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Saint David of Gareja (Tsminda Daviti Garejeli) is one of Georgia’s favourite saints and associated with the complex of monasteries in Georgia’s rugged southern Kvemo Kartli badlands. My favourite part of the country….

 

Saint David was one of Georgia’s Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, of whom we have written before regarding Saint Joseph of Aleverdi in Kakheti. Settling in Georgia from Mesopotamia in the 6th Century, they were responsible for the development of monasticism in Iberia after its official conversion to Christianity, but while Persian Zoroastrianism and native animism were still widely practiced in Georgia. In icons, he is widely pictured in the company of deer, with whom he shared the wilderness in his early years. Today is his Saint’s Day.

david icon deer

Saint David of Gareji was Syrian by birth. The future ascetic became a disciple of Saint John of Zedazeni and journeyed with him to Georgia. Saint David and his spiritual son Lucian settled on a mountain above Tbilisi, the capital of Kartli.

At that time Kartli was constantly under threat of the Persian fire-worshippers. Saint David would spend entire days in prayer, beseeching the Lord for forgiveness of the sins of those who dwelt in the city. When he was finished praying for the day, he would stand on the mountain and bless the whole city. Once a week Saints David and Lucian would go down into the city to preach. A church dedicated to Saint David was later built on the mountain where he laboured.

Saint David’s authority and popularity alarmed the fire-worshippers, and they accused him of adultery, in an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of the people. As a “witness” they summoned a certain expectant prostitute, who accused him of being the child’s father. Hoping in God, the holy father touched his staff to the prostitute’s womb and ordered the unborn child to declare the truth. From out of the womb the infant uttered the name of his true father.

Outraged at this slander, the bystanders savagely stoned the woman to death. Saint David pleaded with them to stop, but he was unable to placate the furious crowd. Deeply disturbed by these events, Saint David departed the region with his disciple Lucian.  The holy fathers settled in a small cave in the wilderness and began to spend all their time in prayer. They ate nothing but herbs and the bark of trees. When the herbs withered from the summer heat, the Lord sent them deer. Lucian milked them and brought the milk to Saint David, and when the elder made the sign of the Cross over the milk it was miraculously transformed into cheese.

Shaken by the holy father’s miracle, Lucian told him, “Even if my body rots and wastes away from hunger and thirst, I will not permit myself to fret over the things of this temporal life.”

The fathers kept a strict fast on Wednesdays and Fridays—they ate nothing, and even the deer did not come to them on those days.

A frightful serpent inhabited a cave not far from where they lived and attacked all the animals around it. But at Saint David’s command the serpent deserted that place.

Once local hunters were tracking the fathers’ deer, and they caught sight of Lucian milking them as they stood there quietly, as though they were sheep. The hunters paid great respect to Saint David and, having returned to their homes, reported what they had seen.

Soon the Gareji wilderness filled with people who longed to draw nearer to Christ. A monastery was founded there, and for centuries it stood fast as a center and cornerstone of faith and learning in Georgia.

After some time Saint David set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He entrusted Lucian to fulfil his responsibilities at the monastery and took some of the other brothers with him. When the pilgrims were approaching the place called the “Ridge of Grace,” from which the holy city of Jerusalem becomes visible, Saint David fell to his knees and glorified God with tears. Judging himself unworthy to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, he was satisfied to gaze upon the city from afar.

Then he stood at the city gates and prayed fervently while his companions entered the Holy City and venerated the holy places. Returning, Saint David took with him three stones from the “Ridge of Grace.” That night an angel appeared to the patriarch of Jerusalem and informed him that a certain pious man named David, who was visiting from afar, had taken with him all the holiness of Jerusalem.

The angel proceeded to tell him that the venerable one had marched through the city of Nablus, clothed in tatters and bearing on his shoulders an old sack in which he carried the three holy stones. The patriarch sent messengers after the stranger with a request that he return two of the stones and take only one for himself. St. David returned the two stones, but he declined the patriarch’s invitation to visit him. He took the third stone back with him to the monastery, and to this day it has been full of the grace of miraculous healing.

