In an Orthodox Country

One of the most obvious things about Georgia is that they’re very Orthodox, and have been for a long time. Anywhere I travel, one of the first stops is usually to some medieval church to light some candles and kiss some icons. I do attend our local church, and haven’t written about it, though I keep intending to. That’s because my relationship with the Church here is pretty rocky, entirely for what I consider petty, trivial reasons. I’ve learned that one “trivial” inconvenience is simply that — an inconvenience that is a bit distracting. Ten of then at the same time, however, is like trying to do something in a swarm of mosquitos — if you have the option, you’ll go somewhere else.

By “trivial inconveniences,” I mean thing like:

  • I don’t know the language.
  • Services average three hours.
  • There’s no possibility of sitting at any point (I have to stress this because, in American Orthodox churches, it’s the custom to stand, but there are enough chairs that people can sit if they need to — if there aren’t any chairs people sit on the rugs during the homily. This is not true in Georgia.)
  • The churches are overcrowded — it’s like playing ecclesiastical sardines.
  • It’s chanted in the traditional (and unfamiliar to me) Georgian three-part harmony.
  • There are no printed schedules, and I’ve never met anyone who would give me complete information on church activities. I have to already know that an event exists in order to ask about it.
  • There’s no church hall, and people don’t have a hang out/socialization period after church — they just go home, so I haven’t met a single person at church in Gori, and don’t even greet the people I already know if I see them. Perhaps a week later someone might point to me and say “I saw her in church,” which is kinda awkward.
  • It’s never the right temperature inside — if it’s cold, my feet freeze, even in boots; if it’s warm, we bake, because there’s no place to put coats, so we wear them the entire service. There’s no place to put bags, either, so everyone is standing as though they had just met up on the street, with coats, hats, and bags still on.
  • People more around more or less constantly, and since it’s packed already, they move around by pushing up against the people already there, including me. The only respite at a well attended service is the Gospel reading, when we all hold candles and try not to burn one another’s coats and scarves instead.
  • I don’t know whether it’s appropriate for me to receive Communion or not, nor when, nor with what preparation, nor what I should say to the priest.
  • I haven’t got a friend who’s in the same newbie/outsider” position as myself for mutual support.
  • The church is a half hour, cold and windy, walk away from where I live.
  • I don’t have a home parish — I’ve got three parishes I’m marginally attached to.

Now, as I said, any one of these difficulties is deal-able. Even all together they’re deal-able every now and again. But not every Saturday and Sunday, apparently. I intend to go to church, plan to go, anticipate going… and still sleep through two hours of alarms, and manage not to go. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I managed to go to the Canon of St Andrew, but on Thursday and Friday I didn’t, for no good reason other than that it would be uncomfortable.

I have a vague feeling that I’m going about this wrong — I’m somehow taking the wrong tack here. I have this command inside, and I think it actually is a Christian command: “you must become part of the local church wherever you are, for ‘we are one body in Christ!’” So I approach the local church: I try to go to Vigil and Liturgy, attend chant classes, have local icons up in my room, light candles, try to follow the local holidays, and so on. But there’s some kind of miscommunication going on — I’m somehow failing to connect when I ask even people with very good English about this.

This signals, to me, a problem. Why? First, because in Flagstaff and Santa Fe especially (less so in Tucson, but I can deal with it in Tucson because my family is there), the church communities are small, intense, social, almost always have catechumens, and function as an extended family, including their own sets of local traditions, norms, and habits. This is especially true of the  twenty or thirty people who form the core of such a church. On church holidays we don’t go back to our families and engage in our own traditions there — we celebrate, usually eat, as a church. I don’t know that I sufficiently appreciated that before. That at Holy Trinity I don’t need to wait for a personal invitation to participate in the weekly potlucks or holiday picnics — anyone who shows up at church there is invited. That’s huge. Georgians are extremely hospitable, but their invitations are always personal, and almost never general. There is no Georgian equivalent to the church “coffee hour” practice in America. There really can’t be — there are no church halls, and all the churches are overcrowded. People go home and do whatever their family does.

I started to say “this isn’t a theological issue, but a social one” — which is in part true, and is why I don’t usually write about it.

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4 thoughts on “In an Orthodox Country

  1. Things are pretty much the same here in my Eastern European country, except I don’t have the language problem. Also, not all the churches are that crowded.

      • For Pascha, my family goes to church kind of late, then stays until the priest distributes the light and sings a few times “Christ is risen!” Then we go home with the candles still lit and eat red eggs and all sorts of goodies. For the most part, I go home with them and don’t stay for the liturgy. I think I did this only once. I keep thinking about going on a pilgrimage to a monastery for Pascha, but I still haven’t been able to organize myself to do it. I would be happier to do it together with some friends, but everybody prefers to stay at home with the family (or else, to go on some sort of secular vacation).

        So there’s no easy answer to your question, I’m always conflicted about it, because my parents are significantly less religious than I am.

  2. I’ve been assigned quite an ugly face here, but I’m not going to log in to the avatar site in order to change it.

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