Monday, January 31, 2011

Taybeh's Plea vs. the Likes of Mike Huckabee

We've trimmed our magazine subscriptions in recent years. The wife still gets Good Housekeeping and Southern Living (which I also read,) and I am hanging on to the Oxford American, Southern Cultures and Road to Emmaus. The last, billed as a "Journal of Orthodox Faith and Cultures," I consider to be essential reading for all Orthodox Americans. Published quarterly, each issue usually highlights Orthodoxy within a specific region, including some that would not naturally come to mind. I highly recommend the journal.

The current issue focuses on Jerusalem, St. Sophronius, and the village of Taybeh (biblical Ephraim,) the last all-Christian village in Palestine. The mayor is David Khoury, but the interview is with his wife, Dr. Maria C. Khoury, noted Greek-American educator, author, lecturer and advocate for Palestinian Christians. After the Oslo Agreement of 1993, the Khourys returned from the U.S. and founded Palestine's only micro-brewery. Against incredible obstacles, the business survives today.

Before 1948, Christians comprised anywhere from 13% to 25% of Palestine's population (50% in Jerusalem itself.). Now the Christian population is less than 2% in Gaza and the West Bank, and less than 2% in Israel itself. The Palestinian Christian population has been forced to leave the region in even greater percentages than their Muslim neighbors. Their plight is largely overlooked, even by their American Orthodox brethren, of whom many seem as ignorant and ill-informed as the average American. Dr. Khoury recounts lectures to American Greek Orthodox audiences where they would express surprise to learn that all Palestinians were not terrorists, or that there were "good" Palestinians.

The Christians there endure the same indignities as their Muslim neighbors, with 80% affected daily by the 26-ft. high, 280 mile concrete wall which slices through their world. What was once a 10 minute trip into Ramallah to their children's school for the Khourys became a harrowing 2-hour journey each way, through innumerable Israeli checkpoints, with no guarantee of success. Sometimes, they were turned back in sight of the school. Jerusalem is only 25 minutes away, but if they want to send a shipment of Taybeh Beer to the city, they first have to drive to the commercial checkpoint which is 3 hours away. There, the beer is handed off to an Israeli driver and an Israeli truck for the 3 hour drive back to Jerusalem. A simple delivery takes 2 drivers, 2 trucks and all day. Both David and Maria Khoury hold American passports, but they are not able to fly out of Tel Aviv to visit relatives in the U.S. They were told that Israelis do not like to see Palestinians in the airport. Instead, they must spend 2 days, traveling to the King Hussein bridge into Jordan, where they have to fly out of Amman (I have gone through this checkpoint, recounted here.)

The Israelis have undertaken a systematic destruction of the olive groves in the region, as this had provided employment for Palestinians. The Khourys had 12 trees bulldozed by the Israelis. These olive trees had been in the family for many generations and were between 500 and 700 years old. Dr. Khoury and her husband were finally able to cross the border into Egypt and visit St. Catherine's Monastery--after 25 years of making application. Travel is severely limited everywhere, and the Palestinians are not permitted to drive on the roads that the Israelis maintain. Teybah has no water on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, but the 3 Israeli settlements which ring the village have water 24/7.

They cannot visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher without a permit into Jerusalem (arbitrary and difficult to obtain) and then a specific permit for the church itself (equally difficult.) Christian pilgrims from the U.S. are discouraged from visiting Bethlehem. If they insist, they will not be allowed to shop in the local Christian stores, but whisked back to the malls in Jerusalem. Dr. Khoury states that in the early 1990s, perhaps 1 woman in 10 in Ramallah would be dressed in the Islamic manner. Now, not 1 in 10 is not. The Christians now find themselves caught between the vice of fanatical Muslims on the one side and the equally fanatical Israeli zealots on the other. I had never before read of the horrific martyrdom of the Archimandrite Philoumenos by Zionists in 1979; nor had I read of the specific targeting of Christian churches in southern Lebanon in the latest war; nor the defecating on their altars as the Israeli troops moved in; nor of the harassment of the monks and nuns who try to maintain the holy sites.

Dr. Khoury on Christian Zionism:

Zionism, a political movement founded by Theodore Herzl in the the 19th century to lobby for a secular homeland for the Jews, took on a Christian religious context when 20th-century evangelical Christians , mostly in America, began linking Zionism to their interpretation of Old Testament passages. Now there are many American evangelical Christians, whom we call Zionist Christians, who believe that modern Israel with the guns, the gunships, the bulldozers, the bombers, is the New Israel of our gospels. According to their thinking, once Israel has a 100% Jewish homeland and gains complete control, then Christ will return. They are trying to hasten the Second Coming.

We Orthodox Christians don't hold this view. Our New Testament Israel is a spiritual homeland because the Messiah came and we have been baptized into Christ. Jesus Christ became man through that Hebrew ethnicity, and when we sing and chant in our services about Israel, we Christians, (the Church) are the New Israel. The New Israel is not the physical Israel with its guns. We believe that the Lord has only told us to be alert, to watch, to be ready, but there is nothing we have to do to bring about Judgment Day. That will come in His own time. Yet this grave misinterpretation drives many evangelical Christians to blindly support Israeli policy.

Case in point, there is this:

Potential 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told Jewish settlers Monday that attempts to prevent them from building in east Jerusalem are as outrageous as housing discrimination in the United States.

"I cannot imagine, as an American, being told I could not live in certain places in America because I was Christian, or because I was white, or because I spoke English," he said.

Huckabee dismissed the notion that Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state are obstacles to peace. Instead, he backed the settlers' view that they have the right to build anywhere in "the place that God gave them."

The Jerusalem Reclamation Project, a group that promotes settlements in an attempt to bolster a Jewish presence in mostly Arab areas, hosted Huckabee and actor Jon Voight on the first day of their three-day visit.

Huckabee visited the Shepherd Hotel, the former residence of the mufti of Jerusalem that was destroyed in early January to make way for Jewish homes. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had rebuked Israel for knocking down the hotel - a position Huckabee brushed off.

