Monday, June 4, 2012
Guided only by gestures and nods of agreement as answers to my pointing down the road and asking “Jumati Monastery?”, I hoisted up my backpack and made my way up the road everyone seemed to indicate. Having begun my assent up the small dirt road, I paused, my attention captured by a large grey slab enclosed in a fence bearing the numbers 1941-1945 and the pictures of 20 men, presumably Georgians who had gone and fought or perhaps died in the war. I thought to myself that it was especially apt that I chose that day, May 9, of all days to walk that path by that memorial on my way up to the monastery, as for Georgians May 9 is “Victory Day,” the day of celebrating victory in WWII. I also could not help but notice the freshly cut flowers in a vase made out of half a two-liter bottle that had been placed in commemoration of the day, giving a splash of life to that monument that seemed otherwise neglected. Little did I know that that splash would soon become a sea, and that it would become clear the gravity people attribute to that day.
Scorched by an unusually hot May day, I was glad when my path soon changed from an open, exposed road to a small wooded trail leading higher into the hills of Guria. I remember the shift vividly; the road, lined by fields and planted trees came to a gate beyond which beckoned the small wooded path, surrounded by forest with only the intermittent overgrown orange grove giving any indication of human interference. The botanist in me perked up, and I immediately prepared myself to document everything I saw, avowing to take field notes and photo documentation of the flora I encountered. I was not disappointed. I had arrived in time to see the end of the blooming of the azaleas, bright yellow in color and emitting a thick, nectary smell that imbued the air simultaneously with a refreshing sweetness and a heaviness. I had also come in time to see the Pontic Rhododendrons in full bloom, proudly displaying their masses of purple flowers, enticing pollinators and admirers alike. These shrubs, flanked along the ground by a host of wildflowers both familiar and unfamiliar were embedded in a forest matrix that consisted largely of chestnuts. Seeing a true chestnut forest piqued my imagination in a way that few forests have the power to, for it seemed to be a hint at what my beloved forests of the Southeast US may once have been. I will never see the chestnut-dominated forests of the Southeast before the chestnut blight hit, but I now have the image of a Caucasian forest, otherwise very similar in composition, that can provide me some indication of what it would have been like to see those long, serrated leaves blotting out the sun above and the ground strewn with the discarded hulls of last year’s mast.
Walking in those woods had a strange effect on me. While as of late every spare moment I have to sit and think seems to be dominated by thoughts of home, plans and dreams of life back in America, in those woods, cataloguing those plants I was completely engrossed in the moment, in that place. While I was making comparisons of one forest to another, I was not doing so out of a longing for my own home, but out of a curiosity, a desire to know this place as I know the home I have left behind. As of late I find myself divided in two, being pulled toward two opposite poles; on the one hand is the place where I am, the regions of Georgia I have left unexplored and the knowledge that the time I have remaining to experience life here is dwindling, but on the other hand I find my mental states already drawn back to being home, planning meals I will eat, friends I will see, places I will go, and projects I will start. This latter pole constantly threatens to take me out of the moment, to transport me beyond the present and prevent me from living each successive moment in its fullness, but on this trip to the Jumati Monastery I found myself drawn completely in the opposite direction. I was fully engaged and embedded in my surroundings, doing everything I could to take in the views over the valley below, the smell of the flowers, and the feeling of being alone on a hike, free to focus only on the natural landscape around me.
And so, despite warnings of the wolves that roam the woods and the likelihood of not finding the monastery amidst old paths intersecting the right one, I pressed on, confident in my ability to reach my destination. I trudged on in a flora-induced stupor, noting everything I saw, puzzling over unfamiliar trees and flower forms, looking up from the greenery only to catch glimpses of the view over all of Guria unfolding before me. Though a cloudy day, the view was still impressive, and became even more so as I neared the top of the path and the monastery awaiting me at the top.
