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.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

I recently finished Artemis Cooper's Patrick Leigh Fermor:  An Adventure.  You simply can't find a better travel-writer than Fermor who died in 2011 at age 96 (see my comments on The Broken Road here and here.)  Cooper is an accomplished author in her own right, but as the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper--a great friend of Fermor's--she had unique insight into his life.

Her portrayal does not disappoint, though I am afraid it has disabused me of any idol worship I may have held for Fermor.  He was, simply put, a bit much.  A self-educated man of no fortune, from his teenage years Paddy Fermor made his way in the world on charm and a well-earned reputation as a brilliant and ebullient conversationalist.  He was just the sort of guest that the upper-classes liked to have hanging around, for entertainment I suppose.  Even on his initial and memorable walk across Europe in 1933-1934, the doors of the great houses of central Europe opened wide for him.  Following his exploits in Crete during the war, he was something of a minor celebrity and moved easily among the drawing rooms and bedrooms of all the "right people": languid holidays at Chatsworth, the Black and White Ball at Longleat, along the Amalfi coast on the Niarchos yacht, etc.  The Independent placed him "in the pantheon of literary liggers, a consummate lifelong freeloader, a prince among sponge-artists, which he paid for with his unique energy, talent and enthusiasm for song, dance, talk, memorised verse, drink and other men's wives."  You get the picture.  His charm did not work on everyone, however.  After wrangling an invitation to Somerset Maugham's villa at Cap Ferrat, he was quite literally thrown out of the house by the owner, who dismissed him as a "middle-class gigolo for upper-class women."  But Fermor was not a class-conscious English twit.  While he certainly knew how to work that crowd, Paddy was just as likely to be found in some waterfront taverna, or sitting around a campfire with shepherds, or in the back of a hay wagon with the proverbial farmer's daughter.

If the Second World War had not developed as it did, Fermor would have probably lived out his life in obscurity in Rumania.  From about age 20, he had been the lover of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, 16 years his senior.  They lived together on a remote and decaying family estate in Bessarabia.  She and Paddy were picking mushrooms in the woods when word came of Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany.  Paddy immediately returned home to enlist.  His knowledge of Greek and other languages got him a posting in Athens, which led to his later fame in the Cretan resistance, including the actual capture of a German general.  He met Joan Raynor in Cairo during the war, and she became his great companion.  They spent decades more or less together, and eventually married.  But theirs was a casual and open relationship--on both sides.  Neither bothered much about whom the other was sleeping with. I suppose the lack of deceit is something...though not much.

While Fermor was interested and conversant in most everything, he would be the first to admit that he was not particularly introspective.  He had a habit of visiting Catholic monasteries in France, for the solitude he needed in order to write.  He spent many years in Orthodox Rumania and Greece and certainly appreciated the aesthetics of it all.  But there seemed no engagement with the transcendent, past a boyhood infatuation with Catholicism.  For a 20th-Century English author, this is almost to be expected, the Faith having been more or less bred out of the land.  At the end of his long life, Fermor seemed almost puzzled by the falling-away of his peers and his own looming mortality.  Yes, his life was an adventure like few others--but at the end of the day, I can't help feeling it was all a bit sad.  Still, Paddy was good-humored to the end, as evidenced by a note found at his bedside after his death:  "Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness."