Sunday, July 14, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (4)--The State of Orthodoxy in Georgia

Gelati Cathedral, near Kutaisi, Georgia

     Over the course of eleven days in Georgia, I visited twenty-two different Orthodox churches (as well as one synagogue.)  Only four  were in Tbilisi, the rest scattered all around the country.  Based on my observations, I will venture some tentative conclusions about the health of Georgian Orthodoxy.

     The nature of Orthodox worship makes it difficult to talk in terms of real numbers.  Hard figures are easier to come by in American Protestantism where membership rolls are generally maintained, and attendance taken during Sunday School and/or worship.  Orthodoxy just does not work that way, even in the U.S., much less traditional Orthodox countries.  Projected numbers in American Orthodox jurisdictions came in for some well-deserved criticism several years ago.  The OCA's figures proved especially egregious.    

     American Orthodox--perhaps looking for encouragement and validation from the Old World--sometimes view these traditional Orthodox cultures with rose-colored glasses.  And so, we should be clear-eyed about any claims of Orthodox ascendancy elsewhere.  Reports of the growing churches of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the explosive growth among the Mayans of Guatemala and southern Mexico appear genuine (Guatemala is now the largest per capita Orthodox country in the Western Hemisphere.)  A recent headline proclaiming Orthodoxy the fastest-growing religion in Ireland, however, is easily shot down.  Yes, there are 45,000 Orthodox Christians in that country, four times the number in 2002.  That is good news, to be sure, but a break-down of the numbers reveal that 26% are Romanian, 12.6% are Latvian, etc.  Only 20% (9,000) are native-born.  And Muslims in Ireland number 49,000.  When native-born Orthodox Irish outnumber the Muslims, then that will be news.  Most everyone agrees that the Russian church has undergone a remarkable revival in the post-Communist years, yet the number of actual church-goers is paltry relative to the total population.  That observation holds for Balkan Orthodoxy, as well.

     Georgia is often touted (rightly, I believe) as the exception to this pattern.  Indeed, I would contend that the Georgian model is perhaps the most robust expression of the Faith today.   One should keep in mind that the Orthodox Church here has always been a bit different, and for lack of a better word, Georgia-centric.  The church venerates a host of saints representing 1,900 years of their Christian witness, who are largely unknown to the Orthodox outside of Georgia.  The church has never been just an extension of Constantinople or Moscow, but has instead looked to Jerusalem (and Syria.)  And it seems that Georgian Orthodoxy-even from its founding narratives-has maintained a fascinating connection with Judaism.

     The revival of Orthodoxy here is nothing short of remarkable.  In 1917, 2,455 working churches exised in the country.  By the latter Soviet years, only 80 survived.  Today there are 1,700 Georgian priests and new church construction is evident across the country.  Ilia II, the Patriarch since 1977, remains the most beloved and respected figure in the country.  And yet, a few cautionary words are in order.  Communism failed as an economic system, yet was very successful, over several generations, in changing the natural order of things.  Merab Mamardashvili wrote the following in 1995:

I used to think that, as the Georgians loved life, had a sense of humor, managed to preserve their heart and ancient chivalry and had thus remained individualists, sceptics etc, they could not be fully enslaved...I came back and found this was an illusion, that the process of mental, spiritual, verbal degradation had gone too far.

Hopefully Mamardashvili's gloomy prognostication from the dark days of 1995 has not proved to be absolutely correct.  But for those who were born and came of age during the Soviet years, any return to Orthodoxy has been more problematic.  For many, the icons may be back up upon the walls at home, but little more.  I am currently reading Donald Rayfield's excellent and much-needed history, Edge of Empires.  I scanned the ending chapters first--the short-lived Republic of 1918, the Soviet annexation, the years of occupation, and the troubled transition to "democracy."   This compelling account of 75 years of brutality and gangsterism leads one to wonder how much of anything survived at all (and it must be noted, that the violence was more often Georgian against Georgian, rather than Soviet Russian against Georgian.)   Within this context, the ambivalence of some older Georgians to the Church is understandable. 

     And admittedly, most of the Georgian churches I visited were pilgrimage destinations, the historic churches and monasteries that have great meaning to the country's history.  My impression of the state of the Faith would be more balanced, for example, if I I had visited a church out among the Soviet-era block apartments in the Tbilisi suburbs, rather than the great churches of the old city.  

    That said,  twenty-two churches later, I left Georgia with a clear and consistent image of Georgian Orthodoxy.  With perhaps one exception--Ikalto--every church we visited, no matter which day, was alive with people.  The churches there are not the empty museum pieces you find in western Europe (as well as in Italy, I am told).  Priests, monks, and/or nuns are in evidence throughout.  We never really had a church to ourselves, but were merely one more group in the stream of pilgrims and regular worshippers wherever we went.  The candles never went out.  For Vespers and Divine Liturgy, the churches often had to spill out into their courtyards--not only at Sioni in Tbilisi, but at Gelati in Kutaisi.  Now at first glance, those milling about the outside of the churches might not appear to be worshippers at all, given that they may be chatting or talking on their cellphones.  But watch them, and before long they will filter back into the church.  In some ways, Georgian worship appears a bit more casual natural than that to which we are accustomed, with more movement and general milling about.  As was explained to me, Georgians believes that whenever they are in the church they should be prayerful.  If they find themselves in not so prayerful a state of mind, they may step outside for a bit until they feel it is appropriate to return.  In Sioni on Sunday morning, the atmosphere could only be described as a crush of people.  The same applied for Anchiskhati and Sameba. 

     But here is the most important point that I have been building up to.  The churches were overwhelmingly comprised of young people--teenagers, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings.  The priests, monks and nuns were equally youthful, it seemed to me.  Certainly there were the grandparents in attendance, but for the most part the Georgian Orthodox Church seems to be the church of the young.  Now, my contacts assure me that plenty of youth are not the least interested in religion at all, nor do I know the percentage of the total youth demographic that these worshippers represent.  But it really does not matter, for enough of a critical mass is in place to ensure a vigorous future.  A recent BBC article notes that while "over 80% of Georgia's 4.5 million people say they belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church...only about 15%-25% actively participate in rituals."  So, in one sense, Georgia is broadly culturally Orthodox, in the same manner as Greece, the Balkans and Russia.  But when you think about it--especially considering Georgia's three generations of Communism--the figure of 25% who "actively participate" is actually pretty darn good for the 21st-Century.

     One can hardly over-emphasize the role of His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II in the revival of Georgian Orthodoxy.  He has wisely guided the Church through the minefield of late Soviet and post Soviet Georgian politics, generally avoiding public stances on contentious issues other than to encourage restraint and prayer.  One of our tour members knew a Georgian-American who knew someone who worked in the Patriarchate.  Through these connections, we received permission to visit the Patriarch on the last night of our stay.   The main building of the compound is a long three-story structure facing a busy street hugging the west shoreline of the Mhkvari River (the Patriarch lives in an apartment on the third floor, with the rest of the facility devoted to administration.)  A high stone wall wraps around the north, south and west sides of the property.  The narrow enclosure contains a large convent, an exquisite chapel and a lush, semi-tropical garden, complete with a peacock strolling within. 

     As dusk approached, our entrance into this world had an almost magical feel.  As one would imagine, the little Church of the Annunciation contained some of the best Georgian iconography, replete with Georgian saints and an interesting panel depicting the Prophet Jonah.  From the church, we were escorted to the Patriarch's third floor office, where we waited for some time.  At this time, a delegation of international scholars was just leaving the building after a meeting with the Patriarch. The walls of the office were filled with his artwork, secular and religious.  The Patriarch is devoted to David the Psalmist, and the icon he wrote of King David hangs on the wall (and is becoming a popular icon throughout Georgia.)  Several people from the Patriarchate came in and introduced themselves and waited with us.  They expressed pleasant surprise that we were American and Orthodox. 

     One of these was Tsisana, our liaison there.  Back during the Ahbkasian wars of the early 1990s, she came to the Patriarchate to help out with those who needed medical attention.  She now runs the free clinic there.  Georgian doctors donate their services for those who cannot afford regular medical care (and the subject of the excellent Georgian medical care without the insurance industry deserves a separate post.)  At that same time, the Patriarchate and the convent started a daily soup kitchen to help feed as many of the refugees as possible.  4,000 meals were served every day during the worst of the crisis.  Even today, 250 meals are served up on a daily basis.  After a while, one aide brought in a stack of books--hardbound copies of the Patriarch's homilies (in English), gifts to us from him.  

     In time, we were ushered back downstairs and out into the courtyard, underneath the stars.  From this point on, the exact order of events is jumbled in the mystical haze of my memory.  The Patriarch was there, sitting in a simple arm chair.  A few attendants hovered about, including a 6' 4" body-builder whom I assumed to be his bodyguard.  He waited on his charge as tenderly and as attentively as any nurse.  The Patriarch is now weighted-down in years, a frail little man whose voice is almost inaudible, who has trouble standing and whose hands shake with palsy.  And yet his eyes were alert and burned bright.  

     A priest received an emotional blessing.  John Graham squatted in front of the Patriarch and explained who we were.  Each of us advanced forward, among the others, and received a blessing.  Four of our number were choir members of the same parish in New Jersey.  They had purchased an icon--the original written by the Patriarch himself--as a gift to a Georgian Orthodox Church in their state, and he blessed it.  One of the nuns approached John with a request. The Patriarch has mentioned that he would enjoy hearing the four chant.  Nervously, they eased up to his side and chanted in church Slavonic. (they are from a heavily ethnic parish.) After that, he whispered something to John Graham, and they then chanted in English.  The Patriarch told John that he would rather they sing something in American.  Of course, they were all very honored to have this privilege. 

