Sisters at St. Mary Monastery in Bediani tend the community’s vineyards. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
The sisters of St. Tornike of Athos Monastery in Mtskheta begin each day in prayer. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
A sister from Bodbe Monastery, in a rare moment of downtime, plays with the community’s puppy. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
Family members visit Sister Paraskevia at Tbilisi’s convent of the Transfiguration. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
Mother Mari spends time with the youths now living at the community’s shelter in Dzegvi. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
The sisters at Bediani keep bees to supplement their income. (photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)
The 20 women of Tbilisi’s Transfiguration Convent wake each morning at 5. Amid clouds of incense, they spend three hours in prayer kneeling on the stone floor of the convent church. It is one of the few peaceful times at the convent, which lies amid the crumbling ancient walls and dead-end alleys in the very center of Tbilisi, not far from the new presidential palace. By late morning, the streets are crowded and many a passerby stops by the convent for a visit or to seek help, rendering afternoon communal devotions impossible.
“Prayer is the most difficult thing to do,” said Mother Mariam, the convent’s abbess. “Prayer requires utmost concentration and takes so much energy.”
Georgia’s monastic tradition dates to the mid-sixth-century foundations of St. John Zedazeni and his 12 disciples, hermits steeped in the early Christian Syriac asceticism of St. Simeon Stylites and the Cappadocian Fathers. Not unlike the sainted Maron on the banks of the Orontes River in ancient Syria, disciples formed communities near the hermits, establishing monasteries that became important Christian centers.
“Step by step, these communities became cultural centers, providing education where theological manuscripts were copied and icons written,” said Zaza Abashidze, a Georgian Orthodox theologian. “These monasteries not only served God but people too.”
Despite a violent rupture of 70 years, Georgia’s monastic communities continue this tradition today.
While prayer is an important component of the lives of the sisters of the convent of the Transfiguration, they devote the bulk of their day to helping the less fortunate. Mother Mariam arrived there in 1995 and, with the blessing of the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, she took on immediately the growing problem of the capital city’s street children.
The collapse of communism in the late 1980’s and the political and social turmoil of the 1990’s created a sizable underclass in this nation nestled in the Caucasus. Children approached the convent in search of food or a place to sleep. (Georgia’s per capita income is $3,800, and about half of the population lives below the poverty line.)
Mother Mariam arranged to have the children housed in an abandoned facility that once cared for people with Down syndrome in Dzegvi, a village about 12 miles from Tbilisi. The sisters and other volunteers helped restore the derelict building — patching plaster, installing windows and painting walls — as did the 120 children who came to call the facility home.
“It was a beautiful collective effort,” said Mother Mari, now the sole resident of the nearby convent of St. George of Mtatsminda, who joined Mother Mariam at Dzegvi in 1995. “Lots of young people came to help and also lived here with the children,” she said. “And with the presence of stability, many invited their parents to live here too.”
Many of the children who first moved in have since enrolled in the university or found jobs. Some are now married. But there remain at Dzegvi young people with psychological disorders or physical disabilities, people who need counseling, job training and physical therapy. But the funding has dried up.
“It is a crucial time in their lives,” said Mother Mari. “We have to help them become adults and complete the process. We didn’t bring them here so they could end up on the streets again.”
Amazingly, there are days in which she has only 10 lari (about $4) to support the shelter. “I’m determined to take it to the end,” she said undeterred, her hand covering her mouth.
Mother Mari entered the convent in 1992, after taking a degree in philology at the university followed by several years of work with the patriarch.
“Philology is the study of the word, and my reality was always the life inside books,” she said. “When I discovered that the Bible is a book that is actually alive, it was only natural that I’d come to the monastery and live the living word.”
Her parents understood the decision. “I simply explained my reasons clearly and they understood,” she said.
Other women, however, have encountered more resistance from their parents when choosing the same path. Mother Mariam said her parents initially opposed her decision.
“They were against it, but eventually my choice brought us closer.”
It also brought her parents closer to their faith. “When you love somebody, you learn to love the things they love,” she added.
The Communist domination of Georgia and the government’s violent imposition of atheism nearly destroyed monasticism, the backbone of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Scores of bishops, priests, monks and sisters were killed or imprisoned, thus severing the centuries-long tradition of elders passing to the next generation the living history of the church, which today includes more than 80 percent of Georgia’s 4.7 million people. In 1988, church leaders claimed only 15 sisters and 40 monks had survived, though some observers believe many lived underground.