"I think we ought to be more concerned about Iran building bombs than Israelis building bedrooms," Huckabee said.

I am an unapologetic voter. This is something of a family thing on my dad's side--many generations of what I consider to be principled voting. I am not ideologically driven. We've seen where that's gotten us in the early years of this century. In national elections, I always vote foreign policy. Domestically, we are such an ungovernable muddle, that I do not think it really makes much difference. And the same argument can be made with foreign policy as well. What differences there are are just matters of degree. But these can be crucial. Mr. Huckabee's smug worldview is normative for his party--and that frightens me.

Israel's Palestinian policies have been made possible by the uncritical and unquestioning support that Christian Zionists and the Israeli lobby force on Congress. We are equally culpable in this tragedy. No amount of letter-writing to our congressional representatives will make much difference. The die is cast. I believe our foreign policy misadventuring will one day bring us low. Only then, perhaps, will our folly become apparrent and change occur.

What we can and must do is pray for Christians in Palestine--and their oppressors, the fanatics of both the Muslim and Jewish persuasion.

We can also support journals such as Road to Emmaus, and make sure the story of our Palestinian brethren gets wide circulation. The ignorance and/or indifference of the American Orthodox on this issue is shameful.

Also, if you have some spare change, you might consider

There are 30 Orthodox Christian families there who have had their homes appropriated by the Israelis. Homes are being built so that they can remain in Taybeh, and perpetuate an almost 2,000-year Christian witness.

Tulips Istanbulli

My friend Hakan posted this close-up of tulips on his fb page. The Theodosian walls of old Constantinople make for a nice backdrop.

Friday, January 28, 2011

St. Ephrem the Syrian

St. Ephrem the Syrian is commemorated today. In June 0f 2006, I visited the ancient Meryamana Kilisesi--the Church of the Virgin Mary, one of the very oldest churches in the world (my full account, here.) A few Suriani families hold on here in a walled compound in the midst of Kurdish Diyarbakir. This is the only icon hanging in the church--Mar Efram. I have never before seen an icon of St. Ephrem in this style.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Day and Night in the Middle East

JORDAN, here:

For nearly 50 years, Wadi el Kharrar served as a highly militarized border zone — littered with land mines — between the Israeli–occupied Palestinian West Bank and Jordan. Only after Israel and the kingdom entered into a peace treaty in 1994 did the Jordanian authorities de–militarize, de–mine and open up the area to experts. Then in 1997, Dr. Waheeb’s team of archaeologists conducted a survey of the site. Recognizing the religious importance of the valley, the Hashemite royal family soon launched an ambitious plan to develop it as a major destination for pilgrims. Unlike other religious sites, however, they decided to preserve the Wadi el Kharrar as a naturalist park rimmed with modern churches and pilgrimage facilities. The plans to restore the baptismal site belong to the royals’ larger goals of preserving Jordan’s rich religious patrimony and making it a destination of choice for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The Baptism Site Commission, a nonprofit organization headed by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, currently manages the area. That a member of the Hashemite family is responsible for the Christian holy site should come as no surprise. Since the kingdom’s establishment in the 20th century, the Hashemites have enforced a strict policy of religious tolerance. Jordan’s constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, providing for the rights of Christians in particular to build churches and participate in civic life, including the governance of the nation.


We Saudis are not particularly eager to look for pre-Islamic artifacts. There's a prevailing opinion among the conservatives that items not Islamic belong in the ground because displaying them risks a tacit endorsement of the culture or religion the artifacts represent.

We have a habit sealing off ancient sites….We have been known to neglect or destroy them. Saudis don't want to run the risk of turning a site into a place of idolatry.

It's right that churches are not permitted in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. But what's less certain is whether crucifixes, if found, should be destroyed or hidden. More precisely is the issue of whether Christian or Jewish artifacts can be displayed in the proper context in a Saudi museum as an acknowledgment of a people who called pre-Islamic Arabia their home.

My guess is that most Saudis will say no. Many Saudis believe there is no place in the Kingdom for such relics.

The Associated Press the other day reported that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nujaimi said non-Muslim artifacts "should be left in the ground." He said that Muslims would not tolerate the display of non-Muslim religious symbols. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" he said. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

St. Davit the Builder

Blessed Davit IV the King of Georgia

Commemorated on January 26

At the end of the 11th century the Georgian Church underwent a trial of physically and spiritually catastrophic proportions.

The Seljuk sultan, Jalal al-Dawlah Malik Shah (1073–1092), captured the village of Samshvilde, imprisoned its leader, Ioane Orbeliani, son of Liparit, ravaged Kvemo (Lower) Kartli, and finally captured all of Georgia, despite the isolated victories of King Giorgi II (1072–1089). The fearful Georgians fled their homes to hide in the mountains and forests.

Tempted and deeply distressed by the difficult times, the nation that had once vowed its unconditional love for Christ began to fall into sin and corruption. People of all ages and temperaments sinned against God and turned to the path of perdition. God manifested His wrath toward the Georgian people by sending a terrible earthquake that devastated their Paschal celebrations.

In the year 1089, during this period of devastation and despair, King Giorgi II abdicated, designating his sixteen-year-old only son, Davit (later known as “the Restorer”), heir to the throne. It is written that the Heavenly Father said: I have found David My servant, with My holy oil have I annointed him (Ps. 88:19).

The newly crowned King Davit took upon himself enormous responsibility for the welfare of the Church. He supported the efforts of the Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi to restore and reinforce the authority of the Georgian Church and suppress the conceited feudal lords and unworthy clergymen. During King Davit’s reign, the government’s most significant activities were carried out for the benefit of the Church. At the same time, the Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi reasserted the vital role of the Orthodox Faith in rescuing the Georgian people from the godless mire into which they had sunk.

