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Today is the feast of Ghvtismshobloba, the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which I have referred to previously here.

Coincidentally, it is the commemoration of two Georgian monks who laboured diligently in the dark days between the Soviet invasion of 1921 and their eventual repose in the late 1950’s. Working closely with crypto-Christians within the Soviet government, they were able to keep the flame of faith alive in Georgia despite persecution by both Stalinist and Krushchev regimes.

Persecution of the Church was most pronounced in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The German invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War prompted a modest liberalisation of religious freedoms by the Stalinist government; observing that German occupiers of Ukraine and Belarus had emancipated both Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to an extent, the Soviet government decided that permitting limited religious activity was necessary for maintenance of morale and national cohesion, lest the Germans win over hearts and minds of the millions of crypto-Christians of the Soviet Union.

The death of Stalin in 1953 prompted a reverse of this policy and new repressions of the Church in Georgia and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. When one hears senior Georgian clergy expressing admiration of Stalin, this may seem confusing due to Stalin’s earlier vicious persecution of the Church, but it must be borne in mind that many clergy were genuinely grateful for Stalin’s re-institution of the Church during the war, and that most older clergy in Georgia were raised during the period of Stalin’s personality cult. It is only human nature that some element of awe associated with a Georgian peasant rising to rule the Soviet Union and defeating the Nazis will persist, even amongst those who suffered persecution.

Both saints faced physical peril during their lives as a result of their commitment to God; Saint Ioane was shot and left for dead by the Bolsheviks,, and Saint Giorgi-Ioane was badly beaten in 1924 by communist agents. Saint Giorgi-Ioane was personal secretary to Saint Ilia the Righteous, and a close associate of the martyr Bishop Nazar, so he served as a vital link between the great religious and social figures of Georgian society in the pre-Communist period and the modern era. Saint Ioane was well acquainted with Patriarch Ilia II, the current Patriarch of the Georgian Church.

 Archimandrite Ioane (Vasil Maisuradze in the world) was born in the town of Tskhinvali in Samachablo ( South Ossetia) around 1882. He was raised in a peasant family and taught to perform all kinds of handiwork. Vasil was barely in his teens when he helped Father Spiridon (Ketiladze), the main priest at Betania Monastery, to restore the monastery between 1894 and 1896.

From his youth Vasil was eager to enter the monastic life, and in 1903, according to God’s will, he moved to the Skete of Saint John the Theologian at Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos. Among the brothers he was distinguished for his simplicity and obedience. He was tonsured a monk and named Ioane (John)  in honor of Saint John the Theologian, whom he revered deeply and sought to emulate.

The monk Ioane was soon ordained to the priesthood. Throughout his life the holy father dedicated himself to serving God and his brothers in Christ in hopes that his own life might be fruitful for them.

Father Ioane remained on Mount Athos for seventeen years. Then, due to the increasingly troubling circumstances there, he left the Holy Mountain with the other Georgian monks sometime between 1920 and 1921. He settled at Armazi Monastery outside of Mtskheta, where the Bolsheviks had left just one monk to labor in solitude. Once a band of armed Chekists broke into the monastery, led both Father John and the other monk away, and shot them in the back.

Believing them to be dead, they tossed them in a nearby gorge. A group of people later discovered Father Ioane’s nearly lifeless body and brought it to Samtavro Monastery in Mtskheta. The other monk suffered only minor injuries and returned to the monastery on his own.


Saint Ioane the Confessor of Georgia

When his health had been restored, Father Ioane went to Betania Monastery, where his first spiritual father was still laboring. He was appointed abbot shortly thereafter. Accustomed to hard work from his childhood, he skillfully administered the agricultural labors of the monastery. When visitors came to the monastery seeking advice or solace, Father John welcomed them warmly, spreading a festal meal before them. He enjoyed spending time with his guests, especially with children.

