Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Another Update

            Though temporally separated due to my negligence as a blogger, in many ways this blog entry is a thematic continuation of the last, though coming almost a month later. I am still struggling to define what it is about my experiences here that makes them stand out so vividly and singularly against the backdrop of the everyday minutiae. I am grappling with how to define and put into words what lies beneath the surface of everything I encounter; what impregnates certain people, places, and events with meaning; and what effect each of them have on me–how I am transformed by them and within them. I do not have a lot of conclusions to draw, but I have a lot of observations, and I think it could be no other way; for to conclude bestows finality, the end of a process, and the cessation of searching, but in life for this to occur means stagnation. Even to draw conclusions about specific experiences already in the past seems a mistake, for as we continue through life the waves of new encounters that batter against us with every step do not only change the way we are in the present and the way we will be in the future, but also shape and mold the lens with which we view the past. The immediate inclination of what meaning an event has is rarely the same the night it occurs, the morning after it happens, and five years later, but at each stage we are able to place within different and broader context. It is with this mutability of experience in mind that I write about my time here in Georgia, and from this comes an awareness that there is nothing conclusive about what I now draw from each instance.

            Along with these thoughts about the elusiveness of the spirit beneath the surface of every experience I have focused on a few more aspects of life that seem to stand out very vividly here in Georgia as I am immersed in a new culture and an altogether new atmosphere. One of these major themes is possibility. I am not going to get into the philosophy of possible worlds and what is meant by any statement of what could or could not, but I was immensely influenced by Tolstoy’s musings on this theme throughout War and Peace, and I have come appreciate his view that life could not, in fact be otherwise than it is now and that it has been in the past, but that this does not negate free will. I won’t get into dense arguments as to why I think that, but lately I have become attached to the idea that things are as they have to be, and that to say things should or could be different at this moment is to try to access a world that never did and never will exist. This may sound like a sort of bleak fatalism, but just because the present bears the stamp of inevitably from a myriad of causes in the past does not mean that the future is already determined. So many times over the last two months I have been struck by the overwhelming feeling that though things are not always as I would have wanted them to be, they are the way the must be. While at this point all this must seem very abstract and vague, I’ll try to illustrate what I’m talking about through a few stories from my life here that were exceptionally positive experiences and that have emerged as some of my strongest impressions of my life in Georgia thus far.

            Moving beyond thoughts of contingency, conceivability, and possibility to something more personal, I have also been contemplating actuality and potentiality, or, on a personal level, who we are and who we could be. To achieve actuality in life means coming fully alive, emerging out of the potentiality of who we could be to discovering who we were meant to be. I am not convinced that true actuality can be achieved in this life, but suspect it is something to be ever striven for. I believe that becoming fully alive, achieving the good life in which we are completely satisfied and in which we always act in accordance with what is good is beyond us, is something set before us as an ideal unattainable in our fallibility as a distant star can seem so close and tangible but is light years away. We are all ultimately redeemable, destined for actuality, but we must work for that redemption, struggling against a set of ideals we perpetually fall short of.

While full actualization may be beyond us, it seems to me that there are moments in life in which we brush up against the fulfilled life of complete actuality. There are times in which we are caught up in a moment in such a way that we are put at peace, our faults and shortcomings stripped away, and the boundary between who we are, who we could be, and who we ought to be rarefies and all three come into contact with one another. They are fleeting moments, but they are moments that provide comfort and hope that, despite our humanity, we are capable of something greater. The existence of these “thin points,” or liminal experiences through which emerges contact between who we are and who we could become also colors many of my experiences of life in Georgia.

And now to the Caucasus.

Part 1: How to celebrate a religious holiday

            One of the earliest differences I noticed between American culture and Georgian culture is the schedule of holidays. In Georgia there are very few state holidays that are purely secular; rather, the state’s calendar and the church’s almost entirely overlap. However, while on the calendar the days may coincide, this does not ensure that all holidays will take on a particularly religious character. Like in America, many traditionally religious holidays have become increasingly secularized, producing their own traditions and modes of celebration that seemingly bear little connection to the initial intention of the day’s celebration. Here we did not celebrate the two holidays that have past so far, the day of the Transfiguration (August 19) and the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 28), by going to church as would have been expected, but by doing what one should do on any good holiday: feasting (Note that the dates of the holidays fall 13 days later than most Western churches celebrate them: the Georgian Orthodox Church follows the Julian rather than the Gregorian Calendar). The holidays have been the occasions for two of the largest supras I have attended, and on each day our meals were accompanied by no shortage of great food and homemade wine. While I have already described the Georgian methodology of feasting, the other events of each of these days warrant a lengthier description.

On the Day of the Transfiguration a couple of police officers drove the son in my host family and me to a field about 6 km outside of Supsa where we joined a growing crowd in looking out over the large field where a number of men on horseback were gathering. Nothing had been explained to me about what we were doing at this point except that we could not yet go home, and so I was sufficiently confused. As we waited for the next hour or so, more riders gathered, and it was explained to me that we would be watching horse races. Excited by the opportunity to see a Georgian horse race, I waited patiently for the event to begin.

