Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Flannery O'Connor Knew

I am always on the lookout for anything that comes along pertaining to Flannery O'Connor. An article in the September issue of Touchstone caught my interest: Writers Cramped, Donald T. Williams on Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O'Connor. Williams, an Evangelical author and professor at Toccoa Falls College, ponders why Evangelicals "have not tended to write...anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world." He finds this troubling, particularly in the light of Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkein, Greene, Solzhenitsyn, Percy and O'Connor--all from liturgical churches--whose contributions are acknowledged even by those who do not share their Christian commitment. Williams finds no such luminaries among Evangelicals, challenging the reader to "try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company." He can't think of any, and neither can I.

Just to be clear, Williams outlines what constitutes an Evangelical:

I consider an Evangelical to be a person comitted to Nicene and Chalcedonia orthodoxy, a high view of the authority of Scripture, the Reformation doctrice of justificaton by faith alone, and the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not sterotype it) for salvation.

I find this to be a curious listing. I suspect that the inclusion of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy is just thrown in for good measure. If you hold to an Evangelical understanding of the authority of Scripture, the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, the Evangelical notion of a non-sacramental, personal conversion experience, you will have some real problems with "Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy," or at least as understood by those who are in fact, orthodox believers. But the Protestant Reformation prism must be retained at all costs, for in the next sentence Williams observes that if committed Evangelicals must give up any of that in order to nurture serious artists and writers, then we are prepared to let art and literature perish from the earth!

Williams believes that Evangelicals can indeed learn from the great Christian writers and their church traditions, which may be then applied to their own "discipling communities." He finds, in Flannery O'Connor particularly, an example for Protestant authors to emulate. O'Connor noted at least 3 ways in which her Catholicism had nutured her art.

First, the Catholic Church provided a "true worldview, encapsulated in dogma, which constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity." She knew that one could not simply parrot theology in literature, however. "Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

Second, she received from the Catholic Church "a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose." She noted that "we are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God." Williams agrees. "That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect. But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected—which will,ironically, not help the cause of evangelism." Williams complains that for Evangelicals, "fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them."

Finally, O'Connor's fiction was nourished on the sense of mystery within the Catholic Church: "the type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." While Williams acknowledges the role of sacramentalism in relation to mystery, he does not see it as foundational. He does not conclude that a belief in the Real Presence is essential to good writing, but notes that "Evangelicals have too quickly and too often reacted to what they perceive as the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in their worship."

While clinging steadfastly to his Reformation prism, Williams is still able to pinpoint an Evangelical shortcoming.

"This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community can seem too much like the generation O’Connor described, 'that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery.' Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical, easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call. Some of these goals are worth pursuing, but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity, felt as such, were one of them, we would produce better Christians and better writers."

Williams concludes that "It is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts," but this "could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that we think we have been right about."

Frankly, I am not convinced. Dr. Williams seems to believe you can just tack-on these "other emphases"--the particular worldview, the appreciation of the spiritual dimension of art, and the mystery of a faith rooted in the sacraments--that are all nourished within the churches of the Apostolic tradition. In my view, these dimensions flourish in the liturgical churches in large part because they are not saddled with Evangelical theology. His reasoning reminds me of the books I read by Dr. Thomas Oden several years ago, as well as, I suppose, Emerging Church guru Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy. But it just doesn't work that way.

From my own experience, I see this clearly demonstrated in realm of prayer. The Evangelical in prayer is one whose head is bowed, eyes closed, concentrating on their personal prayer to God. Even in collective prayers in a large church auditorium, every believer in the room will basically be alone in their personal, private prayer to God. It cannot be otherwise in a faith community that places such all importance on the personal conversion experience, and one's own interpretation of Scripture, etc. It has been said that Orthodox prayer can be personal, but never private. For prayer in this tradition can get a bit crowded. One is standing, eyes open, if in church then surrounded by the icons of the saints, but actually before God at the throne of Heaven, surrounded by the Theotokos, the saints and martyrs, the archangels, cherubim, seraphim--the whole host of Heaven gathered around. In fact, it can get downright crowded. Praying in this manner places one's own pathetic concerns in proper perspective, places one in the celestial community where Heaven and Earth are one, and where you are part and parcel of something much larger than your individual wants and needs. And what Dr. Williams is looking for is all there--the worldview, the beauty of art, the mystery. But these things do not naturally flourish outside their habitat, the Church and its cycle of life and worship.