Foremost among King Davit’s goals at the beginning of his reign was the repatriation of those who had fled Georgia during the Turkish rule. The king summoned his noblemen and began to reunify the nation. The king’s efforts to reunify Georgia began in the eastern region of Kakheti-Hereti, but the Turks and traitorous feudal lords were unwilling to surrender the power they had gained in the area. Nevertheless, King Davit’s army was in God’s hands, and the Georgians fought valiantly against the massive Turkish army. King Davit himself fought like any other soldier: three of his horses were killed, but he mounted a fourth to finish the fight with a fantastic victory. The Turkish presence was eliminated from his country.

Soon, however, the uncompromising Seljuk sultan Mehmed (Muhammad) I of Baghdad (1105–1118) ordered an army of one hundred thousand soldiers to march on Georgia. When King Davit heard of the enemy’s approach, he immediately assembled a force of fifteen hundred men and led them towards Trialeti. A battle began in the early morning, and with God’s help the enemy was defeated. Simultaneously, the king’s adviser, Giorgi of Chqondidi, (Giorgi of Chqondidi was King Davit’s teacher and closest adviser. He held the post of chancellor-procurator. At the council of Ruisi-Urbnisi, King Davit introduced a new law, combining the office of chancellor-procurator with the archbishopric of Chqondidi, the most influential episcopate in Georgia.) recaptured the town of Rustavi, and in 1115 the Georgian army recovered the ravine of the Mtkvari River. One year later, the Turks, who had been encamped between the towns of Karnipori and Basiani, were banished from the country. The “Great Wars” continued, and the holy king was crowned with new victories. Davit’s son Demetre (later the venerable Damiane), a young man distinguished in “wisdom, holiness, appearance and courage,” was a great asset to his father. The prince led a war on Shirvan, captured Kaladzori, and returned to his father with slaves and great riches, the spoils of war in those days. One year later, the villages of Lore and Agarani were rejoined to Georgia.

In spite of his victories, King Davit knew that it would be difficult for his meager army to protect the recovered cities and fortresses, while continuing to serve as a permanent military force. Thus it became necessary to establish a separate, permanent standing army. The wise king planned to draft men from among the Qipchaks, a northern Caucasian tribe, to form this army. He was well acquainted with the character of these people, and confident that they were brave and seasoned in war. Furthermore, Davit’s wife, Queen Gurandukhti, was a daughter of Atrak, the Qipchaks’ ruler. Atrak joyfully agreed to the request of his son-in-law, the king.

As a true diplomat seeking to maintain peaceful relations with the Qipchaks, King Davit took his adviser, Giorgi of Chqondidi, and traveled to the region of Ossetia in the northern Caucasus. There Giorgi of Chqondidi, an “adviser to his master and participant in his great works and victories,” reposed in the Lord. Following this, the dispirited King Davit declared that his kingdom would grieve for forty days. But he accomplished what he had set out to do, and selected forty thousand Qipchaks to add to the five thousand Georgian soldiers he had already enlisted. From that point on King Davit had a standing army of forty-five thousand men.

The king’s enormous army finally uprooted the Turkish presence in and around Georgia permanently. The defeated Turks returned in shame to their sultan in Baghdad, draped in black as a sign of grief and defeat. Nevertheless, the unyielding sultan Mahmud II (1118–1131) rallied a coalition of Muslim countries to attack Georgia. The sultan summoned the Arab leader Durbays bin Sadaka, commanded his own son Malik (1152–1153) to serve him, gathered an army of six hundred thousand men, and marched once more towards Georgia.

It was August of 1121. Before heading off to battle, King Davit inspired his army with these words: “Soldiers of Christ! If we fight bravely for our Faith, we will defeat not only the devil’s servants, but the devil himself. We will gain the greatest weapon of spiritual warfare when we make a covenant with the Almighty God and vow that we would rather die for His love than escape from the enemy. And if any one of us should wish to retreat, let us take branches and block the entrance to the gorge to prevent this. When the enemy approaches, let us attack fiercely!”

None of the soldiers thought of retreating. The king’s stunning battle tactics and the miracles of God terrified the enemy. As it is written, “The hand of God empowered him, and the Great-martyr George visibly led him in battle. The king annihilated the godless enemy with his powerful right hand.”

The battle at Didgori enfeebled the enemy for many years. The following year, in 1122, King Davit recaptured the capital city of Tbilisi, which had borne the yoke of slavery for four hundred years. The king returned the city to its mother country. In 1123 King Davit declared the village of Dmanisi a Georgian possession, and thus, at last, unification of the country was complete.

One victory followed another, as the Lord defended the king who glorified his Creator.

In 1106 King Davit had begun construction of Gelati Monastery in western Georgia, and throughout his life this sacred complex was the focus of his efforts on behalf of the revival of the Georgian Church. Gelati Monastery was the most glorious of all the existing temples to God. To beautify the building, King Davit offered many of the great treasures he had acquired as spoils of war. Then he gathered all the wise, upright, generous, and pious people from among his kinsmen and from abroad and established the Gelati Theological Academy. King Davit helped many people in Georgian churches both inside and outside his kingdom. The benevolent king constructed a primitive ambulance for the sick and provided everything necessary for their recovery. He visited the infirm, encouraging them and caring for them like a father. The king always took with him a small pouch in which he carried alms for the poor.

The intelligent and well-lettered king spent his free time reading the Holy Scriptures and studying the sciences. He even carried his books with him to war, soliciting the help of donkeys and camels to transport his library. When he tired of reading, King Davit had others read to him, while he listened attentively. One of the king’s biographers recalls, “Each time Davit finished reading the Epistles, he put a mark on the last page. At the end of one year, we counted that he had read them twenty-four times.”

King Davit was also an exemplary writer. His “Hymns of Repentance” are equal in merit to the works of the greatest writers of the Church.

This most valiant, powerful, and righteous Georgian king left his heirs with a brilliant confession when he died. It recalled all the sins he had committed with profound lamentation and beseeched the Almighty God for forgiveness.

King Davit completed his will in 1125, and in the same year he abdicated and designated his son Demetre to be his successor. He entrusted his son with a sword, blessed his future, and wished him many years in good health and service to the Lord. The king reposed peacefully at the age of fifty-three.

