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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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Today we commemorate many of the victims of Tamerlane‘s rampage through the Caucasus. The long-term effects of his invasions, of which there were eight, were that Georgia’s economy was devastated, its political structures splintered, and it never recovered the glories of its Golden Age, as a united country covering much of the South Caucasus. At its peak, Georgia occupied much of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of today’s northeastern Turkey.

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A more comprehensive history of Timur’s invasions of Georgia can be read here. The shattered Georgian kingdom eventually fragmented into the three kingdoms of Imereti, Kartli and Kakheti, and the principalities of Samegrelo, Guria, Svaneti, Abkhazia and Samtskhe, until their eventual incorporation into the Russian Empire.

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In the 14th century, during the reign of King Bagrat V (1360–1394), Timur (Tamerlane) invaded Georgia seven times. His troops inflicted irreparable damage on the country, seizing centuries-old treasures and razing ancient churches and monasteries.

Timur’s armies ravaged Kartli, then took the king, queen, and the entire royal court captive and sent them to Karabakh (in present-day Azerbaijan). Later Timur attempted to entice King Bagrat to renounce the Christian Faith in exchange for permission to return to the throne and for the release of the other Georgian prisoners.

For some time Timur was unable to subjugate King Bagrat, but in the end, being powerless and isolated from his kinsmen, the king began to falter. He devised a sly scheme: to confess Islam before the enemy, but to remain a Christian at heart. Satisfied with King Bagrat’s decision to “convert to Islam,” Timur permitted the king to return to the throne of Kartli. At the request of King Bagrat, Timur sent twelve thousand troops with him to complete Georgia’s forcible conversion to Islam.

The Holy Martyrs of the Kvabtakhevi Monastery

When they were approaching the village of Khunani in southeastern Georgia, Bagrat secretly informed his son Giorgi of everything that had happened and called upon him and his army to massacre the invaders.

The news of Bagrat’s betrayal and the ruin of his army infuriated Timur, and he called for immediate revenge. At their leader’s command, his followers destroyed everything in their path, set fire to cities and villages, devastated churches, and thus forced their way through to Kvabtakhevi Monastery.

Monastics and laymen alike were gathered in Kvabtakhevi when the enemy came thundering in. Having forced open the gate, the attackers burst into the monastery, then plundered and seized all its treasures. They captured the young and strong, carrying them away.

The old and infirm were put to the sword. As the greatest humiliation, they mocked the clergy and monastics by strapping them with sleigh bells and jumping and dancing around them.

Already drunk on the blood they had shed, the barbarians posed an ultimatum to those who remained: to renounce Christ and live or to be driven into the church and burned alive.

Faced with these terms, the faithful cried out: “Go ahead and burn our flesh—in the Heavenly Kingdom our souls will burn with a divine flame more radiant than the sun!” And in their exceeding humility, the martyrs requested that their martyrdom not be put on display: “We ask only that you not commit this sin before the eyes of men and angels. The Lord alone knows the sincerity of our will and comforts us in our righteous afflictions!”

Having been driven like beasts into the church, the martyrs raised up a final prayer to God: “In the multitude of Thy mercy shall I go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee. O Lord, guide me in the way of Thy righteousness; because of mine enemies, make straight my way before Thee (Ps. 5:6–7) that with a pure mind I may glorify Thee forever….”

The executioners hauled in more and more wood, until the flames enveloping the church blazed as high as the heavens and the echo of crackling timber resounded through the mountains. Ensnared in a ring of fire, the blissful martyrs chanted psalms as they gave up their spirits to the Lord.

The massacre at Kvabtakhevi took place in 1386. The imprints of the martyrs’ charred bodies remain on the floor of the church to this day.

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

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Today is what is known as a “soul day” in the Church, when people pray for the souls of their deceased relatives. Concurrently, it is a the commemoration of the martyrdom of nine children of Georgia’s Tao-Klarjeti region, now lying within Turkey’s borders, at the headwaters of the Mtkvari/Kura river. At the time of this incident, Christianity had already been the State religion in Iberia (Eastern Georgia) for over 200 years, but indigenous paganism and Iranian Zoroastrianism still persisted in the country in many areas. Colchis was incorporated into the Roman province of Lazika during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century, involving much of Georgia’s coastal regions, but the inland regions of Georgia’s west remained under the control of the Chosroid dynasty that ruled Iberia at the time, which alternated between vassalage of Constantinople and Persia in order to maintain autonomy. 

Kola (Gole in Turkish) is in Ardahan province of today’s Turkey and was seized from the Georgian Atabegs of Samtskhe by the Ottomans in 1561. It was conquered by the Russians in 1878 and remained within the Russian Empire until 1919, following which it was under Armenian occupation for a year until being handed over to Turkey by the Bolshiviks. Kola is around 100 kilometres southwest of Akhalkalaki in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

Gole Village may be seen just to the south of Ardahan town, marked in red on the map

Many centuries ago, the village of Kola was located at the source of the Mtkvari River. There Christians and pagans dwelt together as neighbors. Christian and pagan children would play together, but when the Christian children heard church bells ringing, they recognized the call to prayer and dropped their games. Nine pagan children—Guram, Adarnerse, Baqar, Vache, Bardzim, Dachi, Juansher, Ramaz, and Parsman—would follow the Christian children to church.

But the Christians always stopped them near the gates of the church and reprimanded them, saying, “You are children of pagans. You cannot enter God’s holy house.” They would return sorry and dejected.

One day the nine pagan children tried to enter the church forcibly, but they were cast out and scolded. “If you want to enter the church, you must believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” they were told. “You must receive Holy Communion and join the community of Christian believers.”

With great joy the youths promised the Christians that they would receive Holy Baptism. When the Christians of Kola related to their priest the good news of the pagan boys’ desire, he recalled the words of the Gospel: He that loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me: and he that loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he that takes not his cross, and follows after Me, is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:37–38).

He was not afraid of the anger that would follow from the pagan community, but rather took the boys on a cold winter night and baptized them in the icy river. A miracle occurred while the Holy Sacrament was being celebrated: the water became warm and angelic hosts appeared to the youths. Greatly encouraged in their faith, the children decided to remain in the Christian community rather than return to their parents.

When their parents learned that they had been baptized in the Christian Faith, they dragged their children away from the church, abusing and beating them into submission all the way home. The heroic children endured the abuses and, though they went hungry and thirsty for seven days, repeated again and again, “We are Christians and will not eat or drink anything that was prepared for idols!”

Neither gentle flattery, nor costly clothing, nor promises of good things to come could tempt the God-fearing youths. Rather they asserted, “We are Christians and want nothing from you but to leave us alone and allow us to join the Christian community!”

The enraged parents went and reported to the prince everything that had happened. But the prince was of no help—he simply told them, “They are your children, do with them as you wish.” The obstinate pagans asked the prince permission to stone the children. So a large pit was dug where the youths had been baptized, and the children were thrown inside.

“We are Christians, and we will die for Him into Whom we have been baptized!” proclaimed the holy martyrs, the Nine Children of Kola, before offering up their souls to God.

Their godless parents took up stones, and then others joined in, until the entire pit had been filled. They beat the priest to death, robbed him, and divided the spoils among themselves.

The martyric contest of the Nine Righteous Children of Kola occurred in the 6th century, in the historical region of Tao in southern Georgia.”

from “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans Press, 2006.

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Most long-term residents know that the local custom is to attend a Nativity Vigil at a temple or cathedral on Christmas Eve, for many hours (usually starting around 10 am and continuing on until just before dawn).  Families often attend the colourful and joyous Alilo Parade held in Rustaveli Avenue afterwards.

As is common in many Orthodox jurisdictions in the West, a Nativity Matins will be held on Christmas morning in Tbilisi, in English, on January 7. Held at the Blue Monastery, near the end of Perovskaya Street, the Hours will be read from 9 am and the Divine Liturgy celebrated immediately afterwards.

All are welcome, regardless of whether one is an Orthodox Christian or not. Shobas gilocavt!!

 

 

 

 

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Yesterday, the fasting period associated with Mariamoba, or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, began. As is normal for Orthodox people during fasting periods, we slow down the pace of our social engagements and focus upon prayer, contemplation, and simplification of our lifestyle. Weddings are not conducted during this two-week period. Part of the simplification of lifestyle involves a modified diet, with alcohol and rich foods eliminated for a period of time.

Lobio; Haricot Bean Stew with herbs

Fasting traditions vary between jurisdictions, and a priest’s advice may modify the prescriptions depending upon what the priest considers appropriate for the individual concerned. As a general rule, from August 13 until Mariamoba on August 28, we abstain from meat, eggs, dairy products, fish and alcohol. An exemption is given on the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 19, when fish and alcohol may be consumed in moderation. Given that the Transfiguration coincides with the beginning of Georgia’s grape harvest for wine production, this is a very poignant and reasonable concession, given the very strong cultural affinity with wine that Georgians have.

For an excellent resource on Georgia’s wide variety of vegetarian cuisine, I would suggest you visit http://www.georgianrecipes.net ; which has excellent instructions on how to prepare these tasty dishes. While often served in people’s homes, it is a pity that restaurants only serve a handful of these dishes routinely in Georgia.

Wine consumption on Saturdays and Sundays is also permitted in moderation.

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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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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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