Monastery Tour Impressions, June 2006
Newly scythed grasses, strewn about the base of massive gray pillars on the terracotta pave-stone floor, breathed an herbaceous scent into the festive air. Icons, angled to the heavens on wooden pedestals (the better to be kissed), were decorated with woven flower garlands. The smells of the field mixed with the spicy aroma of church incense, and the softer honeyed tone of beeswax tapers, guttering away in candle stands, combined to produce a bewitching sensory overload.
The liturgical color green, for the birth of the Church through the power
of the Holy Spirit, adorns churches throughout Georgia today; it is the feast
of Pentecost! Eastern Orthodoxy, for those not familiar with it, has
several hundred million adherents worldwide, concentrated in Russia, Greece,
and most of the countries comprising the former USSR, as well as northern Africa, and
the United States. Orthodoxy is distinctly different from Anglicanism
and other Protestant religions, yet also familiar. One writer, Robert
Kaplan, author of Eastward to Tartary, calls it the “ancient, fierce,
Asiatic face of Christianity.”
Inside the ‘Alaverdi’ Cathedral, an enormous stone cathedral nearly 1000 years old, the men stand on the right and the women, bright colored cloths on their heads, stand to the left. Greens are all over the floor. Ten men dressed in ordinary street dress are gathered around a podium in the south transept, chanting in impeccably tuned, but to Western ears oddly dissonant, harmony. Several hundred people stand quietly praying, (Orthodox worshippers stand; there are no pews), or walk around the church speaking quietly to each other. Finally, the Bishop's knock sounds on the heavy wooden doors; he is met by his awaiting clergy, escorted to his cathedra, and assisted into the liturgical vestments of his office. The Bishop, ‘Meope Davit’ to all who know him, is also a monk, and notably wears his episcopal vestments only during services, arriving and departing dressed as a simple monk (per Orthodox tradition).
The investiture took a leisurely ten minutes, a prelude to the more than 3
hour-long service. The Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox rite is the central
act of worship, as in our Anglican church, but here one notices that nearly
every word of the liturgy, and the scriptural readings, are chanted! Orthodox
chant varies enormously between countries, the Greeks having their style, Russians
another, and so forth. The traditional chant of Georgia is an ancient,
un-tempered, three-part harmony singing from the middle ages which is ferociously
difficult to master. In the past year, two Fulbright scholars have undertaken
study of this chant, some of whose roots can be traced back a thousand years,
with a few provocative remnants pointing to the pre-Christian era.
One of these scholars, 27-year old John Graham, is our tour organizer of Medieval Monasteries of Caucasus Georgia http://www.villageharmony.org/monasticism and is now pursuing a doctorate in musicology at Princeton. His Georgian counterpart, Luarsab Togonidze, a radiant giant with a high tenor of unearthly brilliance and power, has been our Georgian master of the revels.
And revel we have! We have visited twenty churches and monasteries in the past eight days, with long dinners each evening, in traditional Georgian style, frequently with local singers joining us at table for folk-singing. Sometimes there is dancing, and always a few large bowls of deliciously fresh Georgian wine, accompanied by toasts so moving and eloquent as to be genuine agapes. The evening ends as it has in Georgia for perhaps more than a thousand years, with a final toast to the Theotokos: Mary the Bearer of Christ.
Susan Miller-Coulter is a native of New York City and Burlington, Vermont, and is a 63 year old Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, 2006-2008. She was a participant on the first Monastery Tour in Caucasus Georgia, in June 2006.