Read the article, here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Derbyshire vs. Spencer

Robert Spencer, of Jihad Watch, has recently released his latest book, Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't. This is the latest in a series of titles, the most popular being the Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Spencer has become something of a lightning rod to those on the other side of the argument, eager to make the accusation of "Islamophobia." And admittedly, these titles are, in the tradition of Oriana Fallaci, not exactly subtle works. But it is hard to fault his arguments, or his research. Truth can be an inconvenient thing.

John Derbyshire penned a critical review of the book, which set off a chain of responses between the two writers. Steve Burton comments on the discussion, here. Rod Dreher picks up on it, here, and manages to link to writings of Spengler (always good) and T. S. Eliot (ditto). The exchange is a good window into the ongoing civilizational debate.

Derbyshire's original review can be found, here. I must admit, Derbyshire completely lost me with the following:

Spencer’s more general assumption that our civilization is a child of Christianity can likewise be fairly doubted. Does religion in fact explain anything about history? It is of course impossible to know how different the world would have been if Jesus of Nazareth, or Mohammed, had died in the cradle; but the suspicion lurks that it might not have been very different. Would the Arabs have come surging out of their desert oases in the seventh century without the Prophet and his faith to inspire them? Would Frankish knights have taken ship to recover the Holy Land, if they had not considered it Holy, only a lost province of the Roman Empire? Would white Europeans have developed science and consensual democracy if they had been only white Europeans, not also Christians?

One does not have to be a believer to recognize the civilizational impact of both Christianity and Islam. Not only does religion explain anything in history, it explains most everything in history. I find it almost absurd to argue otherwise.

Spencer responds, here--convincingly, in my book.

Derbyshire's gentlemanly reply can be found, here. He gets off a good line about his own loss of faith:

The rest of what Spencer says seems to be a call to resurrect the Church Militant. I wouldn’t mind that happening myself. The Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren movie of El Cid was a favorite of my teen years; and one of the (lesser) factors that drove me out of Christianity was that wretched and embarrassing “peace” hug—in my case, a squirm. Give me the Cid and Richard the First any time (though not, please, Richard’s hug).

Spencer concludes the exchange, here, which includes the following:

The fact that Mr. Derbyshire considers Christianity preposterous is noted; it may, however, have blinded him to the ways in which he benefits from the civilizational advances it fostered, as well as to the ways in which the propagandistic “equivalence” arguments that are so prevalent nowadays sap the will of Westerners to defend what we are told every day is a rotten, worthless thing.

Fisk on the Armenian Genocide

I suppose you could characterize me as a confirmed Turkophile. My love of the country is tempered, however, by two major reservations: their official policy of continued persecution against the Orthodox Church, and their official denial of the Armenian Genocide. Both policies are a stain on modern Turkey, and it is long past time for their abandonment. Turkey is quick to dismiss accounts of the Genocide as just the propaganda of the Armenian Disapora. It is difficult, however, to make such a charge against Robert Fisk. He has been the Beirut correspondent for The Independent for some 30 years, and is the author of the seminal The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Read his recent article on the Armenian Genocide, here.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Emergent Churchism Explained

Thanks to Benedict Seraphim at This is Life for a link to this site. I have followed the trendy Emerging Church Movement with great interest--not attraction mind you, but interest. I sympathize with their obvious dissatisfaction with mainstream Protestantism and/or evangelical Chrisitianity. And yet, their response is depressingly predictable. The Emergents set out to reinvent/rediscover/reform Christianity, one more time, as if this had never been done before.

To understand Emerging Churches, you must familiarize yourself with their vocabulary--internalizing the metanarrative, as they might say. The site above--with tongue firmly planted in cheek--is as good a guide as any I've seen to bone up on all the buzzwords. To my horror, I discovered I had been using one myself (authenticity). A few samples are below, but do check out the site for the rest of the collection. Let me know which ones are your favorites.

This last one is my favorite, for these folks do hog the good chairs at Starbucks with their Bible Studies.

Evangelicals and Orthodoxy

A recent article in The New Republic is of interest: Evangelicals Turn Toward...The Orthodox Church? In the Land of the Megachurch, this hardly qualifies as a major trend, but the movement is significant enough to attract notice. Read it here.

While it's unlikely that the Orthodox Church--which, according to the best estimate, has only 1.2 million American members--will ever pose any sort of existential threat to evangelical Christianity in the United States, it is significant nonetheless that a growing number of Southern Baptists and Presbyterians and Assemblies of God members have left the evangelical fold, turning to a religion that is not only not American, but not even Western. Their flight signals a growing dissatisfaction among some evangelicals with the state of their churches and their complicated relationship with the modern world.

