|The view from Gelati|
I spent Orthodox Easter, from Red Friday to early the morning of Easter Sunday, very near the heart of Georgian Orthodoxy. Davit Aghmashenebeli (r. 1089-1125), the king whose reign inaugurated the Georgian Golden Age, who moreover is revered as a saint in the Georgian church, and whose name graces the main street of literally every Georgian city, is buried on the grounds of Gelati Monastery, a hilltop retreat outside the bustling urban center of Kutaisi. I went there on the recommendation of John Graham, a native Vermonter who has spent the better part of the last decade living in Georgia and painstakingly studying the historical origins and modern revival of Georgian chant. He's currently part of the choir at the Kashweti Church in Tbilisi, where, unbeknownst to me at the time, I heard him sing on Christmas Eve. When I asked John where, of all the places in Georgia, I should spend Easter, he recommended Gelati, and even had a friend within walking distance of the monastery who could put me up in her guest house. Two days, then, after my trip to visit Tristan in Guria, I boarded the marshutka for Kutaisi, with charged-up batteries for my camera and digital audio recorder.
I arrived some two hours later, and met up, not with the proprietor of the guesthouse, but with her son, Sandro, and a young woman, Kristina, who lived next door. Sandro and Kristina served as my unexpected tour guides, first in Kutaisi, then to the monasteries of Motsameta and Gelati. Our first stop was the ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral, an imposing structure that looms above the city, offering views of the greater part of Imereti, and even the idyllic valleys of Racha, to the north. A large reconstruction effort is presently underway, to restore the roof and cupola of the cathedral, so even if it weren't Good Friday, when church bells sit silent and the general mood is one of sober reflection on the Crucifixion, religious observances would be minimal here. We still found a ceremony in progress, though music-less as far as I could tell, in the roofless chapel of St. George, which predates, I believe, the grander cathedral structure (see photo at right).
|Gelati, with the tree|
The painted interior of the cathedral truly inspires awe. On this first trip to the church, I only spent about 15 minutes inside, though I was stunned by the proliferation of images from floor to ceiling. The frescoes were painted over a wide range of time – 12th-17th centuries, I believe – though there's an undeniable unity to the experience. My guides, Sandro and Kristina, pointed out some of the more unusual Biblical scenes that appear on the walls – including Judas hanging from a tree and the recently decapitated John the Baptist – and drew my attention to the crowning achievement of the monastery: a marvelous mosaic of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ-child, embracing the curve of the apse and requiring over 2.5 million stones to achieve its indigo-and-gold transcendence. There was minimal activity in the church, mostly limited to worshipers' individual devotions and meditations. My guides assured me that the next day there would be some singing.
|The mosaic above the altar |
(the bottom part was restored with paint)
I rose early the next morning and hiked up the winding road from Maia's house to the Monastery. It was a beautiful, bright day, with a blue sky that turned pale as it met the snow-capped mountains of Svaneti to the north-west. I had been told that, by following a path above the monastery, I could reach another, smaller monastery of St. Elias. I dutifully took the path up the mountain, which quickly became a pockmarked dirt road navigable only by ATV or heavy machinery. Some twenty minutes into the climb, I came upon a sign that said, "Fortress of the Monk," with what appeared to be a cubist map underneath the title, though there wasn't a trace of human settlement in sight on either side of the road. After puzzling over this for a moment, I continued up the road. As the sun beat down and my distance from that sign increased, I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake, though I still felt energized by the beauty of the day and the solemn purposefulness that overtakes me during certain times of year. Stupendous views of mountains and distant villages opened at every turn, and finally, after climbing a steep switchback, I thought I saw a roof or maybe a window through a row of trees. Maybe this was the monastery – maybe there was a solitary hermit who lived there! Would he welcome me? Was I somehow trespassing? Practicing in my head some introductory phrases in Georgian, I crested the summit and beheld a Caterpillar front-loader where I thought I'd seen the glinting reflection of a window. It was a rock quarry, scarred with giant tire tracks and heavy machinery lying idle. The humor of it was a relief to me, and I turned around to appreciate the climb I'd made and the special view accorded those who make futile ascents. Bounding back down the road, I practiced the Gurian songs Tristan had taught me, even if the words usually escaped me. Still riding the high of his master class, I let my mind wander and imagined teaching these songs to others, sharing them somehow, even pairing them in a concert with polyphony from other periods of history and regions of the world … Still harboring these thoughts, I returned to Gelati and stepped back inside the Cathedral, where a Holy Saturday service was in progress. And here was singing!
The choir was small - four women and one man, but they clearly knew what they were doing in Gelati's acoustics. It's one of the relatively few times I've seen a Georgian choir in its traditional place - stage right, as it were, of the ikonostasis - rather than in a choir loft or, like at Sameba Cathedral, practically in another zip code and piped in with speakers. There's a marvelous natural resonance in Gelati's church, thanks I'm sure to the interlocking system of gentle arches and its imposing yet human scale. The natural light pouring through the high windows made me thankful that this church had not succumbed to the mania for artificial light that I'd seen elsewhere. This assumption wasn't quite correct, as later that night, for the All-Night Vigil, a bright halogen bulb would be hung from over the main door. Guide-less, I lingered over the images that surrounded me, glad to take the time and read into their stories. I found myself especially moved by some frescoes to my right as I entered, showing scenes from Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I'd always been struck by the scene of Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples (partly because at my church growing up, my family had often been part of a re-enacting of this strangely intimate moment). Underneath the scene of washing, though, I saw a profoundly poignant and almost comical scene. Peter sits in the courtyard of the High Priest, while his friend and master is being questioned inside. Most of the frame is empty space, except for a gold-orange rooster, perched in proud isolation, gladly singing its morning call, while the despondent Peter sits with his head in his hand, glumly realizing that his three denials have happened just as predicted. I show the picture at right.
