Primatial Visit to Georgia 16 - 24 April 2004

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Primatial Fraternal Visit to Georgia
16-24 April, 2004
[published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Summer 2004]

There was a substantial delegation from The Orthodox Church in America accompanying His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman on the occasion of his first official visit to His Holiness, Patriarch Ilya II and the Church of Georgia, and it was one of my responsibilities (and an obedience) to be amongst these members.

Georgia’s history is very long, the territory having been settled for well over 3,000 years. Christianity came early to Georgia. The Apostle Andrew, on his missionary voyages, came to this area via the Black Sea. Early, the Robe of Christ came from Palestine to Mtskheta, by means of a Jewish family. Buried in the hands of a member of this family, a tree grew up from the grave, which provided the foundation of the ancient cathedral in the old capital of Mtskheta. Part of this tree remains protected inside a column in the middle of the cathedral, on its south side. It was in the 4th century that Saint Nino (a relative of the Great-martyr George) came from Cappadocia. She converted the royal family, overthrew paganism, and she brought Christ to Georgia in a lasting way. The places where the Cross was raised (replacing Mazda idols) are marked still by Temples of fourth-century foundation. In the 6th century, there arrived 13 Syrian monks who established monastic ascetical communities in various places. The influence of these communities remains to this day, despite 70 years of communism and various invasions from Persia and elsewhere before that.

The climate and terrain of Georgia are very varied, and therefore the culture is not monolithic either. Georgia’s natural north border is made up of the Greater Caucasus Mountain system, which stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Many of its peaks are over 5,000 m in altitude, and even more of the peaks are over 4,000 m. This system, together with the Ural Mountains, make up the usually-described boundaries between Europe and Asia. To the south are the Lesser Caucasian Mountains, which are more volcanic in nature, and which are approximately parallel to the Greater Caucasian system. The southern border of Georgia is within the southern mountain-system. Because of the nature of these mountains, Georgia is a land of frequent earth-quakes.

The territory of Georgia is very diverse in character. Because of the mountains, much of the interior is at a higher altitude, and this altitude gives what may be called a temperate climate (although in reality this varies in accordance with the altitude). On the other hand, the west-coast area of Georgia could be described as sub-tropical, and this region was known in ancient times as Kolchis. In that hot climate, it is possible to grow citrus fruit and tea. This coast faces the Black Sea, and it has a large coastal plain. Inland, as well, there are fertile temperate-climate plains, arid hills and foot-hills. At the higher elevations of the mountains, the climate can be very cool indeed. In the eastern plains, the conditions are ideal for grapes ; thus, over 10,000 hectares are given to viticulture at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. Eastern Georgia, which was the ancient Iberia, was apparently the place where viticulture began in ancient days. We travelled over much of the eastern part of Kakheti and Kartli, parts of which reminded me of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and BC.

It was to this environment that the delegation of The Orthodox Church in America, which accompanied His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, arrived on Saturday, 17 April, at the end of Bright Week. We encountered Georgia in spring’s full leaf and bloom. At the aeroport in Tbilisi, we were met by His Holiness Ilya II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia. He is truly a father to the Georgian people. Accompanying him were Archbishops Gerasim and Theodore and some other clergy. They all personally escorted us to the special guest-quarters that were provided in a secure residence. Not far away was the home of the former president, Eduard Shevardnadze (he served until 2003). After we were settled into our quarters, we were taken first to visit the Patriarchate buildings, now having been recovered by the Church after the fall of communism. Then we went to visit the very large Holy Trinity Cathedral, still under construction. It is planned that this Temple (with its proposed adjoining buildings) will become the new focus of the administration and pastoral service of the Church of Georgia. These buildings are expected to include a new accommodation for the theological seminary. Under communism, the original building had become an art-museum. This visit was followed by an audience with the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Whenever the head of any autocephalous Orthodox Church is installed, it becomes his responsibility to try to visit the heads of other autocephalous Churches. The purpose of this is not simply a personal introduction, but rather, it is for the purpose of showing the visible unity of the Orthodox Church by serving together with one another at the Holy Table, by making the one Offering to the Lord together, and by receiving the Holy Mysteries together from the one Lamb, and from the one Cup. This may be called “natural Orthodox ecclesiology”. I suppose that the best response to this visit and its purpose is reflected in the words of Bishop Gerasim, the chief of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Georgian Church : he thanked God for our visit, because we were concelebrating together. He expressed what is always so important in Orthodox life – demonstrating our unity in Christ at all levels of the Church’s life by serving together and participating together in the Body and Blood of Christ at the Divine Liturgy. Because of the shortness of time, there was only one such Eucharistic celebration, which took place on Thomas Sunday. On the evening of Bright Saturday (Vigil of Thomas Sunday), we served together with the two primates at the Sioni Cathedral. During the Vigil, we had the distinct blessing to be able to venerate the Head of the Apostle Thomas, and the Cross of Saint Nino (non-Georgians usually say “Saint Nina”). The Cross of Saint Nino is a Cross of grape-vine wood made in the 4th century by Saint Nino and bound together with her own hair. Some say that the Theotokos gave it to her. In this Cathedral in Tbilisi, there are also examples of the iconography written by Patriarch Ilya II.

