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One of the Thirteen Syrian Fathers (ათცამმეტი ასურელი მამანი, atsamet’i asureli mamani), Saint Shio established one of the largest monastic centres in central Georgia, the Shio Mgvime Monastery in Mtskheta, around 30 km from Tbilisi. The monastery is located in a steep gorge outside the town. Many of the structures date to the late 6th century and are still in use as a functioning monastery.

Shiomgvime

Shiomgvime monastery

 

From ” Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Herman of Alaska Press

“The Monk Shio (Simeon) of Mgvim was born in Syrian Antioch. His parents were Christians and raised their son as the only heir. The youth received a fine education, he studied the Holy Scripture and already in his early years he became accomplished in the ability of expounding the Word of God. Having learnt about an holy ascetic named John, Shio secretly left his parental home and set out to the saint. The Monk John made the youth return to his parents, after foretelling that his parents would become monastics. The prediction was soon fulfilled: Shio distributed his inheritance and accepted tonsure from the Monk John.

The Monk Shio 20 years later, amidst 12 other chosen disciples of Saint John, set off to Iveria (the eastern half of Georgia) to preach the Word of God. With the blessing both of his teacher and of the Georgian Catholicos Eulabios, the Monk Shio settled into a cave west of the city of Mtskheta, where he made austere ascetic efforts and was vouchsafed miraculous visions. The solitary life of the ascetic became known of, and soon the place of the saint’s efforts was transformed into a monastery, at which a church in the Name of the Most Holy Trinity was established by the monk. Later on other churches were built: in honour of the Mother of God and John the Forerunner. All the churches were consecrated by the Catholicos Makarios. The number of brethren increased, and the monk gave his blessing for them to found the Mgvim monastery, while he himself continued his deeds of salvation in seclusion. The Monk Shio reposed on 9 May, having the evening before communed the Holy Mysteries and given the brethren a final salvific instruction. The remains of the Saint of God were buried in the monastery founded by him. The Monk Shio is known, as the author of 160 precepts for the brethren.”

This saint is commemorated on the Thursday of Cheesefare Week (the week before Great Lent) as a movable feast, and also is commemorated in May.

The monastery built upon the site of his original community includes many caves dug into the hillside. At one time if was the most populous monastery in the country with over 2000 monks in residence, with music, liturgical works and sacred literature composed here. The monastery has been attacked or the monks dispersed many times by Persians, Mongols and Turks, and was shut down by the Communists also. It is now once again a thriving monastic centre with many monks and pilgrims.

  

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Today is the second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period, with Meatfare Sunday (the last day of meat consumption before Pascha) falling next Sunday. Following from last week’s theme of repentance and forgiveness, the theme of today is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 15:11-32),

“11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

The simplest interpretation of this is for Christians to imagine themselves as foreigners in a distant land, far from their Father’s house and full of regret for their reckless and disobedient conduct. Through the Lenten period, we are to engage in metanoia (repentance or “change of mind”) and to follow the long and winding road back to God where we belong. The parable assures us that our repentant return home will be greeted with joy by the Father, not justified by our worthy acts but through God’s forgiveness and love. One can think of “the Father’s House” as being salvation and reunification with God. The prodigal chose to walk away from salvation by his own free will and to live foolishly and sinfully, and by his own free will he resolved to repent, to return home and to live humbly under the authority of his Father’s will. Concurrently, the elder brother, by removing himself from the household out of resentment at the favourable treatment the prodigal son received, at least temporarily has removed himself from salvation and God’s presence.

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

In the Georgian context, it is worthwhile considering how we, as individuals or as a Church, fit into the framework of this parable. Over three-quarters of the Georgian population now declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. It is worth noting that, to avoid persecution and to improve career prospects, many of today’s Georgian Christians were Communist Party members or Komsomol members in the Soviet era, and openly repudiated organised religion in general or Christ in particular, not unlike Saint Peter repudiating Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon sincere demonstration of contrition and metanoia, the Church has joyfully received its former enemies into its midst as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is in the glorious tradition of the Early Church Fathers who joyfully baptised the same Roman troops and civil administrators who had previously persecuted them.

