Monday, February 24, 2014

A saint's procession

The relics of the Georgian Saint Gabriel Urgebadze were transferred from the Samtavro Monastery in Mtskheta, where he lived, to Tbilisi's gold-domed Sameba (Transfiguration) cathedral this week.  Saint Gabriel, who was canonized in 2012, died in 1995 and many miracles, healings in particular, have been attributed to him.

A procession like this is a once-in-a-lifetime, if that, event for an Orthodox Christian, so I decided to go.

I drove to Mtskheta on Friday night to see whether I could enter the monastery, and to find out the particulars about the procession on Saturday.  I stood outside the monastery gates with several hundred other pilgrims for two hours, many of whom sang hymns and read the akathist to the saint, until the soldiers posted there finally told us to go home.  No one was allowed inside the monastery except for a few groups of nuns and some men with shovels.

Finally we were told that the monk's body would be exhumed the following day at 8 a.m., and that the pedestrian procession from Samtavro to Svetiskhoveli (the main church in Mtskheta) would occur at 12.

I arrived in Mtskheta at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday. The police were not letting cars into the city; pilgrims were arriving by bus and marshrutka that were operating for free for the purposes of the pilgrimage.   When the police officer stopped me at the turnoff for Mtskheta, he asked for my "propusk" (permit).  I showed him my diplomatic ID card.  He looked at me skeptically.  I explained that my husband works at the U.S. Embassy but that I was a pilgrim going to Saint Gabriel's monastery.  He waved me through.  I made it the rest of the way without incident.  Everyone else was let off their public transport at the bridge into town and had to walk a couple miles to the monastery.

When I arrived at the monastery at 7:30 a.m., the pre-service reading was being broadcast over the monastery walls by a large speaker.  There were already easily a thousand people there.  This is significant because Georgians don't generally do much of anything until 10 a.m. at the earliest.  It was cold and rainy, so some had started small fires on the hillside to keep warm.

Thousands of soldiers had been bussed in for crowd control.  I will admit that at first I was very put off by the barricades and rows of uniformed men facing the crowd.  But later it became evident that these measures were necessary.

Most people were not allowed into the monastery.  Periodically a few people would walk up the street between the barricades.  Usually they were monastics or handicapped.  The soldiers helped out by pushing the wheelchair-bound up to the church, and carrying sick children, or someone's crutches.  It was touching.

The service lasted until after 1 p.m.  As it got later, the crowd got thicker, until we were pressed so tightly together that I wasn't actually bearing all my weight on my feet anymore.  Had the soldiers and barricades not been there, the crush of people would have been huge and I'm sure someone would have been trampled.

At 1:30, the procession finally came out.  A wall of soldiers, arms linked, filed out first, followed by monastics carrying a large icon of the saint, a pedestal for his coffin, and finally the coffin itself (which is not what Saint Gabriel was originally buried in; according to his wishes and monastic custom he was buried wrapped in fabric and strapped to a board).  The soldiers manning the barricades removed their hats in respect at the saint's relics went by.  I have to say that this would not have happened in Moscow.  Georgians as a whole are a religious people - something that I have really appreciated about my time here.

The tenacity of these pilgrims really amazed me.  The air was raw and bone-chilling.  It was raining. I nearly left myself several times.  My back burned, I couldn't feel my feet, and it took me over an hour to thaw out in front of a roaring fire once I got home. Yet there were children there, who stood the whole time.

After the crowd had thinned out, I wanted to get into the monastery. Many miracles, mostly healings, are attributed to the oil from the lampada at the saint's grave, and I wanted to get some for sick family members.  The first soldier I asked would not let me through the barricade.  I walked 20 feet further and asked again; this time I was let in.

Within the monastery walls, a small crowd of people surrounded St. Gabriel's former grave, passing down plastic bags which men at the bottom filled with dirt and passed back up.  People also sent down their crosses and prayer beads to be placed onto the grave for blessing.

I also went into the church, which was really beautiful.  I didn't take any photos in there though.

I went back to Mtskheta on Sunday to venerate St. Gabriel at Svetiskhoveli, Mtskheta's main church.

Again, it was a gray, raw day.  When I first saw the mob line, I thought, "Well, that's not too bad."

 Then I stood in it for an hour, barely moving. 

We were pressed nose-to-back and I had to fight the urge to panic.  It got me thinking about what a soft American I am.  The crush didn't faze the Georgians - even the small children in line didn't cry.   I also started thinking about what sorts of events people in the United States would be willing to wait hours for, and in such an uncomfortable mob.  All I could come up with was Black Friday sales and rock concerts and I admit, it made me sad for the state of my people.

Finally some soldiers came and formed a two-layer barricade at the front, to control the number of people who got into the actual church at a time.

After that it was only another 40 minutes until I got into the church, and the 20 minutes until I made it to the front. At the front, a priest stood by the open casket.  His job was to move the line along.  He gave each person approximately three-quarters of a second to kiss the side of the coffin before pushing their heads away and in the direction of the exit.  Because of this I only got a fleeting glimpse of the saint.  He was covered in a black shroud; it was clear his body had not been corrupted.  A strong smell of roses emanated from him.

It was an incredible experience. St. Gabriel was processed to Sameba, Tbilisi's main gold-domed cathedral, today.  He will remain there for a week to give more faithful the opportunity to venerate him, before returning to Svetiskhoveli, which will be his final resting place.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what an incredible and beautiful experience. Your description and photos of it were awesome, I felt like I was there with you. And I agree with you, compared to the Georgians, I am sad for the state of the American people. Thank you for sharing this.


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