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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bodbe Monastery: A Beacon of Georgia’s Religious Revival

A visit to a struggling Georgian Orthodox monastery.

The mercy mission from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to the Bodbe Monastery, near the Azerbaijan border, was not of the usual kind. The bus, an ageing 40-seater, no longer chariot-raced down the highway as in the days of Soviet Georgia. Rather the bus trundled sedately. Between speed limits and potholes, the driver obeyed traffic laws with an eerie, un-Georgian-like zeal. The mission: to bring supplies to a struggling monastery located near the burial site of the country’s patroness, St. Nino.

Bodbe plays a profound part in Georgia’s Christian revival, indeed, it could be argued, for the prevailing religious revival throughout the former Soviet Union.

A slave girl from Asia Minor, Nino traveled in 324 to this land perched high in the Caucasus Mountains in search of a relic from Christ’s crucifixion. Her cross, which features sloping arms and braids made of vine and hair, is Georgia’s most revered icon, enshrined in Tbilisi’s Sioni Cathedral. The cross of St. Nino also has political dimensions: it was once given by a 19th-century Georgian king to Russia’s Tsar Alexander II as a sign of unity between the two Orthodox nations. To confirm the gesture the Tsar returned the cross in a ceremonial journey across Russia; hymns of praise were sung to mark the relic’s arrival at major churches.

The team of volunteers in the bus were making a ceremonial journey of their own. Supporting the church is a tradition in the Caucasus, reaching back to the fourth century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of Marxism-Leninism and its persecutions, and Georgia’s independence (achieved in 1991), Georgians are free to restore their ancient church to prominence. Courses in religious values and catechism are offered in the nation’s schools; thousands of churches and Coptic Catholic Church have been restored and reconsecrated and the seminaries are filled with young men wishing to serve their church and country.

A police car glided watchfully by the bus. Our driver smiled ingratiatingly. Today drivers in this mountainous republic can be astonishingly law-abiding. The days of massive Soviet support are gone. Gone with them are the days when the basics of life were plentiful, when a packet of Marlboro cigarettes forgave any traffic infringement. Now fines supplement a police officer’s declining income. Fines can add up to $50 – sometimes even more – a considerable sum in a nation where the average monthly wage has plummeted to $15.

Inevitably, a few miles from the capital, the bus was flagged down by the police at a major checkpoint. Interrogated as to the nature of the mission’s aid, Ms. Keti Dolidze, the leader of the band, pointed to a pile of military flak jackets in the back of the bus.

“For nuns?” the policeman asked incredulously.

It took some earnest pleading to convince him that no, this was not an elaborate smuggling ploy by the mafia or some other clandestine group, but in fact a donation from the Minister of Defense. As is often the case in the Caucasus today, he had nothing else to give. The monastery falls outside the guidelines set up by foreign development agencies operating in Georgia; therefore, assistance must be entirely homegrown.

Unlikely as the charity offering seemed, the jackets were received with much gratitude at the monastery. The community’s 35 nuns had just spent two harsh winters in medieval-like conditions. Three had contracted tuberculosis and now another winter loomed. And although Georgia was once one of the Soviet Union’s leading producers of hydroelectric power, the monastery’s electrical service has dwindled, proof that Georgia has dropped from the richest republic in the former Soviet Union to one of the poorest. Everyday life is an everyday struggle. To outsiders the continuation of this community appears nothing short of heroic.

Standing there before the battered 19th-century monastery, its bell tower bathed in sunlight, a magnificent view of the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains in the distance, one could feel the resilient spirit of this mountain people.

The church’s intimate alliance with the state and Georgia’s position between Asia and Europe have contributed to the theory that the Georgian Church has been among the most persecuted religious communities in the world. As we walked up to the stone church, Ms. Dolidze, a peace advocate and theater director, put it thus:

“Georgia has been conquered many times. Most of our history is a part of another people’s history. These mountains have seen a lot of battles.”

During the 1991-92 Georgia-Abkhazia war, Ms. Dolidze launched “White Scarf,” the relief organization that sponsored our mission. “White scarf” refers to an old Caucasian tradition: white scarves were thrown by women between fighting men, compelling them to sit and reflect.

“We see this monastery as one of Georgia’s jewels,” she said. “We’re very happy a religious community inhabits it once again. This is important for our sense of culture and identity.”

