Pilgrimage to Georgia, Russia, and Finland 2004

Bishop Seraphim : Report
[The white dove]
Pilgrimage in Georgia ;
Primatial Fraternal Visit
of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman to
the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, Aleksy II
and to the Archbishop of Kuopio and Finland, Leo
21 November - 13 December, 2004
[published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Spring 2005]

Once again, the Lord gave the blessing that I visit the Church in Georgia (the name of the country is Sakartvelo in Georgian). Along with Metropolitan Herman’s secretary, Archpriest David Brum of the OCA chancery, I was representing Metropolitan Herman, the Holy Synod, and The Orthodox Church in America at the consecration of the new Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi on 23 November. This was on a day celebrating the memory of the Great Martyr George (a cousin of Saint Nino), and of the first anniversary of the so-called Rose Revolution. Represented (with delegations of various sizes) were 12 of the 15 Autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Only Jerusalem, Bulgaria and Czechia-Slovakia were unable to be present.

The event of the consecration itself was momentous for Georgia, and for the Orthodox Church in general. This very poor country, suffering for a long time from various political divisions and trouble with neighbours (and also from great unemployment and poverty), has perceived this great event as a sign of the unity of the people of Georgia — past, present and future. At a later event, it was related that, for Georgia, the beginning of each millennium has been marked by some great and notable events, followed by a period that was significant for the people.

In the first millennnium, there was the arrival of the Robe of Christ at Mtskheta, the mission of the Apostle Andrew in the western part, and the mission, later, of Saint Nino, which brought about the christianising of the whole nation. The second millennium was marked by a great building of Temples, adding to the many from the 5th and 6th centuries, by the Holy King David the Builder. The third millennium has begun with the renewed independence of Georgia, and the erecting of this new cathedral. This cathedral, and its coming adjacent buildings, as described by Patriarch Ilya II, will serve as a focus for the renewal of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, along with the natural attendant promotion of study of theology, history, and the arts, which will refresh the traditional cultural support of the Christian way of life.

This building, 4 years in construction (and yet to be completely finished), stands on a prominent hill overlooking the city, the new presidential palace, and as well the patriarchate, the famous Sioni Cathedral, and the nearby sixth-century basilica named for the Icon of Christ Not-Made-By-Hands. Construction was and is being enabled not only by support from the government and private businessmen, but significantly also by free-will offerings of the faithful in general throughout Georgia. As a result, there is one place in the country where a large number may gather.

The interior (which has a gallery on 3 sides above the floor of the nave) can hold 15,000 persons ; and on this occasion, the cathedral was surrounded also on the outside by throngs of believers. This is even after the 70 years of communist destruction. So very much in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel, Georgians are still amongst the earth’s most hospitable peoples. During the Divine Liturgy, there arrived in the cathedral a white dove : an unusual creature in Georgia, and an unusual event. The dove, sitting on the arm of a student at first, was taken by an archbishop to the Altar, to the Patriarch. It went passively. Patriarch Ilya received it, and placed it on the top back of his chair. There the dove remained for the whole of the liturgy, standing still and watching everything. The dove did not flinch at the passing-by of the many servers and clergy. When the Patriarch was at the chair, it sat along with the Patriarch, and stood along with him. This event was, of course taken as a divine sign.

This visit was soon to be followed by the anniversary celebrations in Moscow which occurred during the official visit of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman there (after which he visited Finland). However, because Archbishop Nikoloz (Nicholas) of Akhalkalaki and Kumurdo had invited me to prolong my stay, I was given the blessing to remain a little longer in Georgia. As a result, I was able to visit more of the country, and to meet more of the faithful.

First, with Archbishop Nikoloz, there was a visit again in the Kakheti region to the monastery at Bodbe, the veneration of the relics of Saint Nino there, a visit to the healing spring of Saint Nino nearby, and also a visit to the faithful of the nearby village of Tibani. The next day, we travelled to central Georgia, to Archbishop Nikoloz’s diocese, high on a mountain plateau, near the Turkish and Armenian borders. As a result of a resettlement of peoples in recent decades, it now has a significant population of Armenians. This plateau is mostly treeless (because of a huge fire set by conquerors a thousand years ago), and it reminded me of southern Alberta. Its climate is similar, and there was heavy snow.

The cathedral in Kumurdo is presently a ruin, but services have already been held there. People pray there regularly (without a priest), and they hope for future restoration. However, tenth-century buildings are not cheap to restore, and it means a long wait for repaired walls and a roof. There are various small monastic communities in the villages, a characteristic of the reviving Christian life in all Georgia. These communities are serving as seeds for rebuilding the normal Christian life of the people, and they are already bearing some fruit. The many dioceses of Georgia are small in area, generally poor, very mission-minded, and very family-spirited. It was explained to me by an interpreter that the priests are very close to their people, as a family, and the bishops are likewise close. The people press near to the bishop or priest to take a blessing either as we do, or simply by touching their vestments or by being touched on the head.

