Images from another world

“One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery” is an acclaimed documentary directed by Sergei Yazvinsky featuring a typical day at the Monastery of St Simon in Novy Afon or “New Athos” in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, Georgia.

I watched this short film, only 26 minutes in length, earlier today and its beautiful imagery so stirred my soul that I decided to take some still full-screen shots of some of its most poignant images. I put these in an album on my Facebook profile to share with friends and then added some background information and commentary on the photos. I would like to share these with you here.

It is heartbreaking to think that this breathtakingly beautiful area was the site of many deplorable atrocities in the 1990s when Abkhazian separatists displaced and massacred thousands of Georgians living in the region. Many Abkhazian villages also suffered during cross-border raids. Russia is the only major country which recognizes Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state.

Here is a link to the documentary. Enjoy!:

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Dawn appears on the horizon at the monastery, which is dedicated to St Simon the Canaanite, one of Christ’s apostles who legendarily preached in Georgia and the surrounding regions. The monastery was built in the 1880s with donations from Russian Emperor Alexander III as a refuge for overflow monks. Russia’s Monastery of St Panteleimon on Mount Athos in Thessaly, Greece was overflowing with monks, so the Tsar assisted in the construction of this beautiful monastery to accommodate them.

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The monastery crowns the eastern edge of the Black Sea near the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi, which was an ancient Greek port in antiquity and a center of the medieval Georgian kingdom (საქართველო Sak’art’velo).

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Local villagers volunteer at the monastery to help the monks sweep the floors and courtyard, cook and prepare meals, and maintain the stunning grounds.

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Early morning: a monk lights the oil lamps which hang before the icons of Christ and the Theotokos on the iconostasis in the monastery chapel.

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A monk holds a Russian-language liturgical book for the chanting of the First Hour (06:00am) dawn prayers.

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A life of prayer: many people are amazed that locals come daily to help the monks cook and clean, but the monks ‘repay’ these services not only with their thanks and loving kindness, but with their constant prayer on behalf of the villagers, their country, and the world. The monk here is reading through names of villagers for whom he will pray in the daily services.

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Dawn breaks at the monastery.

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The Russian-style golden cupolas glimmer in the morning sunlight.

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The monks practice the Athonite discipline of hesychia, a Greek term meaning “stillness” or inner silence which developed most clearly from the writings of St Gregory Palamas. The goal is to cultivate a subconscious dedication to prayer so that one enters into transcendent prayer of the heart, through which one strives to become what St Peter called a “partaker of the divine nature”. Prayer is not “all the monks do”, however. This Russian monk is carving a cross which will be blessed and given to someone outside the monastery.

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A baker monk?: These freshly baked loaves will be consumed by visitors as well as the monks. Prosphora bread used for the Eucharist is baked separately using a simple ancient formula and then it is set apart and blessed (prior to the Liturgy) before its consecration begins during the Liturgy.

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The monastery’s central church dominates the courtyard, which is surrounded by the yellow-painted loggias in which the monks live in sparse cells. This part of Abkhazia, Georgia has a Mediterranean climate. You can see the cypress trees by the Black Sea.

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In the Russian tradition, the monastery’s bell-tower is a separate edifice from the central Neo-Byzantine church.

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Bells sound at different points of the Liturgy, bringing worshipers into a deeper spiritual frame and alerting those not present to specific points in the service. Bells also announce births or deaths and call the monks and the faithful to prayer. Bell-ringing is an ancient art in Russian lands, and the skills of the bell-ringer are highly prized because complicated poly-rhythmic, mechanical rotations are used rather than Western mathematically-determined melodies and “ringing” (turning the bell so that it rotates fully around). Bells serve as “singing icons” and just as people are chrismated into the Church, a unique chrismation ceremony brings new bell towers (kampan, from the Italian ‘campanile’) into the life of the Church.

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The pealing of the bells summons the faithful to prayer as the Divine Liturgy begins. Here is an example of Russian bell-ringing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzGbMWEl0Ys

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The Georgian priest proceeds toward the altar at the east end of the monastery church holding the Gospel aloft. Orthodox Christians consider the books of the Bible inspired of God and an icon of Christ. Only recently in the United States have some Orthodox communities introduced pews into their churches. Traditionally, the faithful consider it disrespectful to sit in a holy place, and so they stand attentively before God.

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All music in Orthodox churches is performed a capella without instrumental accompaniment. Russian chant incorporates polyphonic harmonies and often uses Western musical notation (influenced by sixteenth century Italian composers), whereas Byzantine chant maintains its own distinctive ancient notation.

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Orthodox clergy wear beautiful liturgical vestments which change throughout the seasons of the liturgical year. This tradition evokes the high priests in the Temple of Jerusalem who wore prescribed arrays of garments and vestry when serving in the temple sanctuary. Similar to the ancient Temple, every Orthodox church- especially so at monasteries- diligently tends an ‘eternal flame’ in the sanctuary which burns before the altar. Here the Tabernacle is kept (in which the elements used in the Eucharistic offering are stored) and the Gospel book rests.

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Look carefully and you will notice the sunlight playing across the gold leaf mosaics of the saints’ halos. . . these images took my breath away.

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In the Orthodox tradition, the monastery marks the end of the liturgical day at sunset.

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May the Lord and Saviour of all men send His Comforter to abide forevermore with the suffering peoples of Georgia and Abkhazia in this time of renewed tension and grief after the 2008 crisis. May He and His Most Pure and Holy Mother intercede with God, the Father of us all, and bring peace to this beautiful and ancient land. May the holy men and women of the monasteries in Georgia, Russia and Abkhazia be illumined and strengthened as they continue to pray on behalf of all those who suffer from war, all the departed, those who yet live in Christ in the hope of the Resurrection, and for the faithful here on earth.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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9 thoughts on “Images from another world

  1. XB!
    Some Beautiful images, I will have to look up the documentary. I pray your doing well in Scotland. It would be a great country to visit. Their are lots of Holy places in the UK what a wonderful opportunity you have. Anthony

    • BB! Indeed He is risen! Thanks Anthony! There is a link to the documentary above if you click on the word ‘Here’ which should be in a light blue highlighted text. It is 26 minutes long and truly stunning.

      Thank you for your kind words. I hope you are able to visit in the near future! Edinburgh has been extraordinary. I return to the United States in less than three weeks, so I am hoping to travel to Iona before I leave. Within the UK I have been to St Andrews, London, and Glasgow.

      • BB! Iona is the isle of the Saints if memory serves me correctly. They had a very difficult ascesis there. Truly they were outstanding Christians. Have you read “The Brendan Voyage” it is a modern retracing of the trip of St Brendan. Proving it was possible to sail from Ireland to the New World in the sixth century. A fascinating read. And on a lighter note enjoy the fly fishing and the fine whiskey!

      • I think you know more than I do about this! Yes, Iona was the center of monasticism for the early Church in Scotland during the phase of ‘Celtic’ Christianity. This more mystical Christianity bore remarkable similarities with the Eastern Church traditions, especially with its emphasis on eremetic acetic practices.

        I have not yet read “The Brendan Voyage” but it sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation, I will read it this summer! I’ve read of many Irish monks including St. Brendan who made the journey into the stormy seas to carry the Gospel beyond the limits of the known world at the time. It is incredible to think about their possible journey to the Americas five hundred years before the Viking settlements in what is now Newfoundland or the alleged (and widely dismissed) contact which the Chinese Ming fleets of Zheng He are rumored to have had with the South American coast. Fly fishing is also something I have yet to try!

  2. Is this monastery part of the official Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy? or part of the unrecognized Abkhazian Orthodox Church?

    • Dear Matthijs,

      From what research I have done, it appears that the monastery is currently under the unrecognized Abkhazian Orthodox Church.

      -Ryan

  3. Pingback: Images from Another World | ORTHODOX CITY HERMIT

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