Life-Changing Experience at Davit Gareji
- Ian Holder, Melbourne, Australia
I have always been drawn to Syriac Saints -- their writings, whether prose or poetry, offer a unique perspective on Biblical texts and Salvation History that has always spoken deeply to me. The lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers also hold great affection in my heart, as does monasticism in general. The idea of withdrawing from the world to hard and inaccessible places to do battle with oneself and one’s passions, whether as a stylite in a cave or dwelling, or one living in community within a monastery.
Davit Gareji: a complex founded by Syriacs [St Davit, one of the 13 Syrian
Fathers who traveled to Georgia in the 6th century, and his disciples Ss
Dodo and Lukiane], a ‘desert’ environment, and a monastic life
in cells on the rocky face of a mountain. The stage was set for this to
be a humbling and moving experience for me: and it was -- far more than
I could have expected.
It was wonderful to see that the main monastery of the complex, the Lavra,
is active today. The tombs of Ss Davit, Dodo, and Lukiane are in the Church
of the Transfiguration, and it was a blessing and privilege to pray at their
tombs, asking for their prayers. Although separated by time, and death,
we are one and in communion through Christ.
Udabno: After our visit at the Lavra, it was up the mountain, via a steep
hike, to the Udabno Monastery Cave Complex. During the 9th to 13th centuries,
this complex was home to one of Georgia’s most important schools of
painting and, thanks be to God, frescoed masterpieces from those times can
still be seen inside the caves. From the sheer number of cells, whether
plain or ornate, to the refectory with its stunning icons including one
of the Last Supper, all cut into the rock, each moment was a blessing. Even
the simple act of walking the path along the side of the mountain, and looking
across the barren landscape towards Azerbaijan, had me pondering on, and
praying for [I can think of no better response to the sight of this monastery]
all those who had made this their home in times past.
In one sense, the Udabno Monastery Cave Complex had a feeling of a ‘museum’ as the caves are currently not populated. Active monasteries or convents are always special in that the tradition of monasticism is continuing and alive: a living and active faith. That said, in a greater sense Udabno was most definitely an inspiring experience: to stand where Saints had stood; to walk where they had walked; to see a cave complex monastery for the first time in my life — all spiritually challenging and blessed experiences. It is my prayer that places such as these may once again, as I saw constantly in Georgia, flourish as active monastic centres. Or, if these cannot, that, again as I saw in many places in Georgia, new monasteries will be built as people embrace the monastic life.
In Eastern Orthodox thought, the state of the Church is often seen as reflected
in the state of the monasteries — healthy, active and spiritual monasteries
lead, through their very presence and the prayers and spiritual guidance
of the monks/nun within, to a healthy, active and spiritual Church.
Pondering my feelings and thoughts at Davit Gareji at a distance in time
and space [a month later from Australia], and also considering the many
conversations I have had since my visit there with various people, a longtime
dream has returned to me. And I have made the decision to keep this dream,
alive, and to take steps, however small at first, to work towards it.
What is the dream? — visiting Balamand Monastery and considering
some theological study at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. By this
I mean no slight on Georgia, for I would love to return there, and particularly
return to stay at several of the monasteries we visited [Davit Gareji Lavra
being foremost on that list]. But, for reasons unknown, I feel a pull towards
the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular. And the thought of going for
a year, just to see how I do, does not seem so foolish now; it doesn’t
seem unreachable, or like something I should not do — the “calling,”
for want of a better word, seems stronger and stronger. And I truly believe
that the half-day spent at Davit Gareji, and the emotions, feelings and
inspiration raised within me there, began the process that led to this.
Thanks and praise be to God.
Through the prayers of our Holy Father St Davit of Gareji and the other 12 Syrian Fathers, may the Lord have mercy on us and save us.