We spent the last two days of our tour, Saturday and Sunday, in Tbilisi. Saturday morning was open--with some of us going to the Botanical Garden and others visiting with Dato the rug dealer. Later, Luarsab led a group of us to the vast Farmer's Market. Some were looking for spices, and others (me) were looking for wine to carry home. Everyone was to meet late in the afternoon at the 6th-century Anchiskhati Church, Tbililsi's oldest, where we would attend Vespers. Luarsab assured us that we would hear some of the most beautiful chanting at the Vespers Service here. He is, I believe, a member of the choir at Anchiskhati.
Vespers had been pushed back a bit later, we discovered. But there was plenty going on in the church. On the right side of the nave, an infant's baptism was taking place. On the left side, a family was bringing in food for a memorial service for a departed loved one. There before us was the complete circle of life--from birth to death--within Orthodoxy.
We decided to visit another church nearby and see if their Vespers had begun. Finding an Orthodox church in old Tbilisi is about as hard as finding a Baptist Church in East Texas. Sioni Cathedral was 2 blocks away, perhaps, from which Jvaris Mama Church was a block or two away. Metekhi Church was just across the river. Two churches were being restored between Sioni and Metekhi. That is not even taking into consideration the Armenian churches. You get the picture.
Sioni was the cathedral church of Tbilisi until the recent completion of the Sameba Church. But it is still the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch Illya II, lives in the adjoining Patriarchal compound. Vespers had not begun at Sioni either, though there was already a sizable crowd. Several of us lit candles and venerated the icons. A woman approached me, raising money for the restoration of a 6th-century monastery in the countryside. I gave her a contribution. A little later on, she came back to me, and asked me my name. I told her and her eyes lit up. "I knew it," she said. She handed me a small laminated card, with a picture of the monastery on one side, and an icon of St. John the Forerunner on the other. She had a sense that my name was John and she wanted me to have the icon of St. John. She thanked me again, and told me to keep the icon with me always. I have tried to do so.
We then walked over to Jvaris Mama Church, where Vespers were underway. The church was more or less packed, mostly with younger people. The crowd were a little noisier than what we are used to, but this seemed to be quite normal for this church. John G. led us to the grotto within the compound, and showed us where he was baptized a few years back.
After a bit, we hiked back over to Anchiskhati Church, where Vespers were finally underway. We edged our way into the crowd, as the nave was fully packed. Interestingly, the men were on the right and the women were on the left. There was no noisiness as in Jvaris Mama. Everyone was quietly and reverently attentive.
Visiting the three churches gave us a good perspective on Georgian Orthodox worship. What really impressed me was the fact that all of these churches were packed full. And this was for Saturday Vespers. But this in no way prepared us for the experience of Divine Liturgy at Sameba Cathedral the next morning.
The recently completely Sameba Cathedral is the third largest Orthodox Church in the world, ranking after churches in Moscow and Belgrade. It dominates the Tbilisi skyline. Sadly, like Orthodox everywhere, we arrived a little late for Liturgy Sunday morning. I noticed a large crowd milling around the plaza surrounding the cathedral. As I got closer, I realized that most were outside because they could not get in. I spent the next 30 minutes or so slowly inching my way into the center of the church. The immense cathedral was packed to the brim. They had even opened the balcony. I suppose there were at least 2,000 people inside, and probably much closer to 3,000. About 500 or so were outside, filtering in as others went outside for air. I have never seen anything quite like it. But that was not all. The crowd was overwhelmingly young. I felt like an old man. I would estimate that 80% were 30 or under. Probably 70% were 25 or under. Luarsab later explained that the nationwide test for college entrance was the next day. Many of these young people were in Tbilisi for that reason and came to the church service to pray. In my view, that in no way discounts what I observed. Their presence there was a testimony to the enduring faith of the Georgian people, now taken up by the country's youth.
Divine Liturgy at Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi