A few weeks ago I went with my host family on what I understood to be an excursion. We were going to Martvili which is well known for a beautiful canyon. But as is often the case here, I was mistaken. We were actually going to church. As the church was more than a half hour drive from our house, I assumed it must be a church that we were visiting for a special occasion. Once again, incorrect. This is my family’s church. It has a very long history. The current structure was built in the 10th Century while the first church was built on this site in the 7th Century. But even before Christianity came to Georgia (around that time), this site was sacred to pagans who worshipped at an ancient oak that grew here. So, while I’m not a religious person, it was pretty amazing to go to a service at a site that has such an ancient spiritual history.
Eastern Orthodox Catholicism is the official religion of Georgia. Around the time that Christianity came to Georgia, the Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church began to split when Charlemagne was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor. The Byzantine Empire was not thrilled with a Westerner being crowned, as the East had been the successful defenders of Christianity against barbarian invasion for centuries at this point. Rome had fallen in the 5th Century. Over time, the rift became deeper and two separate churches were born. Anyway, this isn’t intended to be a history lesson.
The shared roots with the Roman Catholic church are definitely evident in the rituals. And as someone who grew up in Protestant churches, it was interesting to contemplate (while the service commenced in a language I do not yet understand) how different the “church” experience is for Catholics vs. Protestants. For Catholics there is so much focus on ritual and the role of the priest since he (always he) is your conduit to God. In my experience of Protestant churches, the focus seemed to be so much more on communion with other Christians and ritual didn’t hold a very high place in service. Since protestants believe they have a direct relationship with God (what a radical Martin Luther was!!), church isn’t where you go for forgiveness and to demonstrate your faith but where you go to connect with others who share your faith. This led me to think about how those differences in religious experience and belief went on to shape the culture of the United States and continue to shape the ancient culture of Georgia. Georgians don’t need to attend service for community. They have very strong communities made up of family, neighbors, and friends. People in the U.S., on the other hand, are almost pathologically individualistic. I’m not judging here. If I have learned only one thing since arriving in Georgia, it is that I am deeply “American” in my individualism. And I am totally fine with that. Because Georgians have so much faith in the Patriarch (the head father), much of the culture is informed by his pronouncements. Thus, you have events like the May riot (led by priests) attacking the anti-homophobia march and the cult of virginity that is pervasive here and deems any woman who isn’t a virgin unmarriageable. While in America, we have such a radical diversity of beliefs, that even when the majority of Americans finally agree on a topic, there will always be a radical fringe that continues to act out. I don’t know. At this point, I’m kind of thinking out loud and I have a lot of thoughts that haven’t gelled into any sort of coherent perspective.
I will say that my visit to this church was incredibly welcoming. Georgians believe that a guest is a gift from God. So, imagine you are the guest of a priest whose entire life is devoted to God. Yeah, they were pretty great hosts. I was given a tour of the new home of the Mothers, then invited to the home of the Fathers where I was a guest for lunch. They then brought us to wine storehouse and we had a toast in which we drank from large clay bowls. It was a “bolomde” toast which means you have to drink to the bottom. Quite a challenge. I would imagine I will be attending again some time soon. I’m okay with that. Who wouldn’t want to spend part of their Sunday morning in a place as beautiful as this.