In the course of visiting this diocese, which included the village of Ninotsminda, I was taken along almost the whole route of the “Way of Saint Nino”, the route she followed from the lake nearby the village, following the river rising from the lake, all the way to Mtskheta. We could not approach the spring-fed lake because of snow drifts that inhibited even four-by-fours. Only certain tractors could manage that approach.

On the Friday evening, again in Tbilisi, Patriarch Ilya organised a reflective gathering of the remaining representatives and many lay persons. There was a prolonged consideration by His Holiness and the other speakers of the historical significance of this event. This reflection was punctuated by singing, poetry, and instrumental numbers. It reminded me of various similar and ancient reflective gatherings, including some represented in Viking sagas. I also met in Tbilisi 3 young American persons who are students of a Saint Vladimir’s professor, who have lived for some months in Georgia, and studied Georgian singing. They sang as Georgians, and when they spoke with me, I thought by their deportment that they were fair-skinned Georgians. There is also an American monk living in Georgia, who hopes in due time to build a spiritual bridge between North America and Georgian monastic life.

Next, I was taken to west Georgia, to the Samagrelo region, to Bishop Gerasim’s diocese, Zugdidi, a mere 30 km from the Black Sea, a few kilometres from Abkhazia, and within easy sight of the western Caucasus. It was chilly and rainy, but this is where palms and other subtropical plants grow, including oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tea. Tea grows principally in Abkhazia. Georgia, the size of South Carolina, with all its mountains and plateaus, has all but the most extreme of the earth’s climates. We served together at the Kortsheli Monastery, and visited the reconstruction of the Zugdidi Cathedral. Next to the cathedral is a museum in which are one of the robes of the Theotokos, a bone of Saint John the Forerunner, and part of an arm of Saint Marina. We had the blessing to venerate these holy relics. That these holy relics are in a museum tells something of the previous 80 years ; but it also speaks of the antiquity of the Church itself. It is hoped that the Church may soon enough reclaim these holy relics. We also visited the Tsaishi Cathedral, which was the seat of the first Georgian Patriarchs. It will have been not far from here, it must be remembered, that Saint John Chrysostom died on his way into exile, and it was in this area that the Apostle Andrew made the first missionary ventures.

Archbishop Nikoloz, head of the Missions Department, has extended an offer to us, and to the Church in the USA. If at least one priest and some young people can manage to get themselves to Georgia (and are prepared to stay up to a month with sleeping bags and the like), then he is prepared to take them around and help them to experience this ancient Christian culture, and, by using multimedia also, to see how mission is being undertaken in Georgia. In addition, there would be the possibility of visiting ancient Georgian Temples in nearby Turkey. Such an experience could be of great value in helping us here in Canada with our own missionary labours by adding a different perspective.

I then left for Russia to join a group of OCA pilgrims already there. Saint Petersburg, Russia, is not the same city I visited exactly 24 years ago, during just the same days (a sign of God’s Providence, I am sure). There is a similar renewal of daily life in this city as seen in Moscow, but most significant is the openness of the people. In 1980, everyone was afraid of everyone else ; no-one trusted anyone. Now, there is ready and joyful conversation, and open expression of opinions.

After visiting 3 historic and important Temples, I was taken separately by the mother of our Toronto subdeacon Alexei Vassiouchkine to the Saint Seraphim Cemetery Church in a northern suburb. Here is the burial place and official monument of the multitudes that perished during the siege in WW II. I had visited this Temple in 1980. Visiting this Temple now, and seeing it still active, was moving. It was moving to me also because of the nature of this particular cemetery. More significant and moving for me still, was the fact that the visit was on exactly the same day as I had visited 24 years earlier ; and I met the same pastor, Archpriest Vasili Ermakov, who had served there then. He was a classmate of Patriarch Aleksy II ; and, never bowing the neck, never abandoning Christ, he spent time in both German prison camps and Soviet gulags. He is, like others, a living confessor of the Faith. He is full of life and joy, and he is surrounded with a staff of several young priests who are similarly joyful and energetic.

Very heavy traffic and some communication problems kept me from visiting Kronstadt this time. Later, the pilgrims did visit the shrine and venerate the tomb of Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg in the Smolensk Cemetery. We saw there the Temple which she had helped to build. We visited also the Saint John of Rila Monastery, and venerated the tomb of Saint John of Kronstadt there. In many practical ways since its reopening, our Church has helped this monastery, in particular. After a quick tour of the Hermitage Museum, the group of pilgrims left for Moscow.

The visit to Moscow included a tour of the Kremlin, and a visit to the Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery for the pilgrims, including venerating the relics of Saint Sergius, of Metropolitan Saint Innocent, and of others.

