Kriste Aghsdga! Cheshmaritad!
There are some things that are just kind of hard to write about, or to think about with just one’s brain, for that matter. For me, the Georgian church is one of those things. That’s because I always experience several overlapping thoughts and feelings about it simultaneously — the event itself, the way we’re celebrating the event, and my own personal experience of the way that we’re celebrating the event are a little dissonant for me, as is even my own experience, seen or felt in different ways. It’s Pascha — the feast of feasts! Holy day of holy days! It is the day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant! Let us embrace one another, and call brother even those who hate us! A feast so great even prisoners unjustly punished sing its praises with joy.
All of which I affirm — but I have to say that I affirm it, because I don’t necessarily feel it — or not in precisely that way; perhaps in a different way, but one that I would have to be a much better poet than I am to even attempt to communicate. And I’m not a poet at all yet.
It’s celebrated with a ten hour vigil. Yeah, a ten hour vigil. Standing in an ancient, crowded stone church. In Georgian. With Georgian chants. And then we leave, go home in little clumps of two or three or five. Unless it’s surprisingly unbearable or surprisingly thrilling, what does one say about such a thing. Actually, what does one say even then? That you appreciate what it’s about, but it’s still quite difficult? Someone could probably get that from the mere fact that it’s a ten hour vigil. It was the kind of thing one might imagine, just by knowing what kind of event it was. If I were to say that I spent Easter at some Catholic monastery somewhere where they had a ten hour vigil all in Latin, what would I then be expected to say? Probably you would hope for a story about how and why I did that.
Perhaps, then, what’s more interesting, or more worth considering, is that in Georgia the services are pretty much what they are anywhere, in any church, give or take a couple of hours, and that it’s not so much that some people are having epic ancient vigils while everyone else sings a few hymns and listens to a sermon, but rather that, if you’re going to church, this is what you do, and as a free person one can leave at any time, but the service won’t budge an inch. Even the little Gori church that’s not monastic and didn’t have a bishop attending had an epic, crowded eight hour vigil. One can participate in the same services as the monks, or stay at home.
I have mixed feelings about this, and always have. I’ve missed a lot of services because of it, and left some more half way through. I admire monastics and their vigils. I’m sure they’re important for the life of the world. I believe that “seeker friendly” churches tend to pander and practice “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” At the same time, monasteries have communities that support their efforts. I haven’t found that to be generally true for the rest of us.
But I don’t want to go into that, because I don’t have an informed opinion. Basically, it’s pretty mysterious to me. Even the way that we celebrate in America is a little mysterious to me sometimes, probably because no actual, outward service or feast or party, or anything else we could possibly do with food and songs, could possibly fully express the feast, for which all words are and must be inadequate to the underlying reality. And yet we can’t simply say so and give up, so we make a very long, loud, celebratory Liturgy, followed by a long, loud, celebratory feast. Or, in Georgia, we have a long, crowded, distracting Vigil (in which the physical circumstances of the service tend to make prayer extremely difficult), and then go home and eat meat — probably from animals raised in the village where we’re celebrating.
This isn’t necessarily what I want to write. It’s more true that Pascha is the Feast of feasts, Holy Day of holy days (!) than that we’re unable to express it in actions that convey that in a way that’s easy to enter into. And yet — I can’t write well on the former. I’ve read people who can, and they usually write very theologically, which I’m not up any more than I’m up to writing poetry.
On Bright Monday it’s traditional in Georgia to have a picnic by the grave of one’s dead relatives — I went with a friend to the graves of her father and grandparents, in two different villages: