Monastery Tour Impressions, June 2006
Our revel masters and hosts John, Luarsab (Loo-ar-sab), and his wife, Nino, chanted in every church we visited and our little group also learned one of the chants so we could join in!
The adventures are way too numerous to recount in this space, but on one occasion we met a group of Iranians who were descendents of Georgians deported to Iran by Shah Abbas in 1615, who were visiting their ancient homeland for the first time. As Luarsab excitedly talked with them, we learned that they spoke in an archaic but understandable Georgian, and were full of poetry and myths passed down through oral culture since 1615! The sense of deep history, pain, and the power of tradition to allow people to survive all odds filled the moment as we tried to grapple with the incredible forces at work that allowed these displaced Georgians to visit their homeland again.
Another amazing day, we scaled the passes of the High Caucasus in our minibus, holding onto to ourselves with fright as we peered through the mist. Thankfully our driver was very capable! We arrived at the village of St. Stephen, which is in a nook of Mount Kazbegi, a 13,000 behemoth that is the second highest peak in Europe and site of the legendary promontory on which the local version of Prometheus was bound. This place is like the Tibet of Eastern Christianity, with a 14th century church, Gergetis Sameba (the Trinity), hugging the lower slopes.
When we arrived, we surprised three monks who were just about to head down the mountain in a very well outfitted AWD SUV driven by a New Yorker! But they gave us a tour of the church, and taking a liking to our little band of curious foreigners and mystical singers, they stalled their departure and invited us all to an impromptu reception in the monk’s tiny dining room deep in the heart of the mountain. Toasts were given, and "the man with the jeep" turned out to be a wilderness survival expert who'd just concluded training a special unit of the Georgian military in first-responder and winter survival for the OSCE border monitoring program. Over wine and biscuits, with tears in his eyes, he arranged to bring his infant son for Baptism at the monastery, and thanked the monks for their spiritual care of him for the six months he had been on duty in the area.
We traveled down the mountain to Tbilisi, and continued our Odyssey. One day,
as we approached a monastery, a 92-year old monk came down from a tower where
he lived alone with 3 dogs, cared for by a somewhat mentally unstable man,
and told us wonderful stories. He recalled seeing, as a boy, the Bolshevik
troops march into his village, and recalled surviving cancer as an exile in
a Siberian labor camp in the 1950s, where he had been sentenced to life imprisonment.
Another time, as he labored in the woods cleaning out neglected churches, he
was attacked by wolves, and only survived by hiding in a tree an entire night.
This same monk managed to visit San Francisco during the height of the Cold
War as a ‘girl’s field hockey coach’ to visit long lost relatives
living there. It was incredible to hear his stories, so removed, so unknown
to those of us from the West.
This was my third trip to Georgia in 4 years; I never fail to be as upended as I was the first time, by this astonishingly beautiful, absolutely unique country. My trips to Georgia have inspired me to serve in the Peace Corps, and to serve, live in, and know the inhabitants of another culture for an extended period of time.
Susan Miller-Coulter is a native of New York City and Burlington, Vermont, and is a 63 year old Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, 2006-2008. She was a participant on the first Monastery Tour in Caucasus Georgia, in June 2006.