Ringing Symbols in the Republic of Georgia and At Home

When we read about the repatriation of physical artifacts, we, as thoughtful outsiders, may nod and say to ourselves, “Ah, good,” or in our more patronizing moments, “Well, isn’t that so nice for them!” There it stops, there it ends, and on to the next event, need, or thing clamoring for our attention.  This event/need/thing is more than that. In fact, we, as introspective and empathetic Christians, should break out of our common frame of reference and dwell on this event beyond the passing (if heartfelt!) routine of information consumption. The return of the Grail of Peace (მშვიდობის გრაალი, or mshvidobis graali ) to the Georgian Baptist community represents the return of an artifact of an idealized past for some, a symbol of Georgian Baptist unity for others, and a symbolic act of broader Christian unity – for Georgian Baptists and for those of us beyond Georgia’s physical borders.

To those of you unfamiliar with Georgia – its language, history, religions, cultures, musics, visual arts, cuisines, architecture, and its people – this short article cannot provide all the context and color needed to fully empathize with modern Georgians .[1] Some central points that relate to our own situations, however, will help everyone understand why they should meditate on the Georgian situation and this repatriation event.

Unfortunately, most of us can identify with loss – whether personal, bodily, property, or otherwise. Starting from Georgia’s beginnings as a nation (in the broad sense of the word) nearly two thousand years ago and continuing through the more recent tsarist and Soviet eras, the group of people we call Georgians (ქართლი, or kartli) endured a nearly continuous state of siege or attack. Some of this, of course, was the sad state of affairs for the time, but much of this in more “modern times” (say, the last 300 years) involved the theft and/or destruction of (but not limited to) people, homes, churches, artistic and religious expression, crops, livestock, religious symbols, and even governments.  At the time of its initial use in 1868, Georgia was a part of the Russian Empire and Georgians felt tremendous pressure from the Russian government to adopt elements of Russian culture (“russification”). The increasing effects of russification spread to the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgian Baptist Church, and other Georgian manifestations of Christianity in restrictions placed on language, music, religious education, and worship itself.

For some Georgian Baptists, the Grail acts as a symbol of a “purer” time and experience, and its return helps many Georgian Baptists connect with their past as well as spark hope for the future. One member of the community, Nino Khutsishvili, emphasized the historical nature of the Grail and its importance as a Eucharistic symbol and artifact of the first Baptists in Georgia and to their desire and work towards peace.[2] While this is certainly related to a general sense of nostalgia we all feel from time to time, it is of a deeper type because of Georgia’s longstanding (and many Georgians say, “genetic”) historical connection with Christianity which dates to the fourth century CE. The Grail, then, represents an aspect of their identity that is fundamental, something precious that was lost but now found – something (I dearly hope) that many of us have experienced at some point in our lives.

Most of us can recognize that the people that are closest to us or are the most like us are the ones that can hurt us the most. Simply put, the similarities or shared experiences lead us to greater engagement and deeper connection, and when the differences (or conflicts) do occur, the result is far more volatile than it would be with complete “strangers,” so to speak.[3] Over the last two thousand years, current and modern Georgians have reached out to their Christian neighbors (both in a geographic and Christocentric sense) and found both help and hurt. How often have we found the same? Yet for many Georgian Baptists, such as Misha Songulashvili, it seems as though the Grail represents ecumenical unity and fellowship within and without the Georgian Baptist Church. Yes, there is sadness and historical hurt on all sides, but the focus remains on forgiveness and acceptance – not just tolerance. Wonderfully direct, the Latin inscription on the Grail reads, “Drink ye all of it.” In a recent email conversation, the Archbishop of the Georgian Baptist Church, Malkhaz Songulashvili, wrote:

The Grail of Peace was a certainly a symbol of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit when it was acquired for a tiny Baptist congregation in Tiflis [Tbilisi, capital of Georgia]… The chalice is the symbol of peace but it is also a symbol of love, forgiveness, and hope… None of these can be local. They are not meant only for Georgians or Americans, or even Russians, they are meant for everybody.

In meditating on this Grail of Peace, it is my hope that we perceive a multifaceted example of the types of connection – in time, faith, memory, and experience (to name a few) – that are possible through effort and empathy. These events could – and should – resonate with us if we allow ourselves to see ourselves in these stories. That resonance, that vibration, that movement (if you will) should inspire sympathetic vibration and action. How will you respond in your community and in your life?







[1] For more detailed information, I would highly recommend Ronald Suny’s books, Revenge of the Past and Making of the Georgian Nation as well as The Ghost of Freedom by Richard King. For an overview focusing on music, history, and religion, I might humbly suggest my thesis, freely available on the DRUM website of University of Maryland (http://bit.ly/p8ziki).

[2] This peacemaking characteristic is somewhat supported by at least one newspaper article from the early twentieth century (ca. 1902) found in the National Archive of Georgia in Tbilisi.

[3] More can read on this admittedly cursory rendering of a mixture of complex (and sometimes convoluted) social theory through the work of Georg Simmel, Fredrik Barth, and Jonathan Dueck.