Having been accepted “back home” into God’s house, it is imperative for Christians in Georgia to remember the grace that has been bestowed upon them when considering how to deal with the other peoples of the region. The histories of the Georgian and Armenian peoples have been intertwined for millennia, sometimes competitive, sometimes co-operative, but despite the schism over the Council of Chalcedon, it is important for these two peoples to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with some outstanding disagreements, rather than as intractable antagonists. Thousands of Coptic Christians have settled in Georgia, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, but the welcome they have received from Georgian Orthodox parishes when seeking to pray in the temple has often been less than effusive. Some wonderful opportunities to embrace new arrivals or long-standing ethnic minorities as brothers and sisters in Christ, to baptise or chrismate them, and to gently integrate them into Georgian society, have sadly been lost, with some people behaving like the prodigal son’s older brother, filled with anger and resentment when schismatics seek to return home.

At various times in history, many of the people of the North Caucasus, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had accepted baptism and were vigourous members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Georgian missionaries played no small part in this, using their God-given abilities as orators, teachers and healers to bring the word of God to these regions, and many gave their lives to enlighten these neighbouring peoples, whom they viewed as being equally worthy of salvation as their own people. It is a mark of contempt for these great Georgian evangelists that some people today, claiming to speak for the Church, seek to denigrate or insult neighbouring people of different religions or races simply because they are not Kartvelian.  

Many Muslims from neighbouring countries had Christian ancestors who were forced into apostasy under threat of torture or execution.  I have discussed before the Christian civilisation of the Caucasian Albanians of Azerbaijan, the Christian communities established by Georgian missionaries in Ossetia and Daghestan, and the hundreds of thousands of Christians who inhabited every major town and city in the Persian Empire in the past. Many Muslims from the region are curious about Christianity and are very open to discussing our religion, and not a few are willing to apostasise themselves from Islam and accept Christian baptism when dealt with kindly. When confronted with a person considering “returning home” to the Church, even from a nationality or faith that some consider to be an intractable enemy of the Georgian Church, it is important to consider that we all have been welcomed home by our Father through His grace rather than our own virtue. To reject our neighbours’ sincere approaches places us, rather unfavourably, in the role of the elder brother of the prodigal son. Unlike the elder brother, many of us in the past were in open opposition to God’s Church in Georgia; while the elder brother could with some justification say “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”, there are precious few of us here can truthfully say the same.

For those still in two minds on this issue, one can direct them to the will of the Holy Spirit as expressed in Saint Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

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Last Sunday began the three week-long Pre-Lenten period, where Christians consider the issue of repentance before beginning the rigourous fasting season of Great Lent. Last Sunday was designated as the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, referring to one of Christ’s better-known Parables on the importance of knowing oneself, humility and repentance. This week is designated as the Week of the Pharisee and the Publican, and next week follows the Week of the Prodigal Son (another parable concerning repentance and forgiveness).

Luke 18:10-14 provides the parable, where two men, one from the Pharisee sect (known for their strict adherence to the Law) and the other a Publican (a Jew in the service of the Roman Empire as a tax collector, widely despised by Jewish society as collaborators and thugs, and considered ritually unclean) enter the Temple. The Pharisee, while praying, proudly tells God he is so happy that he is virtuous, and does not conduct himself like adulterers, extortionists or tax collectors, and that he engages in many good works. The Publican, in grief over his wicked past,  begs God to forgive him and acknowledges himself as a sinner. Christ concludes that it was the Publican who returned home justified and forgiven, not the Pharisee, and He states, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).

A Greek word “metanoia” is frequently used when discussing repentance in this context. It means “change of mind” and conveys a deeper meaning of repentance than just self-pity, dissatisfaction or regret over past actions. It is an active process rather than a passive mood, involving transformation of one’s viewpoint and a re-appraisal of how we interact with God and with others. The Pharisee in this parable is self-satisfied, complacent and believes that his adherence to the Law and his good works are enough to maintain a solid relationship with God. The Publican truly seeks a “change of mind”, not only regretting his misdeeds but humbling himself before God and resolving to improve his conduct; through God’s mercy rather than only his own works he will be forgiven and hence saved.

