Founded by descendants of apostles in the fourth century, the Georgian Orthodox Church, to my eyes at least, is an enigma: An attractive enigma, but an enigma nonetheless. It has a long and rich tradition of Christian mysticism and spirituality that draws me in. At the same time though, the church in Georgia is very much a national church, enjoying popular support and serving as an emblem of Georgian patriotism.
As I walk into any one of the many churches spread throughout the country, I feel at home and at ease. Subdued lighting; smoke from incense burners; light from myriad candles bouncing off old stone walls; melancholic chanting: all invite me to participate in the transcendent. The spiritual materialises around me as I walk from icon to icon, feeling unity with other worshippers and the nearness of my creator.
How does it manage to juggle the spiritual and the secular so effectively? I don't have an answer; just a hunch or two. Surviving invasions by Persian, Mongol and Ottoman empires, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been cut off from western Christianity for a thousand years. I cannot help but think that great schism of 1054 AD, where the western catholic and eastern orthodox churches went their separate ways, may have been a blessing for the Georgian church. Its isolation may have saved it from following the western church in its accommodation with modernity and loss of spiritual authenticity.
Secondly I suspect Georgia's location, sandwiched between the Russian bear to the north and resurgent Islam in the south has played a part in encouraging a strong sense of nationalism and patriotic feeling which Georgian people seem to express through their involvement in their church. I could be wrong of course.
To walk into this Georgian monastery (abve) near Kutaisi in western Georgia and gaze upward at its frescoes is to be transported to a place outside time and beyond care. To hear the humble chanting of a monk as it swells upward and fills the galleries is to be in the presence of something beyond my ability to define.
Monasticsm has a long tradition in Georgia and quite a few monasteries continue to function. There seems to be no shortage of applicants wanting to join.
Is it too big a claim to assert that Georgian Christian spirituality comes to us by a more direct route than that of the western Christian kind? Is it unfair to argue that Georgian Orthodox mysticism is closer to that of the early Christian apostles than anything to be found in the west today? Is it unreasonable to ask whether that might be one influential factor in the continued success of the Church in Georgia in the face of trials the western Church has not faced in distant memory?
I don't have a definitive answer to these questions, but I do know an authentic and vibrant Christian spirituality when I see one. I also know that the places of worship I entered in Georgia in the past couple of weeks were places that drew me in and invited me to participate in the mystery of faith. I cannot always say the same of western Christian church buildings I walk into.