|Heavenly light, of course|
Let me interrupt this personal discourse to share some more of the lovely, sensitive singing from the Gelati choir, at the moment when the bells of the nearby belfry, silent for Good Friday, found their voice again:
Some time after this trip, I read in Joseph Campbell's Creative Mythology (Volume 4 of his The Masks of God, my constant companion on this journey), some further reflections on Holy Saturday, and the relationship between humanity and the pervasive, enthralling idea of resurrection. Perhaps some of my affinity for Campbell comes from his similar Irish-American Catholic background, in which the rites and resonances of Catholicism are deeply ingrained, yet serve not as a limiting factor but as a strong jumping-off place from which to survey the underlying function of mythology in people's lives. One of his favorite texts is James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, in which a certain number, 1132, recurs again and again, like an idee fixe. The numerological significance can be read as the combination of Rise and Fall. The Rise comes from 11 being "the renewal of the decade," while 32 refers to the acceleration due to gravity (32 feet per second per second), or, in other words "The Fall." A further significance may be read as a reference to Paul's letter to the Romans, 11:32, which reads "For God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all." In this reading, the very "fallen" nature of humankind, with Original Sin or what have you, is itself a vehicle of grace. This oxymoron is captured in a phrase of Augustine's, "O felix culpa" (Latin for "oh happy fault," as in mea culpa). Apparently this "phrase of hope," in pre-Vatican II times, was repeated by the priest during the Roman Catholic ritual of blessing the Paschal candle on Holy Saturday, as Campbell writes, "the dark, dark night of Christ's body lying in the tomb."
The tabernacle of the church [Campbell goes on] is open - empty - to symbolize the awesome mystery of God's death and descent into Hell. "This," says the priestly celebrant, "Is the night at which at this time throughout the world restores to grace and unites in sanctity those that believe in Christ, and are separated from the vices of the world and the darkness of sinners. This is the night in which, destroying the bonds of death, Christ arose victorious from the grave. For it would have profited us nothing to have been born, unless redemption had also been bestowed on us. O wonderful condescension of Thy mercy toward us! ... that Thou mightest redeem a slave, Thou didst deliver up Thy Son! O truly needful sin of Adam, which was blotted out by the death of Christ! O happy fault [O felix culpa], which deserved to possess such and so great a Redeemer! O truly blessed night, which alone deserved to know the time and hour in which Christ rose again from the grave! This is the night of which it is written: And the night shall be as light as the day; and the night is my light in my enjoyments.Campbell then quotes a pun by Joyce (one of literally thousands throughout Finnegans Wake), that plays on this Latin phrase. "Poor Felix Culapert!" As though felix culpa had become the name of a rather mundane greengrocer or window-washer in Dublin. There also arrives a reference to Phoenix Park (sometimes "Felix Park"), the main park of the Irish capital, where murders in Joyce's lifetime famously took place. The phoenix, then, is the "multicolored soul-bird ... which resurrects of itself - 'when the fiery bird disembers' - from the ash of its self-immolation." I also see something a bit more naughty and/or vulgar in the pun, with the word divided, in a pan-European style, into aperto, from the Italian adjective for "open," and cul, which any 10th-grader in French class will gladly translate!
Anyway - apologies for the lengthy digression - it was a marvelous day of deep thinking and enjoyment of nature. More delicious food followed at Maia's guesthouse, followed by a nap before the Easter services, which began at 11pm. I went with my guides and was quickly accompanied by other young members of this community. The church was now filled, though not to overflowing, as was no doubt the case in Tbilisi's Sioni or Anchikhati churches. I felt with reasonable confidence, and not a little pride, that I was one of the only "tourists" there. I did hear some Russian, but no other English speakers. There was singing for much of the night - the same choir as before, which disappointed me somewhat, hoping for a mighty, stereotypically male Georgian chorus sound. I continued to be amazed at their sensitivity, balance, and breath control. Around midnight, when Easter, I supposed, officially began, the whole congregation exited the cathedral and walked three times around the church, holding candles. Mine blew out quickly, though I was too consumed with handling my audio recorder to pay much mind. These were the bells that triumphantly rang out with our triple circuit:
Soon afterward, we heard the first iteration of a text that would be repeated over and over again during the night, either intoned by a priest or sung in a variety of arrangements. My guess is that its first line includes the phrase, "Christ is Risen," and I connect it therefore with the Greek Orthodox hymn, "Khristos Anesti," similarly sung repeated on Easter, from which text\I took the title of this post. Here's the Georgian hymn in its first appearance:
And again, with the same text, but different music:
And finally, an hour and a half later, in a third arrangement:
We stayed until about 3:30 AM, not staying all the way to the end, as my host Sandro was kindly waking up at 9am to drive me to the marshutka, so I could meet up with my family from Kobuleti for Easter celebrations in Guria. Those celebrations may merit another post, but I'll leave you for now. A final, longer musical excerpt I think is in order, to give you a sense of what it's like to stand during these long Orthodox services, when time itself - collapsed miraculously by the idea of an eternal God suffering death, the defining feature of temporariness - seems to disappear entirely:
|Worshipers gathered at Gelati|