Jun 3, 2018
It was the unusually large throng of people milling around the Sioni Cathedral that piqued my curiosity. Wandering in, I found it crowded with mostly women with a few men scattered in. There were some nuns and monks in their black robes. Priests dressed in flowing brocade robes, with heavy necklaces with jeweled crosses, intoned prayers, the sound echoing off the soaring ceiling. Large candle stands stood aglow with the devotees milling around, venerating the pictures in heavy carved wooden frames. It seemed more elaborate than usual everyday prayers and I was curious.
Asking questions but finding answers in mostly Russian, I continued to pester and was eventually introduced to Sister Nona. She is a nun living in the cloister of the Patriarch of Georgia and glad to satisfy my curiosity. She was not fluent in English either but knew just about everyone and soon cornered a hapless devotee-turned-interpreter. This was the festival of Saint Nino, she told me, the saint who brought Christianity from Cappadocia to Georgia in the 4th century. Stories of miracles pepper the tale as is the norm, including the cross that she brought. Housed out of sight usually, it is only brought out in special occasions and today was one such.
Not content with just explaining, Sister Nona had apparently decided to take me under her wing, my protests being only half-hearted. I was shepherded through the church, lead up to the famous cross and even allowed to take a photo of this holy of holies. I followed meekly albeit with twinges of discomfort. I am not religious and it felt a more than a tad sacrilegious. Introduced to the priest, I was asked if I was orthodox. Unfazed by my irreligiousness, he solemnly blessed me an smiled, stating confidently
“You don’t know it, but your heart is orthodox”.
This open tolerance from an old established religion came a pleasant surprise. Nor was it to stop there. I was invited to visit Sister Nona’s cloister and leapt at the chance to see inside this forbidden territory. We made plans. I was to come to the entrance at 3 pm and tell the security I was a guest of Sister Nona’s. She would come to fetch me. All worked as planned and I was inside the cloister.
A tranquil garden stretches between the buildings, with trees and chirping birds. A chapel, built recently stands amid flowers. Sister Nona laughed at my eagerness to see everything and graciously allowed me to take photos. Not allowed to take photos inside most churches, again I jumped at the chance. There are sculptures dotted around the garden many of them modern in design. Chic, almost edgy, they would not be out of place in a contemporary art gallery. Yet another aspect of the absence of rigidity that I find surprising.
She showed me the tiny garden, planted with fruit trees and herbs, the workshop where the sculptor was hard at work carving a slab of sandstone. Piled around the area were carved stone slab, some a thousand years old. To copy from, said Giorgi, the sculptor and invited me to try my hand. I did, under Giorgi’s vigilance.
Later, we sat in her room. She had invited yet another translator and over tea and biscuits in her room, she told me stories. Through translations I learned of saints and miracles and of her own tale of choosing a nun’s life. Hers is an unusual life, certainly not the norm for most nuns as I listened from her stories. I have been told in no uncertain terms that I have to come visit again when I am in next in Tbilisi. And so I shall.