On the far side of the city, the vast, rusting industrial plants--stark, unsettling and soulless--now operate at 30% of their former capacity.

Yet even amid such sterility, the human yearning for God breaks through, like flowers pushing through cracks in the concrete. I noticed between some of the apartment blocks--in the common areas and playgrounds--some noticeably new construction. These small, traditional structures were invariably neat and attractive. They were, of course, minature chapels, all built in the ageless Georgian style. I doubt that the Soviet central planners would approve of this particular change in the layout!

I took no pictures of Rustavi. Our guide, Sophie, lived there and I did not want to embarrass her by taking special note of her decaying city. Later I learned my assumptions were offbase. Although she lived in Rustavi with her parents and brother, they resided in a nice home in the old part of town that predated the Communist era. In fact, their lot is spacious enough for her brother to plan another house on the site. In addition, they maintain a family home on the Black Sea coast.

Sophie explained that in the Georgian tradition, the son always inherits the house. Daughters have the right to live in the home as long as they like, however. This was not so much a matter of law, but simply a long-established custom. She assured me that a brother would never turn his sister out of the house. I am certainly not advocating this arrangement, but what impresses me is the stability and love within the Georgian family--the fact that extra-legal arrangements like this apparently work. I wonder how many American families--without legal safeguards--could pass a test like this.

Just past Rustavi lies a scraggly, hardscrabble village. There was nothing particularly unique about it, except for one noticeable building. At the edge of the village is a 6-story stone tower. For this is a village of Svans. Years earlier, an avalanche destroyed one of the Svanetian villages deep in the Caucasus Mountains. The government relocated them here, where some could engage in herding, and others could work in the Rustavi foundaries. I was incredulous that these fiercely independent mountain dwellers would be relocated here. And yet, the first thing they did was to build a traditional Svanetian tower, like the multitude that dot their Caucasian mountainsides. I saw the tower--and the adjoining church--as a testimony to the human spirit.

Soon, this village is left far behind, and nothing is left but miles of rolling hills and valleys. When we reach a small makeshift carpark, we are surprised to see the number of vehicles there. Packed marshrutkas from Tbilisi are unloading in front of us. We park and walk up the trail to Lavra Monastery--a compound of churches, cells and caves clustered around a central courtyard on three levels. There seemed to be a lot of activity around the courtyard, so we opt to visit the Udabno Monastery, a series of cave churches on the other side of the mountain. We follow a twisting trail past the watchtower that snakes up to the summit. Perhaps it was the altitude. Or perhaps I am just kidding myself about being in good physical shape. All I know is that going up the hill, I felt every one of the 15 lbs. I have put on in the last year. My dignity suffered further when a group of Italian seniors trotted past me on one of my many rest breaks.

At last I was able to join Sophie and my son on the summit, which afforded a breath-taking view south and east. The valley far below was Azerbaijan. So, in this sense, we were standing on the very edge of Christendom. In fact, much of the southern slope of the moutain was Azeri as well. The trail continued slightly down the hill and then eastward. A low iron railing ran for hundreds of feet near the path. Sometimes we were on one side, and sometimes the other. Only later did I learn that this demarcated the Georgian/Azerbaijan border. So I was able to "do" Azerbaijan on the cheap, without bothering with those tiresome border crossings. In the far distance, we heard an explosion, and then saw a plume of smoke lingering in the air. Sophie explained that the Azeris were exploding munitions. Okaaay.

The Udabno monasteries are heartbreaking. During the 1980s, the Russians used the valley below as training ground for the troops being sent to Afghanistan. The explosions caused most of the cave fronts to collapse. Even so, a number of the cave churches still have beautiful, but fading frescoes. I have retained the image in my mind of one of the frescoes in particular, of Christ Pantocrator. This haunting and sublime icon is still distinct, but with the eyes gouged out. The desecration was done not by marauding Turks, Persians or Monguls of ages past, but by Communist Russian soldiers in the 1980s.

The trail continues past dozens of cave churches. Sophie explained that monks had installed doors on some of the Udabno caves and were now staying in the cells permanently. So, the monastic life is reborn once more in the caves of Udabno.

The trail leads to a promentory, the site of a reconstructed chapel. Sophie explained that a Tbilisi businessman funded the project. Workers and supplies were brought to the site by helicopter. While we sat on a bench and talked, Sophie learned that I was Orthodox. She was pleased, and not a little surprised. She wanted to know if there were many Orthodox in America. I told her there were not so many of us, but that I was hopeful of growth. A young Georgian man was there and heard us conversing in English. He spoke to Sophie. I learned that he wanted to make sure that she told me about the 6,000 martyrs.

From here, the trail doubled back, down the north slope to Lavra Monastery. By the time we returned to the monastery we found even more people there than before. In fact, crowds covered the place. Sophie discovered that this was the feast day of St. Davit Gareja. This was the one time during the year when the Catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, comes to this particular monastery and conducts the liturgy. The Church of the Transfiguration was packed, with the crowd spilling out into the courtyard. I took up a position on the 3rd floor gallery and waited. After a while, the worshippers, along with the monks and priests, and finally the Catholicos, filed out of the church, the crowds in the courtyard swarming around their shepherd.

And so ended my journey to the monasteries of Davit Gareja. I retain a number of memories, not the least of which is the joy and simple faith I saw in the faces of the crowd that day. I also remember the story of the 6,000 martyrs. And the monks now returning to the caves. And perhaps more than anything, the now eyeless icon of Christ. And the ultimate utter futility of those who try to stamp out the message of He who sees all in all.


s-p said... is so humbling to hear these things after being so steeped in the narcissism of American evangelicalism for so many years...

The Scrivener said...

More wonderfulness. Thank you.

Catrin said...

I have just found your blog, after a link to it from OrthodDixie. Thank you for posting about your journey, and I agree with S-P, it is humbling to hear these things.