Our culture exalts the potential of every person: the self-made man, the rags-to-riches stories, the underdog heroes are our foundational mythology. While those stories are based on some true-to-life examples, what we blinded to in our glittering wealth is our creatureliness. God formed us and placed us in families, in tribes, and in countries. He gave us innate skills in our minds and bodies, so individually and precisely, to love and serve our neighbors. Our strengths bear the weaknesses of others and, in humility, we allow others to care for us as unto Christ.
Do we not have choices? Of course we do! Queen Tamar knew what she would become from the earliest age – but how she would be known to her people was up to her. The Parable of Talents illustrates just how the balance of human free will and divine providence works in the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 25) Throughout the ages, Orthodox Christians with great wealth knew they were handed a five or two talent deal when they were born. Some could make the choice of giving away the physical treasure to gain spiritual life, such as St. Marcella or Abba Anthony. Others, like royalty, knew their lot was cast with their people.
When Queen Tamar took the throne at age 17 after her father’s death, she convened a Georgian church council to address the clergy. She said, “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil. Begin with me—if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”
Her speech is an excellent summation of what leadership for an Orthodox Christian looks like. What comes with the package deal, whether you lead a scout troop or a nation, you are a man or woman, young or old? There are three primary duties incumbent on leaders which Queen Tamar exemplified: service, generosity, and intercession. We heard of her valiant military command and shrewd political dealings with the Turks, which are rightly heroic, however, with any leader, what happens in the heat of life’s battle is the result of years of training towards unflinching, habitual response. Wisdom is knowledge wearing worn, muddy boots.
King George III knew that for his daughter to succeed as a full monarch of their people, she needed intense and lengthy training, which is why he made her co-regent at age twelve. For five years, she saw the daily choices her father made, learned who were the powerful people in the land and what their motivations were, which enemies could be trusted or not, and how to set the tone of piety for the court. She learned her role as a servant for the people. Though the power was hers to decide the fate of men, she knew the decisions were for everyone’s benefit or detriment, not for her personal schemes. For example, her first husband was the pick of the court and the Church. While George Rusi was a brave soldier, he lived a flagrantly immoral life, which brought shame to Queen Tamar. The court sent him away and the Church granted a divorce. George Rusi tried twice to overthrow the Queen’s rule but he was foiled each time. She would have been quite happy to remain unmarried but the pressure resumed for her to continued the royal line. Tamar asked her aunt, her king father’s sister, to choose her next spouse. Prince Davit-Soslan Bagrationi became a trusted co-ruler and military commander for Tamar, and father to her son and daughter. (While we use the term ‘queen’ for Tamar, in Georgian, the term is mep’e, which is best translated as ‘sovereign’, not a gender specific title. She would remain styled as mep’et’a mep’e, or ‘king of kings’ after her marriage.)
Service in leadership is also personal. Queen Tamar would wear her golden array to govern her people during the day and at night she would pray and sew. One evening, in exhaustion, she fell asleep and had a vision of richly decorated throne. She approached it, assuming it was hers, but an angel stopped her. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” The angel replied, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he took her away. When she awoke, the Queen set about to sew the twelve vestments as repentance for assuming an honor was hers.
The Queen learned that vanity and pride are always at the door, like hungry beasts, to eat away at humility. She was preparing to attend a festal liturgy and was fastening precious rubies to her belt. A beggar came to the monastery door and was told to wait for the Queen’s entourage. When the Queen was finely dressed, she found the beggar had gone away. She became greatly saddened at her vanity which prevented her from denying Christ in the disguise of a beggar and offered the ruby belt to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.
Throughout her life, Queen Tamar undertook ascetical labors in secret. During military battles, she would pray continuously until she received word of the outcomes, leading her troops to the city gates barefoot. Through prayer, the Queen recognized she is one under authority and one entrusted with authority, like the Centurion. When Queen Tamar was nearing the end of her earthly life, she is recorded as saying her final prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to The I surrender my soul, O Lord!”
Queen Tamar is an extraordinary example of a woman in leadership – for her own time and for all of Christian history. With studying the saints, it is easy to think they are outliers to regular human experience, and think what they accomplish in their lifetimes is not possible for the rest of us. True, I was not born into a royal family and a kingdom was dependent upon my wise choices. My responsibilities are miniscule in that regard. Yet, the gifts I have now, of communication, easy travel, potential influence, monetary wealth and physical comfort, all of these are astronomically above what Queen Tamar could comprehend. The model our ‘king of kings’ upholds for us is to wear our golden robes lightly, with humility, knowing in our final breath we surrender our multiplied talents back to God.