Early on Sunday morning, 18 April, we were driven from Tbilisi to the ancient city of Mtskheta, a distance of 20 km. This is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (there is evidence of towns in this place to before 1,000 BC). In the historic Svetitskhoveli (“Pillar of Light”) Cathedral in Mtskheta, Metropolitan Herman and I, Protopresbyter Robert Kondratick, Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, Archdeacon Alexei Klimachev, and the other members of our delegation participated together with His Holiness, Patriarch Ilya II and 12 bishops of the Georgian Church in the Primatial Divine Liturgy. This cathedral was begun in the 4th century, and it was rebuilt in the 11th century. In the midst of this Temple is a large column which stands over the place where the Robe of the Lord has been buried since the 1st century. After the Divine Liturgy, we were able to venerate this pillar, and also a Cross from the 4th century. A dinner followed in the precincts of the cathedral, in a room by the surrounding wall. Later in the afternoon, we were driven to visit the Elena Dmitrievna Akhvlediani Art Museum in Tbilisi, and we listened to a private concert given by the Chamber Ensemble “Synthesis”. As on every day during this visit, we were given supper. It seems that Georgian dinners can have even more courses and toasts than Russian ones. Georgian toasts seem to be accompanied by a special sort of speech, and most of those seated at table can be called upon by the toastmaster to rise and speak. Every such dinner has a toastmaster. After such a meal on this day, we were taken to our quarters for the night.

I do not want to give an extended travelogue. However, it is important to write a little more about the holy places, because we all really must clearly understand how long this people has been Christian, and how the Georgians influence the rest of the Church (most particularly Russia and Greece).

On Monday, 19 April, after we took breakfast, we first attended a “Proceedings” at the university. We then returned to the Mtskheta area. Atop a high hill nearby Mtskheta is the Holy Cross Monastery, which protects one of Saint Nino’s Cross-foundations (see the beginning of this article). The church building is in Syrian style and the monastery has re-opened. Nearby also is the Samtavro Women’s Monastery, which was built where Saint Nino lived. A little bit more distant is the Shio-Mgvime Monastery where, in the 6th century, the great ascetic Saint Shio (one of the Syrian Fathers) lived together with a large number of hermits. The Shio-Mgvime Monastery was a lavra-style community, and its hermits lived in caves. All these monasteries were now being repopulated, although the Samtavro Women’s Monastery did remain open throughout the communist times. Patriarch Ilya has been overseeing a great renewal of Church life, and he may be favourably compared with the great King David IV the Builder, who reposed in 1130. After the destruction of so many churches and monasteries and other institutions under communism, the Orthodox Church is being rapidly renewed under the paternal direction of Patriarch Ilya II – truly a loving and strong father to the Church and to the Georgian nation. In a poor country with huge unemployment (like most other post-communist countries), resources are nevertheless found to rebuild churches, to rebuild and repopulate monasteries (by the dozen), and to build new ones as well, since there are many new towns without any churches at all. After these visits, we had a meeting with the Speaker of Parliament, Mrs. Nino Burjanidze, and there was a reception at the US Embassy with Patriarch Ilya. We had been given food at many of the stops, and in the evening we returned to our quarters and retired.