It is said that he always had candy or a special treat to give to the little ones. The children loved him so much that on the feast of Saint John the Theologian, while he was sprinkling the church with holy water, they skipped around him and tried to tousle his hair. The children’s parents were ashamed, but Father John cheerfully assured them that it was fitting to be so joyous on a feast day.

Truly Father Ioane was endowed with a deep love for young people, and he was also blessed with the divine gifts of prophecy and wonder-working. Once a certain Irakli Ghudushauri, a student at Moscow Theological Seminary, visited him at the monastery. Father Ioane received him with exceptional warmth, blessing him with tears of rejoicing. This student would later become Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, the beloved shepherd who continues to lead the flock of the Georgian faithful to this very day.

Father Ioane disciplined himself severely. He worked hard all day and slept on a single piece of wood. He would spend entire nights praying. Many wondered when he rested and where he had acquired such a seemingly infinite supply of energy.

Occasionally thieves would steal food or domestic animals from the monastery. But the monastery also had many protectors, even within the Soviet government. A group of Christians who worked for the government while secretly practicing their faith supported Father Ioane and Father Giorgi (Mkheidze) (see below), explaining and justifying them to the government as “guardians of a national cultural monument.”

Many of the miracles performed by Father Ioane are known to us today, though he was wary of receiving honor for his deeds. Fathers Ioane and Giorgi healed the deaf, and many of the terminally ill were brought to them for healing. After spending several days in the monastery, the infirm would miraculously be cleansed of their diseases. Father Ioane bore the heaviest workload in the monastery. He sympathized deeply with Father Giorgi, who was ailing physically and unfit for strenuous labour. But Father Ioane departed this life before Father Giorgi. Father Ioane became ill and reposed in 1957, at the age of seventy-five. He was buried at Betania Monastery.


St Giorgi-Ioane, Confessor of Georgia

Father Giorgi (Mkheidze) was born in the village of Skhvava in the Racha region around 1877. He received a military education—a highly esteemed commodity among the Georgian aristocracy—but instead of pursuing a military career in defense of the Russian empire, he dedicated himself to Georgia’s national liberation movement. At one point the pious and learned George worked for Saint Ilia the Righteous as his personal secretary. He often met Saint Ilia’s spiritual father, the holy hierarch Alexandre (Okropiridze), and the holy hieromartyr Nazar (Lezhava), and hwas acquainted with other important spiritual leaders of the time as well.

Desiring to sacrifice his life to God, Giorgi was tonsured into monasticism by the holy hieromartyr Nazar. His rare character combined a nobleman’s deportment with a monk’s humble asceticism. Father Giorgi was ordained a priest and soon after elevated to the rank of archimandrite.

Filled with divine love and patriotic sentiment, the holy father willingly endured the heavy burdens and spiritual tribulations afflicting his country at that time.

In 1924, while Father Giorgi was laboring at Khirsa Monastery in Kakheti in eastern Georgia, an armed Chekist mob broke into the monastery. The perpetrators beat him, cut off his hair, shaved his beard, and threatened to take his life. He sought refuge with his family, but to no avail—his brothers, who were atheists, shaved off his beard while he was sleeping. (One of Father Giorgi’s brothers later committed suicide, and the other, together with his wife, was shot to death by the Chekists.) In the same year, Father Giorgi visited Betania Monastery and was introduced to Father Ioane (Maisuradze), with whom he would labor for the remainder of his life.

Father Giorgi’s health was poor, and he was able to perform only the lightest of tasks around the monastery. He tended the vegetable garden and took responsibility for raising the bees. He was extremely generous. At times he would give all the monastery’s food to the needy, assuring Father Ioane that God Himself would provide their daily bread.

 Tall, thin, and with an upright posture, Father Giorgi was strict in both appearance and demeanor. He spoke very little with other people, and children did not play with him as they did with Father Ioane. Knowing his character, they tried to please him by reciting prayers and behaving themselves. Father Giorgi did not like to leave the monastery, but it was often necessary for him to travel to Tbilisi to visit his spiritual children— among whom were many secret Christians who worked for the government.

