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The Georgian Patriarchate’s TV station “Ertsulovneba” recently did a short segment on our English language parish at Tbilisi’s Blue Monastery. It has been dubbed in Georgian but it is still interesting to witness the Liturgy and the congregation.

Father Joseph and Dylan Crawford are interviewed in English, and Tamuna Crawford and Joseph Smith are interviewed in Georgian.

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Queen Tamar of Georgia is a very dominant figure in Georgian history and culture. Her 29 year rule saw the country maintain a unified state with a strong economy, a well-organised bureaucracy, a careful balance between state and Church power, harmonious relations between different ethnic groups in the Kingdom, and a flourishing of the arts.

tamar-mefe

In particular, the magnificent Vardzia monastic complex, carved into the hillsides near Akhaltsikhe in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region, is one of her enduring physical legacies on the Georgian landscape.

Her kingdom extended from the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the East, and from the Greater Caucasus range in the north to the Armenian plateau in the south.

From Wikipedia

The Mongol invasions two decades after her death devastated Georgia, with a large proportion of the population killed, cities razed and churches destroyed, and the kingdom never recovered its previous territories even after the Mongols were evicted by King George V (“the Brilliant”).

Tamar (and its derivatives Tamara, Tamuna, Tamila, Tata, Tato, Tamta and many others) is one of the most common names in Georgia, and so many women enjoy their Name Day today. Queen Tamar, in recognition of her piety, her defence of the Christian religion, and her patronage of the Church at home and abroad was recognised amongst the Saints by the Church.

 In 1166 a daughter, Tamar, was born to King George III (1155–1184) and Queen Burdukhan of Georgia. The king proclaimed that he would share the throne with his daughter from the day she turned twelve years of age.

The royal court unanimously vowed its allegiance and service to Tamar, and father and daughter ruled the country together for five years. After King George’s death in 1184, the nobility recognized the young Tamar as the sole ruler of all Georgia. Queen Tamar was enthroned as ruler of all Georgia at the age of eighteen. She is called “King” in the Georgian language because her father had no male heir and so she ruled as a monarch and not as a consort.

At the beginning of her reign, Tamar convened a Church council and addressed the clergy with wisdom and humility: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil,” she advised. “Begin with me–if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

The Church and the royal court chose a suitor for Tamar: Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal (in Georgia Yuri was known as “George the Russian”). The handsome George Rusi was a valiant soldier, and under his command the Georgians returned victorious from many battles. His marriage to Tamar, however, exposed many of the coarser sides of his character. He was often drunk and inclined toward immoral deeds. In the end, Tamar’s court sent him away from Georgia to Constantinople, armed with a generous recompense. Many Middle Eastern rulers were drawn to Queen Tamar’s beauty and desired to marry her, but she rejected them all. Finally at the insistence of her court, she agreed to wed a second time to ensure the preservation of the dynasty. This time, however, she asked her aunt and nurse Rusudan (the sister of King George III) to find her a suitor. The man she chose, Davit-Soslan Bagrationi, was the son of the Ossetian ruler and a descendant of King George I (1014-1027).

In 1195 a joint Muslim military campaign against Georgia was planned under the leadership of Atabeg (a military commander) Abu Bakr of Persian Azerbaijan. At Queen Tamar’s command, a call to arms was issued. The faithful were instructed by Metropolitan Anton of Chqondidi to celebrate All-night Vigils and Liturgies and to generously distribute alms so that the poor could rest from their labors in order to pray. In ten days the army was prepared, and Queen Tamar addressed the Georgian soldiers for the last time before the battle began. “My brothers! Do not allow your hearts to tremble before the multitude of enemies, for God is with us…. Trust God alone, turn your hearts to Him in righteousness, and place your every hope in the Cross of Christ and in the Most Holy Theotokos!” she exhorted them.

Having taken off her shoes, Queen Tamar climbed the hill to the Metekhi Church of the Theotokos (in Tbilisi) and knelt before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. She prayed without ceasing until the good news arrived: the battle near Shamkori had ended in the unquestionable victory of the Orthodox Georgian army.

After this initial victory the Georgian army launched into a series of triumphs over the Turks, and neighboring countries began to regard Georgia as the protector of the entire Transcaucasus. By the beginning the 13th century, Georgia was commanding a political authority recognized by both the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Georgia’s military successes alarmed the Islamic world. Sultan Rukn al-Din was certain that a united Muslim force could definitively decide the issue of power in the region, and he marched on Georgia around the year 1203, commanding an enormous army.

Having encamped near Basiani, Rukn al-Din sent a messenger to Queen Tamar with an audacious demand: to surrender without a fight. In reward for her obedience, the sultan promised to marry her on the condition that she embrace Islam; if Tamar were to cleave to Christianity, he would number her among the other unfortunate concubines in his harem. When the messenger relayed the sultan’s demand, a certain nobleman, Zakaria Mkhargrdzelidze, was so outraged that he slapped him on the face, knocking him unconscious.

At Queen Tamar’s command, the court generously bestowed gifts upon the ambassador and sent him away with a Georgian envoy and a letter of reply. “Your proposal takes into consideration your wealth and the vastness of your armies, but fails to account for divine judgment,” Tamar wrote, “while I place my trust not in any army or worldly thing but in the right hand of the Almighty God and the infinite aid of the Cross, which you curse. The will of God–and not your own–shall be fulfilled, and the judgment of God–and not your judgment–shall reign!”

The Georgian soldiers were summoned without delay. Queen Tamar prayed for victory before the Vardzia Icon of the Theotokos, then, barefoot, led her army to the gates of the city.