During Tuesday, 20 April, we travelled towards the east of Georgia together with Patriarch Ilya and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. We visited many holy places and many churches from the 10th to the 11th centuries, and we venerated the relics of many saints all over eastern Georgia – both in the foot-hills of the magnificent snow-capped Caucasus Mountains and in the fertile plains. This eastern area which we visited was particularly in the region of Kakheti. First we visited the Bodbe Women’s Monastery, which is on a high foot-hill that overlooks the fertile valley and is in view of the mountains. This is the place where Saint Nino reposed, and where her tomb can be found. We had the blessing to venerate this tomb (her body is protected underground). This monastery was destroyed several times, including during the communist period, but it is now re-opened, well-populated with nuns, and mostly repaired. Near this monastery is also the sixth-century Monastery of Saint Afif, and the fifteenth-century Monastery of Gremi. During the evening, we attended an open-air performance of Georgian singing and dancing, and we spent the night in the Tsinandali village.

On Wednesday, 21 April, the clear sky afforded us a partial view of the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains to the north. We drove first to the Cathedral of Saint George in Telavi, where we prayed briefly. Here is the home of Archbishop Theodore. Near this city is the 10th century Monastery of Saint George in Alaverdi, which has been newly re-opened. We drove to the monastery, and we venerated the relics of Saint Joseph. We also venerated the Holy Table, which contains the relics of Saint Ketevan. Nearby is the sixteenth-century Shuamta Women’s Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos, which is also the burial place of the princely Chavchavadze family. After this, we were driven back to Tbilisi. Between Tbilisi and Mtskheta, on a mountain-top, is the newly-built Hermitage Skete of Saint John the Forerunner, a metochion for Metropolitan David near both the old and new capitals. In the evening, I was driven to visit this community, which faces Mtskheta. Begun in 1998, this hermitage has 3 brothers (one is an American), and Metropolitan David is in residence half-time. The construction was nearing completion at that time. Metropolitan David has active ties with the Athonite Iviron Monastery, and with Archimandrite Ephrem in the USA. I was returned to the residence later in the evening.

On Thursday, 22 April, we drove in a southerly direction from Tbilisi to the newly-repopulated desert Caves Monastery of Saint John the Forerunner, and the Monastery of Saint David of Garedja, which both date from the 6th century. They were built by Saint Lukian, a disciple of Saint David of Garedja. The caves were established on several levels. During communist times, from the 1920s, the monasteries were quite damaged, since they were in what became a military firing-range, and they were used for target-practice. We next visited the Caves Monastery of Saint David, some 8 km distant. Both here and in the Monastery of Saint John, 6,000 monks were killed by Persians in the 17th century. This monastery began to be renewed in 1984 by the present Metropolitan David (a former architect) and his friend Paata Sganshiashvili. This monastery is in the diocese of Bishop Luka, who had been previously the abbot for 5 years. This area is very much like Alberta’s southern foot-hills, and we were told that road access in times of rain is a great challenge. At the Garedja Caves Monastery, there can be seen an ancient water-collecting system. Later, as we returned to Tbilisi, we were told that in this city there had been notable martyrdoms in the past by the Persians and by Muslim. First was the martyrdom of Abo the Perfumer (who originally came from Baghdad) in 786. Then there was a large martyrdom of 10,000 faithful in 1226. None of them would deny Christ. We then went to a formal meeting with the Prime Minister of Georgia, Zurab Zhvania. He showed himself to be a strongly believing Orthodox Christian. Following this, there was a meeting with the US Ambassador, as is always the case when the metropolitan makes such visits.

In the evening, there was the customary formal farewell dinner with Patriarch Ilya II. Of course, this included many speeches and many toasts, and we were late retiring. In the morning, 23 April, we rose to begin our departure, and we all bore the hope that Patriarch Ilya II would soon again visit in North America. Let us pray for the continued rebuilding and renewal of the life of the Church in Georgia !