Also check out Rod Dreher's comments on the story, here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Travel Journal (24)--"In Georgia, Beauty Grows Like a Weed"

The above title came from a toast given by Jay, one of our tour group members. His description is apt. Beauty--whether in nature, architecture or people--is always close at hand in Georgia, ready to be discovered anew. Jay is a Lutheran pastor who lives in Manhattan. He is also a displaced Texas. This bizarre combination makes him--if nothing else--eminently quotable. He also said:

Georgia is a tiny country where everything is famous, fabulous, extreme...
As such it is an icon of the grace of God;
abundant, inexhaustible--a feast where all are welcome,
where nothing which is given is ever taken away...

I like that. I also like the following quote from Nikos Kazantzakis, a Greek writer who fell in love with Tblisi and Georgia:

Handsome Georgians are careless,
they're fond of wine, war, women and freedom.

And this from St. Illia Chavchavadze:

Christ our God was crucified for the sake of the world, and we likewise have been crucified for His sake. We bared our breasts for this small Georgia, and on our breasts, as on a rock, we erected a temple to the Christian God. Instead of stone we offered our bones, and instead of lime we offered our blood, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!

If you are interested in learning more about Georgia, I suggest the following links:

For Georgian wine in the US, check here.

For information about Georgian chant CDs, check here.

For information about possible future monastery tours, check here.

To order Lives of the Georgian Saints, go here and send email with request.

For a top-notch Georgian tourist agency, go here and ask for Inga.

For the Georgia Department of Tourism, go here.

For the Georgian Orthodox Church, go here.

For a excellent historical overview of Georgia, check here.

For information about the Zedashe Ensemble and the 2007 East Coast tour, go here.

For John Wurdeman's paintings, check here.

This is probably my last post in this travel journal series. Thanks for coming along.

Travel Journal (23)--The Tbilisian Vespers (with apologies to Runciman)

We spent the last two days of our tour, Saturday and Sunday, in Tbilisi. Saturday morning was open--with some of us going to the Botanical Garden and others visiting with Dato the rug dealer. Later, Luarsab led a group of us to the vast Farmer's Market. Some were looking for spices, and others (me) were looking for wine to carry home. Everyone was to meet late in the afternoon at the 6th-century Anchiskhati Church, Tbililsi's oldest, where we would attend Vespers. Luarsab assured us that we would hear some of the most beautiful chanting at the Vespers Service here. He is, I believe, a member of the choir at Anchiskhati.

Vespers had been pushed back a bit later, we discovered. But there was plenty going on in the church. On the right side of the nave, an infant's baptism was taking place. On the left side, a family was bringing in food for a memorial service for a departed loved one. There before us was the complete circle of life--from birth to death--within Orthodoxy.

We decided to visit another church nearby and see if their Vespers had begun. Finding an Orthodox church in old Tbilisi is about as hard as finding a Baptist Church in East Texas. Sioni Cathedral was 2 blocks away, perhaps, from which Jvaris Mama Church was a block or two away. Metekhi Church was just across the river. Two churches were being restored between Sioni and Metekhi. That is not even taking into consideration the Armenian churches. You get the picture.

Sioni was the cathedral church of Tbilisi until the recent completion of the Sameba Church. But it is still the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch Illya II, lives in the adjoining Patriarchal compound. Vespers had not begun at Sioni either, though there was already a sizable crowd. Several of us lit candles and venerated the icons. A woman approached me, raising money for the restoration of a 6th-century monastery in the countryside. I gave her a contribution. A little later on, she came back to me, and asked me my name. I told her and her eyes lit up. "I knew it," she said. She handed me a small laminated card, with a picture of the monastery on one side, and an icon of St. John the Forerunner on the other. She had a sense that my name was John and she wanted me to have the icon of St. John. She thanked me again, and told me to keep the icon with me always. I have tried to do so.

We then walked over to Jvaris Mama Church, where Vespers were underway. The church was more or less packed, mostly with younger people. The crowd were a little noisier than what we are used to, but this seemed to be quite normal for this church. John G. led us to the grotto within the compound, and showed us where he was baptized a few years back.

After a bit, we hiked back over to Anchiskhati Church, where Vespers were finally underway. We edged our way into the crowd, as the nave was fully packed. Interestingly, the men were on the right and the women were on the left. There was no noisiness as in Jvaris Mama. Everyone was quietly and reverently attentive.

Visiting the three churches gave us a good perspective on Georgian Orthodox worship. What really impressed me was the fact that all of these churches were packed full. And this was for Saturday Vespers. But this in no way prepared us for the experience of Divine Liturgy at Sameba Cathedral the next morning.