St. Davit the Restorer was buried at the entrance to Gelati Monastery. His final wish was carved in the stone of his grave: This is My rest for ever and ever; here I will dwell, for I have chosen her (Ps. 131:15).

Monday, January 24, 2011

"A Renaissance in Georgia"

I have decided that during 2011--if nothing else--this blog will be somewhat Georgia-centric. In that light, here is another good article on the revival of Georgian chant, and the overall renaissance of Georgian culture. The writer recounts the incredible conservation and preservation by Ekvtime Kereselidze during the early Soviet decades, that alone makes the current enthusiasm even possible. She also interviews my friend, John Graham. From here on, I think I can now start referring to him as "noted musicologist John Graham." Anyway, the article is a satisfying read for all Georgiaphiles out there.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

St. Anthony the Founder of Monasticism in Georgia

St Anthony the Founder of Monasticism in Georgia
Commemorated on January 19

Our holy father Anton of Martqopi arrived in Georgia in the 6th century with the rest of the Thirteen Syrian Fathers and settled in Kakheti to preach the Gospel of Christ. He always carried with him an icon of the Savior “Not-Made-By-Hands.” Anton made his home in the wilderness, and deer visited him every evening to nourish him with their milk.

One day the deer arrived earlier than expected, and they were followed by a wounded fawn. Clearly something had frightened them.

When Anton retraced the animals’ path, he discovered a nobleman, the head of a nearby village, hunting in the fields. Astonished to see the old monk with his icon, standing amidst a gathering of deer, the nobleman, being a pagan, became convinced that he was dangerous and ordered his servants to take him to a smith and chop off his hands.

Anton was led at once to the smith, but when the craftsman heated his sword and drew it above the monk’s hands in preparation, he fell down suddenly and his arms became like wood.

The daunted smith fell mute, but blessed Anton made the sign of the Cross over him and he was immediately healed.

Having heard about this miracle, the nobleman perceived that Abba Anton was truly holy, and he began to hold him in reverence. “Tell me what you need, and I will provide it for you,” he told Elder Anton. The monk requested a single piece of salt, and they brought him two large blocks. He broke off a small piece and placed it near his cell for the deer.

After the incident at the smith’s, many people began to visit Anton, and the holy father constructed a monastery for the faithful.

But before long their attention became burdensome, and Elder Anton fled from the world to the peak of a mountain. There he began to preach from the top of a pillar, where he would remain the last fifteen years of his life.

When God revealed to Fr. Anton the day of his repose, the monk-stylite gathered his pupils, imparted to them a few last words of wisdom, blessed them, and died on his knees in front of his beloved icon.

St. Anton’s body was taken down from the pillar and buried in the monastery that he had founded, before the icon of the Theotokos.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Thousand Useless Luxuries

My wife recently taxied her great-niece to one of those manicurist/pedicurist places to have her nails done prior to the Middle School formal dance. I would have to say that my wife-- eminently practical and not given to financial foolishness--is a bit proud of the fact that she has never been to a manicurist, much less a pedicurist. She takes great care with her nails, mind you, but at home, and for free, and not in some salon. Two Christmases ago, our sister-in-law gave us each a gift certificate to one of these places, assuring us that we would "love it." The wife was more diplomatic than I was, as I just looked at the card, totally baffled and wondering why anyone who supposedly knew me would think I would do such a thing. The certificate remains in a drawer somewhere, I suppose. But anyway, this was my wife's first visit to one of those salon/spas, and she came back a bit wide-eyed about it all. It reminds me of the time we were in Natchez and she and my mother-in-law visited the riverboat casino--not to gamble, of course, but to "see."

That night, I listened as she told me about the experience. She felt a bit out-of-place, dressed in her after-school-car-line-duty clothes. The patrons of the salon were being pampered--which is apparently a large part of what we are all about these days--their nails and/or feet were being attended to and glasses of wine or champagne were making the rounds. Amid the buzz of conversation, the talk was all about "appointments"--stuff of this nature, or the hairdresser, or the gym, or with their trainer, or the tanning salon, or meeting with the landscaper, or this, that or the other. My wife found it all pretty boring stuff, busy lives full of emptiness. We both commented on how our economy depends on this very sort of thing, and the perilous fragility of such a superficial society. She works at a school and I measure people's land, and teach a bit on the side. We have some rental properties which provide needed housing, and a washateria. All of this is pretty basic stuff, nothing frou-frou, but providing simple needs. I think we will stick with that.

It also put me in mind of the passage from Mark Twain, as follows:

Our civilization is wonderful, in certain spectacular and meretricious ways; wonderful in scientific marvels and inventive miracles; wonderful in material inflation, which it calls advancement, progress, and other pet names; wonderful in its spying-out of the deep secrets of Nature and its vanquishment of her stubborn laws; wonderful in its extraordinary financial and commercial achievements; wonderful in its hunger for money, and in its indifference as to how it is acquired; wonderful in the hitherto undreamed-of magnitude of its private fortunes and the prodigal fashion in which they are given away to institutions devoted to the public culture; wonderful in its exhibitions of poverty...transportation systems, in manufactures, in systems of communication, in news-gathering, book-publishing, journalism; in protecting labor; in oppressing labor; in herding the national parties and keeping the sheep docile and usable; in closing the public service against brains and character; in electing purchasable legislatures, blatherskite Congresses, and city governments which rob the town and sell municipal protection to gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, and professional seducers for cash. It is a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life; replaced its contentment, its poetry, its soft romance-dreams and visions with the money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep which does not refresh; it has invented a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities(emphasis mine); it has created a thousand vicious appetites and satisfies none of them; it has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place. (h/t to David.)