After eight or nine kilometers of hiking my path opened up and met a road leading me the rest of the way to the top of the mountain, and after a ways this road yielded my first glimpse of the cross adorning the top of the church. I was amazed by the quietude of the place; there was not a soul in sight, only an old church standing formidably yet invitingly atop the hill, enticing weary pilgrims with its cool stone interior and magnificent views of the lush valleys below. And so I made my way up the hill, crossed myself in Orthodox fashion and entered the church. Standing on the thresholds of Orthodox churches I never know what to expect when I enter. My reactions range from being awe-struck by waves of reverence and the holiness that seems to emanate from the stones, icons, candles, and the very make-up of the interior space to an emotionless respect for the way the structure is built, icons are painted, etc. On this occasion, whether a product of the long hike to reach it, the beauty of the setting, or something more metaphysical, my reaction decidedly fell into the former category. I was captured by the flicker of the two candles lit in front of icons, the flaking frescoes dating back an unknown number of centuries, the simplicity of the icons, and the pervasive holiness of the place. I slowly made my way around the icons, allowing each of the figures, familiar or not, to serve as a vehicle or catalyst for prayer, directing my thoughts to the history of the church, the men and women who exemplified its mission in their own way, and the lessons they could teach me and others in our contemporary world about living by what is most important rather than most expedient, and through it found myself praying for the state of the world as well as the specific concerns that gripped me in the moment.
My solitude in the church was only broken by the appearance of a novice monk who walked in, immediately making his way around the church, reverencing icon after icon, paying special attention to the case of bones sitting in front of the iconostasis, a case I would later come to find holds the remains of monks from the 16th century, killed by a Turkish invasion and made saints to the monks of that monastery. On a day devoted to the memorial of those who have gone on before us and those who fought for something greater than themselves, this seemed an exceedingly appropriate gesture.
While I was no longer alone in the church, the monks presence was no break to my solitude; in fact, his calm demeanor, long dark beard, and distinctly Georgian features seemed so at home in that sacred space that the wave of holiness that first struck me seemed more complete. We did not acknowledge each other in the church, but soon both made our way out, stepping out once again to the view of Guria. It was there we began talking, communicating in Russian, exchanging everything from the basic pleasantries and the “how long have you been in Georgia?” and “Have you not learned any Georgian?” questions, to more probing ones about life in the monastery and the different types of people who arrive at the monastery, this latter topic inspired by the loud and irreverent group of Georgians down below on an excursion that seemed to have little to do with the holiness of the place. We sat together for over half an hour intermittently conversing and sitting in silence, and though we talked little of faith (other than him asking me if I was Orthodox), I left with the sense that this aspiring monk had a deep faith about him, and represented a lot of the traits that I inspire to embody. He left me with a token of that meeting, a small cross he carved out of plastic, that though no technical masterpiece is one of the greatest physical objects that I will take away from Georgia, as for me it is a symbol of some of my favorite things about this country, the warmth and love of a people eager to invite in and give to anyone who shows up on their doorstep and a sense of pride in the history and faith they have maintained and fought for for centuries.
Christianity in Georgia is a story of great perseverance, as throughout its history the small population of Georgians occupying a major crossroads between Europe and Asia has been under attack from all sides; Turks, Mongols, Russians have all swept in and found great resilience amongst the Georgian people. And the Jumati Monastery itself bears evidence of this struggle. The great martyrs of the 16th century are just part of a lineage of resilience and perseverance within the faithful of that place. The monastery was closed during the Soviet Union, and all of the monks imprisoned or killed, yet out of the rubble of the USSR’s collapse the place and the community was resurrected. That cross I was given bears within it the mark of these stories; it is a sign of the ability of a faith community to survive and weather out wave after wave of attack and come back stronger and more vibrant than it could have been if allowed to go unchallenged.