The recently completely Sameba Cathedral is the third largest Orthodox Church in the world, ranking after churches in Moscow and Belgrade. It dominates the Tbilisi skyline. Sadly, like Orthodox everywhere, we arrived a little late for Liturgy Sunday morning. I noticed a large crowd milling around the plaza surrounding the cathedral. As I got closer, I realized that most were outside because they could not get in. I spent the next 30 minutes or so slowly inching my way into the center of the church. The immense cathedral was packed to the brim. They had even opened the balcony. I suppose there were at least 2,000 people inside, and probably much closer to 3,000. About 500 or so were outside, filtering in as others went outside for air. I have never seen anything quite like it. But that was not all. The crowd was overwhelmingly young. I felt like an old man. I would estimate that 80% were 30 or under. Probably 70% were 25 or under. Luarsab later explained that the nationwide test for college entrance was the next day. Many of these young people were in Tbilisi for that reason and came to the church service to pray. In my view, that in no way discounts what I observed. Their presence there was a testimony to the enduring faith of the Georgian people, now taken up by the country's youth.

Divine Liturgy at Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi

Travel Journal (22)--The Supra

Portion of a tapestry in the winery of the Chavchavadze Estate

The supra is the quintessential Georgian experience. The tradition involves much more than a simple feast. Certainly the tables are laden with food, and the wine flows, but this is merely the venue for what is actually an elaborate and ritualized ceremony.

Our tamada, John Wurdeman

First of all a tamada, or toastmaster is appointed. He presides over the supra and establishes the subject of the toasts. And only he can change the topic. He can appoint an alaverdi, whose exact responsibilities are still unclear to me. The toasts can be quite lengthy, and as the wine flows, so does the oratory.

Pass that khachapuri

Wine occupies a special place in Georgian culture. Their beer is excellent, and vodka remains popular. The homemade cha-cha is brought out before bedtime, or at breakfast, for a morning pick-me-up. But Georgians are, first and foremost, wine lovers. They claim to have invented wine itself. I won't argue the point with them, but without doubt, they produce some of the very best wine in the world. To the Georgian, wine is seen in a spiritual context--a manifestation of God's blessings upon them, and also a means of praising Him. All supras begin with a toast to God. There's a line I like from one of the songs sung by the Zedashe Ensemble--fill our laps with bread, fill our cellars with wine, Glory, God is glorified! Most Georgians produce their own personal wine. No garden is complete without grapevines. Traditionally, wine is stored in huge clay jars buried in the ground, up to their rim. Families would devote one jar for their special wine, which they would only drink when toasting their ancestors. This reserved jar was known as the zedashe.

Our toastmaster extraordinaire--Patrick

The Bishop arrives

Our first supra was on a balcony overlooking the valley, with the Caucusus Mountains beyond. The hillsides below Sighnaghi were forested, all the way down to the valley. We could see 3 clearings, however, each containing a small church. Luarsab explained that there were once villages scattered up and down the hillside. The Communists made the residents abandon their homes, move down to the valley, and establish new towns along the railroad. The forest reclaimed the towns, save for the churches, which the villagers stubbornly preserve and return to from time to time. But there is more. Families carefully marked their zedashes. And so they still return to their old home sites, and toast their ancestors as before.

Some singing--Shergil and Ketevan

The role of wine in all stages of Georgian life was brought home to me while we were at this first supra. A group of young men were gathered at an adjoining table, joined by 3 musicians. From my American perspective, it first looked like a boisterous drinking party. The bowls of wine were kept filled, toasts were being made, and one of the men broke into a traditional Georgian dance. Another was looking out across the valley, and I could tell he was close to tears. Only later did I realize the pathos of this scene. For this was a wake for a young friend who had recently died.

Some Dancing

But back to the supra....Wine is traditionally drank out of clay bowls. You are not to fill you own bowl, nor or you to allow your neighbor's to go dry. When you are drinking, you should grasp the bowl in a firm, manly manner, with elbow at the same level as the bowl or glass. If you are using glasses, and doing the traditional clinking of glasses together, to touch your neighbor's glass well below the rim is to show respect to them. There is even a method of pouring the wine from the pitcher. No one is to drink while the toast is being made. When the toast is finished, everyone says "Gaumarjos!" (meaning "Victory") and drinks up.