St Nino (Nina), Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia

Commemorated on January 14

The virgin Nino of Cappadocia was a relative of Great-martyr George and the only daughter of a widely respected and honorable couple. Her father was a Roman army chief by the name of Zabulon, and her mother, Sosana, was the sister of Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem. When Nino reached the age of twelve, her parents sold all their possessions and moved to Jerusalem. Soon after, Nino’s father was tonsured a monk. He bid farewell to his family and went to labor in the wilderness of the Jordan.

After Sosana had been separated from her husband, Patriarch Juvenal ordained her a deaconess. She left her daughter Nino in the care of an old woman, Sara Niaphor, who raised her in the Christian Faith and related to her the stories of Christ’s life and His suffering on earth. It was from Sara that Nino learned how Christ’s Robe had arrived in Georgia, a country of pagans.

Soon Nino began to pray fervently to the Theotokos, asking for her blessing to travel to Georgia and be made worthy to venerate the Sacred Robe that she had woven for her beloved Son. The Most Holy Virgin heard her prayers and appeared to Nino in a dream, saying, “Go to the country that was assigned to me by lot and preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will send down His grace upon you and I will be your protector.”

But the blessed Nino was overwhelmed at the thought of such a great responsibility and answered, “How can I, a fragile woman, perform such a momentous task, and how can I believe that this vision is real?” In response, the Most Holy Theotokos presented her with a cross of grapevines and proclaimed, “Receive this cross as a shield against visible and invisible enemies!”

When she awoke, Nino was holding the cross in her hands. She dampened it with tears of rejoicing and tied it securely with strands of her own hair. (According to another source, the Theotokos bound the grapevine cross with strands of her own hair.)

Nino related the vision to her uncle, Patriarch Juvenal, and revealed to him her desire to preach the Gospel in Georgia. Juvenal led her in front of the Royal Doors, laid his hands on her, and prayed, “O Lord, God of Eternity, I beseech Thee on behalf of my orphaned niece: Grant that, according to Thy will, she may go to preach and proclaim Thy Holy Resurrection. O Christ God, be Thou to her a guide, a refuge, and a spiritual father. And as Thou didst enlighten the Apostles and all those who feared Thy name, do Thou also enlighten her with the wisdom to proclaim Thy glad tidings.”

When Nino arrived in Rome, she met and baptized the princess Rhipsimia and her nurse, Gaiana. At that time the Roman emperor was Diocletian, a ruler infamous for persecuting Christians. Diocletian (284–305) fell in love with Rhipsimia and resolved to marry her, but St. Nino, Rhipsimia, Gaiana, and fifty other virgins escaped to Armenia. The furious Diocletian ordered his soldiers to follow them and sent a messenger to Tiridates, the Armenian king (286–344), to put him on guard.

King Tiridates located the women and, following Diocletian’s example, was charmed by Rhipsimia’s beauty and resolved to marry her. But St. Rhipsimia would not consent to wed him, and in his rage the king had her tortured to death with Gaiana and the fifty other virgins. St. Nino, however, was being prepared for a different, greater task, and she succeeded in escaping King Tiridates’ persecutions by hiding among some rose bushes.

When she finally arrived in Georgia, St. Nino was greeted by a group of Mtskhetan shepherds near Lake Paravani, and she received a blessing from God to preach to the pagans of this region.

With the help of her acquaintances St. Nino soon reached the city of Urbnisi. She remained there a month, then traveled to Mtskheta with a group of Georgians who were making a pilgrimage to venerate the pagan idol Armazi. There she watched with great sadness as the Georgian people trembled before the idols. She was exceedingly sorrowful and prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, send down Thy mercy upon this nation …that all nations may glorify Thee alone, the One True God, through Thy Son, Jesus Christ.”

Suddenly a violent wind began to blow and hail fell from the sky, shattering the pagan statues. The terrified worshipers fled, scattering across the city.

St. Nino made her home beneath a bramble bush in the garden of the king, with the family of the royal gardener. The gardener and his wife were childless, but through St. Nino’s prayers God granted them a child. The couple rejoiced exceedingly, declared Christ to be the True God, and became disciples of St. Nino. Wherever St. Nino went, those who heard her preach converted to the Christian Faith in great numbers. St. Nino even healed the terminally ill Queen Nana after she declared Christ to be the True God.

King Mirian, a pagan, was not at all pleased with the great impression St. Nino’s preaching had made on the Georgian nation. One day while he was out hunting, he resolved to kill all those who followed Christ.

According to his wicked scheme, even his wife, Queen Nana, would face death for failing to renounce the Christian Faith. But in the midst of the hunt, it suddenly became very dark. All alone, King Mirian became greatly afraid and prayed in vain for the help of the pagan gods. When his prayers went unanswered, he finally lost hope and, miraculously, he turned to Christ: “God of Nino, illumine this night for me and guide my footsteps, and I will declare Thy Holy Name. I will erect a cross and venerate it and I will construct for Thee a temple. I vow to be obedient to Nino and to the Faith of the Roman people!”

Suddenly the night was transfigured, the sun shone radiantly, and KingMirian gave great thanks to the Creator. When he returned to the city, he immediately informed St. Nino of his decision. As a result of the unceasing labors of Equal-to-the-Apostles Nino, Georgia was established as a nation solidly rooted in the Christian Faith.

St. Nino reposed in the village of Bodbe in eastern Georgia and, according to her will, she was buried in the place where she took her last breath. King Mirian later erected a church in honor of St. George over her grave.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The World Out There (4)

I do not keep up with internal Israeli politics. I just know I am not a fan of Benjamin Netanyahu. And I believe the country's policies regarding settlements and the Palestinians are both ill-advised and ultimately unsustainable, though I have no magic solution for a way forward. It is a tough neighborhood. I am pessimistic, but perhaps no more so than I am for my own nation.

I found this story, by Julian Kossoff, in the Daily Telegraph, to be of interest. Kossoff writes of an Israel caught between the pinchers of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the "Israeli ayatollah," and Avigdor Lieberman, the "Israeli Milosevic" in the Netanyahu cabinet.