Indeed, while we were there two large, vociferous wedding parties arrived. Bodbe’s church is one of the most coveted churches in which to celebrate the Mystery of Crowning, or marriage.

Ms. Dolidze gestured toward the side of the church.

“The exact site of St. Nino’s tomb was only discovered a few months ago. There is a small shrine there. White Scarf is having a special headstone made and transported.”

This desire to reconnect with history plays a major role in helping Georgians cope with the economic and political pressures plaguing this nation of five million. Increasingly, Georgians idolize the 11th and 12th centuries, the golden era when an independent Georgia was united and ruled by its adored sovereign, Queen Tamara. Today, this longing for the past complements modern Georgia’s urge to achieve a contemporary, Western lifestyle.

The monastery church, with its distinctive, Georgian-style cylindrical dome crowned with a cone, has fifth-century foundations. Like many Georgian churches, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs, Turks and Bolsheviks have all invaded or colonized this mountainous state. A rich but small nation, Georgia was never able to repulse its more powerful neighbors, thus intensifying the Georgians’ determination and tenacity.

A woman draped in black stood near the church entrance, chatting with a priest. Mother Teodora, the much-praised 30-year-old foundress of the Bodbe Monastery, finished her conversation and led us into the church to a small chapel sheltering St. Nino’s tomb. Surrounded by walls faced with fading frescoes and fragments of old Georgian script, the clean yet unrestored antiquity of the shrine intensified the presence of the young slave girl, who converted Georgia’s Zoroastrian king in 334. The presence of a similarly young Mother Teodora, holding a candle, made it all the more vivid.

While touring the monastery, Ms. Dolidze explained that Mother Teodora’s youth, determination and spirituality had inspired a number of women, many younger than herself, to join this impoverished community. Mother Teodora had chosen her vocation 10 years ago, much to the initial disappointment of her parents, who saw in her beauty and intelligence the promise of a fruitful marriage and career.

“Now we’re all very proud of her,” Ms. Dolidze concluded.

Although kept scrupulously clean by the nuns, the 19th-century building needed major repairs. Pausing to answer a couple of questions in the entrance hall, Mother Teodora explained a little of the monastery’s recent history:

“During the Soviet period this was a hospital and a museum. An artist even lived here once. It was also abandoned several times.” She sighed. “But we are trying to repair it and we are very grateful for people’s help.”

While hearing these sad details, I noticed structural and water damage near the windows, which were covered only with cloth. The glass had blown out long ago. When Dr. George L. Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited Georgia in May 1993, he expressed a desire to visit Bodbe. The Georgian authorities, however, were ashamed to display this decayed national monument and refused the Archbishop’s request.

“We have limited resources,” Mother Teodora continued. “It is difficult to repair these buildings properly, but with help we will slowly do it.”

In one of the large reception rooms, the nuns had rehung some of the icons and religious paintings, restoring the devotional atmosphere of the rooms. Several images were laid out on a long table; a few nuns were in the process of restoring them. Fortunately, most of Georgia’s churches did not share the same fate as Russia’s during the Soviet period. (Some insist that Stalin, a Georgian and a former seminarian, prevented such an unhappy fate.)

At every turn the nuns of Bodbe face enormous challenges, which they carry out with the calm and simple resolve embodied by Mother Teodora. When asked about the power problem, she replied without drama, “We have about two hours of power every few days but, unfortunately, we never know when that will be.”

After a tour of the stark dormitories we returned to Mother Teodora’s private quarters for a meal. For Georgians, hospitality is an integral part of life, even for an impoverished religious community.

As she said grace before an icon of St. Nino, it was impossible not to recall the legend of this fourth-century saint, whose journey has inspired not only this community of women, but the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian nation.

Although accounts differ, it seems Nino traveled to Georgia’s ancient capital, Mtskheta, in search of Christ’s burial cloth, thought to have been buried there. After King Mirian III embraced Christianity, a fiery cross was said to have appeared above the capital, surrounded by a crown of stars. Two of the stars flew off, hovering above the mountainous terrain. Nino instructed the king to erect crosses where the stars hovered. Bodbe was one of the sites and, following the saint’s instructions, the king erected a cross. These holy sites, St. Nino said, “would later witness God’s grace.”

Mother Teodora and her community of women are indeed witnesses of God’s amazing grace.

Peter Nasmyth, a London-based photojournalist, travels frequently to the Caucasus.

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