Georgia's Future--young Lazare Wurdeman

Our most unforgettable supra had to be the one in John Wurdeman's house in Sighnaghi. The event lasted 3 hours or so--nothing special for Georgians, but a long time at the table for we wimpy Americans. John had tables pushed together into a t-shape in the large back room of his wine cellar. The food, as was typical, was served in courses. And it just kept coming. Early in the dinner, the Bishop and six or eight guests showed up and joined us. This too, is typical. People just show up. We moved in closer together and made room for them at the head of the table. The Bishop of Alaverdi was a most gracious man. He was either an architect or engineer by profession before taking vows. He spent 10 years at the Lavra Monastery at Davit Gareji. The Zedashe Ensemble members were also in attendance, so the toasts were broken up by singing and music. (For more information on this talented group, their 2007 East Coast tour, and how to order CDs, go here.) Later on, there was traditional Georgian circle dancing. Most of the toasts were quite special, although some of our tour group's toasts towards the shank of the evening were, shall we say, overly lubricated. I particularly remember the toast made by Shergil. He is a Svanetian, living in Sighnaghi and singing with the Zedashe Ensemble. He is also a most talented woodcarver, a small wooden box he carved now among my treasures at home. Anyway, he simply said "Remember your ancestors, and the place of your ancestors. For they will keep you warm." No more Georgian a sentiment could be made--and it is one that resonated with me. At long last, we stumbled to our homes in the dark--full and contented, a little bleary-eyed, and feeling altogether blessed.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Travel Journal (21)--At the Monasteries

After 21 posts, I am becoming anxious to bring this travel narrative to a close, so pardon me if I begin to abbreviate the account somewhat. But as this journey was billed as a "Monastery Tour," I feel compelled to comment on the monasteries we visited. In Tbilisi we visited 4 churches (of which more in subsequent post). Beyond this, however, we visited at least 17 churches and monasteries in the Kakheti and Mtskheti Regions.

A few general observations are in order:

1. Georgian churches are thriving. Services are packed--primarily by young people.

2. Monastic communities are alive and flourishing. Largely closed during the 70 years of Communism, most are now reopened, growing and becoming an integral part of Georgian life once more.

3. Without sounding triumphalist to the non-Orthodox, I must say that the timelessness and resiliency of the Orthodox faith is a wonder to behold--and not just to me. On our last night together, one of our Minnesota Lutherans toasted the Georgian church. He said he was "plotzed" (to use an old Midwestern term), meaning he was just floored, so to speak, by what was happening in the Georgian Orthodox Church. The only explanation he could see was that it was the work of the Holy Spirit in the Georgian church. I agree.

Luarsab, a nun, Maia & Frederica at Ninotsminda Monastery

John and Luarsab set out to teach us just a bit of Georgian chant. They chose "O Holy God" (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us) The words, roughly transliterated:

cmi da o ymer - to
cmi da o zli e ro
cmi da o uku da
o se gvi cqa len cuen

We chanted this hymn in at least 8 of the churches we visited. The acoustics were absolutely incredible. These old Georgian churches--with their concave ceilings, and height, width and length in just the right proportions--indicate to me that the architects of old knew a thing or two that the modern world has forgotten. To chant this, in these old churches, never failed to send chills down my spine.

We visited with numerous priests, monks (even a Bishop or two), and nuns. Photographing them is generally discouraged, and I respected that wish. Consequently, I have few pictures of the monastics themselves. I was sorely tempted though, when I saw the nun pushing a lawnmower.

Ninotsminda Monastery, built by King Vakhtang Gorgasali in the 5th-century, honors St. Nino, who established Christianity in Georgia in the 4th-century. St. Nino is "big" in Georgia, and remains the most popular names by far for Georgian girls. This was the first attempt at a domed church here. It has been been destroyed many times, mainly by the Persians. It was rebuilt badly in the 17th-century and subsequently fell in an 19th-century earthquake. The fresco of the Theotokos, which survived, was damaged either by Soviet soldiers or Dhagastani bandits. Nine nuns are currently in residence and there plans to rebuilt the church yet again.

Monastery of St. Stephan of Kirsa

Our new stop was Khirsa Monastery, or the Church of St. Stephen. The church was established in the 6th-century by Stephen, one of the Syrian Fathers. These were 13 monks who came from Syria to Georgia in the 6th century. Each one established at least one monastery throughout the country. They left an indelible and continuing influence on Georgian culture. St. Stephen's tomb is to the left of the altar. During the 19th-century, the Russians white-washed over the frescoes. And of course, the church was closed throughout the Communist era. Monks returned to Khirsa only 3 years ago. Repairs and improvements are being made and some frescoes have been salvaged, though the work is just beginning. But Georgians are a patient people.

Bodbe Monastery

Bodbe Monastery is my favorite. It is a simple basilica, with no dome. But the perfectly-proportioned church is just exquisite. If I could build an Orthodox church in the US, it would be on this model. Bodbe is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia, due to its association with St. Nino. In fact, she is buried within the church, to the right of the altar. We joined the line of faithful waiting to venerate her at her tomb. The monastic compound is in the process of being restored and modernized within. There may be as many as 45 nuns at this convent. I particularly enjoyed observing the iconographer in her studio.