Father Giorgi was endowed with the gifts of prophecy and healing, but he was careful to hide them. When constrained to reveal them, he would pass them off as though they were nothing extraordinary. Once a certain pilgrim arrived at the monastery and was surprised to discover that Father Giorgi knew him by name. Sensing his great amazement, Father Giorgi told the pilgrim that he had attended his baptism some thirty years earlier, thus concealing his God-given gift. Father Giorgi knew in advance when his nephew was bringing his sisters, whom he had not seen in forty-eight years, to visit him at the monastery during Great Lent. Enlightened with this foreknowledge, Father Giorgi prepared fish and a festal meal in honor of the occasion.

The prayers of Father Giorgi and Father Ioane healed the former’s nephew, who was afflicted by a deadly strain of meningitis. They restored hearing to a deaf child and healed many others of their bodily infirmities.

In 1957, when Father Ioane reposed in the Lord, Father Giorgi was tonsured into the great schema. He was given the name Ioane in honor of his newly departed spiritual brother. Father Giorgi-Ioane now bore full responsibility for the affairs of the monastery. His health deteriorated further under the weight of this heavy yoke. His spiritual children began to come from the city to care for him.

Once a twenty-year-old girl arrived at the monastery, complaining of incessant headaches. She had been told that the water from Betania Monastery would heal her. She remained there for one week and was miraculously healed. When she left to return home, Father Giorgi-Ioane walked five miles to see her off, in spite of his physical frailty.

The Theotokos appeared to Father Giorgi-Ioane in a vision and relieved his terrible physical pain. The protomartyr Thekla also appeared to him, presenting him with a bunch of grapes. Several days before his repose, the holy father was in the city when an angel appeared to him and announced his imminent repose. The angel told him to return to the monastery to prepare for his departure from this world.

Saint Giorgi-Ioane (Mkheidze) reposed in 1960. He was buried at Betania Monastery, next to Father Ioane (Maisuradze). These venerable fathers were canonized on September 18, 2003, at a council of the Holy Synod under the spiritual leadership of His Holiness Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. Fathers Ioane and Giorgi-Ioane have been lovingly deemed “one soul in two bodies.

From ‘Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermanns Press.

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Manglisi is an attractive hill town in the Trialeti Range of Kvemo Kartli in southern Georgia. It is around 1200 metres above sea level and is around 6 degrees cooler than the Mtkvari Valley that nearby Tbilisi and Rustavi lie in.

While the district is now very ethnically diverse, with a substantial Muslim Azeri minority as well as Caucasian and Pontic Greeks, it is regarded as the heartland of the Georgian Church, where some of the earliest monasteries and churches in the country were built. After Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th Century, Manglisi was one of the earliest centres of Christian learning and evangelisation in the region, developed contemporaneously with similar centres in Mtskheta and Erusheti in Tao-Klarjeti region.

Manglisi Cathedral dates to the 6th Century and was even a site of pilgrimage for nearby Armenians from further south, until the Schism between the Church and the Armenian Church disrupted relations. A photogallery of this small, beautiful and well-maintained cathedral can be seen here.

My interest in this saint was piqued because, like many others, he had spent a great deal of his life evangelising outside Georgia, in the North Caucasus and the Caspian Sea regions of Daghestan and Astrakhan, traditionally considered staunch Islamic strongholds.

It is interesting to note that despite Muslim attempts to convert the people of Daghestan to Islam from the 7th Century, a Christian Avar kingdom of Sarir survived and thrived in the region from the 5th Century to the 12th Century. Sarir managed to survive Islamic encroachment for many centuries by allying itself with the Jewish Khazar Khaganate of the North Caucasus. Christianity persisted in the region amongst the people until the 15th century, when pressure from Muslim overlords compelled whole clans to convert to Islam. Evangelising the Muslims of the North Caucasus and Astrakhan was a perilous endeavour, as converts were often executed for apostasy and priests likewise faced persecution and martyrdom.

