From the Pastor: The Country, Not the State

The icon called Shen Khar Venaki. Note the cluster of grapes in Mary’s hands.

The icon called Shen Khar Venaki. Note the cluster of grapes in Mary’s hands.

My time in Georgia last month was wonderful in every way: as a vacation, a religious pilgrimage, an adventure. How I have come to love that country since my first visit thirty years ago! Georgia is the size of West Virginia, and has only about 3.5 million people, half of whom live in the capital, Tblisi, but there are snow-capped mountains, dense forests, vast fertile plains, hundreds of miles of coastline on the Black Sea… it is an intensely beautiful place with amazing traditions of music, hospitality and religious faith. Georgians will tell you they invented wine.

The famous story about Georgia is that, when God was giving out territory to the various tribes and families on the earth, the Georgians (who had been up all night drinking and feasting and singing) arrived late, after the whole earth had been assigned. But they promised to honor and love God with such fervor that eventually God gave them the one place that He had reserved for Himself, the most beautiful place in all God’s creation, Certainly Georgia is God’s country.

People often ask me how I got interested in Georgia. My first contact with Georgia was on my first day of seminary in 1982. The new students had just heard a history of Yale Divinity School given by Roland Bainton, based on the portraits of distinguished alumni and faculty in the refectory. (The first such portrait was of Jonathan Edwards). After Professor Bainton’s talk, we all went outside for an ice cream social on the lawn; it was a beautiful September afternoon. A group of young men arrived and announced themselves as missionaries for the Yale Russian Chorus; they would sing for us, and any of the men who might be interested in joining were invited to come downtown and audition the next day. The first song they chose was a Georgian hymn to the Mother of God, Shen Khar Venaki. The words mean:

“You are the vineyard in blossom.
a fragrant poplar grown in Paradise.
You are the shining sun.”

I put my head on the ground and cried: it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. “Where do I sign?” I joined the Russian Chorus the next day, and went with them to Georgia (and Russia) for the first time two years later. (While in seminary, I pretty much majored in Russian Chorus.) After graduating, a friend from the YRC and I founded the first choir in the West devoted entirely to the traditional music of Georgia, the Kartuli Ensemble, and that group spawned other such groups around the world (people from Yale get around). In 2001, many of these groups gathered in Tblisi at the invitation of the Georgian government to celebrate the designation of Georgian traditional music as an “Intangible Spiritual Treasure of Humanity” by UNESCO. They gave us lots of great parties. Georgians are party people.

There is lots to say about this last trip but rather than take up my space in this issue with a detailed travelogue, I am including instead a couple of pages of pictures, all of which I took with my phone. Pictures are worth thousands of words and are more fun anyway, Enjoy! Gaumarjos!

With much love, as ever,
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