Iconographer at Bodbe Monastery

Davit Gareji is another of the most important monasteries in Georgia. Located in the remote and wild country along the southeastern border with Azerbaijan, the monastic complex here was founded in the 6th century by the Syrian Fathers. It had long been a center of learning and the arts. In the 17th-century, Shah Abbas of Persia, swept through here on his way into Kakheti. He murdered 6,000 monks on the this hilltop where I am standing. This is a somber and Holy spot for Georgia, as it should be for all Christians. Bishop David of Alaverdi was at the Lavra Monastery at Davit Gareji for a number of years.

Davit Gareji

Alaverdi Cathedral

Until the recent construction of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, Alaverdi Cathedral was the largest in the country. We were running a little late, but were able to be there for the last of the Divine Liturgy. There was a nice-sized crowd in attendance, even though Aleverdi is out in the country, away from any town. John Wurdeman was standing next to me and translated the Bishop David's homily. He spoke of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, and how this was a lesson of humility for us. Bishop David spoke of humility and faith as two sides of the double-edged sword of spiritual discernment. After the Liturgy, as the Bishop was leaving, the congregants formed 2 long rows. As he walked between, he would place his hand on our heads, giving a blessing to all.

New Shuamta Church

The new Shuamta Church dates to only the 16th-century. Queen Tinatin, who built Shuamta, later became a nun and is buried within the church. Many of the Chavchavadze family (Georgia's equivalent of the Washington/Lee families, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys--all rolled into one) are buried there as well. Shuamta was reactivated as a convent in 1995. The Russians whitewashed the walls, but what frescoes remain are stunning. Old Shuamta, nearby, is a much older basilica church.

Old Shuamta Church

Ikalto Church was one of my favorites. The church was the center of a once-thriving community. A noted college, the Ikalto Academy, was established here in the 9th-10th century. Shoto Rustaveli, Georgia's most famous writer, studied here in the 12th-century. His epic narrative, The Man in the Panther Skin, is known to all Georgians. The institution was open to all Georgians of talent, regardless of money or social position. Alas, it fell to Shah Abbas in the 17th-century, as did most everything else. The earliest church is the tiny 6th-century basilica of the Holy Trinity Church, which sits behind the main church, built in the 11th-century or so. Again, the interior had been largely whitewashed by the Russians. Ikalto is the burial place of St. Zenon, one of the Syrian Fathers.

Ruins of the Ikalto Institute

The caretaker, the proverbial "little old man," was a poet at heart. Years earlier, he had published a book of poetry, entitled "My Fireplace." He sang us a song, and also recited a few lines from a poem:

The sun rises
and the sun sets
the wind blows
but the doors of Ikalto creak forever.

Ikalto Church

Gremi Church lies on the other side of the valley, close up against the Caucasus. This church, dedicated to the Dormition of Mary, is relatively new, dating only to the 15th century. For some inexplicable reason, the Russians did not whitewash the frescoes during the 19th-century. We chanted our hymn inside, which moved the little old lady manning the candle and icon booth to tears. She asked Luarsab and John to sing another version with her, which moved the rest of us to tears. King Levon is buried within Gremi.

Gremi Church

On the spur of the moment, we all decided to visit Kvelatsminda Monastery before returning to Tbilisi. This 8th-century church was well hidden, and very hard to find. It is unique in that it has 2 domes, a transitional phase between basilicas and domed churches. There are 8 monks in resident, one of whom was Fr. Josiah, who hailed from Luarsab's native village in Racha.


Ananuri Church

Ananuri Church is on the Georgia Military Highway as one begins to ascend into the Caucasus. It setting, overlooking a mountain resevoir on the Aragvi River, is storybook perfect. The church dates only to the 17th century. When we sang our hymn in the church, a group of young Georgians joined in with us. Some frescoes have survived the Russian whitewashing. The Christ Pantocrator is magnificent, but I stood transfixed by the depiction of the Last Judgment. Christ and the host of Heaven are above. Christ is connected to an altar, and beneath the altar a hand descends, holding a scale. On the right side, demons are bringing scrolls containing the records of the sins of man. On the left, angels are carrying scrolls containing the good deeds of mankind. Below, the graves are opening with the souls of man--some in Hell, some that have been eaten by wild beasts, etc. are awaiting the Judgment. Incredible.

Gergeti Trinity Church

This is probably the most photographed site in Georgia. In the shadow of Mt. Kazbeg, overlooking Stephanstminda, near the Russian border, Gergeti Trinity Church just takes your breath away. The most famous icon in the church is a large, silver icon of the Theotokos. The Communists burned this icon. But miraculously, while the faces burned, her hand did not. This icon is considered by many to be a wonder-working icon.

