The great challenge faced by the Georgian Orthodox Church today is the threat of abandoning the teachings of Christ. The Church – as its position is articulated by the Patriarch, archbishops, priests and congregation – dwells on the “spiritual” mission of Georgia and on Western degradation; it comments on the economy and on culture; it evaluates domestic issues and foreign affairs. Yet, for all its preaching, the Church says nothing about the One True Leader of the Church – Christ Himself. The clergy conveniently forgets what the crucified Christ taught because they understand that freely spreading Christ’s teachings would endanger the myths invented and the wealth amassed by them.
Every year, the Georgian Orthodox Church celebrates the anniversary of the restoration of autocephaly. But autocephaly means nothing if the central question goes unanswered: Is the Church the gathering of the true followers of Christ?
Temptation by Bread
The Gospel recounts that, before embarking on his preaching, Jesus Christ secluded himself in the desert and fasted for forty days. There, he confronted three temptations.
The Judean desert was scattered with stones in the shape of lavash. “If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread,” the tempter cajoled. In those times, Judeans believed that the arrival of the Messiah would herald an end to their material problems. Feed the hungry, give them happiness, and they will follow you. Perform miracles and everyone will adhere to your religion. But Jesus denied what, at first blush, was an easy solution. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God,” Jesus answered.
For us, that answer given by Jesus means that the Church and every person must manage their own lives; they must make the correct choice for themselves even without happiness bestowed from above. Christ faced and rejected the temptation of choosing the easy way of gaining undeserved material welfare without labor.
Two hundred years ago, the Catholicos-Patriarch Antonius II of Georgia allowed the Church of Georgia to become part of Russia. He handed over the fifteen-hundred-year-old Church of Eastern Georgia to that imperial state with virtually no resistance. Back then, the Patriarch might have thought that, by striking such a deal with a country of a shared religion, he would save the Orthodox belief and bring material welfare to his own nearly ruined country. In return, though, he personally received cross-panagias embedded with diamonds, a green velvet robe, opulent apartments in Saint Petersburg and Nizny Novgorod, and the Emperor Elizaveta’s six-horse gilded carriage as gifts from the Russian Emperor.
Rather than providing for Georgia’s material welfare, that concession transformed the Georgian Orthodox Church into an edifice of the Russian Empire. Rather than save the Orthodox belief, it brought about the persecution of those who worshipped in the Georgian language, the prohibition of religious songs, untold pillage, and instilment of a slavish spirit in Georgia. I am not a fatalist or a believer in historic regularity, but I think that, had the Georgian autocephaly not been abolished, the Tbilisi theological seminary would not have reared the greatest tyrant and murderer in the history of mankind – Stalin.
Despite the deal struck by Antonius II, the Georgian Church responded to the Empire and its religious persecution in another and more heroic way as well. Two elderly episcopes of Western Georgia – Eqvtime and Dositheus – refused to cede liberty. One of them was killed as a martyr by the Russians while the other was exiled to a distant Russian monastery.
It is not difficult to imagine who chose to follow Christ’s path – Antonius II or the two episcopes of Western Georgia.
Temptation by Miracle
“If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone,” the tempter told Christ. In other words, this miracle will make you famous and everyone will follow you. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,” Jesus answered.
So how does the Georgian Orthodox Church respond to such temptation?
It is a fact that the post-Soviet Church authority rests on two pillars – wealth and miracles, both of which seem to flow to the Church in an uninterrupted steady stream. All but forgotten is the teaching of the Gospel that miracles are sought by doubters and that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Orthodoxy is presented as the only truth because miracles happen there. With that message, the Church emerged in the religious marketplace to claim people’s souls after the break-up of the Soviet Union. By demonstrating its ability to perform “miracles,” the Georgian Orthodox Church strives to prove its superiority over any other religion and to legitimize its exceptionality and dominance. Stories about miracles pervade the entire life of the Church – icons seeped in myrrh; priests cured by prayer; the fate of Georgia dependent on the blessing of the Patriarch.
What is that if not a church magism which views God as the means of materializing aspirations and desires of the faithful? That constitutes a sort of trading with God. Thus, believers light the biggest candles possible and bring priests in to sanctify their apartments. In return, they receive the blessing of the Church. Magism serves not only to strengthen the sacred authority of the Church but to enrich it materially too – naturally, believers have to pay for those services. Magism captures the entire religious life. Everything, from candles, oils and stones to ritualistic practices, is infused with magic which, through Church doctrine, is converted to power. That visual side of the Church has almost completely crowded out the word of God. The Gospel is kissed more often that it is read. Ceremony trumps sanctity.
Putting aside classic Orthodox theology, which is extremely skeptical of the phenomenon of miracles, the ascetic experience is also completely forgotten. Asceticism mostly views miracles as ominous signs in the spiritual life. It is enough to read the Paterikis didactic tales about monks and priests to realize that those clerics, historically as much as possible, shunned the supernatural and avoided the publicity of miracles.
Today, however, “miracles” of the Church are a routine source of media reports, conferring a reason for self-complacency and religious arrogance. The only true miracle with the seal of Christ is love for another person regardless of his/her belief or nationality. In the last century, Georgian Orthodoxy had only one such miraculous priest – Grigol Peradze. That certainly indicates that love and sacrifice for another person is the exception, not the norm, in the Church today.
Temptation by Power
The third and final temptation: “And the devil, taking him up into a high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.” Faced with the possibility of gaining absolute earthly power, Jesus answered: “Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
The power of evil had never been so thoroughly resisted by anyone before Christ. Bread and carnivals formed the foundation of that traditional order on which both the Capital and the temple were built.
Bequeathed bread and a religion that passes off equilibristic feats as miracles create that icon of domination which features Baalzebub. That is the world of gospellic evil – an illusory world in which religion speaks in the name of politics and politics is elevated to the status of religion.
“Be not conformed to this world,” Paul the Apostle warned followers of Christ. In Latin, that warning is “nolite conformari” – do not strike a deal with, do not succumb to this world.
Perhaps the most tragic temptation the Church has faced in its lifetime was when the issue of the communist regime was put on the agenda. In the 1920s, the Georgian Orthodox Church was divided into two factions – its leader Ambrosi Khelaia called communism evil and embarked on the path of a martyr. But there was another segment of clergy and congregation who worshipped the embodiment of political, moral and religious evil and came close to proclaiming communism as the teaching of Christ.
Conformity gained the upper hand in Soviet times and the Church – only formally independent of the state – lost its Christian face. Even two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church still remains under the influence of that nearly century-old deal, Soviet totalitarianism. Proof of that is found, first and foremost, in its attitude toward the outer world – its outright rejection of a free, liberal, democratic world, on the one hand, and an unconditional affinity for the shared religion with Russia, on the other hand.
To abolish its contract with the “devil” and thereby gain freedom, the Georgian Orthodox Church must understand the essence of its autocephaly and resurrect it again. The Church, of course, cannot be oriented toward either the North or the West or toward either the East or the South. The only source of influence over the Church can be that poor, persecuted, powerless Jesus of Nazareth. Only the “impact” of the crucified Christ should determine the daily life of the Church. And that includes its attitude toward each and every person, politics, culture, modernity and, in general, toward the entire universe.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 91, published 12 March 2012.