Alternative Lifestyles

Georgian women choose lives of service to God and humanity

text by Paul Rimple with photographs by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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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.

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Tags: Communism/Communist Georgian Orthodox Church