After Saint David brought the miraculous stone from Jerusalem, the number of brothers at the monastery doubled. The venerable father ministered to all of them and encouraged them. He also visited the cells of the elder hermits to offer his solace. In accordance with his will, a monastery in the name of Saint John the Baptist was founded in the place called “Mravalmta” (the Rolling Mountains).

The Lord God informed Saint David of his imminent departure to the Kingdom of Heaven. Then he gathered the fathers of the wilderness and instructed them for the last time not to fall into confusion, but to be firm and ceaselessly entreat the Lord for the salvation of their souls.

He received Holy Communion, lifted up his hands to the Lord, and gave up his spirit.

St. David’s holy relics have worked many miracles: approaching them, those blind from birth have received their sight. To this day, believers have been healed of every spiritual and bodily affliction at his grave.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans Press.

 

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Those living in Georgia with access to TV will have noted the recent media fascination with Georgia’s Assyrian minority living in Qanda village, close to Mtskheta town. This has been driven to an extent by the charisma and vocal talents of the priest of that community, Father Seraphim, who has made numerous media appearances and has multiple videos on Youtube of his choir in Qanda’s church, who sing in Aramaic and Georgian.

mama-serafime

As previously reported, the ancestors of Qanda’s population came to Georgia as refugees in the 19th century. While they were Christians, they were not of our Eastern Orthodox communion. Over time, they accepted baptism into the Georgian Church and were accepted as an Orthodox parish with the dispensation to conduct their affairs in their native language.

This ethnic minority are held in high regard in Georgia, even more so since Qanda’s rise to prominence in the media. Georgian Christians are very aware that Georgian monasticism was developed by Assyrian monks and that many regions of Georgia still practising animism or Zoroastrianism after Iberia’s adoption of Christianity were converted by the Assyrian Fathers. Also, to witness a community accepting the local religion and integrating smoothly into the greater Georgian community has been very satisfying to observe for many. To my knowledge, other Orthodox Christian minorities in Georgia, including Slavs, Ossetians and Greeks, were already Orthodox when they migrated here, other than those Caucasus Greeks and Black Sea Greeks who settled here more than 2000 years ago.

The psalm performed in Aramaic, with the tune arranged by Father Seraphim,  is Psalm 16:

16 Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;

But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.

Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.

The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.

10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

 

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One of the great Old Testament prophets, Jerremiah was noted for his repeated entreaties for the Jewish people in the Kingdom of Judah to lead simple and pure lives, and he prophesied Judah’s conquest, bondage and exile to Babylon as punishment for their corruption and disobedience. The deportations occurred in three waves, in 597 BC, 587 BC and 582 BC.

Prior to Judah’s confrontation with Babylon, Judah was a client state of the Assyrian Empire, one explanation as to why Aramaic was the lingua franca of Palestine at the time of Christ.

Ningyou - Own work data from Based on a map in 'Atlas of the Bible Lands', C S Hammond & Co (1959), ISBN 9780843709414.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire (from Wikimedia)

The Assyrians had involved themselves in the wars between the two Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel, having invaded Israel on Judah’s behalf and deported many Jews from Israel to other parts of the Assyrian Empire.

Deportation of Israelites by the Assyrian Empire Joelholdsworth – Own work

When the Babylonians overthrew their Assyrian overlords, the Egyptian kingdom sided with the Assyrians and sought to fight the Babylonians in Syria. This required a large Egyptian army to pass through Judah, but the Jewish King Josiah refused permission for the Pharoah, ostensibly his ally, to pass through Judah, citing the Torah’s prohibition on armed foreigners passing through Jewish lands. This resulted in a large battle at Megiddo (“Armageddon”) at which King Josiah was mortally wounded by the Egyptians, and he was mourned by the Prophet Jeremiah and the people of Judah. Judah fell under Egyptian influence to a large extent, culminating in a rebellion against Babylon in 596 that resulted in a siege and defeat in Jerusalem, and the pillaging of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II as well as the exile to Babylon of the Prophet Ezekiel. A subsequent Jewish revolt against the Babylonians in 587 resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the levelling of the First Temple.