Israel’s founding fathers were committed modernists and believed the archaic Jewish sects would wither and die out in Zion’s brave new world. But, nurtured by bucket loads of tax shekels, today ultra-orthodox Judaism – for the first time in 2,000 years a state-sponsored religion – is a political power in its own right.

Most significant is the ultra-orthodox Shas party, a major component of Netanyahu’s coalition whose leader Eli Yishai controls the all-important Interior Ministry, responsible for many areas of Israeli life dealing with identity and Jewish recognition. In a recent interview Mr Yishai openly admitted to taking a daily phone call from Shas’s spiritual head, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Rabbi Yosef is a Jewish reflection of an Iranian ayatollah. Revered by his followers as a legendary theologian, his world view is medieval. His recent pronouncement that the recent devastating forest fires in Israel’s north was divine retribution for poor Sabbath observance was far from the most bonkers thing he’s ever said.

What really caught my interest, however, was a reference to the fight Lieberman recently picked with Turkey. Among other things, the Israeli leader has compared Ankara to Iran right before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Turks, being so lumped with the Persians, have quite naturally taken offense. Lieberman's reasoning goes something like this: Israel and Iran were once close allies, but came the Revolution and now they are bitter enemies. Israel and Turkey were once close allies, but now the relationship is souring. Consequently, Turkey is approaching revolution. Nothing could be sillier. Lost in the equation is any notion that the deterioration of relations could have anything at all to do with Israeli policies and actions. This is the sort of fact-free prognostications one hears in this country from the likes of John Hagee or Louie Gohmert. Turkish democratic institutions--while imperfect--are stable, secure and gaining strength. Human rights for minorities are beginning (finally) to receive real attention. The middle class is engaged and expanding. There are no "ayatollahs" in this Hanafi Sunni nation. Can Israel say the same?

The World Out There (3)

One doesn't hear much about Belarus these days. What is reported is usually some variant along the theme that President Alexander Lukashenko is nasty autocrat, indeed dubbed "Europe's last dictator," who perversely and resolutely refuses to follow the script we have prepared for the post-Soviet republics. The current controversy centers around the recent election which saw a turnout reported in excess of 90%, with Lukashenko receiving 79% of the vote. Protesters tried to storm the Parliament. The police responded in force and hundreds were arrested. Eurocrats--excluded from monitoring the process-dismissed it as "flawed." The fact is that Lukashenko does not pretty-up well. And he does not care.

For a differing perspective, Srdka Trifkovic writes here; some excerpts as follows:

But Lukashenko, whose government was called the “last dictatorship in Europe” by the U.S. government, claimed that the election was free and fair and vowed to maintain order. By now he knows what he is against. He has said in the past, “In our country, there will be no pink or orange, or even banana revolution.” More recently he said some people in the West think that Belarus is ready for a color-coded revolution, but they are not getting any; “all these coloured revolutions are pure and simple banditry.”

A Western-financed student group, Zubr, already tried in March 2005 to emulate the color-coded revolutions, but the effort collapsed after fewer than a thousand people joined it....This time round Brussels and Washington may huff and puff, but there will be no color-coded revolution in Minsk. The political facts of the case are straightforward:

1. Lukashenko is not a Western-style democrat, but he is not a dictator Western diplomat in Minsk disputes the fact that he’d be a winner even in an election conducted on Swedish or Swiss rules.

2. Lukashenko’s key early move was the closing of the Belarus Soros Foundation in 1997, followed by a ban on other “NGO”-clones. This prevented the replay of Belgrade, Tbilisi and Kiev in Minsk— and turned him into a “dictator” in Washington.

3. Lukashenko’s due to the fact that he has resisted foreign attempts to subvert him (or else to buy him) and to open the country to “privatization” and “post-communist transition” with predictable results for millions of common folks.

To understand this last point, it is necessary to list some of the economic fruits of Lukashenko’s 16 years of power:

1. A modest budget deficit of 3 percent of GDP...being less than one-third of the U.S. equivalent.

2. The unemployment rate in Belarus is currently just under 1% (one percent), one-half of what it was in 2005; while the GDP at $12,500 per capita in 2009 is on par with EU members Romania and Bulgaria and almost twice that of then-Orange Ukraine.

3. The economy of Belarus has weathered the global crisis spectacularly well...GDP will grow by a China-like 7.2 percent this year and 6.2 percent in 2011.

4. Institutional investor confidence: Overall out performance helped Minsk raise $1 billion in its maiden five-year Euro bond last summer. Belarus plans to borrow $2.2 billion in 2011, with $1 billion through bond issuance—but it wisely has no plans to accept billions of euros in EU “aid.”
5. Private investor confidence: According to a City of London investor after a recent visit to Minsk, “We made an investment. Now, if anything, we are getting more bullish. Belarus has more potential.” No, Lukashenko needs no poisoned gifts from Brussels.

An important the low crime rate...of 1250 per 100,000 inhabitants...below Japan’s 1,500 and one-eighth of 9,622.10 for the United States...There are no “undocumented workers” in Belarus, no Third World immigrants, no “asylum-seekers,” no Albanians, very few Muslims (several thousand Crimean Tatars), and no protected minorities for the Sorosites to obsess over.

Belarus is a stable country, far luckier on all key counts than many of its post-communist peers with impeccable “democratic” credentials. The people are educated, hospitable, and warm-hearted. The gays in the military are not an issue, and there is no NPR. The streets are safe, the churches are full, the prices ridiculously low by western standards. Were it not for the climate (harsh continental), the cuisine (hearty yet bland), and the landscape (flat and rather boring), Belarus would be well worth considering as a place to flee to when the financial and economic decline produce a nation-wide, Hobbesian Katrinaland over here.

The World Out There (2)

This last weekend witnessed the apparent birth of a new nation--the Southern Sudan. Over 60% of the eligible voters went to the polls and voted overwhelming to separate themselves from the North, in a deal brokered by the U.S. in 2005. One wishes them all the best. The South, largely African and Christian, has been under the thumb of the North, largely Arab and Muslim for 55 years. One would have to look long to find a more brutish regime than the one in Khartoum. Southern Sudan should have never been linked to the North, but it was--just one of the myriad of crimes inflicted on Africa by the colonial powers. Since Sudanese independence, two civil wars have taken the lives of 2.5 million inhabitants of the South, while millions have been displaced.