     We stood in the moonlight, around a 400-year old olive tree (a recent gift from an Jewish native of Georgia, now living in Israel), clutching our books of Homilies, and munching on the fresh apricots and cherries that were being passed around.  A trio of nuns gently sang Alleluia in the background.  They were all young, their faces joyous, if not radiant.  I knew this before going to Georgia, but there is just something about Orthodox nuns.  Tsisana told us that the Patriarch had these informal audiences every night, that they would go on until 2:00 in the morning, and then the new day would begin with morning prayers at 6:00 A.M.  We lingered as long as we could, reluctant to leave this blessed garden.  But we had to return to the hotel, as some of us were leaving for the airport in less than four hours.  Before doing so, we pressed money into Tsisana's hand, for use at the clinic.  With tearful eyes, she thanked us, but asked if she could give it to the soup kitchen instead, as the need was greater there.  How typical of Georgian generosity--you give them something and they are thinking of who might need it more.  (This to be a subject of another post.)  

     Earlier that day, I was in Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi.  Truth be told, the behavior of some of the crowd that morning was not exactly spiritually edifying.  But one vignette stands out in my memory.  A Georgian woman, probably  within a few years either side of forty, dressed attractively but in a traditional manner, was escorting two young children--a skinny girl of about eight, and a boy still in shorts, aged about five.  They were making the rounds of the icons and the candle stands.  She was there with them, but neither child needed instructions on what to do.  The girl could reach the icons easily enough.  The boy, however, was still too short.  On his tiptoes, he could barely stretch to kiss the bottom of the frame.  But at every icon stand, he gave it everything he had.  This is the remembrance I carried home with me.  Orthodoxy will continue to blossom in these mellow Caucasian valleys.

     I never cease to be amazed at the level of American historio-geographic ignorance and indifference (or at least in my corner of the country.)  At a meeting, a young executive overheard where I had been.  "Wow," she said, "that's a real mission field."  The images of Georgia came flooding back, and I had a sudden flash of anger at this casual, uninformed arrogance.  I simply replied, "No.  They need to send missionaries to us."


In the Patriarchate


Anonymous said...

What a great read! You're really making me consider going too.

How fortunate that you were able to meet the Patriarch Ilia himself.

Would you explain the fascination connection with Judaism?

Terry (John) said...


Give me a few more posts, and you will not be able to stay away ;)

The Georgian connection with Judaism is a bit hard to pin down, but it is very real, nonetheless. There are several strands to it.

First, Jews have generally thrived in Georgia throughout its history. I have read of no real persection, at least not from the Christian side of things. The Jewish population only dropped in Tbilisi after 1972. Eduard Shevarnadze broke-up the black market there (largely Jewish controlled), but offered them Israeli exit visas as a consolation. The Jewish population dropped in half after that, but it was solely for economic reasons.

The Georgian Orthodox Church always looked to Jerusalem, if you want to put it that way. They had a monastery there almost immediately after the nation's conversion, and pilgrims went back and forth all the time. Admittedly, it was a connection with the Christianity of Jerusalem, not its Judaism. But I get a sense that it played into their natural sympathy for the Jews. This article hints at that:

The main connection, I think, is in the Georgian's founding narrative. The story starts with a Jewish resident, Elias, returning to Mskheta with the Cloak of Christ. His sister, Sidona, cluthes the cloak and, overcome with emotion, dies. The cloak cannot be pried from her grasp and it is buried with her. A large cedar tree grows over her grave. 300 years later, St. Nino converts Queen Nana and King Mirian and directs a church to be built over the grave of Sidona, the cedar is cut into pillars for support, the last being the miraculous "life-giving pillar." My telling of it is mangled, but you can easily find St. Nino's story online. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral-the most holy in a nation of holy places-sits atop Sidona's grave, which is now within the church. So, at two times, the Christianization of Georgia is inextricably tied to its early Jewish community.

Finally, the Bagrationis claim descent from King David. (This prolific family ruled Georgia and/or its component regions from its very inception until 1803.) Now, we are prone to dismiss this sort of thing as being too fanciful. But the Bagrationi family can trace its lineage all the way back to the very first Georgian king, Parvanaz, in about 300 BC! This is real, documented history, not the fantasy stuff that has to suffice for such parvenus as the Windsors once they stretch back 1100 or 1200 years or so. If they have it documented for 2,300 years, who is to say that they had this right as well? (Of course, we have to bear in mind that extrapolating back, we are all descendants of Charlemagne, for example, and no doubt King David, as well.) But the point is that Georgia's rulers saw themselves as a continuation of the Kings of Israel.

Throw all these points into the mix, for whatever they are worth, and you come out with two peoples who are naturally sympathetic to one another.