Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mtskheta Calling (and religious reflections)

Lifted from "thelittlethinker" at wordpress
On Tuesday, my mother and I escaped the city for Mtskheta. A quest through the crowded, sprawling masses of Didube proved to be one of the highlights of my Georgian experience so far: there's something thrilling about thousands of dirt-cheap taxis and marshrutkas crowing about all the exciting places they could take you (an excitement somewhat mitigated when I realized that "Vladikavkaz" and "Vladivostock" are two different places - ambition can only go so far...), attempting a "don't touch me" Amazonian swagger while convincing Georgian men to point me in the direction of the correct marshrutka in cheerfully over-confident Russ-gian. (Now that I can swear and shout at any would-be pinchers or gropers in both Russian and Georgian, I'm almost disappointed to find that no man in the past week has been worth informing that I fucked his mother). I'm tempted to go back to Didube with five lari in my pocket on a daily basis and hop on marshrutkas at random; I hear there's a bus all the way to Thessaloniki.

My first trip to Mtskheta last year was somewhat disappointing. A combination of poor weather, stress about my impending finals, and the contrasting sight of bright red recently-renovated terracota roofs against grey skies managed to get in the way of Proper Religious experience (although I did manage to run into Saakashvili at Salobie Restaurant) But one year on, the disingenuous shine has faded, and Mtskheta is beautiful instead of merely "well-restored". While the Eccentricity Factor of the trip suffered from choosing the young, fluent-in-English, serious guide instead of the utterly barking elderly woman I chose last time, I managed to learn far more about the church itself. Our guide deftly placed the history of the church within the context of the Kartvelian saga as a whole: thus did we learn that only a few of the frescoes survived Soviet whitewashing, that the invading Muslims scratched the faces and eyes from many more, that the use of wood in the iconostasis rather than stone was a sign of Russian cultural influence in one of the smaller linked churches (or perhaps it was vice versa?), and that the church itself is full of secret passages once used by escapees from invasion. HIghlights of the cathedral included the miniature church - a reproduction of one at Jerusalem - built inside the main cathedral, the unique use of horoscope imagery in a religious icon depicting Christ and the Psalms, an icon depicting three women that has been used as the basis for one of the most famous Georgian folk dances of all time, the "hand" of the architect allegedly mutilated to ensure that nothing more beautiful was ever created by his hand, and - most humorously - the "aliens" (unidentified flying objects) apparent at the crucifixion in one fresco. These "aliens" are, in fact (our guide explained) the sun and moon, shown as "diminished" during the eclipse of the Passion. (My aspiring-iconographer found this particularly fascinating - how do you iconographically "depict" an eclipse?!)

In Ideas that Are Ripe for Novel-Writing, I was told that the "miniature" church serves as a sort of Jerusalem by proxy, such that if one visits it three times, one is considered to have visited Jerusalem. (Hence, three visits at the beginning, middle, and end of a book? Three-act drama?)

After Svetitskhoveli we took a taxi to Jvari, and I realized once again how many people have apparently been speaking Russian to me over the past few years without my noticing. (I feel Enormously Empowered since starting Russian. Clearly nobody else in the entire world is capable of asking "where is Jvari, please? How much?" in Russian! Nobody at all! I speak ALL THE RUSSIAN!). Jvari reminds me quite a bit of the Uffizi in Florence, in that architectural/artistic beauty are perfectly juxtaposed with vast Romantic chasms of natural beauty (here, cattle-ridden ridges; there, rolling hills) such that it is impossible to tell whether the beauty is a result of implied contest or synthesis.

Now, whether I convert to Orthodoxy remains to be seen. I'm in the lucky position of having been raised a generic Liberal Protestant (only in New York does the daughter of a vaguely-theistic American Jew and a non-English-speaking Sicilian Catholic end up raised as a Fifth Avenue WASP): a combination of High Church Episcopalian liturgies at Christmas and Easter, an ethical rather than theological view of doctrine, and plenty of challah bread/Jewish celebrations on my maternal side of the family (that I might be "Jewish" rather than "Jew"-ish never occurred to me until I left New York, where everybody has at least one Jewish relative whom they can visit to latke, to the rather more noticeably anti-Semitic England (where I, "passing" as a blonde WASP, was present at far too many instances of derogatory chatter). Unfortunately, I'm a theologian with the incipient ardor of a convert (I want to choose a religion, take the Kierkegaardian leap, cast in my lot with the fantasists and the folklorists and the Ethics of Elfland. I feel strongly that, if I have to pick a side, I pick the side of the irrational and the mystic and the altars to the Virgin Mary I see on the street on Mediterranean islands. I stand or fall with the irrationalists.), but an innate awareness that, while the Catholic Very English Boyfriend can certainly get away with disagreeing with elements of his Church on an institutional level, as a potential convert (to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or even Judaism - right now I'm at a complicated religious crossroads), I have no such luxury: it's all or nothing for me, for better or for worse.

And hence I hedge. Certainly, on "paper", the Eastern faith (of the Cappadocians/Cabasilas/Palamas/Pseudo-Dionysius) variety appeals to me, and upon graduating last year I was all but certain that, having made a careful study of theosis and Transfiguration icons, I wanted to convert. Yet what holds me back is perhaps more aesthetic than intellectual: the churches I feel the most connection with are those that hold the memories of my youth, not the enormous stone of Jvari or Svetiskhoveli (which fill me with awe and reverence), but Italian and French Catholic churches like Santa Maria del Popolo (in Rome) and Notre Dame (in Paris), in which religious sentiment is mixed up with memories of childish wonder and a wider cultural attachment/sense of belonging. (In this latter sense, the "sense of belonging" is what attracts me to Judaism (well, that and the fact that I've got an Old Testament temper) - as someone who has grown up everywhere and belonged nowhere, the idea that I'm ethnically connected on the maternal side to a disapora of like-minded exiles is an attractive one. Without being a "Jew for Jesus", I'll always identify - regardless of the path I take - as a religious Christian, but a cultural Jew (who, to complicate things, seriously objects to (the current state of) Israel politically). Sympathy for Palestine or not, belief in Jesus or not, I still get shivers at "Next year, in Jerusalem."

I look at the men and women at Svetitskhoveli who kiss the icons, trace their fingers along the pillars, engage with and love the saints and angels in the church. That's not something I can do just yet. Not, perhaps, out of a lack of religious feeling, but because that freedom (to kiss, to touch, to engage) comes with belonging, and as much as I love Georgia and fetishize Eastern Christianity in, admittedly, a slightly Orientalist way, I don't belong here. I don't have the privilege of the insider that allows me to feel like anything but an imposter when I cover my head or cross myself. I don't dare approach the icons. Not yet, at any rate. 

But I'm learning.


Martin FM Smith - Bolnisi (Georgia) said...

I reread or read more of it and my heart did sink; my instinct was not wrong. I am sorry I had to be negative. Point though is...(you know this)it's not a matter of one's own desire, taste, inclinations so much as a calling that you did not expect. Frequently painful; usually too private to relate. Never mind, Tara, I have another book on just this which I will also send you. I admire your zeal and enthusiasm for life which makes up for the apathy of 10000 others...time will make everything perfect and joyous from its core.

Fleur Flaneur said...

Martin I'm confused - negative about what? You didn't leave any other comments?

Rui M. said...

Beautiful pictures.