That which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost.
~Shota Rustaveli, 12th Century Georgian poet
Boredom was on the faces of the university students as they, their professor, a pastor and I waited in the stuffy apartment for our Sunday afternoon meal. Khatuna had extended an invitation to all the U.S. guests at Peace Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia, to visit her apartment for a meal. She was joyously surprised when, spontaneously, the university professor accepted the invitation on behalf of the group.
We needed enough room in the taxis for eleven; a friend of Khatuna’s was joining us and would serve as the assistant in the kitchen. I had been in Georgia for five weeks and no one had yet allowed me, a guest, to lift a finger around a meal.
The group had been escorted into the living room and offered coffee as Khatuna disappeared to go to the market to secure the provisions for lunch. Coffee was declined, but tall glasses of water were welcomed; it had been several hours since breakfast.
The trip to return the glasses to the kitchen revealed a huge pot of boiling water on the stove where khinkali would be prepared. There were looks of disappointment on some faces as the main entrée on the menu was announced. These dumplings, most often filled with fatty ground beef and a favorite of many Georgians, often left one feeling, well, dumpy.
The group displayed a magnanimous spirit, though, as our host produced sodas, an abundance of summer tomatoes, sliced bread, and a platter of the steaming hot doughy delights. I was doing my part to consume the platter of khinkali—I usually couldn’t eat more than two of them in one sitting—when we learned another platter was on the way. Now we needed to eat more in order not to disappoint our hostess. Agh.
Finally our hostess joined us at the table. Khatuna had only been there a couple of minutes when she said, “Oh, I forgot the wine!” and off she went to bring a recycled water bottle filled with homemade wine along with glasses for everyone. She told us the wine had been a gift from a friend—a friend who was now dead—which made the wine even more special.
Smiles formed on the previously expressionless faces upon tasting the wine; the sweetness was a surprise. Never in Georgia, where wine is the blood of its people, is it served without a toast, for toasts are the heart of Georgia. A student stood and toasted his professor; others around the table followed his lead, some were eloquent, some amusing—each expanding on the previous toast.
“Do you have any chacha?” I asked our hostess. “Do you want chacha?” Khatuna replied with a twinkle in her eye. From previous conversations I knew none in this group had tasted the homemade vodka that is often served in Georgian households as a part of celebrations and feasts. This seriously strong drink resembling moonshine is legally distilled by many families. Smiling, Khatuna returned from her kitchen bringing another recycled bottle filled with the strong spirits and more glasses. Toasts were made, glasses were raised—as well as the spirits of the gathered group. Our afternoon meal had turned from a boring obligatory function into a beloved community.
What caused this miraculous change in the mood of the group? Was it the one bottle of wine that was shared among eleven people? The small sips of chacha? Or the toasts that accompanied the drinks? The toasts that sounded more like blessings than a simple hoist of a glass and a chorus of “Cheers!”
Some say that toasting was the invention of Georgians back during Marco Polo’s day when the ancient Silk Road made its way through their land. Elaborate dinners and lavish toasts were believed to have contributed to better trade relations.
The toasts made in Khatuna’s apartment to families, parents, children, teachers, students, past generations, future generations, faith communities, friendship, love, peace and solidarity turned our boring, obligatory meal into a communal event connecting hearts from opposite sides of the world into one valued family—God’s family.
Apologizing for her English, Khatuna started telling us her life’s journey all along confessing that she had squandered some of her talents and abilities. Now an English teacher in an elementary school, she told of having studied, lived and worked in several European countries. As an afterthought she added, “I’ve been to France also. I went there because I’m blind in one eye.”
Surprised, the group looked at her with compassion, and one awkwardly responded, “No one would ever know.” With tears in her throat, Khatuna fled to the kitchen to collect her emotions. Something had made this gathered group a safe place for her to share with us her life—including the sadness and loss.
With the toasts, everyday meals and strangers became welcomed gifts from God. With those toasts-turned-to-blessing echoing in our minds and hearts, we returned to our guest accommodations feeling affirmed, encouraged and supported.
I’ve since returned to North Carolina and to a culture quicker to demean and criticize than toast or bless. Henri Nouwen once wrote, “I am increasingly aware of how much we fearful, anxious insecure human beings are in need of a blessing.” We all need each other’s blessing; family members, colleagues and strangers are starved for words of affirmation, love and acceptance.
Let us, together, seek to create a culture of blessing. Maybe a little wine or chacha would help!