But with the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the birth of an independent Georgia, the Georgian Orthodox Church has resurged. The number of sisters in Georgia has swelled to over 100, while the number of monasteries in Georgia has risen from 4to 53.
Some Georgians have voiced caution about this increase in vocations to the religious life. According to Mr. Abashidze, a lay theologian, too many priests are using their positions of influence to encourage young women to enter the convent. And critics conclude that because a person entering religious life chooses a life of chastity, obedience and poverty, the individual must be repressed and circumspect, a soul longing for regimented seclusion from the ordinary.
“The monastery is a difficult place to live,” exclaimed Mother Mari. “You have to have solitude established in you.”
The young are only reacting to the spiritual revival that has taken the country since the collapse of communism, said Father Giorgi Zviadadze, vice rector of Tbilisi Theological Academy.
Joining a monastery or convent is an arduous process, which discourages the casually interested or the naïve and gullible.
“First a woman must agree to live by the monastery’s rules,” said Mother Ephemia, abbess of St. Tornike of Athos Monastery in Mtskheta. “She pledges obedience. Then she goes through a period of character evaluation.”
Each night, Mother Ephemia meets with members of the community in an examination of conscience that is “more of a dialogue and soul-sharing” experience she said. The informal meeting “helps me know at what stage of development each sister is in.”
The process can take as little as five months or as long as 15 years — there is no set period. But three years is typical, Father Giorgi said.
“Generally, the better educated the woman and her family are, the easier the process is,” Mother Ephemia said. “But modesty in every aspect is absolutely necessary. There is no room for pride.”
Mother Ephemia traveled a difficult path on her journey to become a sister. At 18, she left home to join a monastery in south Georgia, but her parents brought her back. She tried twice more, but each time her family intervened. After completing her law degree at Tbilisi State University, she worked up the courage to approach her parents again. They finally relented.
Young women are not alone in wanting to enter religious life. One novice at St. Tornike’s is 81-year-old Ana Gurganidze, a great-grandmother. For 40 years, she wanted to enter religious life, but only made the decision four months ago with her family’s support.
The seven sisters of St. Mary Monastery in Bediani, a remote village in the southern mountains of Georgia, begin their day with communal prayer at 4 a.m. Three hours later, they are tending the gardens and the bees, milking cows, making cheese, embroidering vestments and cleaning the chapel.
Georgia’s religious houses are expected to be self-sufficient, which requires ingenuity on behalf of the sisters. But the sisters of Bediani also care for six single mothers and their children, who live near the convent and have little means of earning a living.
“So many girls came for advice,” said the ubiquitous Mother Mariam, who claims her effort to care for these women and their children was unplanned. “They want to keep their babies, but either their families, or the fathers of the babies, are against it.”
For one such mother, Ketevan, the sisters’ help has been a godsend. “If it wasn’t for this place, my life would be miserable,” she said holding her 16-month-old daughter.
“My family doesn’t accept me — I’d be on the street.”
These young women face a difficult road ahead: Georgia is poor, it lacks social service programs and it holds on to a non-Western concept of traditional relationships. Most single mothers are banished by their families.
It is rare for single mothers to keep their children. Typically, the children are placed in orphanages. Hopefully, with help from the sisters at Bediani, they will learn job skills that will make them self-sufficient. There are plans for a kindergarten and additional housing if the funds become available.
Back at Transfiguration Convent, Sister Paraskevia is teaching two novices how to care for four terminally ill cancer patients, who also happen to be sisters. Since so many critically ill people approach the sisters for assistance, Mother Mariam has decided to establish a school to train nurses. She is confident the graduates will find jobs; the Georgian Orthodox Church is perhaps the most respected institution in the country, which was mired in corruption in the years leading up to the 2003 Rose Revolution and has yet to right itself fully.
Now, as Georgia continues this difficult task, the Georgian Orthodox Church is making its own recovery, reviving its rich religious traditions. “Georgia once had a wealth of experience in spirituality,” said Father Giorgi. “Now it has had to start all over from the very beginning.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Photojournalist Molly Corso contributed additional reporting.