Sunday, July 30, 2006

At the Edge of Christendom

One thing the scriptures make abundantly clear is that the essential nature of the Kingdom of God is spiritual, not physical. Any effort to draw geographical boundaries around it is not only futile, but is to miss the point altogether. But for the sake of illustration in this story, I will attempt to do that very thing. One of the best days I spent in the Republic of Georgia was at the Monasteries of Davit Gareja, located smack on the border of Christian Georgia and Muslim Azerbaijan.

St. Davit Gareja was a pivotal figure in Georgian history. He led a group of 13 Syrian Fathers to Georgia in the 6th Century, establishing a series of monasteries in the remote wilderness. A story connected with the beginning of the monastery relates that Davit, along with Lukiane and Dodo, were saved from starvation. Several does and fawns came up to them, gentle as sheep, and the does allowed themselves to be milked.

The monasteries flourished, and exerted significant influence in Georgia, being a center of fresco painting and manuscript copying and translation. The monks suffered tremendously during the invasion of the Mongols, and later Tamerlane. They persevered and regrouped each time. In 1615, however, the Shah of Persia massacred the entire colony of 6,000 monks and destroyed most of the treasures of the monastery. The monks were well hidden in the caves, but one of the Persians caught sight of a solitary candle flickering in a cave, betraying their position. The monasteries were closed again during the Soviet years. Now, the community of monks is flourishing once more at Davit Gareja.

Davit Gareja is located only 60 km. (36 miles) from Tbilisi, but it might as well be a half a world away. I stood on an outcropping of rock, surveying the wide windswept valley and the rolling, treeless hills, trying to come up with an appropriate description. My son said simply, "It's Rohan." Of course, that is exactly right. LOTR aficianados will know exactly what I am talking about. In the silence, I half expected to hear the thunder of hooves as the Rohirrim crested over the summit.

It is a 2 hour drive from Tbilisi to the monastery--an 18 mph average which gives you some idea of the quality of the roads. The city of Rustavi lies halfway between. A quintessential Soviet planned city, Rustavi had 150,000 inhabitants before communism's fall. A wide boulevard divides row upon row of bleak, despressing, crumbling apartment blocks. They could have been built anywhere from Vladivostock to East Berlin, as Soviet architects seemed to have only 1 set of blueprints. On the far side of the city, the vast, rusting industrial plants--stark, unsettling and soulless--now operate at 30% of their former capacity.

Yet even amid such sterility, the human yearning for God breaks through, like flowers pushing through cracks in the concrete. I noticed between some of the apartment blocks--in the common areas and playgrounds--some noticeably new construction. These small, traditional structures were invariably neat and attractive. They were, of course, minature chapels, all built in the ageless Georgian style. I doubt that the Soviet central planners would approve of this particular change in the layout!

I took no pictures of Rustavi. Our guide, Sophie, lived there and I did not want to embarrass her by taking special note of her decaying city. Later I learned my assumptions were offbase. Although she lived in Rustavi with her parents and brother, they resided in a nice home in the old part of town that predated the Communist era. In fact, their lot is spacious enough for her brother to plan another house on the site. In addition, they maintain a family home on the Black Sea coast.

Sophie explained that in the Georgian tradition, the son always inherits the house. Daughters have the right to live in the home as long as they like, however. This was not so much a matter of law, but simply a long-established custom. She assured me that a brother would never turn his sister out of the house. I am certainly not advocating this arrangement, but what impresses me is the stability and love within the Georgian family--the fact that extra-legal arrangements like this apparently work. I wonder how many American families--without legal safeguards--could pass a test like this.

Just past Rustavi lies a scraggly, hardscrabble village. There was nothing particularly unique about it, except for one noticeable building. At the edge of the village is a 6-story stone tower. For this is a village of Svans. Years earlier, an avalanche destroyed one of the Svanetian villages deep in the Caucasus Mountains. The government relocated them here, where some could engage in herding, and others could work in the Rustavi foundaries. I was incredulous that these fiercely independent mountain dwellers would be relocated here. And yet, the first thing they did was to build a traditional Svanetian tower, like the multitude that dot their Caucasian mountainsides. I saw the tower--and the adjoining church--as a testimony to the human spirit.

