It’s not every day that you’re told about the guaranteed occurrence of a miracle, in advance with the precise place and time, and even offered a lift. During the night of every May 20, I was told, water flows out of the surrounding stones of the tomb of Saint Zedazeni, drenching the interior of a church. On a ridge 1,000 meters above Tbilisi, Zedazeni’s monastery is built around a holy mountaintop well, and this miracle of water is the culmination of a religious festival commemorating his death. How couldn’t I look into this?
Many religious Georgians spend time in orthodox monasteries on retreat. So if I wanted to spend three days at Zedazeni leading up to this festival I would be very welcome. It costs nothing but you are expected to work — chop wood, sweep, cook, or help out with repairs. “They will probably go easy on you, though,” someone told me before I left. “You’re a foreign guest.”
A friend asked a senior monk at the monastery for permission on my behalf. But before he phoned him, he asked me to clarify. “Let me make sure I understand. You don’t want to do anything special here, just to join in, living life as everyone else does in the monastery.”
“Exactly,” I replied, trying to sound sure of myself but with no idea what I was getting myself into.
“This will not be any problem. But I should warn you, all they do up there is work and pray. You will just work and pray.”
The next day he dropped me off at the gate to the monastery and drove off. I stood in a grassy yard surrounded by stone walls, on one side of me a sixth century church and on the other a fifty kilometer view to Tbilisi and beyond. Ridge lines covered with thick forests wound their way down into the valley and into the filthy smog of the metropolis. A lanky young bearded man approached me. “I am Giorgi. I speak some English so the Father has asked me to help you while you are here and translate everything.” A couple of curious bystanders joined us and Giorgi pointed to them. “There are many of us here just relaxing in the peace and quiet. Some have been here two weeks, others two months. Every morning I am thinking to myself that’s enough but I never go. Maybe tomorrow I’ll leave, maybe never.”
Nothing but working and praying. The description might have been accurate in spirit, but in practice I quickly learned that fifteen minutes of every hour was spent outside the compound watching them smoke cigarettes.
“We call this Hell. Inside the monastery we are submissive to the monks. It’s as close as we can come to heaven on earth. But out here we can do anything. So we come here to smoke. Welcome to Hell.”
“Nice to be here.”
Only in Hell was I properly introduced to my fellow guests, a group of ten men aged twenty to forty. During a monastery residence you never shave, so a ragtag looking group it was, comprised of Georgians from all imaginable backgrounds. Gia was a computer programmer who had spent a year in Montreal and recently vacationed in Egypt. Lasha was abandoned by his parents as an infant and grew up an orphan. Soso, looking like a caveman with a handmade leather hat and jacket, told me that in Tbilisi he does ‘nothing’. I guess this means unemployment but I probably shouldn’t ask for a clarification.
“We have stayed here a long time and are now like brothers. Now you will be like a brother too. Are you Orthodox?”
An unlikely brother, it had to be admitted, but that didn’t seem to matter. There was an instantly recognizable sense of camaraderie and support among them. Starting from wide-eyed curiosity about this perplexing American who was randomly dropped in their midst, they drew me in.
A man with a long black beard poked his head out to call an end to the smoke break. This was Luka, who started out as a short-stay resident at Zedazeni but days led to months and then to years. He has now formally begun his period of subservience which will lead to becoming a monk within a year or two. In the meantime he is responsible for the prayers and allocating chores. At this moment he deemed me to be the best choice for cleaning up the hundreds of cigarette butts scattered about the entryway.
My hands filthy from tobacco ash but the entryway immaculate, I moved on at Luka’s whim from chore to chore. I suppose I could try to be a bit poetic about the pleasures of a job well done, no matter how mundane. But sweeping up the church, cleaning, and candle making rival only watching your fingernails grow. Maybe this is part of the point. Giorgi was most of the time by my side to share the boredom with, good fun at times, though the most poetic he ever got was while pining for the next smoke break.
The following morning Luka sent us into the woods with a bucket and shovel. We were to find some wildflowers for the monastery’s garden. I wasn’t so sure about this since before he had left, my friend had warned me about of “bandits” in the surrounding forests. Walk in the wrong direction and my involuntary next destination would be the notorious Pankisi Gorge, or so he said. “This is nonsense,” Giorgi reassured. “He was probably just trying to scare you so that you’ll stay here where we will watch out for you. Anyway, all of the bandits in these woods are within the monastery walls. Why do you think we’re sitting here praying for forgiveness all the time?”
This was the first of many hints of darker things among us. References to drugs, gambling and crime bubbled up through all the talk of Jesus Christ and orthodox principles. Piece these fragments together and a picture emerges of remorseful delinquents trying to shake their habits and come clean. “I’ve lived my whole life for myself and this has gotten me into so much trouble in Tbilisi,” Giorgi confessed to me during one smoke break. “My Aunt dropped me off here because she knows Luka and the Father very well. Things had to change and when I go back they are going to change. The first step is right here, beginning with a commitment to God.”
There are many ways that you could imagine an all-night “religious festival,” as it had been described to me. Most likely seemed an all-night Georgian language church service, not the most thrilling way to spend a sleepless night. I’d check out this miracle and some of the singing, then head to bed around one a.m. I would leave them to stand there for the remaining five hours of sermons and be the first to greet everyone fresh-eyed in the morning. The descriptions I’d been hearing — the religious symbolism, the all night prayers — seemed rather austere. So talk of wine and Chacha took me by surprise.