The Patriarchal Divine Liturgy was served at the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin with His Holiness, Patriarch Aleksy II and His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, and we venerated the relics of Patriarch Saint Peter. Afterwards, there was a moleben at the Donskoy Monastery, and the veneration of the Don Ikon of the Theotokos, and of the relics of our Patriarch Saint Tikhon. That evening, the Vigil was at the Novospassky Monastery, the former guardian of the Romanov dynasty’s precious goods (something similar to a vault). The next day, the Primatial Divine Liturgy was served at the Epiphany Cathedral, where we venerated the relics of Patriarch Saint Aleksy I. The bishops afterwards took tea with Patriarch Aleksy II at his rural home. In Moscow, we venerated the relics of Patriarch Saint Philaret at Christ the Saviour Cathedral, and also Saint Daniel of Moscow and Saint Panteleimon at Saint Daniel’s Monastery. It was underscored for us time and again that there are still alive many confessors for Christ, both clergy and lay, who suffered not just a little in the course of their lives under official atheism. One encounters them often, and it gives one a humbling perspective. Of course, secularism in the wake of communism is a big challenge in all post-soviet places, as it is for us in the midst of a capitalist society ; for communism and capitalism are each different faces of the same materialist coin. We have very similar home-mission challenges.

Of course, the main purpose of our time in Russia was to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the OCA’s Representation Church, Saint Catherine-in-the-Fields on Bolshaya Ordinka Street. This celebration took place in the context of a fraternal visit to His Holiness, Aleksy II, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’. The Vigil of the Feast was served on 6 December by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, Archbishop Nathaniel, Bishop Nikon, me, and 8 priests, including Protopresbyter Robert Kondratick, Archimandrite Zacchaeus, Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, Archpriest Constantine White, and Archpriest Oleg Kirillov. On the Feast of Saint Catherine, 7 December (OS), Patriarch Aleksy II concelebrated the Primatial Divine Liturgy with Metropolitan Herman and the previously-mentioned bishops, as well as Archbishop Arseny, Bishop Niphon (Representative of the Antiochian Patriarchate), and Bishop Sergei. After the dinner, there was a visit to the Danilovsky Monastery, and the veneration of the relics of Saints Panteleimon, Daniel of Moscow and Alexander Nevsky.

The other purpose of this voyage was to continue on to Finland in order to make Metropolitan Herman’s first official and fraternal visit to Archbishop Leo and to the Church of Finland. This began with a stop on 8 December in Helsinki. There, we were met by Archbishop Leo, and my classmate Archpriest Rauno Pietarinen, now the rector of the seminary in Joensuu. We then visited the Lutheran Archbishop of Finland, and the American Ambassador before going on to Joensuu, and to New Valamo Monastery in Heinavesi County. Our own Father Vladimir (Lysak) is still there at New Valamo, working in the brotherhood, and painting many icons. He has introduced the Finns of that region to cheesecake, very successfully ! The next day, there was a visit first to the seminary and then to the theological faculty of the University of Joensuu, and Metropolitan Herman gave an official address. Then we visited the local parish of Saint Nicholas. Others returned to Valamo while I remained and visited the Finnish Youth Association, and some old friends.

The next day began with visiting in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery of Valamo (often called New Valamo). Then we left to visit Lintula’s Holy Trinity Monastery, where Abbess Marina and other sisters remember the visit of our Mother Magdalen and Anna Belzile ; and their priest of 22 years, Archimandrite Herman, remembered our days together in New Valamo 24 years ago. The next day began with the Divine Liturgy in the New Valamo Monastery, at which I once again sang in the choir, as I had done many years earlier. This was followed by a visit to Kuopio, to the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas and to Archbishop Leo’s residence and offices. In the evening, we left for Helsinki. On Sunday, we served with Archbishop Leo at the famous and picturesque Dormition Cathedral on the waterfront, and I also visited old friends. On Monday, we attended the Divine Liturgy at Saint Herman’s Church in Espoo, and visited the Speaker of the Finnish parliament. After this, we departed for New York. I then returned to Ottawa.

These more than 3 weeks were very, very full for me, with many emotional experiences. At the same time, there were many important responsibilities to fulfil on behalf of our Church. Our international relationships are crucially important. I, and/or the others who go, must be careful to do all we can to strengthen the bonds of love and fraternity amongst the various Churches visited. This can only be done on the basis of person-to-person contacts. Letters will not suffice. This has been demonstrated to me repeatedly in these travels. It is a hard thing economically and personally to travel, but the face-to-face contact between believers, members of this giant family of the Orthodox Church, is absolutely needed.

As it is in any family or association, so it is in the Church at large : if we do not see each other regularly, interpersonal problems arise, because as humans we easily fall prey to temptations of fear. It is the renewal of our mutual love in personal contact that keeps all inter-Church relationships as stable as possible. Therefore, please pray for me as long as I have this work to do. I pray also for you as I travel and venerate the holy things, and encounter holy people. May we continue to strengthen each other in Christ’s love through our mutual service. May our Saviour protect us all !