Soon, this village is left far behind, and nothing is left but miles of rolling hills and valleys. When we reach a small makeshift carpark, we are surprised to see the number of vehicles there. Packed marshrutkas from Tbilisi are unloading in front of us. We park and walk up the trail to Lavra Monastery--a compound of churches, cells and caves clustered around a central courtyard on three levels. There seemed to be a lot of activity around the courtyard, so we opt to visit the Udabno Monastery, a series of cave churches on the other side of the mountain. We follow a twisting trail past the watchtower that snakes up to the summit. Perhaps it was the altitude. Or perhaps I am just kidding myself about being in good physical shape. All I know is that going up the hill, I felt every one of the 15 lbs. I have put on in the last year. My dignity suffered further when a group of Italian seniors trotted past me on one of my many rest breaks.

At last I was able to join Sophie and my son on the summit, which afforded a breath-taking view south and east. The valley far below was Azerbaijan. So, in this sense, we were standing on the very edge of Christendom. In fact, much of the southern slope of the moutain was Azeri as well. The trail continued slightly down the hill and then eastward. A low iron railing ran for hundreds of feet near the path. Sometimes we were on one side, and sometimes the other. Only later did I learn that this demarcated the Georgian/Azerbaijan border. So I was able to "do" Azerbaijan on the cheap, without bothering with those tiresome border crossings. In the far distance, we heard an explosion, and then saw a plume of smoke lingering in the air. Sophie explained that the Azeris were exploding munitions. Okaaay.

The Udabno monasteries are heartbreaking. During the 1980s, the Russians used the valley below as training ground for the troops being sent to Afghanistan. The explosions caused most of the cave fronts to collapse. Even so, a number of the cave churches still have beautiful, but fading frescoes. I have retained the image in my mind of one of the frescoes in particular, of Christ Pantocrator. This haunting and sublime icon is still distinct, but with the eyes gouged out. The desecration was done not by marauding Turks, Persians or Monguls of ages past, but by Communist Russian soldiers in the 1980s.

The trail continues past dozens of cave churches. Sophie explained that monks had installed doors on some of the Udabno caves and were now staying in the cells permanently. So, the monastic life is reborn once more in the caves of Udabno.

The trail leads to a promentory, the site of a reconstructed chapel. Sophie explained that a Tbilisi businessman funded the project. Workers and supplies were brought to the site by helicopter. While we sat on a bench and talked, Sophie learned that I was Orthodox. She was pleased, and not a little surprised. She wanted to know if there were many Orthodox in America. I told her there were not so many of us, but that I was hopeful of growth. A young Georgian man was there and heard us conversing in English. He spoke to Sophie. I learned that he wanted to make sure that she told me about the 6,000 martyrs.

From here, the trail doubled back, down the north slope to Lavra Monastery. By the time we returned to the monastery we found even more people there than before. In fact, crowds covered the place. Sophie discovered that this was the feast day of St. Davit Gareja. This was the one time during the year when the Catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, comes to this particular monastery and conducts the liturgy. The Church of the Transfiguration was packed, with the crowd spilling out into the courtyard. I took up a position on the 3rd floor gallery and waited. After a while, the worshippers, along with the monks and priests, and finally the Catholicos, filed out of the church, the crowds in the courtyard swarming around their shepherd.

And so ended my journey to the monasteries of Davit Gareja. I retain a number of memories, not the least of which is the joy and simple faith I saw in the faces of the crowd that day. I also remember the story of the 6,000 martyrs. And the monks now returning to the caves. And perhaps more than anything, the now eyeless icon of Christ. And the ultimate utter futility of those who try to stamp out the message of He who sees all in all.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dark Grace

A week or so ago, Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con had a link to this excellent article on Flannery O'Connor. The writer laments the fact that the author is not more widely read these days. I agree. In my opinion, she is quite simply one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, who masqueraded as the greatest American short story writer of the 20th century. The article observes that all of her stories are about grace, but not the kind we Americans would picture. We tend to think of grace as something warm and fuzzy and cuddly. The truth is, more often than not, it hits us like a Zidane head-butt. Go read the article.

Views of Svaneti

Blogspot has apparently fixed the photo upload problem, so here are a few views of Svaneti.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious

This comic line from a favorite movie--One, Two, Three with James Cagney--often comes to mind these days. Of course, I have reference to the situation in the Middle East. I am saddened, and alarmed by recent developments.