So, the long-oppressed Southern Sudan has elicited much sympathy from the world community. That said, they face enormous hurdles, starting off as perhaps the world's poorest nation. The Sudanese oil fields (3rd largest in Africa) lie largely in the South, though the pipeline to market goes through the North. Over half the population earn less than a $1 a day. The literacy rate is 15% and less than half have access to clean drinking water. I am old enough to remember (barely) the war for independence of two resource-rich provinces in the immediate post-colonial period: Biafra (Nigeria) and Katanga (Congo.) Each ended very badly. Nor am I reassured by representatives of the American Empire--John Kerry (political) and George Clooney (entertainment/philanthropic)--to midwife the birth.

As I say, one hopes for the best--in this case, an end to the brutality and peaceful lives with access to adequate food and water would be a good start. The African Union is a bit uneasy with it all, but at least publicly claim that Sudan is "exceptional," and independence will not ignite further secessionist movements on the continent. This is all whistling past the graveyard. Of course it will lead to other attempts, though one may not be able to distinguish it from the general tumult of sub-Saharan Africa.

Daniel Larison warns of the danger here, and following:

Kosovo was supposed to be exceptional, too, until recognition of its independence more or less directly led to the effective partition of Georgia. When the U.S. and other states recognized Kosovo, few believed that it could have an effect on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but it did. How many countries will suffer from greater instability because self-determination prevailed in Sudan?

Once major powers start re-drawing borders to satisfy the demands of self-determination or other concerns, there is no obvious place to stop....In many ways, African nation-states are among the most arbitrary, artificial creations in the entire world, but that doesn’t mean that splitting them up into equally artificial, less viable statelets will make things any better. Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and eventual independence empowered a gang of criminals. Is there much reason to hope for better in South Sudan?

The World Out There (1)

An Egyptian Christian hugs a white cloth smeared with blood from victims of a car bombing outside the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria (h/t to David)

I have not commented on the latest atrocities against Egypt's Coptic Christians as I have done in the past. Attacks have become so commonplace that they have become something of an ongoing news item, at least in European outlets. We now know that attending Christmas services at an Egyptian Coptic church can very well target you for assassination, as witnessed by the recent tragedy in Alexandria. Now we learn that boarding a train can be just as dangerous. A 23-year old man boarded a train car and then opened fire. A 71-year old Coptic man was killed and his wife and 4 other women wounded. The young man was no "terrorist," but an off-duty policeman. The AP report carried this innocuous statement:

It was not immediately clear whether the gunman knew his targets were Christians. But four of the five wounded were Christian women who stand out in the conservative south as they would probably not have been wearing headscarves as most Muslim women do.

Seriously? Of course the gunman knew they were Christians.

I recently came across an interview in Spiegel with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former General Secretary of the United Nations, now age 88. I had forgotten that he was a Coptic Christian. When questioned whether relations had soured between Egyptian Muslims and Copts, Boutros-Ghali did not stray far from the government line.

Copts and Muslims have lived together in Egypt for 14 centuries. There have always been highs and lows between the religious groups, but never collective hate toward one another. I'm actually far more inclined to believe that the massacre in Alexandria will strengthen our bonds....There is fear and anger, but they are not directed toward Islam or Christianity.

Incredulously, Boutros-Ghali denies that the attacks have any religious motivation at all, that Copts are targeted, or that they are part of a broader persecution of Christians in the Middle East. He maintains that the attacks are strictly meant to destabilize the Egyptian government, and are attributable to demographic trends in the nation. Among other things, he says:

Egypt is different. Here, these two major ethnic groups are far too deeply rooted in our country and connected to its history. Egypt will never experience a civil war.

In any case, this act was aimed not only at Copts, but also at the Egyptian government. If we now start talking about a religious conflict, the terrorists will have achieved their goal.

The attack in Alexandria was meant to foment unrest; it was meant to destabilize Egypt....Let's also not forget that an attack in this country is not the same as a suicide attack in Pakistan, Somalia or Iraq, which the global community has almost gotten used to. But when a bomb goes off in Egypt, a country that is still relatively stable, the world is scared.

That primarily has to do with demographic developments. Egypt's economy isn't growing as rapidly as the population -- which results in poverty, polarization and frustration. The rich Arab Gulf states have stepped in to fill these gaps, not only by donating money, but also by exporting their very own fundamentalist version of Islam. In this way, they've already changed large parts of the Muslim world.

No, Islam is a private matter. For that reason alone -- and since 10 percent of Egyptians aren't Muslims -- it can't be the solution to every political problem. What we need is a law that provides true equality to Muslims, Christians and all other religious groups, such as the Bahais.

The most important thing is that Europe shouldn't conjure up a religious war in Egypt. Instead, it should concentrate on gaining a detailed understanding of what's really going wrong in our country. What we need are plans for addressing poverty, overpopulation and underdevelopment. What we don't need are well-meant but ultimately counterproductive words that only serve to divide our society.

I find Boutros-Ghali's responses to be a bit obtuse. There will never be a law that provides "true equalilty" to Christians and others in Egpyt. No one denies the demographic time bomb--a burgeoning, educated, youthful populace, but under a repressive government with little prospects for economic betterment. But his dismissal of a "civil war" is simply a straw man. Of course, there will be no civil war in Egypt, and that is not what the press is claiming. Conflicts where the sides are divided 90%/10% are usually categorized as ethnic cleansing rather than civil wars. Also, I doubt his contention that Egypt is different from suicide attacks elsewhere, because the country is "relatively stable." Yes Egypt is historically "different" (and for that reason, these attacks are even worse), but one has to laugh at his pretense that the country is stable. Egypt is a tinderbox, under the thumb of an aging autocrat and the army. We've seen how other such scenarios play out.

