Easter is here! I had the fortune to celebrate the feast with the small brotherhood of monks at the Bana Monastery. The monastery is located in the forests of Lower Kartli in a remote, nearly uninhabited valley. We started the service at midnight, in silence, under a moonless sky full of stars. Below are some video recordings of the service, posted in chronological order.
Abbot Basili reading the Gospel, Easter night, Bana Monastery
Monks with black hoods emerged from their cabins along the woods and made their way to the small chapel in the field. The moonless night was bright with starlight; the air was cold enough to need jackets; the only sounds were our shifting feet in the grass outside as one figure after another entered the chapel.
Around midnight, it was time to begin. After some prayers indoors, we all filed outside where Abbot Basili began the all-night Paschal vigil, reading from the Gospel in his lilting musical voice outside the East apse. We listened in silence, the flickering candles sometimes silhouetting the dark hoods of the monks, or revealing a cheek bone here, a strong nose there.
Video: aghdgomasa shensa (Your Resurrection)
Then we started the procession. Carrying icons, we processed slowly around the outside of the chapel, holding candles to light our way, and singing loudly aghdgomasa shensa ("Your Resurrection").
Aghdgomasa shensa kriste matskhovar
angelozni ugaloben tsata shina
da chventsa ghirs mkven kveqanasa zeda
tsmindit gulita didebad shenda!
Your Resurrection, O Christ our Savior,
the Angels in heaven sing!
Enable us who are on earth
to Glorify You with a pure heart!
Video: entering the church singing "Christ is Risen" Svanetian variant
At the conclusion of the third circumnavigation, the abbot knocked on the "door of the tomb", and we proceeded to sing the Paschal troparion kriste aghdga (Christ is Risen). Entering the church, we continued our singing, this time with the popular Svanetian variant. Many variants of the chant exist, as detailed in this exhaustive post on the chant kriste aghdga (includes discussion, performance video, and downloadable notation).
Video: "Christ is Risen" multiple West Georgian variants
Video: "Christ is Risen," Patarava variant (West Georgia)
The chapel is wooden, and like all of the log cabin sketes, was built in the early 1990s on an abandoned farm meadow high above the Dzamis river. The chapel is small, with a capacity for probably 40 people at maximum. Tonight, besides the 12 in the brotherhood, there were perhaps half a dozen visitors.
Video: "Christ is Risen" Kartli variant (East Georgia)
Video: "Christ is Risen" Karbelashvili variant (East Georgia)
The service proceeded through the night. We sang all of the heirmoi for the Paschal canon (the video didn't come out for those), we sang the liturgy. Time went by, and our eyelids grew heavy. 1am turned to 2am, and then 3am, and 4am. By now we had a second wind and everyone was chanting strongly.
Video: "As Many as are Baptized"
Video: "The Angels Cried," and "The New Jerusalem"
Around 4am, communion was offered, and shortly thereafter, at the conclusion of the service, we each retired to our cabins for some rest.
After chanting for hours, the brain is over-oxygenated. I took a moment to stand in the light-filled meadow and soak in all of the sensations that I was suddenly hyper-aware of. The absence of man-made engine noises. The tiny sounds of a nocturnal forest. The glistening on the grass, and on the distant peak. The moon had come out, clearly illuminating the monastery meadow and making the trees along the mountain top across the valley shimmer silver and black... silver and black.
The next morning, after our breaking-fast meal -trapeza- at 10am, we laughed and discussed pop culture and the world outside on a fallen log bench. At midday, I started back towards Tbilisi with four monks as passengers (going to visit their families). Along the way, we stopped at the Kintsvisi Monastery to see its famous frescoes and sing more chants.
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The Bana Monastery is about 2.5 hours drive West of Tbilisi. One drives through the broad valleys of Kartli that bound the Mtkvari river until the town of Kareli, where the highway ends and a dirt road climbs into the Dzamis kheoba - a small river gorge that winds into the Trialeti mountain range to the south. There are 12 monks and novices that live there in relative seclusion; the valley is sparsely populated, with few visitors. But the community is anything but hermetic. The monks are young, full of energy, and constantly working on various projects such as chopping wood, collecting mushrooms, conducting services, researching... some of them are active on social media as well with photographs and updates on the life of the monastery.
John A. Graham lives with his family in Tbilisi, where he leads custom-curated cultural tours throughout the Caucasus. He holds a PhD in historical musicology from Princeton University and regularly teaches and lectures on the history of Georgian traditional chant.