            As the riders finally gathered for the first race, I was struck by the degree to which it was evident that those men could be no more at home than they were on those horses. Their faces wizened by days of work out in the fields without reprieve from the summer sun, their muscles strong and sinewy from their life’s hard labor, and their visages glistening with sweat from the hot August day struck an image of men whose existence has become intertwined with their labor, their appearance and disposition molded by the lives they lead. Many were riding bareback, most had whips in hand to use in urging their horses along, and all presented an image that typified what I think of when I picture a man of the Caucasus. The whole time I could not help thinking about Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time and the character of Kazbich, a young Caucasian robber hardened by the extremes of life in the and at odds with the world of men whose only true companion is his horse, Karagyoz, unmatched by any other in the Caucasus. In the races I was to watch I began to more fully understand the people of the Caucasus described by Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy. I got a strong sense that what I was seeing was no different than the way I could have seen the day of the Transfiguration celebrated one hundred or two hundred years ago here in Georgia. The act of the competition of man and beast together held the same appeal then that it does now. Whether consciously so or not, within each of those men was an awareness of their heritage, of the lives of the people of the Caucasus that stretches back countless generations.

            I watched all four of the races, amazed by the skill of the riders riding their horses bareback over the course of up to 6 laps around a grass track that had to be close to ½ mile in length, and in awe of their ability to be thrown off, to remount and to keep going. Every rider demonstrated an endurance of which I know I would not be capable. The intensity with which each rider rode and the horses glistening with sweat and struggling under the whip with sinuous muscles flexing at each stride, carrying their riders as fast as they could created an impressive sight, but what impressed me the most was one rider in particular. On one of these holidays, one of the riders in one of the races had to have been close to sixty years old. Everything about him denoted a life largely lived on the back of a horse; his posture, the look in his eyes, the worn look of his face from years of sun, and the ease and comfort with which he sat on his steed indicated a profound comfort with his position. It was clear to me that he had seen many of these races, that more likely than not he had been a great racer in his prime, but that in this race he had no desire of winning; he was in it for the thrill, for feeling the completion, for once again having that feeling of the horse underneath bounding at full speed, struggling against five other men as equally engulfed in the moment.

What was clear from this event was that each of these men belonged on the back of their horse; they were not merely trying their hand at riding a horse, but were doing what they were meant to do.  On the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary we watched a similar event, with another set of horse races featuring many of the same riders, and I was struck by the same feeling. These were a people who were meant to be on horseback; I am convinced that in any other setting those men would seem out of place, uncomfortable in their surroundings, and yearning for something else: for a horse underneath them, the sun above them, and the thrill of the competition. From the large crowds gathered I could tell that I was not alone in my feelings, as we all stood enraptured by the races unfolding before us. Something in the spirit of those riders demanded that they be there on that day, on those horses, and the strength of that call spoke to each of us, commanding our attention and our marvel at the feats of both man and beast.

While these races may seem an odd way to celebrate the Day of the Transfiguration, as I reflected on it, the horse races seemed oddly fitting. Thinking back to Christ’s transfiguration, perhaps the horse races fit with the spirit of what was being celebrated that day. The Gospel of Matthew describes the Transfiguration in the following terms: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light” (Matt. 17:1-2). As Christ’s visage was transformed in that moment on the mountain, so were the faces of the riders in that race lost in the moment of physical exertion and exhilarated by the movement of the horse beneath them and the riders beside them.

As with any passage of scripture, the author of the Gospel of Matthew can be read in a number of ways, and can be understood differently in different contexts. The transfiguration of Christ’s appearance is quickly succeeded by the appearance of Moses and Elijah, which in turn is accompanied by the appearance of one even greater, as “behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (17:5). I read this as being a liminal moment in the Gospel, when the boundary between the two natures of Christ, perfectly human and perfectly divine, is blurred and nearly impossible to delineate. In that moment he seems to become more fully realized, connected with the great prophets of the past and to his Father in heaven. In many ways this event prefigures the full actualization that will occur in the resurrection. It is a liminal moment in which heaven and earth, Christ the man and Christ the divine, and God the Father and God the Son are brought closer together to the point where unity triumphs over duality. And it is this sense of liminality that I also felt on the Day of the Transfiguration a little more almost two months ago.

I do not mean to posit that what I saw was a series of horsemen being made divine through their actions, but I believe that what I saw contained within it a degree of liminality. I do not necessarily believe that a moment of liminal experiences requires the boundary of two distinct substances to disappear, but understand it as an approach to an internal and personal boundary. To case it in the terms of Aristotle, who I am very fond of, a liminal experience is a brush with complete actualization. It is a moment in which the self becomes most truly itself, existing more in actuality than potentiality. In other words, actualization is the state of being and feeling most fully alive. If Christ’s life as a man is viewed independent of his nature as divine, then it can only be viewed as a life lived with the potentialities that are within each of us, but when understood as also participating in a divine nature, the potentialities become much greater, as the actuality they point towards is something greater than which any of us could hope to attain. This great actuality is achieved perpetually through Christ’s coeternal existence with God, and it is this actuality that is reflected in his transfiguration on the mountain. Christ’s liminal experience was a moment of coming alive, of becoming truly himself, as is indicated by the proclamation of God’s voice from on high.

And so, moving back to the horse races, it seemed that those riders existed in a liminal state, and as they rode, their movements responding to every movement of the horse beneath them, their eyes focused only on the track ahead, and their spirits becoming invigorated they seemed to be drawn closer to a state of actualization. By comparing this to Christ’s Transfiguration I do not mean to assert that in that moment they became divine, but undoubtedly there was an element of the divine present in these men’s spirits being awakened through contact with each other, with the horses beneath them, and with the ground over which they moved so fluidly and beautifully. It was not the physical act of riding, but the spiritual effect that accompanied it that transfigured them, allowing them the experience akin to complete actualization.

Perhaps I am over-romanticizing the whole event, making the experience into something it wasn’t, but I cannot help but to feel that the experience of the riders in the midst of the race could not have been one approached dispassionately and evenly, but that there had to be a moment in which each man felt something within him awaken; and, thus, each man was transfigured, made fully alive in that moment.

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