In our own church, we may meet people who resemble the Pharisee, who are unjustifiably proud of their piety and look down on overt sinners, are unkind to people of other religions or harsh to people of other races. It has ever been so, such is the nature of human frailty. We may also encounter people like the Publican, who have made serious errors in their lives, are frequently held in contempt for it, and humbly seek to transform their lives through Christ. Recapitulation of this parable before our eyes on a weekly basis should not make us cynical about the devout, but remind us that Christ’s parables are timeless and the struggle with pride goes on relentlessly in every human heart, even in people who are basically decent.

The icon for this feast is full of significance, and an explanation of the didactic (teaching) icon above is well covered here.

The ever-eloquent Saint John Chrysostom discusses this feast in great detail;

“When lately we made mention of the Pharisee and the Publican, and hypothetically yoked two chariots out of virtue and vice; we pointed out each truth, how great is the gain of humbleness of mind, and how great the damage of pride. For this, even when conjoined with righteousness and fastings and tithes, fell behind; while that, even when yoked with sin, out-stripped the Pharisee’s pair, even although the charioteer it had was a poor one. For what was worse than the publican? But all the same since he made his soul contrite, and called himself a sinner; which indeed he was; he surpassed the Pharisee, who had both fastings to tell of and tithes; and was removed from any vice. On account of what, and through what? Because even if he was removed from greed of gain and robbery, he had rooted over his soul the mother of all evils— vain-glory and pride. On this account Paul also exhorts and says “Let each one prove his own work”; and then he will have his ground of boasting for himself, and not for the other. He publicly came forward as an accuser of the whole world; and said that he himself was better than all living men. And yet even if he had set himself before ten only, or if five, or if two, or if one, not even was this endurable; but as it was, he not only set himself before the whole world, but also accused all men. On this account he fell behind in the running. And just as a ship, after having run through innumerable surges, and having escaped many storms, then in the very mouth of the harbour having been dashed against some rock, loses the whole treasure which is stowed away in her— so truly did this Pharisee, after having undergone the labours of the fasting, and of all the rest of his virtue, since he did not master his tongue, in the very harbour underwent shipwreck of his cargo. For the going home from prayer, whence he ought to have derived gain, having rather been so greatly damaged, is nothing else than undergoing shipwreck in harbour.

Knowing therefore these things, beloved even if we should have mounted to the very pinnacle of virtue, let us consider ourselves last of all; having learned that pride is able to cast down even from the heavens themselves him who takes not heed, and humbleness of mind to bear up on high from the very abyss of sins him who knows how to be sober. For this it was that placed the publican before the Pharisee; whereas that, pride I mean and an overweening spirit, surpassed even an incorporeal power, that of the devil; while humbleness of mind and the acknowledgment of his own sins committed brought the robber into Paradise before the Apostles. Now if the confidence which they who confess their own sins effect for themselves is so great, they who are conscious to themselves of many good qualities, yet humble their own souls, how great crowns will they not win. For when sinfulness be put together with humbleness of mind it runs with such ease as to pass and out-strip righteousness combined with pride. If therefore thou have put it to with righteousness, whither will it not reach? Through how many heavens will it not pass? By the throne of God itself surely it will stay its course; in the midst of the angels, with much confidence. On the other hand if pride, having been yoked with righteousness, by the excess and weight of its own wickedness had strength enough to drag down its confidence; if it be put together with sinfulness, into how deep a hell will it not be able to precipitate him who has it? These things I say, not in order that we should be careless of righteousness, but that we should avoid pride; not that we should sin, but that we should be sober-minded. For humbleness of mind is the foundation of the love of wisdom which pertains to us. Even if you should have built a superstructure of things innumerable; even if almsgiving, even if prayers, even if fastings, even if all virtue; unless this have first been laid as a foundation, all will be built upon it to no purpose and in vain; and it will fall down easily, like that building which had been placed on the sand. For there is no one, no one of our good deeds, which does not need this; there is no one which separate from this will be able to stand. But even if you should mention temperance, even if virginity, even if despising of money, even if anything whatever, all are unclean and accursed and loathsome, humbleness of mind being absent. Everywhere therefore let us take her with us, in words, in deeds, in thoughts, and with this let us build these (graces).”

 

 

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