Rejuvenated by my time atop the mountain and a few final prayers in the church, I began my way back down to the main road, enjoying the fading of the afternoon’s heat and the golden glow of the early evening. As I neared the spot of the monument I had taken note of earlier, I saw that the former emptiness and abandonment that had only been punctuated by one solitary gift of flowers earlier was now a distant memory. I rounded the corner and saw the dilapidated picnic table surrounded by men and women of three or four generations, with the table piled high with typical Georgian fare: cornbread and farmers’ cheese, onions and cucumbers fresh from local gardens, hardboiled eggs soaked in tqemali sauce (a spicy condiment made from sour plums, garlic, and other spices), and the ubiquitous staple of the Georgian table: khachapuri (bread baked with a thick layer of freshly made local cheese). I was instantly touched by the gesture; it was refreshing to see that the people of this village did not deem Victory Day a day to be remembered with a single bouquet of flowers, but that something much more substantial had coalesced on that day.
As I passed the gathering, I soon received the wave and call to join the table that I had a strong inkling was to come. I soon found myself the ward of a man named Amerigo, whose nice clean Russian was a pleasant break from the often rough, difficult to understand language of many Georgians in the villages. He led me to the table, sat me down, encouraging me to eat everything in sight, and took it upon himself to serve as my translator. The spot I had been given at the table, right next to the tamada (toastmaster), was a prime position, one I felt unworthy of, as there were far more people gathered than could immediately fit around the table. Soon after arriving, the tamada caught me up on what I had missed, offering a series of three toasts, all dedicated to those who fought in WWII, though each toast represented a progression and addition onto the last. As he gave the first toast, my guide explained to me that twenty men had left from their small village to fight in WWII, some of them not returning, and that the monument I had noticed earlier was in memory of those brave souls. That first toast was to those men, and to the role they served in the War. The second commemorated not only those who left for the war, but was given in honor of the annual ritual I had stumbled out of the woods upon, that men have been gathering for generations to remember those who fought for freedom, and for the hope that the tradition would continue for years to come and that future generations will not go through life ignorant of their past and their ancestors. The third and final toast on the theme was not only given for the men who fought from that village or even just those from Georgia, but to all of those who fought the forces of fascism for the sake of freedom and to the connections, friendships, and unity that existed between people of different nationalities and backgrounds, united by one common cause.
I was struck by the profundity and thought that was put into these toasts. Sometimes I find the Georgian tradition of toasting frustrating, especially when it is administered by an uninspired toastmaster who seems to be mechanically running through a list of set toasts out of tradition’s sake just as a pretext for drinking glass after glass of wine. But it was clear that this occasion meant more to those gathered around the table than a pretext to drink homemade wine and eat great food. The way that the toasts progressed, with man after man around the table expounding upon and adding to each, it was clear that they were genuinely proud of the heroes their village produced, and held a sincere belief in the importance of remembering one’s ancestors and preserving that memory for future generations. Though this was a decidedly more secular celebration than my time at the monastery had been, I could not help but think that the importance each group—the monks and the feasters—assigned to the past, especially to the past of the place they inhabited, was one in the same. The novice monk’s long pause and intentional reverence of the bones of the martyrs and the offering of drink after drink of wine, a great gift given from the earth, in memory of all who served in the war were closely parallel and interconnected acts. Both sought to honor those who have gone before us, and those who can inspire us, teaching us lessons of how we should live our own lives, standing up to opposition and not backing down in the face of adversity. The monk and the feasters were both reverencing people who had stood up for what they believed in, who had sacrificed themselves for an ideology greater than themselves, and it was clear that they felt empowered by these examples of the human will going beyond the finite limits of individual wants and needs. If there is one thing that will stick with me from that day, it is the need to honor and acknowledge those who sought something greater, who saw that there are things much greater than ourselves that are worth sacrificing everything for. And perhaps the people they were honoring that day, the 16th century monks and the WWII soldiers were not sacrificing themselves for such different ideals. I can’t say exactly what drove those twenty young men to fight against fascism, but I imagine it must have something to do with a belief that man should be able to exist free from oppression; and likewise, the monks were fighting for their faith, a faith through which, in their minds, man is able to attain true freedom, the freedom of being reunited with God in eternity, breaking free from the oppressive limits of our temporal existence.
