One weekend not too long ago, my host sister invited me to go to church with her. I’ve noticed that she’s more religious than the rest of the family, but it isn’t a consistent thing. When we went to Davit Gareji, she wore jeans and just stole her brother’s scarf from around his neck when she needed to cover her head. But at Ninoba, she was the one most interested in the religious element of the holiday, not the social side. My host brother’s godson (so…my host god-nephew? …Georgian host family titles can get pretty complicated) wanted to visit the nearby church dedicated to the Saint he is named after: Saint George (Tsminda Giorgi), so my host sister agreed to take him. The priest in that church has a very good reputation–he’s known to be kind and funny and give interesting sermons. While I’ve visited tons of Georgian churches as a tourist, I’d never attended an Eastern Orthodox service of any kind, and since I wasn’t doing anything else I decided to tag along for the experience.
I’m really glad I joined them, but I don’t think I’ll be going back for any more full-length services. The Sunday we attended wasn’t a major holiday, but the service was still very long and very crowded. I found parts of it quite beautiful, though I didn’t always understand what was going on: being a foreigner in both language and religion limited my understanding. The priest was really good with the children who had been brought to be blessed, and (from what I could follow) his sermon was interesting, and (from what I could follow) used the story of a Saint’s life to teach larger moral lessons. I was very surprised at how similar the sermon portion of the service was to those that I’m used to–growing up in a liberal church of the Protestant tradition, there were lots of sermons that combined religious traditions with lessons on morality such that there was something for both believers and skeptics. For some reason I thought a “sermon,” as such, wasn’t part of the Orthodox worship service, so it was a pleasant surprise.
Some things, though, were very different than what I was used to. I’ve been told that in Orthodox churches (and in most religions, for that matter), you should not partake in the rituals of the church unless you believe them in the way that church does. For example: in crossing yourself during the service. I know, in the Orthodox traditions especially, the exact way of crossing yourself is a touchy issue, and I certainly didn’t want to accidentally find myself in the wrong. I chose to keep my hands folded in prayer as a way of showing respect, and my host sister was a bit confused by this. When I said “In my church, we do it differently” she accepted that, but I was unsure of the protocol–advice appreciated! The church had a wonderful choir, and with the frescoes, incense, candles, and robes the atmosphere was the pinnacle of churchiness. The prevalence of open flames and head scarfs did make me nervous, though. Especially during the passing of the flame–usually one of my favorite parts of a service, since it brings the congregation together–I was painfully aware of how close I was standing to many people all with open flames, long hair, and headscarves while there was quite a bit of jostling to get closer to the front. I did start thinking about how I could possibly “Stop, drop, and roll” and planning my path to the doors, which were probably not the thoughts the priest was intending to inspire. As a friend (or maybe it was my Mom?) pointed out later, this church was very, very, old and they’ve been doing this for a long time, so it probably wasn’t as dangerous as I feared.
I’m glad I accompanied my host family to church, but I don’t think I’ll be going again for the rumored 12-hour long Easter service. I’ll stick to the occasional short Sunday morning.