Maybe Boutros Boutros-Ghali was in the diplomatic corps for too long. I agree, inflammatory language does nothing to relieve the plight of the Coptic Christians. And there indeed is a time for diplomacy. But there is also a time to call things what they are.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Spiritual Bethesda

The Church too is a Pool, a spiritual Bethesda. All of us, its members, overcome by death and decay, corruptibility and mortality with all their consequences are waiting at this Pool, hoping for our spiritual healing.

About a month ago, I made note here of the book stack I had starting reading through. I began with Scott Cairn's The End of Suffering. I am staying apace with my daily readings from the Synaxarion, which I find both enjoyable and of great benefit. And I am currently 25 chapters into Nights of the Red Moon--and as expected, Milton does not disappoint.

My primary study, however, has been in Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. This is an oddly jarring title to our Western ears. We cannot imagine the concept of "psychotherapy" considered outside of the general field of psychological studies. But as strange as it may sound, this very approach pinpoints the Orthodox difference as well as anything--a way of life, indeed the Way of Life, a progression of Life in and healing by Christ. The faith considered as such contrasts starkly with the normative assumptions of our day, which have reduced faith to something that is but text-based and propositional, a mere philosophical set of beliefs. Met. Hierotheos quotes John Rominades, following:

The Fathers do not categorise people as moral and immoral or good and bad on the basis of moral laws. This division is superficial. At depth humanity is differentiated into the sick in soul, those being healed and those healed. All who are not in a state of illumination are sick in soul...It is not only good will, good resolve, moral practice and devotion to the Orthodox Tradition which make an Orthodox, but also purification, illumination and deification. These stages of healing are the purpose of the mystical life of the Church, as the liturgical texts bear witness.

Met. Hierotheos makes extensive use of the Philokalia and many of the Church Fathers, including St. Isaac the Syrian, St. John Climacus, Abba Dorotheos and St. Gregory Palamas, among others. The scope of his work is deep and broad, beyond any simple summation on my part. Orthodox Psychotherapy is eminently practical, a work I expect to return to again and again.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Holy Martyr Abo of Tbilisi, Georgia

Martyr Abo the Perfumer, of Tibilisi, Georgia
Commemorated on January 8

In the 8th century a Saracen army tyrannized Kartli as a first step towards overturning the Georgian nation. The invaders were certain that the best way to conquer Georgia was to uproot the Christian Faith. The Georgian people were alarmed, and the clergy and the best sons of Kartli sought desperately for a resolution to this calamity. Much blood was shed in 766 when theMuslim invaders crushed an uprising in the eastern region of Kakheti.

In 772, Caliph Al Mansur (754–775), dissatisfied with the provincial governor of Kartli, Duke Nerse, summoned him to Baghdad. Nerse spent the following three years in captivity. During that time he became acquainted with a seventeen-year-old perfumer named Abo, and when he was released he brought Abo back with him to Georgia. Abo was amazed at the great piety of the Georgian people, and he began to learn the Georgian language, attend the divine services, and speak with local priests. Abo sought with all his heart to become a Christian, and he was eventually baptized in Khazaria, while in the company of Duke Nerse.

Later, Abo accompanied the duke to Abkhazeti, to escape the Saracen raids. Discovering an entire population of Christians praising Jesus Christ with one heart and mouth, Abo gave great thanks to God for the opportunity to visit this area. Nerse later returned to Kartli, but Abo remained at the request of the Abkhaz king, who feared that the Saracens would torture Abo for his devout faith in Christ. Soon, however, Abo became restless and told the king, “Let me go, and I will freely declare my Christian Faith to those who hate Christ!”

Abo labored in Tbilisi for three years, preaching the Christian Faith. Then his own former countrymen betrayed and captured him, but he was released soon after at the request of the duke Stepanoz.

A new emir was appointed to rule in Tbilisi, and when the Christians heard that he was plotting to capture Abo, they begged him to conceal his identity. But Abo simply rejoiced and told them, “I am prepared not only to be tortured for Christ, but to die forHis sake as well.” As predicted, the emir’s servants captured Abo and brought him before a judge. The judge tried in vain to entice Abo to return to the faith of his ancestors. Then, in a rage, he ordered that Abo be cast into prison and that his hands and feet be fettered in chains. But his suffering for Christ filled the blessed Abo with even greater love, and he asked his Christian brothers and sisters to sell his clothes and use the money earned to buy candles and incense for local churches.

On the day of his execution Abo washed his face, anointed it with holy oil, partook of the Holy Gifts, and prepared for his death as though preparing for a feast. “Weep not, but rejoice, for I am going to my Lord. Pray for me, and may the peace of God protect you,” he cheerfully told the faithful Christians who surrounded him in his last hours.

When his time had come, St. Abo placed his arms on his breast in the form of a cross and joyously bowed his head beneath the sword. The executioners swung their swords three times in hopes of frightening Abo into denying Christ, but the blessed Abo stood unyielding until his last breath. Finally, convinced that all their efforts and cunning were in vain, the executioners were given a sign and they beheaded the holy Abo. Defeated and ashamed, Abo’s godless executioners tossed his body, his garments, and the earth that had been soaked with his blood into a sack, dragged it outside the city, and burned it near the Mtkvari River. Then they wrapped his ashes in sheepskin and cast them into the river.

In the evening a sign was given from above. Next to the Metekhi Cliff, by the bridge, a shining star hung over the river with its bright light reflecting in the water where the remains of the saint rested. Later, a chapel was built in honor of St. Abo on the left bank of the Mtkvari.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Why I Like Jason Peters

You can actually hear the federal coffers expanding with all that increased revenue from the tax-cut extensions. Everywhere you look altruistic rich people (but I repeat myself!) are floating their wealth, creating scads of well-paying domestic jobs, and making it possible for moms to stay at home to promote such family values as greed, which leads to wealth, which begets charity.

There's no better way to start off the new year than with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Read more, here, from Jason Peters at Front Porch Republic.