Church of the Archangel Michael

This is the church in the village of Stephanstminda. Notice the carved, chained lions above the portal of the church. This is a popular motif on Georgian churches. The lions represent our passions, and obviously, our struggles to rein them in.

Jvari Church

Jvari Church is the perhaps the most sacred spot in Georgia. On this summit overlooking Mskheta, is where St. Nino planted her cross when she began evangelizing the country. The church dates to the mid 6th-century, and is thought to be the earliest example of a domed church in Georgia. My friend Jay had visited Georgia and Jvari back in the Communist era. At that time, Jvari was a ruin. Today it is alive with worshippers--a Holy place.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

A church has been on this spot in Mskheta since the 5th century, though replaced by the present structure in the 11th century. The church was built over the grave of a local Jew, Sidonia, who was said to be buried holding the robe of Christ. Svetitskhoveli has always played an important role in the life of the nation. Georgian monarchs were crowned here and buried here. The floor of the nave is covered with the tombs of the Bagrationi.

Samtavro Church

Samtavro is located nearby in Mskheta. About 35 nuns are in residence. The most noted icon in the church is a copy of the famous Iberian icon of the Theotokos that was donated by the Georgian monks on Mt. Athos. Remarkably, Samtavro Monastery was never closed during the years of Communism. That miracle is attributed to this icon. Another icon of St. Nino has a reliquary containing 22 relics of the saints--a treasure donated by the grandson of Irakli II, one the last rulers of an independent Georgian kingdom. Large frescoes of King Mirian and Queen Nona, who accepted Christianity under St. Nino, dominate the north wall. The royal couple is buried here. Outside, there is a small chapel next to a blackberry bush, where it is believed St. Nino lived for 3 years. The shrine at the grave of monk Gabriel is a popular pilgrimage site. Gabriel died in the 1990s. Among other things, the eccentric monk set fire to a large billboard of Lenin back in the bad old days.

Antiochian Church (Church of St. Stephen)

This was the last church we visited in Mskheta. It is actually only 1/3 of what was once a 3 nave basilica church. 3 nuns stay in residence here. The inside held a glorious surprise--new frescoes have recently been painted. Scenes from the life of St. Nino are in the narthex, and scenes from the life of Christ in the nave and apse. A nuns was sitting in the narthex, knotting a komboskini. She gave us all souvenir photos of the church. Inside the beautiful little chapel, we chanted our hymn. She told us that we were a "gift from God." We thanked her, but in our eyes, she and this Holy place were the real gifts.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Travel Journal (20)--When in Sighnaghi, Eat at Pancho Villa's!

Pancho Villa's Restaurant has the best Mexican food in Sighnaghi. Let me re-phrase that. Pancho Villa's has the best Mexican food in Georgia. Let me re-phrase that again. Pancho Villa's has the only Mexican food in Georgia. On this tour, it sometimes seemed as though we went from one feast to the next. Even so, this meal stands out.

I can't exactly explain what a Mexican food cafe is doing in this remote, mountaintop village, with a view of Dhagistan in one direction, and Azerbaijan in the other. All I can say is that Shalva Mindorashvili, the owner, must be a man of rare genius. He teaches languages, works with liturgical renewal at Bodbe Monastery, is a co-founder of the Zedashe Ensemble, and is John Wurdeman's brother-in-law. And in his spare time, he opens a Mexican food cafe.

As a Texan, I am pretty serious about my Mexican cuisine. I had certainly enjoyed the food of Turkey and Georgia. But by this time, I was 18 days into my trip, and to see a table laden with Mexican-style dishes, chips, hot sauce, and pitchers of real Sangria...well, it brought tears of joy to my eyes!

Shalva Mindorashvili

A purist might quibble about whether this was true Mexican food or not. The "chips" were chewy rather than crispy and what looked like guacamole wasn't, but was a close approximation. But the salsa was spot on--as good as any in Texas. And a good hot sauce will cover a multitude of sins, you might say. A Mexican food cafe might be a tad ahead of the curve here, but my hat is off to Shalve, and I wish him all the success in the world.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Travel Journal (19)--Sighnaghi

All set for the day, with homemade wine in water bottles!

Chances are you have never heard of Sighnaghi. In coming years, chances are you just might. More than a village, but something less than a sizable town, Sighnaghi contains a 1,000 or so families, and has been traditionally noted for its craftsmen and artisans. Something of a tumbledown place, it is a jumble of traditional Georgian architecture with hanging balconies, interspersed and marred here and there by the occasional ill-conceived Communist-era building.

