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Born Again in Orthodoxy : PILGRIMAGE TO DZHVARI: A Woman's Journey of Spiritual Awakening, By Valeria Alfeyeva Translated from the Russian by Stuart and Jenny Robertson (Bell Tower/Harmony Books: $22; 324 pp.)

September 05, 1993|Thomas Cahill | Thomas Cahill is director of Religious Publishing for Doubleday and author of the forthcoming "How the Irish Saved Civilization" (Nan A. Talese)

Imagine that, while on vacation in unfamiliar territory, you were to discover in some lonely place a glorious work of art, brilliantly colored, of gem-like clarity, glistening before you in the summer sun. You understand neither its construction nor its purpose, nor have you any idea of its provenance, but it dazzles you, as if you were a small mammal just emerged from the dark forest. So, I think, will be the experience of most Westerners on reading "Pilgrimage to Dzhvari," a Russian woman's journal of her spiritual awakening to the mystical riches of Orthodox Christianity.

In this lightly fictionalized account, the author (here called Veronica) and her 16-year-old son, Mitya, undertake a perilous journey through the forested mountains of Georgia to Dzhvari, a 12th-Century monastery founded by a dashing prince exiled for conspiring against the Tsaritsa Tamara. In order to appreciate the full impact of their experience, we must bear in mind that they are pilgrims from the gray world of Soviet realism.

They first spot Dzhvari from a ridge:

"It seemed as though we were standing on the rim of a chalice encircling fathomless space filled with light. Above was the transparent blue, with swift clouds. The mountains sloped down to the center of this chalice, green hillsides, ledges and yellow precipices. And there at the central point of the visible world, above the green of the glade, stood an ancient church of pale stone with a round tower supporting the pyramid-shaped dome above it. The church, which completed this space filled with heat, sun and silence, was its shining heart, giving it sense and meaning."

To the author, who grew up amid the puritanism of Communist certainties, her newfound Orthodox faith is the great treasure, cast aside and forgotten during the Soviet decades, that gives "sense and meaning" to the cosmic drama and to individual human life. Her affirmation might strike an undiscerning reader as pious cliche (So the old Commie found Christ, whadda ya know?), but the form of Alfeyeva's Christianity is so foreign to the West that she might as well be describing an exotic Eastern path, untrodden by Catholic or Protestant. It is just this ancient faith that Jacob Needleman celebrated in "Lost Christianity," and that he found to be the most authentic, most Jewish, and most forgotten form of Christianity.

Veronica and Mitya meet the handful of monks and their gracious abbot, a man whose inner self is as inaccessible as his monastery. Monastic rules do not allow women guests, but the abbot makes an exception for Veronica. (He has already made exceptions for two female members of a state renovation team who are engaged in restoring the ancient frescoes of the monastic church.) Exceptions made to seemingly iron-clad rules are not uncommon, and help give Orthodox Christianity an elastic humanity, which it shares with Judaism more than with its cousins in Christianity.

Veronica, a woman in her early 40s who "was 38 before I ever met a Christian believer," embarks upon a course in the spirit under the direction of the abbot. She learns that Christianity is not a philosophy or ideology--and therefore, not something attainable through reading. The abbot scoffs at her cram-course attempts to master the spiritual classics: "This is nothing but intellectual greed: Some people stuff their rooms with furniture, others pack their heads with knowledge which they don't need. . . . Christianity isn't what you know. It's a way of life."

Veronica's ascent to wisdom is hardly disembodied. There is plenty of physical labor, much of it of the humblest sort, and Dzhvari is full of sights, sounds and smells--such as incense, fresh vegetables and body odor. One of the monks, as a penance, has not bathed in three months. But Veronica and Mitya bathe, and their frequent dunkings in the local river make up some of Dzhvari's most sensuous passages. The glossary at the end of the book gives some idea of the special blend of the pedestrian and the sublime found here: borscht ("Beet soup with a dash of cream") is followed by dikirion ("Double candle held by the bishop . . . signifying the human and divine nature of Christ)."

Despite Veronica's dialectical predispositions, no doubt encouraged mightily by her Marxist schooling, she seems to rely principally on an almost primeval intuition about faces and bodies and landscapes, an intuition that brings her surest knowledge. "He smiled often," she notes of one of the monks, "and sometimes his whole soul shone in that smile--such a carefree, meek smile, full of love, is found only in the pure of heart." Toward the end of her most intimate conversation with the abbot, she writes: "He lay still, shading his eyes. He opened them slowly, sat up, folding his hands on his knees. He started talking, and you could still feel the previous day's emotion."

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