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Archive for February, 2015

Last Sunday was Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Great Lent. In order to avoid hypocrisy or lingering resentment at a time when we should be focussed upon prayer, Christians are advised to make their peace with those whom they are in dispute, and any tensions between lay people and their spiritual fathers are to be resolved before Great Lent begins.

Despite the many difficulties experienced in Georgia currently with a weakening economy and regional tensions, we are fortunate that we can go about our daily lives peacefully and unmolested for the most part. Regrettably this is not the case in many parts of our immediate neighbourhood. Conflict in Eastern Ukraine between people of the same faith and in some cases from the same towns and neighbourhoods is a great tragedy that may take decades to heal.

Only a few hundred kilometres away, Islamic State terrorists in recent days have kidnapped several hundred Assyrian Christians in Syria; such actions in the past have generally ended with martyrdom of the captives. Assyrians are a people native to Syria, Iraq, Iran and south-eastern Turkey, whose presence in the region predates the Arab conquest by millennia. Assyrians typically belong to various churches in communion with Rome, or to Oriental Orthodox communities (in communion with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), or to the Church of the East (a Nestorian church). The so-called Syrian Fathers of the Georgian Church were most likely Orthodox monastics from this nationality.

The genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christians in 1915, resulting in the mass deaths of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians throughout the empire, resulted in many survivors fleeing to the Russian Empire as refugees. Many of Georgia’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian people can trace their ancestries to such refugees; this short documentary explains the perambulation of one persecuted Assyrian community from Turkey to Iran to Georgia during the First World War.

Greek villages in Kvemo Kartli’s Tsalka district and the Assyrian village of Dzveli Kanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti region are populated with the descendants of such refugees, and Armenian communities in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Shida Kartli and Tbilisi have many ancestors who fled from Turkey in 1915.

With the 100th anniversary of a genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian citizens approaching in late April, tensions are running high between the Turkish government, which claims that no genocide happened or that it was hugely exaggerated, and descendants of the victims, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian, seeking acknowledgement and contrition. No likely agreement is in sight and bitter feelings on both sides are likely to persist for some time; forgiveness is difficult to give if the counterparty expresses no contrition. That being said, sometimes such gestures of contrition are offered at times and places when least expected. This very well written story by an Armenian-American journalist combines interviews with a Kurdish mayor of a small town in southeastern Turkey, trying to make amends for the murders of Armenians that his community’s ancestors committed, and the author’s family history associated with the same small town.

Most of us would have recently seen excerpts of chilling footage of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya by Islamic State terrorists. Anger, resentment, hatred and a desire for revenge would be natural emotions for the families of the victims to endure. While no doubt the families would be enduring tremendous grief at losing their loved ones, the brother of two of the victims, speaking on talkback radio in Egypt, amazes all who listen to him by blessing those who killed his brothers and praying for their salvation.

While we may be frustrated with day-to-day conflicts and harbour ill-feeling for those we feel treat us with contempt or disrespect, we could all afford to put our concerns into perspective and consider the example of forgiveness and compassion set by the mother of the two Coptic martyrs of Libya. The courage and steadfastness shown by the martyrs should also be an inspiration to us.

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This week, most observant Orthodox Christians will abstain from eating meat or fish, and this Sunday (“Cheesefare Sunday”) the Lenten Fast begins in earnest as dairy products and alcohol are excluded from the diet, which we have discussed before here, here, here and here.

Father Joseph Fester, whose mission to Tbilisi’s Anglophone population is based at the Blue Monastery in Tbilisi, has written a very concise and authoritative guide to the Lenten Fast. It is provided below.

HOW WE CAN PROFIT FROM THE GREAT FAST by Protopresbyter Joseph Fester

One of the great beauties and strengths of the Orthodox Christian Faith is our invitation to take full spiritual advantage of her Lenten Seasons. The Great Fast in preparation for the Feast of Feasts, the Pascha of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ is the model for all fasting periods in the Church’s liturgical cycles.

