The landmarks in Georgia are their historic houses of worship. Traveling east, west, north or south in the country — which is a little smaller than the state of South Carolina — one finds highways littered with signs indicating the way to these spiritual treasures. A brief traveler tries to visit many as possible, but they quickly seem to all run together. However, my six-week journey enabled me to take them in slowly and deliberately. And there is one in particular that spoke to me.
Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi has a rich and complicated history. The original structure of the once episcopate seat was first built in 1003 by Bagrat III, the first king of united Georgia. Located in the first capital of the United Kingdom of Georgia — uniting east and west — the cathedral is one of the largest architectural monuments in Georgia. During the Ottoman invasion it was severely damaged and only recently has the cathedral been restored.
The sound of a bird flying overhead caused me to look up upon entering the cathedral. It was as if the Spirit were leading and guiding me as I walked through the ancient doors into a place where prayers and Eucharistic bread have been lifted for 10 centuries. There was a noticeable absence of disciplinarians and an air of freedom in the place. At one point during my visit I realized that I was not wearing a skirt — something required in many Georgian Orthodox churches — and yet no one had turned me away.
The restoration that some have criticized for not being authentic to traditional Georgian architecture, I found refreshing. In this house of worship ancient ruins were preserved along side modern additions of steel and glass. This symbol of the unity of the country now stands as a symbol of the unity of ancient and modern — something I had not seen in any other Georgian Orthodox setting.
Upon reflection, though, I realized I had experienced just this melding of ancient and modern, East and West as I shared worship and life with the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. I planned my six weeks in the country so as not to miss Sunday morning worship at Peace Cathedral in the now capital city of Tbilisi. I planned as many of my weekdays as possible with the intention of ending them with the 7 p.m. prayers and Eucharist held at the cathedral four nights a week.
What was the draw? Why did we fight rush-hour traffic to get back to church just to rehearse the same liturgy? I believe it is this blend of ancient and modern, this embrace of East and West that drew me, and continues to speak to me.
Guidebooks to Georgia will raise the question as to whether or not Georgia is part of Europe or Asia. Ask a Georgian that question, and they will respond, “Neither! We are Georgian.” A glance at the photo taken on Pentecost Sunday at Peace Cathedral might cause one to wonder whether the photographer had really been at a Baptist church. The bishops wearing ornate vestments, the drifting incense rising, the long beards of the men — all of this seems much more Orthodox than Baptist. The liturgy and centrality of the Eucharist along with the chants that frame the entire service sound foreign to those of us whose denominational heritage is merely 400 years old.
Upon closer look at the photograph taken on Pentecost Sunday, one notices there are women among the bishops. Hmm. Definitely not Orthodox. Upon even closer observation, one can see a special guest that day: Zurab Kemal Tsetskhladze, a mufti now working with the World Alliance of Georgian Muslims because no Georgian Orthodox church would give him a seat of honor in worship.
Even though quite Orthodox in nature, the worship service also contained many elements that were all too familiar to this life-long Baptist. Communion was wine, received by common cup, but served by laity being priests to each other. The spontaneity of the intercessions and prayers of petition sounded like any Baptist church back home. Church polity, even though there are bishops, honors local church autonomy. And the embodied freedom of the priesthood of the believer has brought about division over the church’s response to LGBTQ individuals in their midst.
The worship setting — a warehouse consigned to the congregation after their church was confiscated by the Soviet government — is adorned with icons that are a part of the tradition that traces its roots back to St. Nino, the woman who brought the gospel to Georgia in the 4th century, and the early Christian monastics whose desert monasteries are now the destination of tourists wanting to view the historic frescoes. The church has elements of both Western Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy — of Free Church tradition blended with ancient spirituality. And the leadership of the church, in true Baptist fashion, has dissented, protested and “taken it on the chin” advocating for religious liberty for all faith traditions as well as speaking out against homophobia.
Since returning from sabbatical I’ve shown the picture of Pentecost Sunday to numerous people, seen their disbelief that this is a Baptist church, and heard one chuckle at the sneakers the alter boys are wearing. Since returning home I’ve missed the frequency of communion and the beeswax candles that became a regular part of my prayers in Georgia. I’ve reflected on how Christians in the U.S. are “embracing the East” as so many are drawn to meditation practices. How is the Spirit of God guiding me to unite the East and West within the church here? Ancient and modern? Free church and ancient spiritual practices?
Recently the Dalai Lama appointed a westerner from New York City as the abbot in one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in southern India. In making the appointment, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying “Your special duty (is) to bridge Tibetan tradition and (the) Western world.” Bridging East to West, ancient to modern, is important and necessary for the good of the world God so loves.
Nicholas Vreeland, the newly appointed abbot is not sure how he will be that bridge. Here’s what he said: “I am a human being. I’m a Buddhist monk. I am a Westerner, and how I will bring what I believe in? I think it’s by just living my life.”
Our Baptist family in Georgia is being that bridge. Simply by the way they are living their lives, they are making a huge difference — not only in that region, but also for a weary traveler like me who spent six weeks soaking up their culture and basking in their spiritual practices. Is it possible that by living my life I too can be a bridge? That is my prayer.