Hoping in the Lord and the fervent prayers of Queen Tamar, the Georgian army marched toward Basiani. The enemy was routed. The victory at Basiani was an enormous event not only for Georgia, but for the entire Christian world.

The military victories increased Queen Tamar’s faith. In the daytime she shone in all her royal finery and wisely administered the affairs of the government; during the night, on bended knees, she beseeched the Lord tearfully to strengthen the Georgian Church. She busied herself with needlework and distributed her embroidery to the poor.

Once, exhausted from her prayers and needlework, Tamar dozed off and saw a vision. Entering a luxuriously furnished home, she saw a gold throne studded with jewels, and she turned to approach it, but was suddenly stopped by an old man crowned with a halo. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” Queen Tamar asked him.

He answered her, saying, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he pointed her in a different direction.

Having awakened, Holy Queen Tamar immediately took to her work and with her own hands sewed vestments for twelve priests.

History has preserved another poignant episode from Queen Tamar’s life: Once she was preparing to attend a festal Liturgy in Gelati, and she fastened precious rubies to the belt around her waist. Soon after she was told that a beggar outside the monastery tower was asking for alms, and she ordered her entourage to wait. Having finished dressing, she went out to the tower but found no one there. Terribly distressed, she reproached herself for having denied the poor and thus denying Christ Himself. Immediately she removed her belt, the cause of her temptation, and presented it as an offering to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.

During Queen Tamar’s reign a veritable monastic city was carved in the rocks of Vardzia, and the God-fearing Georgian ruler would labour there during the Great Fast. The churches of Pitareti, Kvabtakhevi, Betania, and many others were also built at that time. Holy Queen Tamar generously endowed the churches and monasteries not only on Georgian territory but also outside her borders: in Palestine, Cyprus, Mt. Sinai, the Black Mountains, Greece, Mt. Athos, Petritsoni (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Thrace, Romania, Isauria and Constantinople. The divinely guided Queen Tamar abolished the death penalty and all forms of bodily torture.

A regular, secret observance of a strict ascetic regime–fasting, a stone bed, and litanies chanted in bare feet–finally took its toll on Queen Tamar’s health. For a long time she refrained from speaking to anyone about her condition, but when the pain became unbearable she finally sought help. The best physicians of the time were unable to diagnose her illness, and all of Georgia was seized with fear of disaster. Everyone from the small to the great prayed fervently for Georgia’s ruler and defender. The people were prepared to offer not only their own lives, but even the lives of their children, for the sake of their beloved ruler.

God sent Tamar a sign when He was ready to receive her into His Kingdom. Then the pious ruler bade farewell to her court and turned in prayer to an icon of Christ and the Life-giving Cross: “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to Thee I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

The burial place of Queen Tamar has remained a mystery to this day. Some sources claim that her tomb is in Gelati, in a branch of burial vaults belonging to the Bagrationi dynasty, while others argue that her holy relics are preserved in a vault at the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem.
     

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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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Most long-term residents know that the local custom is to attend a Nativity Vigil at a temple or cathedral on Christmas Eve, for many hours (usually starting around 10 am and continuing on until just before dawn).  Families often attend the colourful and joyous Alilo Parade held in Rustaveli Avenue afterwards.

As is common in many Orthodox jurisdictions in the West, a Nativity Matins will be held on Christmas morning in Tbilisi, in English, on January 7. Held at the Blue Monastery, near the end of Perovskaya Street, the Hours will be read from 9 am and the Divine Liturgy celebrated immediately afterwards.

All are welcome, regardless of whether one is an Orthodox Christian or not. Shobas gilocavt!!

 

 

 

 

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Father Joseph’s English language mission in Tbilisi is making steady progress, with a Facebook page that can be seen here

St Luke the Evangelist

For those who are not Facebook users, Father Joseph recently advised;

“Fr. David, the priest at St. Andrew’s is making their hall available to our English speakers group on Thursdays at 8pm if we would like to use it for continuing Orthodox education. At this point I would like to gauge from all of you in Tbilisi if there would be an interest in such gatherings? My initial thought is to offer classes on a once-a-month basis and if there is interest in increasing to twice-a-month, we can do so. Please email me at protopresbyterjoseph@gmail.com if you are interested. There will be a short meeting after the November 22 Liturgy to discuss this further. If you have ideas for class discussion topics, please send those along with your email. Thanks to Fr. David and his wonderful support and to His Holiness, Pat. Ilia for his continued prayers for our efforts.”

A very worthy initiative and I am sure anyone wishing to attend will find themselves very welcome.

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It is with pleasure I received correspondence to this effect, which I would like to share with any readers in Tbilisi.

“Simon Appleby,

Greetings in the Lord!

My name is Father Joseph Fester. I am an Orthodox priest from America under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. My wife is working in Tbilisi for at least the next two years. With the blessing of His Holiness, Patriarch Ilia, we will be offering an English language Divine Liturgy at the Church of St. Andrew (Blue Monastery Church) in Tbilisi starting this Saturday, October 4. Hours starting at 9am and Liturgy at 9:30am. If any of your readers would like more information, they may contact me at jfester99@gmail.com. The choir at St. Andrew’s is learning english and will respond to the litanies in English and as they learn more, we will expand their English language responses. I will serve in English. Everyone is invited to participate, whether Orthodox or interested in the Orthodox Faith.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this information.

Protopresbyter Joseph Fester”

The Blue Monastery is next to the Russian Church in the vicinity of the Tbilisi Philharmonia. A map showing the exact location can be found here.

I am particularly pleased that the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Georgia are co-operating to serve the needs of the Anglophone Orthodox faithful and those curious about the faith in this city. May this initiative be fruitful, and great thanks to all who have made it possible.

 

 

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