I hesitate to comment at all, for fear of being misunderstood. I am certainly no apologist for the ascendent radical Islam, or even Islam in general, and probably worry about it as much as anyone. And clearly, Israel has a right to defend itself against Hezbollah; no question about it. I don't believe they have a right to level Beirut and Lebanon in the process, however. As is always the case in the Jew vs. Muslim saga, the local Christians get caught in the crossfire. I wonder if the American evangelicals rooting so strongly for the Israeli offensive believe that the substantial Lebanese Christian community is somehow immune from these attacks? I really wonder if they even know they are there.

I am also not so naive as to believe that a resolution of the Israel question would suddenly solve our problems in the Middle East, or make radical Islam go away. It would not. But I do know that our polices of the last 60 years, by all administrations, have fed the growing, and now raging, discontent within Islam. We inherited an already flawed and discredited policy from the British after WWII. And we have stuck with it. We are joined to Israel at the hip (I would add for better or for worse, but there is no better). A friend of mine overheard former Secretary of State James Baker quip (off the record), "America has no foreign policy. Ariel Sharon has a foreign policy." All too true, I am afraid. The only out for us may lie in the growing alarm among Sunni Muslims (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, etc.) of their Shiite co-religionists (Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, etc.). We'll see.

In the meantime, I have been following the on-going commentary. Douglas Ian, over at the Scrivener has some good things to say in 2 recent posts on the subject. Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con has linked two articles I consider to be "must reads:" one by George Will and the other by Spengler. I also recommend Jim's comments over at neepeople under "Catch Up," and the article regarding Robert Fisk here. Finally, Sand Monkey (an excellent, pro-Western Egyptian blogger) vents his frustation over the now-famous picture that is making the rounds; the one of the Israeli schoolgirls writing messages to Hezbollah on missiles. I did a little research, and the scene is somewhat contrived; but still, that is no excuse. It just shows how deep the sickness is on both sides. Check it out here, if you wish. He notes that "they [the Israelis]view us as if we were a headache. We view them as if they are a cancer. And this is why there will never really be any peace in the middle-east."

40 Martyrs of Sebaste

I saw this large icon of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste in the Ethnographic Museum in Mestia, Svanetia, Georgia. It is 12th Century, painted in the Svanetian style, and one of my favorites.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Genora's House

Genora's "Guesthouse Nika" became my home-away-from-home in Tbilisi. The neighborhood was fairly typical for the city, but what we might call "transitional" over here. Grimy Soviet-style flats, sleek new high-rise apartments and overgrown, tumbledown lots made for an odd mix. Then there were the older homes, like Genora's, built prior to the Communist-era apartments. They were all 2-story, either brick or stuccoed, and were built flush with the sidewalk. As is typical in the east, whether Christian or Muslim, little is revealed streetside. The life of the family and the beauty of the home is always hidden in the courtyard behind the gate. Such was the case with Genora's home. The gate opened onto a small, pleasant courtyard with daylillies in bloom in one corner, and a grape arbor providing shade. A passageway led to a rear courtyard, which appeared overgrown at first glance. Actually, the family utilized the small area to its limit, but also with an eye for beauty, as apple, fig and pomegranate trees, grape arbors, roses and daylillies all vied for space.

This was the home of Genora's parents, and she had always lived here. Her father, an engineer, had built the house decades ago. Genora graduated from the university, trained as a classical pianist. In Soviet days, Georgia was perhaps the most affluent of the old republics, enjoying a relatively high standard of living. That all changed upon the fall of Communism and the regaining of independence. The market for Georgia's goods suddenly dried up. The security offered by the state was gone. And few had any real concept of what we call "business." Genora taught piano lessons (and still does at a local school), but this was not enough to survive. The family silver had to be sold, and then her piano. She said she was not going to sit around and wait for the government to provide for her. so, for the last 7 years she has operated a a pension in her home. While perhaps wistful for their former standard of living, she is not bitter and does not want to go back. She smiles, shrugs and says, "And so we live."

Genora's guesthouse is the unofficial headquarters for Peace Corps volunteers in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The PC's office in nearby, and whenever the volunteers come into the city from their various postings, either on break, to take care of bookkeeping or to pick up their mail, they always stay at Genora's. It's a good arrangement on both sides--she speaks of them as "her children" and they view her house as a home-away-from-home.

I suppose my son and I--mere travelers and not connected with the PC--were something of oddity to the volunteers. No matter, they pulled us right in to their fellowship. I have never met a friendlier bunch of people, all eager to talk. And I might add, that I have rarely felt better about my own country that I did with these young people. Two years in a remote Georgian village is rarely seen as a savvy career move. And yet here they were. Graduate school and careers could wait. Right now, they were just trying to make a difference.

A covered patio connected the two courtyards. A cheap plastic table and chairs, coupled with an old refrigerator wedged in on the opposite wall made for a perfect hangout. I will never forget our first full night there. The two of us, and anywhere from 6 to 9 of our new PC friends, sat around shooting the bull, drinking Kazbegi beer and smoking too many cigarettes until 4:30 in the morning. One of the young men commented on my staying up with them. I told him I was delusional. He asked what I meant and I told him that I thought I was still young. He said he hoped he could be delusional one day. The next night, however, I was somewhat less delusional and had to give it up at 3:00 AM.

Anyway, these wide-ranging discussions touched on a number of subjects. I found their insight into the country invaluable, as they were eager to talk about Georgia and Georgians. I remember one anecodote,in particular. It seems in the old Soviet days, the other "republics" would simply do as Moscow dictated. The Georgians, however, would simply shrug, ask, "why?" and then go about doing as they wanted. I certainly saw evidence of this in my travels. But then Georgia has always been a dangerous neighborhood--a small country wedged between powerful ones. This attitude has less to do with obstinacy than it does with the preservation of Georgian culture in the face of a long history of invasions.

I have always been a little amused that when people sit around and drink, the subject of religion will often come into the conversation. We were no exception. First of all, I had an immediate connection with one of the older young men. He was out of the Peace Corps, but remained in Georgia, working for another humanitarian organization. He was from Texas and he had belonged to the same heritage church as mine. He was currently engaged to a Georgian Orthodox girl. And while he had left his old church far behind, he was not yet ready to cross the Bosphorus as I had. I believe he wanted to, but was looking for a narrower place to cross. He would go with her to the Orthodox Church, but was put off by some of the claims Orthodoxy makes for itself. She would accompany him to a "nondenominational" Bible study, but would become angry over their evangelical condescension--the idea that they were bringing "the gospel" to a country that, in fact, has a rich, 1700 year old Christian history. Anyway, in coming months, they are to have a Georgian wedding with a priest, and then a few months later, a Texas ceremony for his family. He and I shared a laugh over his mother's concern--whether the girl could be rebaptized and whether or not she could be "saved." Lord have mercy!

They were all intrigued when they discovered that I was Orthodox, which of course led the discussion into new areas. Many of these intelligent young people had been in Georgia for 2 years, working daily as members of Georgia society. It would be the heighth of presumption for me to lecture them about Georgians; for me to conclude that I had better insight into the culture after only a brief stay than they did. And yet, except for the one young man, I believe many of them had missed a key element of Georgian society. They were overlooking, or rather, dismissing the church. Partly this is due to the fact that they were Americans. We are still probably the most religiously observant folks around, statistically, but like the old saying goes, our American popular religion is 3,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep. Many, many Americans have only a superficial interest and/or understanding of matters of faith--of whatever stripe. And like our European kinsmen, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant to our society as a whole. Trained to help developing countries move into the modern world, I suspect that they failed to consider that a country's faith could/would/does continue to define the culture. For example, I had to explain to one of the young men from New England what I meant by the word "evangelical." He wasn't being obtuse, he actually didn't know.

I was assured that "Georgians didn't really go to church;" the impression being that they did not take it all that seriously. One young man related his experience at an Orthodox church. He observed that "the priest didn't even face the congregation. He has his back to them the whole time. It was like he was doing his own thing and wasn't even aware that the congregation was even there." Also, he saw a young man talking on his cell phone during the service. Oh, dear. Where to begin? I wondered how one could be trained for work in a traditional Orthodox country and not learn the bare rudiments of how they worship? How could one live there for 2 years and not pick up on this?

I quickly gathered that the problem was with their perception of "church." Broadly speaking, in America, church is a place where you fill up the parking lot on Sunday, go in and settle in to a comfortable pew, hear some nice uplifting songs and listen to an upbeat, feel-good sermon from the pastor and then go out to eat. And even if you are not a regular church-goer, you know that is what happens when Americans "go to church." Unknowingly, this was the prism through which they viewed Georgian religiosity. With this perception of "church," no wonder they dismissed Georgian spirituality. This is a shame, for in so doing, they missed a key, if not the very key, to understanding this people.

I began by addressing the experience of the one young man in the Orthodox church. I told him that, by and large, he was exactly right--the priest was not talking to the congregation. He was talking to God. I tried to explain how it differed from American Protestantism; how the "sermon" was not the thing at all; that an Orthodox church was not a place to go and hear a nice lesson. It was a temple; a place to pray; a place to experience God. Worshippers in an Orthodox church are not an audience, they are participants. I couldn't excuse the cell-phone guy, as Georgians seem more enamored with them than even we are, but I did try to convey that the Orthodox have a different conception of "church."

Admittedly, I am hardly an unbiased observer. Yet, over the course of my stay in Georgia, I suppose I was in at least 15 churches--from a mere 4 years old to 1500 years old--and found myself encouraged and edified by what I saw. Georgian churches are far from the museum pieces of western Europe. You might even say some literally churn with activity. As expected, people were coming in an out, lighting candles and praying before the icons. Yet they were not just the faithful old, the bow-legged old peasant women, as some mught presume. In fact, the demographics I saw tended towards the young, both women and men. The sight of young men, even soldiers, praying and crossing themselves before the icons is a healthy thing. For Orthodoxy is still a manly religion. At Sioni Cathedral I chanced upon a priest striding across the courtyard to the church. He was singing--bellowing actually--in a rich, strong bass. Yes, there's still plenty of room for men in Orthodoxy.

The spectacular new Sameba Cathedral dominates the Tbilisi skyline, billed as the third largest Orthodox church in the world. My PC friends told me that the building of this church generated some local controversy. Eyebrows were raised at such a lavish building in a struggling country. Others worried that it was erected largely from contributions of a businessman with questionable connections. Then part of the courtyard supposedly covered an old Armenian cemetery. So much for the naysayers. I found it magnificent and full of worshippers. I also witnessed 2 baptisms and 1 wedding in the short time I was there.

Taxi drivers in Tbilisi habitually cross themselves 3 times whenever they pass in sight of a church. Pedestrians stop on the pavement and do the same thing. Icon stores dot the city. New chapels and churches can be seen on the highway from Tbilisi to the coast--all in the beautiful Georgian style. Even in the bleak apartment flats of decaying Rustavi, chapels have been constructed next to the playgrounds in the common areas.

My PC friends complain that the Orthodox Church has been slow to build churches where the people are located. For example, my friend's fiancee lives in a neighborhood of 50,000 people, that until very recently, had no church. Perhaps this is true. But then convenience has never been a watchword in Orthodoxy. Georgians are much more likely to build a church on a rocky cragg overlooking all of God's creation than they are to erect it down on the crossroads.

I have to conclude that Orthodoxy in Georgia is vibrant, perhaps even resurgent. 80% of the populace identify themselves as Orthodox. Admittedly, some of this allegiance may be tilted more to their nationalistic identity as Georgians. But after 70 years of Communism, the re-emergence of Orthodox Christianity seems fresh and alive and invigorating.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Treasure of Iperi

During my recent journey in the Republic of Georgia, I spent the better part of 4 days getting to, traversing across, and returning from the Province of Svaneti. In fact, I ventured as far as Ushguli, an almost surreal village nestled high in the Caucasus Mountains--the most remote village in the most remote province of a fairly remote country. It is quite literally the end of the road in Europe (that is if you play along with the Georgian insistence that that their country is in Europe). Svaneti's main draw for visitors--beyond its isolation--is its almost other-worldly look; an alpine terrain dotted with the unique 900 year-old defensive towers, 5 to 6 stories in heighth (see picture below on "Sabbatical" post).

Obviously, one doesn't go to Svaneti on the way to anywhere. From Zugdidi, a sometimes harrowing 5-hour jeep ride--on a twisting trail which hugs mountain ridges along the raging Enguri River far below--will eventually bring you as far as Mestia. The road is blocked by snow much of the year. And during the rest of the year, a road crew is clearing away the rock slides and bracing the road here and there to keep it from sluffing-off into the river.

The town of 2,300 is the provincial capital. We stayed with a nice lady named Nino, who is, in fact, the governor of the province. So, I guess you can say we boarded at the "Governor's Mansion." But before you go too far with that imagery, however, I might add that there was a clothes line in the front yard and the cows were stabled right below our bedroom window. But there were indoor "facilities." Nino and her husband were pilgrims to the Holy Land during Pascha and witnessed the Holy Fire. She set her laptop on the dining room table and we all gathered around and watched her home movie DVD of the miracle.

Svaneti, while Georgian, has always maintained a fierce independence. Among themselves, they continue to speak Svan and hold to the many of their old ways. While Orthodox Christian, many still hold to some pre-Christian traditions. On major feast days, some villagers will sacrifice a bull (but then prepare the meat for a feast). Remarkably, the towers are generally owned by the same families who built them 900 years earlier. In the bad old days of Communism, bureaucrats were shipped in to whip the region into line. Many simply never returned and the Svans went about their business as usual. Family feuds can still flare up from time to time, and the village elders are looked to for mediation. In fact, the defensive towers were as much a protection against adversarial clans as they were against foreign invaders and rockslides.

Good-natured banditry, while diminishing, can still be a problem. I say "good-natured," because the Svan highwaymen may relieve you of your money and your wine, but they are not going to hurt you. And they will probably share the wine with you, as well. On our journey there, my son and I traveled with a guide and a car and driver. Unbeknownst to us, the package price included an accompanying jeep with 3 commandos in camouflage gear and submachine guns. The tour company hired them as our protection, just in case. I appreciated them being there, even if their presence was a little off-putting. I retain an image of them, squatting on their haunches, eyeing us with curiosity, while pulling on a cigarette held between thumb and forefinger. I got the feeling that any one of them could have been on the other side, had that been where the money was.

This perception of Svaneti, however, can obscure the region's rich cultural heritage. During invasions, the Georgian monarchs of old would send their treasures there for safe-keeping. And at times, the mountain strongholds provided protection for the rulers themselves. When invaders, whether they be Turks, Persians or Communists would penetrate into the region, the villagers would take down the icons and other treasures and hide them in their homes. This has continued down to the present day, so much so that many Svanetians are still hesitant to relinquish them. Some have been gathered together and displayed in the excellent Ethnographic Museum in Mestia. Gospel books dating from the late 800s are on display, as well as beautiful icons from the 11th and 12th centuries. One of my favorites was a unique 12th Century Svanetian icon of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste.

After Mestia, you leave the "good" road behind, and travel another 3 1/2 hours along the Enguri River to reach Ushguli. The first automobile only made it here in 1964. The road ends here. The small power line which provides sporadic electricity to the village ends here. The achingly beautiful Church of LaMaria crowns the last knoll in the valley. There, you are face to face with Mt. Shkhara, its summit hidden in clouds. On the other side--Russian Chechnya--which makes it an ideal place to turn around.

On the return journey, we stopped at the village of Iperi, about 1 1/2 hours from Ushguli and 2 hours from Mestia. Our guide, Sophie, wanted us to visit the Church of St. George there. We parked in front of the churchyard while she went to find the caretaker.

The church was unprepossessing from the outside, what I describe as the simple Georgian style with steep pitched roof, but without the soaring effect of the high Georgian style. A small village cemetery lay in front of the church. Georgians prefer black stones with the portraits of the deceased etched on the marble. So as I faced the church, the faces of the deceased village stared out at me! Americans would probably consider the graveyard an overgrown mess. Yet it was not neglected and a far cry from the sterile lawnscapes characteristic of modern American cemeteries. For the markers had bottles stacked around them. Families return to the graves periodically--and especially on the anniversary of the death--and drink toasts to the deceased. (Toasts are big in Georgia, by the way. In Ushguli, I survived 7 vodka toasts at supper...but that's another story.) The bottles are of water, soda, wine or vodka--but never beer--and the bottles are left there, for whatever reason. I see the practice as a hearty, earthy affirmation of belief in the victory over death through Christ. The separation with the deceased is not real, and at worst, is only temporary. Though totally foreign to my experience, I found the custom oddly comforting, and smiled when I speculated how some of my uptight Protestant forebears would react to a vodka toast being offered over their graves!