Sustained Fasting Is Important

The length of the Great Fast is important for a believer. It invites us to reshape our daily lives, to live differently, act in a higher and better way and offer the time of the Fast up to God as a sacrifice of praise. It challenges us to live our daily lives at work, with family and friends with a first-offering of good to others. It can move us to hold our tongue, practice patience and being non-judgemental to those we know and those we don’t. It presents to us the opportunity to become more of the person that God created us to be.

Fasting without Prayer is Dangerous

As important as fasting is, it cannot reap spiritual benefit unless we couple it with an increase prayer. Prayer is not easy, in fact it can be very difficult. The Evil One hates when we pray and will do whatever he can to distract us from being in communication with God for he knows that when we devote time in our day toward God, he is given less room to work in our lives and actions. The Church recognizes this in the very shape of her Lenten liturgical structure.  The first week of the Great Fast is full of services, the centre being the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The first three days of Lent are called to be intense days of prayer and fasting which anticipates our reception of the Presanctified Gifts on Wednesday of the first week of Lent. Then we quickly again hear the Great Canon of St. Andrew on the Thursday of the first week and again we are invited to partake of the Presanctified Gifts on the Friday of the first week.

These corporate chances to gather as Church to worship the Lord must be coupled with increased personal prayer by believers.  Whatever our private prayer life is during the rest of the year, we are called to increase it during the Great Fast. This invitation is the fuel that keeps us close to God. Our rule of prayer must be realistic. It should not be so rigid that we will give up, yet it should be more than we do already. If do we little now, then add to it. If we do more, build upon that foundation. The goal should be to carve out more time to be in the presence of God in prayer.  If we stumble, get back up and begin again. If we fall, don’t stay down but climb to our feet and stand before the Lord.

The Spirit of Fasting Comes First

Often we can be tempted to take the easy path when fasting. We may say we will “give up meat” for the Fast or meat and dairy. Certainly that is a profitable spiritual exercise. It is time-tested and the monastic experience of such strict fasting is well documented. The monastic life, especially in community, lends itself to mutual support for this order of fasting but it is sometimes not possible for those who “live in the world,” most of us. Thus our fasting must take this into consideration. This does not mean that we should simply reject the monastic fasting model but we should also look to the spirit of that model. The spirit reveals that we can do with less physically so that we can make more room for the spiritual. As elevated as the parish model is when it comes to the liturgical life, the monastic model is even more intense. This is so because it compliments the rigours of the monastic fast – prayer and fasting going hand in hand, one sustaining the other. This also can be and should be done by non-monastics. Whatever our increased prayer and fasting rule is during the Great Fast, it is called to be a done with a spirit of grace and joy. Increased prayer and fasting is NOT a burden but rather a liberation for the believer. Such efforts can show us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, which is Spirit-filled and Life-Giving.

Preparing For The Fast

Orthodox do nothing without preparation; even the Great Fast does not start all at once. In the preparatory Sundays before the Great Fast we are given essential spiritual themes to begin our reorientation back to God. The desire of Zaccheaus to see Christ, the humility of the Publican, the repentance of the Prodigal Son, and the unconditional love of the Father upon his return. We are commanded by God to care for the least of the brethren on the Sunday of the Last Judgement and then finally, on the very eve of the Great Fast, we are commanded again to forgive.  In many parts of the Orthodox Church the service of Forgiveness Vespers is served on the night before the Great Fast and then the clergy and faithful embrace one another, one-by-one and ask each other for forgiveness so that nothing stands between us as we journey to the Pascha of our Lord. 

In the same way, the Church offers us a fast-free week during the week of Publican and Pharisee, then She, step by step, reduces our physical attachment to the world with a week of normal fasting on Wednesday and Friday, then relieves us of attachment to the physical by inviting us to abstain from meat on Meatfare Sunday and then on the last Sunday before the Fast to abstain from dairy products on Cheesefare Sunday. This gradual preparation affords us to get ready and prepare for the sustained spiritual effort of the Great Fast.

