Friday, October 06, 2006

Is that a monk in that cave?

One of the many advantages of being out in Sighnaghi while Village Harmony is running a music camp is that I'm able to plug myself in to this stream of "cultural experiences" that have been lined up for the singer/tourists. Unlike the "cultural experience" that I participated in with the American Embassy folks (see earlier post) Village Harmony trips have several advantages. First, the group is legitimately interested in what they are being shown. They've worked hard, taken time out of their lives, and paid lots of money to be here. They aren't just trying to kill a weekend. Second, they're singers, and they have some knowlege of local folk songs. I can't stress how far this takes you in Georgia. Georgians are a hospitable people by custom, and given their experience with Soviet attempts at russification, many people show surprise if you speak even a couple words of Georgian. But when a crowd of Americans break into a rendition of "Mravaljamier" or another traditional Georgian folk song, people start to cry. It can be an intense and amazing experience.

Yesterday we went to a place called David Gareji. It's south and a little east of Tbilisi, right on the border of Azerbaijan. It's a desert, with giant rock faces (think Red Rock out in Colorado) with all these natural caves worn into it. Several hundred years ago, a monk named David Gareji walked out here and made his home in one of the caves. It's been a holy spot ever since. There are monks, in fact, still living in caves out there.

K. visited this place just before I got to Georgia a few years back -- so I hadn't had a chance to see it before. It's stunning. My first thought on visiting was that I wanted to take my father to see it. Orthodoxy is, in many ways, much the same as Catholicism, and there's something that I find both peaceful and reassuring about the art, the rituals, the smells of the monasteries and churches here. The landscape has been rightly described as "out of Lord of the Rings." I wandered around, looking at 15th and 16th century lookout towers (Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, so there are religious as well as political borders here), tiny little caves with georgeous religious frescoes, (mostly destroyed by Soviet Army target practice, graffiti, and simple wind and rain) and current rebuilding efforts by the newly reinstalled monks.

I'm also disturbed. Our host/guide, an American painter who converted to Orthodoxy (and lives in Sighnaghi) named John is an intense ambassador for the Orthodox faith. He is constantly promoting the humility of its leaders, the faith of its adherents, the beauty of its rituals. And he is constantly bemoaning the "lukewarm heart" of modern life. And how do I argue with him? I love my lukewarm heart. "..And the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity."

What makes one man, much less thousands, give up their easy lives to live on rice and water in a desert cave? Aside from the Glory of God --whom I doubt needs or cares what men do -- what purpose does it serve? The frescoes are beautiful, even with the destruction (and when I have a faster internet connection, I'll post pictures) and it's not like I would rather there was a golf course there... but it is a world whose boundaries and laws I cannot comprehend.

Afterwards, we drove to a restaurant halfway between David Gareji and Sighnaghi and had a short, 2 1/2 hour supra (scroll to the bottom for the definition). Aside from the Embassy trip, this was my first supra. There was singing -- real, honest singing. There was food -- more than we could eat. There was an awful lot of wine, and a Tamada who spoke from the heart. People toasted the way they should--with an eloquence inspired by each other, and a tongue greased by the wine, and we all fell in love with each other. This, I understood.

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