Eventually, Sophie returned with the caretaker. It seems that it was still one of the feast days for St. George and somewhere in the village they were boiling a bull. The caretaker unlocked the door and admitted us into the small sanctuary. There was little to see at first, as it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. There was one candlestand, and Sophie and I each lit a candle. Gradually, the panoply began to unfold before me.

Meanwhile, the caretaker talked of his church. The building dated back to the 11th century. The frescoes inside were painted by the court painter of King David the Builder. King David is a Georgian saint, who along with his descendant, Queen Tamar, ruled during Georgia's glory days of the 10th throught 13th centuries. During the Soviet era, the local Communists commandeered the church as a stable, and defaced all the frescos on the lower level. But since Communism's fall, the church had been reconsecrated, and a priest conducts liturgies there from time to time. The caretaker said that there would be many baptisms whenever he came. He went on to explain that his nephew was a deacon in Tbilisi, and he had hopes of him returning to the village one day as a priest.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I was bowled over by the beauty of the frescoes! Of course, Christ Pantocrator was seated above and behind the altar, with the Theotokos on the left and John the Baptist on the right. Scenes from the life of Christ filled-out the front of the church. Depictions of the life of St. George (and St. Theodore)lined the sides and rear of the sanctuary.

But I had not yet seen everything. A safe sat at the rear of the church. The caretaker carefully worked the combination and opened the door. An incredible silver icon of St. George sat on display on the the top shelf. The Svanetians often depict St. George spearing the Emperor Diocletian (as this one did), instead of a dragon. Of course, they know that St. George didn't really kill Diocletian, but by his martyrdom he symbolically slew the emperor and all that he stood for. The caretaker explained that this icon was hidden in the village during the long, dark years of Communism.

He pulled other treasures from the safe--ancient silver chain necklaces for both men and women. We held them in our hands and admired their weight and craftsmanship. He then extracted a golden bowl; not a gold-rimmed bowl, not a gold-plated bowl, but a golden bowl donated to the church by benefactors centuries earlier. As we stood there, holding this priceless golden bowl, the caretaker reached over to a table and picked up an unmarked (and open) bottle. He poured a clear liquid into the bowl. Not being real quick on the take, I looked at him questioningly. He said, "Wodka!" We smiled our approval. I put the bowl to my lips and took a long draught of vodka. I passed the bowl to my son, who finished it off. I briefly contemplated the strange, unfathomable providence and mercy of God--that would bring a formerly Protestant boy from East Texas to an obscure 11th Century Orthdox Church in the Caucasus Mountains, drinking vodka from a golden bowl.

The treasures were locked securely back in the safe, and began to exit the church. As I did, I was touched by what I glimpsed. Our hardened, young commandos were approaching--perhaps to see what we were up to--all the while, crossing themselves in the wide, sweeping Georgian manner as they neared the church. Western Protestants may pooh-pooh this as meaningless ritualism, but I am assured that it is not.

The caretaker charged a nominal fee to show the church, and a little more for picture-taking. It was really a pittance and we were glad to help support its maintenance. Through out guide and interpreter, I told him to keep the change as a contribution to the church. It amounted to, I believe, something like $14 more. The caretaker was overcome with emotion. He invited us to his home, to share a meal with his family. My "western" sensibilities took over. I didn't want to "impose," and then we did have something of an entourage--the 2 of us, our driver, our guide and our 3 rent-a-toughs. Then, of course, we did need to get on to Mestia. Anyway, I thanked him profusely, and I believe he understood. Before we left, he shook our hands firmly, bowed low to us, and then kissed us on each cheek. And so we left Iperi and its treasures behind, except of course for the one I was nurturing in my own heart.

Tech Help Needed

I am working on some travel stories to post. Unfortunately, Blogspot is not allowing me to upload pictures as before. Anyone ran into this problem before, or have any suggestions?