I will remember that monk and those generations of men gathered around that table, and the gravity they assigned to honoring our past for the sake of leading us to a brighter future. We have days to remember the past in America, days dedicated to veterans, presidents, other major figures, Memorial Day, and, of course, Independence Day, but I have never seen them assigned the importance that those Georgians gave to remembering those who have gone on before them. Too often the meaning or reason for our holidays are obscured by the layers of celebration added atop them: Memorial Day becomes about the beginning of summer, firing up the grill, and spending a day out in the sun and the Fourth of July similarly becomes more of a fireworks display and barbeque than a reason to look at our nation’s history and apply what its founding means in terms of our own lives and the lives of others around the world.
At a time when I had become somewhat disillusioned with many aspects of Georgian culture and Georgian traditions, seeing that celebration of the past and the thoughtful and insightful exploration of the meaning of Victory in WWII, undertaken by the men of a small village from different generations was a refreshing experience. And on top of everything else, the fact that they were willing to draw me in, take the time to explain each toast to me, and offer the fruits of their labors for me to eat and drink helped to remind me of why I fell in love with this country and this people early on in my year of teaching here. Being there with those men, like the trip to the monastery that preceded it, helped snap me out of my persistent looking ahead to a time when I will no longer be in Georgia and to just appreciate the present moment, reveling in the wealth of new and constantly replenishing experiences I have had and continue to have here.
And so, after a few cups of wine so generously given and toasts so eloquently said, Amerigo turned to me and asked, “Maybe you’ve had enough and are ready to go?” This was not a statement of “you’ve drunk enough of our wine and we’re ready to get rid of you,” but was yet another extension of hospitality. Whereas many Georgians are insistent on you staying with them, drinking glass after glass while they play “watch the American get drunk off our wine,” Amerigo and those men wanted to make sure I was comfortable, and left the decision of how much I had and how much I wanted up to me. Amerigo had guessed right, and I was not looking to drink more than the four or five toasts I had heard, and so I told him I would be walking off on my way. But with another gesture of hospitality, Amerigo told me he could not let me do that, and that he would be driving me the 8km to the main road where I could find a marshutka home.
This ride home proved to be more than a nice gesture, and yielded one of the most interesting conversations I had that day. As Amerigo began the drive, he asked me if I recognized his name and knew who he was named after. I searched the recesses of my memory for facts learned in high school geography classes, and in mediocre Russian tried to explain Amerigo Vespucci’s discovery of America. My new friend Amerigo then added a few details, and quickly launched into the tale of how he came by his name. Upon meeting him I had not thought about the oddity of his name, but as he was about to launch into his tale, it occurred to me that in Georgia, a place where the same 8-10 names (Giorgi, Luka, Nika, Ilo, Dato…) are repeated time and time again, to come across a man named Amerigo is a highly unusual occurrence. The story of how he got his name proved to be as interesting as the name is out of the ordinary.
Apparently, as Amerigo’s mother was pregnant and only a few weeks away from his birth, she had a dream that was simultaneously scary and portentous. She saw herself in the midst of a great battle (a fitting setting for a story delivered on this Victory Day), surrounded by soldiers of various nationalities, including a number of Americans. In the midst of her trembling in fear at the prospect of being stuck in this battle scene, Amerigo’s mother saw one of these Americans turn to her, grab her and say to her with an expression of grave seriousness “You will name him Amerigo.” The soldier then turned and went back to fighting the enemy. She awoke with this dream replaying over and over in her mind, and was unable to shake the look and the words of that soldier, and vowed that if indeed she did have a son, she would name him Amerigo. Sure enough, shed had the son, and that is how my new friend got his name.
