Cuttino's Georgian Life

A journal of my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Georgia, 2006-2008.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Me and Ilia

Yesterday, I went to see His Holiness and Beatitude, Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II. In other words, I saw the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Ilia II is the leader of the Church, kind of like Georgia's pope. As 80% of all Georgians are Orthodox, its a very big deal whenever the Patriarch comes into town.

It was a commemoration day for a local saint and my supervisor and I travelled to a cathedral outside of Gori for the celebration. When we arrived, the ceremony was already underway. The Patriarch was seated on a throne in the center of the cathedral. He was surrounded by bishops and all of them were wearing golden crowns and gold-embroidered robes. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera--I felt it was a little rude for a foreigner to come into a religious ceremony and start snapping pictures--but I found a photo of Ilia II on the internet, wearing a similar robe and crown.

There were hundreds of people packed into the church and since we had arrived late, we were at the edge of the crowd. I stood on my tiptoes and even then, I could only see the top of the bishops' crowns. After about twenty minutes of this, the people around me realized that I was American. Suddenly, a woman grabbed my hand and began pulling me into the crowd. "Make way for the American!" she yelled. We worked our way into the middle; as we pushed people out of the way, nobody seemed to be mad. It was the code of Georgian hospitality: the guest always gets the best seat in the house. So, before I knew it, someone put a candle in my hand, and I found myself standing in front of the Patriarch.

The ceremony continued for about three hours; there are no pews in Georgian churches, and so everyone stands the entire time. The crush of people was so tight that if I had fainted or fallen asleep, I would have never hit the ground. It was all but impossible for me to follow the service, the liturgy is a lot different from Western churches. The Patriarch would put on a robe, turn and bless the crowd, turn to the altar, put on a different robe, turn and bless the crowd, etc., etc. The church's ceremonies have been preserved for centuries, so with the exception of the occasional cell phone ring, it was almost like being in the middle ages. The music and chanting was all a cappella (there are no organs in Orthodox churches). After a while, I got used to the rhythm of the chanting and the blessings, the incence and the praying. As the Patriarch left the building, the crowd pushed and shoved to touch him. I stood back and Georgia, religion is a very serious matter.


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