But even the Soviets couldn't detract much from the dramatic setting of Sighnaghi. The 18th-century city walls with their 23 towers, built by King Irakli II, snake along the ridges and vales of the summit. The town itself perches atop the mountain, clustered more outside the defensive walls than within. The Alazani Valley stretches out far below. The best vineyards of Georgia are found here and on the surrounding hillsides. Thirty miles away, on the north side of the valley, rise the Caucasus Mountains, their summits always hidden in the clouds. Looking out from Sighnaghi over the wonder of God's creation, one is easily moved to tears. How can a place really be considered poor whose citizens awaken to this view every morning?

John Wurdeman at his studio, Sighnaghi

But things are changing quickly in Sighnaghi, right before our eyes. The tale cannot be told, however, without introducing a young artist by the name of John Wurdeman. He is an American, the son of a well-known art dealer in Virginia. John studied under Vyacheslav Zabelin at the Surikov Institute in Moscow. After graduation, he found his way to Georgia, somehow, where he fell in love with the country, and more particularly Sighnaghi. John had a vision of what the town and region could be. So, he settled in there and has become a successful artist. (86 of his works are listed online, here). His art studio is on the main street in Sighnaghi, and is also a showplace for rug-weaving artisans and woodcarvers.

Before long, John converted to the Orthodox faith. In fact, he is an acolyte to Bishop David at the Alaverdi Cathedral. He soon married a young woman who was deeply involved in the revival of traditional Georgian chant. Thus, he is intimately connected with the activities of the Zedashe Ensemble. He and his wife, Ketevan, are raising their 2 children in Sighnaghi. In a few years, John has positioned himself to be, if not Sighnaghi's leading citizen, then certainly its most well-known.

Several years ago, officials from the World Bank toured Georgia, to investigate the country's needs and what they could do to help. As was explained to me, the governor of the province asked John to show an official around Sighnaghi. The World Bank bureaucrat inquired as to what he thought the bank could do for Sighnaghi. John suggested that the traditional Georgian architecture be restored to existing buildings, that wherever possible the Soviet architecture be adapted to Georgian styles, that new utlitity lines be installed underground, that the asphalt streets be replaced with cobblestone, and that the artisans be encouraged to establish their shops in Sighaghi.

Well, that was that, and nothing more was heard from the World Bank. Then 3 years after the visit, Georgia learned that 60 million euros had been allocated to Sighnaghi. That's euros, not dollars. 60 million euros will go a long, long ways in Georgia. All I can say is that young John Wurdeman must have been a convincing advocate for his town!

Sighnaghi is now one big construction site. It is much like a movie set, as the restored city rises before your eyes. 500 workers are laboring day and night to transform Sighnaghi. The Communist buildings have been stripped to their ugly concrete core. They will be receive new facings of traditional Georgian bricks, complete with wooden hanging balconies. Those that can't be adapted, are coming down. All of the old buildings are receiving face lifts, and new balconies where needed. The streets are being cobble stoned. Fountains are being installed. And this is all going on at once. Part of the rush was that John McCain was paying a visit to Georgia in early July, and he and the President were helicoptering in for a quick visit. But beyond that, Sighnaghi is supposed to be finished by October. The rumor is that one of the large buildings being redone will actually be NATO's headquarters in Georgia, once they come on board. (Whether or not NATO has any business extending itself to Georgia is another question altogether.)

Georgian tourism is just in its infancy. The country is just not yet equipped for any large scale tourism. But, it is coming along--and particularly as more and more people discover its charms. Sighnaghi is poised to become the jewel of Georgia tourism--described by some as a "little Dubrovnik"--and an example to other cities there.

If you are considering getting in on the Sighnaghi real estate boom, then you are probably too late already. Two years ago my friend John bought a 6-room house. From the deeply shaded gallery across the length of the upper floor, he has stunning views of Sighnaghi and the Alavani Valley. His garden contains mature fig, cherry and mulberry trees. The garden vineyard produced 22 liters of wine this year. He paid $5,000 for the house. Today, it will bring $30,000 to $50,000. Vacant lots are being listed for $30,000.

My friend Jay fears that Sighnaghi is in danger of becoming some kind of Disneyfied "Georgia Land." His fears are legitimate. But I tend to disagree. While these tumbledown places are picturesque and all, they eventually tumble all the way down, if nothing is done. And Sighnaghi is still very remote. It takes a bit of doing to get there, even from Tbilisi. Its a fascinating experiment, nonetheless. I can't wait to return in a few years and see what they've done with the place.