James Tissot, “The Flight of the Prisoners”

The Jewish people’s exile in what is now Iraq lasted for many decades until the Babylonians were in turn conquered by the Persians, and the enlightened Persian emperor Cyrus the Great permitted the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and elsewhere in his empire,  to return to Judah in 539 BC. Many of Georgia’s Jewish community can trace their ancestry to Jews who settled in the Caucasus during the reign of Cyrus, more than 2500 years ago.

The Holy Prophet Jeremiah, one of the four great Old Testament prophets, was son of the priest Helkiah from the city of Anathoth near Jerusalem, and he lived 600 years before the Birth of Christ, under the Israelite king Josiah and four of his successors. He was called to prophetic service in his 15th year of life, when the Lord revealed to him, that even before his birth the Lord had assigned him to be a prophet. Jeremiah refused, pointing to his own youthfulness and lack of skill at speaking, but the Lord promised to be always with him and to watch over him. He touched the mouth of the chosen one and said: “Lo I do put Mine words into thy mouth, I do entrust unto thee from this day the fate of nations and kingdoms. By thine prophetic word wilt they fall and rise up” (Jer. 1: 9-10). And from that time Jeremiah prophesied for twenty-three years, denouncing the Jews for abandoning the True God and worshipping idols, predicting for them woes and devastating wars. He stood by the gates of the city, and at the entrance to the Temple, everywhere where the people gathered, and he exhorted them with imprecations and often with tears. But the people answered him with mockery and abuse, and they even tried to kill him.

Depicting the slavery to the king of Babylon impending for the Jews, Jeremiah at the command of God put on his own neck at first a wooden, and then an iron yoke, and thus he went about among the people. Enraged at the dire predictions of the prophet, the Jewish elders threw the Prophet Jeremiah into an imprisoning pit, filled with horrid slimy creatures, where he all but died. Through the intercession of the God-fearing royal-official Habdemelek, the prophet was pulled out of the pit but he did not cease with the prophecies, and for this he was carted off to prison. Under the Jewish king Zedekiah his prophesy was fulfilled: Nebuchadnezzar came, made slaughter of the nation, carried off a remnant into captivity, and Jerusalem was pillaged and destroyed. Nebuchadnezzar released the prophet from prison and permitted him to live where he wanted. The prophet remained at the ruins of Jerusalem and bewailed the misfortune of his fatherland. According to tradition, the Prophet Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant with the Law‑Tablets and hid it in one of the caves of Mount Nabath (Nebo), such that the Jews were no more able to find it (2 Mac. 2). Afterwards a new Ark of the Covenant was fashioned, but it lacked in the glory of the first.

Among the Jews remaining in their fatherland there soon arose internecine clashes: the viceroy of Nebuchadnezzar, Hodoliah, was murdered, and the Jews, fearing the wrath of Babylon, decided to flee into Egypt. The Prophet Jeremiah disagreed with their intention, predicting that the punishment which they feared, would befall them in Egypt. But the Jews would not hearken to the prophet, and taking him by force with them, they went into Egypt and settled in the city of Tathnis. And there the prophet lived for four years and was respected by the Egyptians, since with his prayer he killed crocodiles and other nasty creatures infesting these parts. But when he began to prophesy, that the king of Babylon would invade the land of Egypt and annihilate the Jews settled in it, the Jews then murdered the Prophet Jeremiah. In that very same year the prophesy of the saint was fulfilled. There exists a tradition, that 250 years later Alexander the Great of Macedonia transported the relics of the holy Prophet Jeremiah to Alexandria.

The Prophet Jeremiah wrote his Book of “Prophesies” (“Jeremiah”), and also the Book of “Lamentations”, – about the Desolation of Jerusalem and the Exile. The times in which he lived and prophesied are spoken of in the 4th (2nd) Book of Kings (Ch. 23-25) and in the 2nd Book of Chronicles (36: 12) and in 2 Maccabbees (Ch. 2).

In the Gospel of Matthew it points out, that the betrayal of Judas was foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah: “And they took thirty pieces of silver, the price of Him on Whom the sons of Israel had set a price, and they gave them over for the potter’s field, as did say the Lord unto me” (Mt. 27: 9-10).

From “Orthodox Liturgical Calendar of The St. John of Kronstadt Press

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Last Sunday was Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Great Lent. In order to avoid hypocrisy or lingering resentment at a time when we should be focussed upon prayer, Christians are advised to make their peace with those whom they are in dispute, and any tensions between lay people and their spiritual fathers are to be resolved before Great Lent begins.

Despite the many difficulties experienced in Georgia currently with a weakening economy and regional tensions, we are fortunate that we can go about our daily lives peacefully and unmolested for the most part. Regrettably this is not the case in many parts of our immediate neighbourhood. Conflict in Eastern Ukraine between people of the same faith and in some cases from the same towns and neighbourhoods is a great tragedy that may take decades to heal.

Only a few hundred kilometres away, Islamic State terrorists in recent days have kidnapped several hundred Assyrian Christians in Syria; such actions in the past have generally ended with martyrdom of the captives. Assyrians are a people native to Syria, Iraq, Iran and south-eastern Turkey, whose presence in the region predates the Arab conquest by millennia. Assyrians typically belong to various churches in communion with Rome, or to Oriental Orthodox communities (in communion with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), or to the Church of the East (a Nestorian church). The so-called Syrian Fathers of the Georgian Church were most likely Orthodox monastics from this nationality.

The genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christians in 1915, resulting in the mass deaths of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians throughout the empire, resulted in many survivors fleeing to the Russian Empire as refugees. Many of Georgia’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian people can trace their ancestries to such refugees; this short documentary explains the perambulation of one persecuted Assyrian community from Turkey to Iran to Georgia during the First World War.

Greek villages in Kvemo Kartli’s Tsalka district and the Assyrian village of Dzveli Kanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti region are populated with the descendants of such refugees, and Armenian communities in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Shida Kartli and Tbilisi have many ancestors who fled from Turkey in 1915.

With the 100th anniversary of a genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian citizens approaching in late April, tensions are running high between the Turkish government, which claims that no genocide happened or that it was hugely exaggerated, and descendants of the victims, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian, seeking acknowledgement and contrition. No likely agreement is in sight and bitter feelings on both sides are likely to persist for some time; forgiveness is difficult to give if the counterparty expresses no contrition. That being said, sometimes such gestures of contrition are offered at times and places when least expected. This very well written story by an Armenian-American journalist combines interviews with a Kurdish mayor of a small town in southeastern Turkey, trying to make amends for the murders of Armenians that his community’s ancestors committed, and the author’s family history associated with the same small town.

Most of us would have recently seen excerpts of chilling footage of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya by Islamic State terrorists. Anger, resentment, hatred and a desire for revenge would be natural emotions for the families of the victims to endure. While no doubt the families would be enduring tremendous grief at losing their loved ones, the brother of two of the victims, speaking on talkback radio in Egypt, amazes all who listen to him by blessing those who killed his brothers and praying for their salvation.

While we may be frustrated with day-to-day conflicts and harbour ill-feeling for those we feel treat us with contempt or disrespect, we could all afford to put our concerns into perspective and consider the example of forgiveness and compassion set by the mother of the two Coptic martyrs of Libya. The courage and steadfastness shown by the martyrs should also be an inspiration to us.

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