The tests of time

Years ago, in another world, when I was living an Irish version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, I shared a house with an Australian lad. Although not even six months in the country, he could navigate the city of Dublin by the pubs. Mention anywhere in the city and he’d ask: Is that the one next to such and such a pub? Nothing short of remarkable, even considering the plethora of pubs in Dublin in the 1980s.

When in Georgia recently, I figured that one of the best ways to navigate the country is not by its pubs, but by its monasteries.  There are two within spitting distance of Kutaisi. And we went to both.

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BT Gelati (600x800)BT Gelati4 (600x800)Gelati Monastery, which sits 11 km to the northeast of the city, was built at the beginning of the twelfth century. With three churches and an academy, it was variously referred to as the ‘new Athens’, and the ‘second Jerusalem’. Its academy was home to some of the most celebrated Georgian scientists, theologians, and philosophers of the time.  Stepping inside is like going back in time. It takes a minute to realise that the murals on the walls, in all their faded glory, are untouched originals. Spectacular. BT Getati2(800x600)Being a church-going Catholic well versed in kneeling, standing to a schedule, I was once again struck by the seeming randomness of the Orthodox services. With a little more exposure, I might even get used to it. But whatever the random nature of the service, the devotion was palpable.

I was particularly taken by the roof tiles on one of the churches in the complex.

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As we wandered around, it became clear that it’s still very much in operation with monks living on the premises and talks and lectures still going on in the academy. To think, that all these years later, the wealth of knowledge shared within its walls is still preserved. It really is a special place.
BT Motsameta 2 (800x600)IMG_5646 (800x600)Next up was Motsameta Monastery, a mere 5 km from Gelati. This dates back to the same time but unlike Gelati, it’s not accessible by public transport. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive though. It sits on top of a cliff  overlooking the Tskhaltsitela River and is even more magnificent in its remoteness. It is here that the two martyrs, brothers David and Konstantine Mkheidze, are entombed. It is said that if you crawl three times under their tomb (that little space to the right of the steps ), your prayer will be granted. I did. And I am waiting. Patiently. Only time will tell.

It seems as if Georgians might outsource their prayers to those willing to pray for them, perhaps a little like what the Carmellites used to do in Majk. People sit at the entrances to the monasteries and line the paths leading up to them. They have boxes in front of them and seem to be prayer. Those passing donate money. I thought at first it was your run-of-the-mill begging but now I’m not so sure and wonder if what’s going on is a trade in supplications.   [As a complete aside, check this blog on outsourcing prayer in India.]

IMG_5649 (600x800)IMG_5650 (800x600)Here, too, the monks are in residence. An unfortunate translation had me worrying about the welcome on offer as a sign on their quarters warned FOREIGNERS that their entrance was prohibited. I’d like to believe it isn’t just non-Georgians they don’t want, but anyone not of the Order.

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Both monasteries are worth the time it takes to visit. Both are accessible by taxi from Kutaisi. Entrance is free. If you do go, light a candle for me.


Humanizing Hungarians

IMG_0538 (800x594)I knew little, if anything, about Hungary before I moved here. Gradually, as I met more and more people, my list of places to visit grew longer. It’s still growing. PM was the first to mention the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma to me but it took a while to make my way to  the town in western Hungary, in Győr-Moson-Sopron county, about 20 km from Győr, home of the famous painting of Our Lady that allegedly cried tears of blood.

IMG_0516 (600x800)History tells us that the first Benedictine monks (who had arrived from Italy and Germany) settled here in 996. They have a series of firsts to their bow: the first to convert the Hungarians to Christianity, the first to found a school, and in 1055, the first to write a document in Hungarian. It’s been in continuous use for more than 1000 years – no mean feat given today’s disposable society.

When the monks arrived, the locals were Bavarian and Slav farmers, who had settled here in the wake of Charlemagne’s armies. The monks apparently came to help Prince Geza and his son Stephen I, the first king of Hungary, in their efforts to humanize the Hungarians, who were terrorizing the settled peoples of Europe and sacking the towns and monasteries of northern Italy, Bavaria, and Franconia. I read this on the Unesco site and stopped to wonder at the translation. Humanizing Hungarians seems such an odd term to use.

IMG_0515 (800x576)Pannonhalma is also the smallest, but oldest wine-making region in the country – the monks did more than teach and convert. They, too, had their hobbies. Today, they’re cashing in on the tourist dollar and the gift shops are full of  lavender, chocolate liqueurs, soaps and creams, natural remedies, herbal teas, wine and liqueurs. If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour, Petern66 has an excellent blog post that’s worth a read.

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We made it in time for mass. And while part of me had been really looking forward to this, I came away disappointed. Is it right to be disappointed in a mass? The church was beautiful – the singing exquisite – but the reverence was missing. I found myself comparing it to mass at the Abbey of Timadeuc, in France, and found it sorely lacking. It seemed to me that the celebrants were more interested in who was in the congregation than in offering up the mass.

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IMG_0530 (800x600)IMG_0520 (600x800)Tourism seemed to have usurped the religious rite, the distraction it offers proving too strong. Yes, there were screaming babies, and kids running around, and cameras going off – enough to distract Job himself – but still!

Not for the first time, I wondered at the commercialisation of the church and the pros and cons of places of worship becoming places of attraction. I strongly object to paying to enter a church as a tourist when all I simply want to do is light a candle and say a prayer and yet can see the need for entrance fees to maintain the premises.

In fairness, unless you’re taking a tour, you can wander the grounds freely – which is nice. And nice and all as the grounds are, that lack of reverence left me feeling a little empty. It wasn’t quite the spiritual experience I’d hoped for.