Make A Plan

Each, according to their ability should make a Lenten Plan. We should decide after much prayer what we will try and accomplish during the Great Fast. This must include both how we will fast and how we will pray. Whatever our personal plan, it should be achievable.  No athlete just starts running a marathon, rather she starts out with a plan to reach the goal. Too often, in our spiritual enthusiasm we set a goal that will be easily defeated by our first stumble and then the Evil One will step in and distract us from continuing. Make a plan that you can keep. You can always increase your fasting and prayer routine as you gain spiritual strength, but try not to set an unrealistic plan from the start that you wont’ be able to keep.

Some Things to Consider

These suggestions are not perfect for everyone but may contain some ideas that one can apply to their Lenten Plan.

1. Make a maximum effort during first week of the Fast. Getting off to a good start is important. Fast as much as you can. Pray as much as you can. Don’t give up if you fall. Start over again.

2. During the Week of the Cross, again try and ramp up your prayer and fasting like you did during the first week of Lent. The Cross is given to us at the mid-point of the Fast to encourage us to press forward to the Empty Tomb of our Lord.

3. Then, during Holy Week, take all the spiritual growth you have gained and apply it to these most holy days. 

Consider the Great Fast as a spiritual athlete. Mark out this time as a special time in your spiritual training. See how, with God’s grace, you can be a better Orthodox Christian going forward, building upon the gains you have made during Lent and then living them forward.

There are so many other things that I have not touched on that are equally important, but I am sure you know what they are, going to Confession early and often during the Great Fast; receiving the Holy Eucharist as often as possible during the Great Fast; and reordering our daily routine so that you can be given strength by these two pillars of Orthodox Life. 

Above all, be joyful during the Fast. Seek the freedom that comes from being less attached to this world and more a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  We are His children and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. A family with Him as Our Father, who loves us and desires more than anything that we will live with Him Forever.

May our efforts bring us closer to God and each other and by our Love may the Kingdom of God be revealed to others seeking the Hope that is in us.

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As we enter the last week before Great Lent, we are encouraged to occupy ourselves with assisting those around us suffering from misfortune or illness.

The Georgian Wounded Warrior Program emulates the very successful Wounded Warrior Project in the USA. It is run by the US Office of Defense Cooperation’s Bilateral Affairs Office, based at the US Embassy in Tbilisi. Its personnel include civilian rehabilitation experts and serving US Army personnel.

In Georgia, the project has been providing prostheses to Georgian veterans who have lost limbs in the 2008 war against Russia, as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of operations. As is well-known, Georgia has been the largest non-NATO military contingent in Afghanistan for some time, and a substantial number of mortalities and serious injuries have been sustained by Georgian troops on active duty there. A modern Rehabilitation Centre is to be commissioned by August 2016 in Tbilisi with funding and technical support from the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project.

An identified deficiency in the Georgian Military, and in Georgia in general, is a shortage of trained counsellors or therapists to deal with psychological illnesses, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The military chaplains embedded in Georgian battalions,  provided by the Georgian Church, have previously received some basic training in counselling; given that Georgian soldiers are reluctant to admit vulnerability to their comrades, or to strangers, a chaplain is often the first port of call for a distressed soldier having difficulty coping. The established Orthodox Christian model of intimacy and confidentiality between the priest and his spiritual son provides a good base upon which counselling, guidance, or even referral for additional treatment, can develop.

Last week, representatives of the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project met with relevant clergy from the Georgian Church to discuss co-operation, with great willingness on the Georgian side for Georgian chaplains to receive training from US Special Forces chaplains in identifying and supporting Georgian soldiers with psychological problems. This is a very pleasing development indeed, and we will keep readers posted on new developments.

For those interested in the interface between Orthodox Christianity and mental health, I can strongly recommend Father Alexis Trader’s website and his bookAncient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

Another function of the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project is to find employment for demobilised soldiers who have suffered from physical or psychological injuries. Given the high rate of unemployment amongst the able-bodied in Georgia, this is a challenge. That being said,they have many attributes that are desirable in the private sector. Veterans are typically highly disciplined and reliable, amenable to training in complex tasks including IT and communications, work effectively in teams, and often have leadership experience gained under very trying conditions. Employers in Georgia wishing to employ wounded veterans in their enterprises, or provide other support for rehabilitation activities, may contact me in the comments section below to be referred to the relevant personnel at the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project.

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