To me this story is not a funny tale of an absurd account of a woman taking something she heard in a dream way too seriously, but is a look into the way that Georgians have maintained an adherence to the importance of signs and symbols in their lives. What other cultures may have discarded as anachronistic or superstitious, Georgians have maintained in their cultural consciousness. Sure this leads to some ridiculous beliefs like one I heard the other day that drinking water when you are hungover leads to heart attacks, but in many other ways, I think there is a lot to be said for a continued adherence to ritual and the importance of signs and symbols in one’s life. So much of Western culture is dominated by materialism and rejection of mystery; we try to fundamentally see the world as a series of knowable causes and effects, viewing every experience as a solitary event without imagining it as having greater significance in our own lives or implications that extend well beyond us. We look to narrow sets of causes rather than seeking the origins of occurrences in forces out of our control or perhaps forces completely unknown to us. While I don’t advocate turning to practices like astrology and seeking to ascertain the origin of every twist of fate in the motions of the stars and the planets, I think there is a way to healthily reincorporate a sense of mystery in the way we view the world. Every event, every decision we make, every drop of experience we come in contact with is part of a chain of myriad causes. While we think we can delineate and describe those causes, ultimately the scope of them is beyond us, and at some point it is necessary to acknowledge that we are limited and fallible in our knowledge, and with that we must take things as they are and know that we cannot know the full significance of events. Amerigo’s mother did not try to reduce her dream to something purely mechanical, a firing of neurons and just a vision to be ignored, but left open the possibility that forces greater than herself were at work, that what brought about that dream was unknowable, and in her humility could do nothing other than to obey the command of that soldier. By obeying that command she left open to herself the possibility of a world beyond human reason, beyond our understanding, a world of mystery in which every experience exists with a significance far greater than anything we can imagine or understand. She had no warning or reason to suspect there would be any consequences associated with disobeying the voice, with giving her son a name like Nika, Giorgi, or Luka, but I imagine she felt that to do that would be to close off a universe of possibility.
While I don’t know how my time in Georgia will change me and who I will be after this experience, I hope I can take something from the people of this country in terms of the way they leave those possibilities of a world of mystery beyond our grasp open. There is much to be learned from an attitude that believes wholeheartedly in the necessity of crossing oneself every time you pass a church, in naming your children based on the command of an ephemeral figure in a dream, or in the tangible reality of guardian angels that go with all of us through our lives. To reject these as silly superstitious and to instead put full faith in what is objectively demonstrable and measurable or rooted in purely material causes is to limit oneself to a narrow view of the world, to shut out a world of potentialities and possibilities in which each action, each turn of fate has a significance that extends out into the universe, beyond the grasp of our understanding, and that has an unquantifiable impact on our lives.
I don’t know the full implications of what a worldview maintaining a healthy sense of mystery has for me; it is a notion that I have been grappling with for a while. I’m sure I am doing a poor job of explaining what I have come to believe on the subject, but I sincerely hope that as I move on from Georgia I will remember my time here, remember these people, and through reflection on these experiences be able to draw closer to a robust, well-rounded view of the world that can draw connections between disparate experiences, but that can also be content with disconnects, with gaps that cannot be filled but that can only be acknowledged as fundamentally mysterious.
The greater meaning of the gift of a cross from a chance meeting with a monk, a supra commemorating factory in a war for the preservation of human freedom, and a chance meeting of a man named by the voice of an American soldier in a dream, eludes me at the moment, and I’m sure will continue to elude me, but I cannot let that mean it all has no greater meaning. I cannot deny the possibility that those events, that journey to the Jumati Monastery could have a significance for me in my life and a set of consequences that extend far beyond what I can describe or understand. All I know to do at this point is to cherish those memories, to remember the interactions, feelings, and thoughts I had on that day, and to continue to use all of the new experiences I go through in my life to look back on those moments and to think both about the possibility of meaning contained within them and to continue to let them transform and guide me as I move forward.
Perhaps I’ve done a poor job in this post connecting everything together, creating one cohesive narrative, and maybe these thoughts fire in too many directions, but I think it may be better that way. What I have experienced here and what I have been reflecting on recently is not a closed system, a delineable and linear trajectory, but is more nebulous, ill-defined, and engaged in a perpetual process of becoming. The significance of my time here is still becoming actualized, and, I hope, will continue to actualize for a long time to come, not resolving itself in a neat set of conclusions, but having an intangible and indescribable effect that will forever be a part of the way I view and understand the world. I hope that what I take from my time in Georgia and from this Victory Day will not be something I can boil down into a list of “I learned this… and this… and this” but will be more profound, more pervasive, and, ultimately, more mysterious.