“Tonight there will be people everywhere eating and drinking. They will be inviting us for a little bit of wine, maybe some Chacha.” Giorgi paused. “I’ll show you how much a little wine is.”
For a bit of context, I remembered Christmas and Easter at Bronxville’s Village Lutheran Church. Was this going to be an incredibly long church service or a fraternity party? Rather than struggling through difficult questions and answers, I just watched events unfold.
A corps of beggars led the procession of visitors up the mountain. On either side of the entranceway they set up stools, cleaned their donation cups, and scrawled pleas onto pieces of cardboard to lay in front of them. According to Giorgi, their two hour hike up would be well rewarded. “This is pay-day for them. Tonight they will probably make more money than I ever have.”
Behind the beggars came the SUVs, the only vehicles that can make it up the seven kilometer dirt track. By nightfall, twenty Nivas and Jeeps were parked outside and a parade of families bearing picnic baskets and blankets were streaming into the monastery. A floodlight that we had installed the day before cut through the accumulating thick fog that began to whip over the mountaintop. It illuminated a now full coutyard, full of whole generations of families sitting encircled among food.
From the bushes behind me came a whisper: “Vino.” There was Soso peering up at me with some friends of his who had arrived from Tbilisi well armed for a six hour church service. A paper cup was filled with wine and handed to me and there was a toast. Soso winked at me gesturing that I shouldn’t tell the Father or Luka about this. Some secret. Every tree seemed to have wine-drinkers behind it so if the Father intended to purify things he was ambitious indeed.
It finally began to pour. Everyone retreated into the church or into their cars with the bundles of food and drink. Since none of us had a car, we scoured the road looking for a an empty one. There was Vladimir sleeping in the passenger side of a pickup truck. “Would you mind if we drank a toast in the back of your car?” asked Giorgi through the window as we began to be pelted with bullet-sized hailstones.
“How could I have a problem with that!” the big and burly Vladimir bellowed, bolting out of his seat to open the door for us. Here was the unmistakable manner of the totally inebriated.
“He seems drunk,” I politely understated.
“Of course he is! Let’s have a little wine with him.”
Giorgi’s friend Beka pulled a ten liter gasoline canister filled with his family’s homemade wine into the back and we followed it in. “Vladimir wants to give a toast,” Giorgi translated. “We will drink to the future of us young people. Vladimir has recently lost his son and he says that to him we represent the future that his son won’t get. He wants us to live the fulfilling lives that he should have had.” Vladimir was sitting in the front seat nearly in tears, pounding his fists on the dashboard, making rather bizarre grunting noises (lest we forget that he was absolutely smashed). Here was a quintessentially Georgian experience: just past three a.m., sitting in a stranger’s car on a holy mountaintop in the pouring rain, I’m hearing a drunken yet impassioned toast from a father to his recently shot-dead son. “It was personal” Vladimir added, meaning that someone had been out to get specifically him, not that he’d rather not talk about it.
There was a knock on the window next to me. I rolled it down. “The miracle is happening!” Levon howled at me. “Come!”
With the hundreds of people drinking homemade wine and home-baked Khatchapuri, I had forgotten that there was a religious ceremony going on. And I had forgotten that a miracle had been promised. Levon dragged me out of the car, saying goodbye to a now snoring Vladimir.
Despite our best efforts, the door to the church’s only entrance was so packed with people that there was no way in. Levon led me around to the back and we climbed through a window. I followed him down a pile of firewood and into the body-to-body crowd where it had stood empty a mere three hours ago. The sweltering heat and stuffiness made the air thick and heavy, and as the first beads of sweat were already pouring down my forehead I knew exactly what was going on. Here was our miracle — the cold thick stone walls inside and, only on this day each year, the church stuffed beyond capacity. I hadn’t even made it through to the tomb of Zedazeni but I knew it would be covered in condensation.
We forced our way through, squeezing in between the bodies of worshippers, each murmuring prayers. In the corner was the tomb, presided over by Luka who nodded to me as he kept the frantic crowd moving past. When my turn came I too ran my hand down the sopping wet stone. The icons hanging from the walls were also soaked, and people kissed them and touched the water with their hands, touched their hands to their lips. I suddenly had in my mind the thought of all of those soaking wet underarms and the stench of body odor. If you looked at it a certain way this could all seem a little bit disgusting. A pang of claustrophobia struck and I pushed this blasphemous thought out of my mind.
Levon yelled to me, his eyes burning, “This is incredible! Have you ever seen anything like this?”
I imagined a conversation making a comparison to a car on a cold rainy day with the windows shut tight… I imagined talking about the water contained in our breath… And I knew I would never be able to convince them that this was not a divinely inspired scientific impossibility. What would the point be anyway? To them this was proof of their most deeply held beliefs. The months spent up here humbling themselves before the monks, Saint Zedazeni and the principles of Orthodox Christianity had led to this perceived triumph. Are these harmful beliefs that I should argue against? To the contrary, here they were having their best efforts to straighten out their miserable lives validated. It wasincredible in a way. It was a miracle with a physical explanation, a contradiction I know. If it gives these people some hope, if it inspires them to stick to sorting out their lives, the result has been the same. So what, then?
“No, never. This really is a miracle,” I shouted back to him.
Arriving exhausted back in Tbilisi, everyone was already pressing for an opinion. “Have you seen the miracle? Do you think that there is an explanation for this?”
“There might be. I’m not sure it matters.”