Saint John (Saakadze) of Manglisi was born in 1668 and spiritually nurtured in the Davit-Gareji Wilderness. Outstanding in virtue, John was quickly ordained a hieromonk, and soon after consecrated bishop of Manglisi. In 1724 St. John left Davit-Gareji for Derbend, Dagestan, where he constructed a wooden church and began to preach Christianity among the local people. He labored there with eleven other pious believers. St. John’s humble life and the miracles he performed attracted the attention of the Muslim Dagestanis, and even the government took notice of his tireless evangelical activity.

At that time the Georgian King Vakhtang VI (1703–1724) and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia were corresponding regularly about the evangelization of the Caspian seacoast. Both kings recognized the importance of St. John’s activity in regard to this matter, and they generously contributed to his efforts. With their help, St. John built one church in honor of the Nativity of the Theotokos and another in honor of Great-martyr Catherine.

In 1737 John left his disciples in Dagestan and journeyed to Astrakhan, near the place where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. There he constructed a church in honor of St. John the Evangelist, which was converted into a monastery in 1746. Archimandrite Herman, one of St. John’s disciples, was elevated as abbot of this monastery.

While in Astrakhan, St. John discovered that many ethnic Georgians were passing through the city of Kizliar in Ossetia, but they did not have a church in which to celebrate the divine services. So he traveled to Kizliar and, with help from his kinsmen, built a church and opened a preparatory school for clergy nearby.

On March 28, 1751, St. John reposed in Kizliar at the age of eighty. He was buried in the church that he himself had constructed.

Later, by order of King Teimuraz II (1744–1761), the myrrh-streaming relics of St. John were translated to Tbilisi and buried in Sioni Cathedral, in front of the Manglisi Icon of the Mother of God.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraiah Machitadze, Saint Herman’s Press.

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From various accounts of the lives of the Thirteen Syrian Fathers of Georgia, we can see that they were diligent not only in evangelising the Kartvelian people of the region, but also the Mountain People of the North Caucasus. Today we commemorate the life of Saint Ise (Jesse) of Tsilkani, who is famed not only in his diocese of Mtskheta-Mtianeti but amongst the Ossetian peoples of Samachablo and North Ossetia-Alania also. Contact between Georgian missionaries and the Mountain Peoples of the North Caucasus pre-dates Russian missionary efforts by over 500 years.

The Alans, an Iranian tribe and the ancestors of today’s Ossetian people, had been recorded by the Romans as living in scattered settlements in the North Caucasus since the first century AD. Around 100 AD, a large number of Alans had settled between the Don and Volga Rivers in southern Russia, where they were initially evangelised by Greek missionaries.  In 350, this European Alan kingdom was destroyed by the Huns, and the population scattered. By the 6th century, many had settled in what is now the Russian Republic of Alania-North Ossetia. The first Georgian missionaries reached them in the mid-sixth century, most notably Saint Ise of Tsilkani. The Alan people maintained their own religion, and by the 10th Century a substantial number were Jewish under the influence of their Khazar neighbours. By the early 10th Century, Alania‘s king was an Orthodox Christian and most of his subjects converted soon after. Georgian and Alan missionaries later co-operated in evangelising the Chechen and Ingush people with some success. Despite current difficulties and territorial disputes, the Georgian and Ossetian peoples have a long history of cooperation and mutual support; while divided by politics, they are united in a common faith.

The Monk Ise (Jesse), Bishop of Tsilkan, was born at Syrian Antioch in a pious Christian family. While still a lad he felt the pull towards the spiritual life, and with the attainment of mature age, and the blessing of his parents, he set out to one of the Antioch monasteries, where at the time asceticised the Monk John Zedazeni.

The Monk Ise was included amongst the number of the 13 holy Syrian (Cappadocian) Fathers, who were chosen by lot by the Monk John Zedazeni (as commanded him by the Mother of God). The Monk Ise arrived in Georgia together with them, and with them he taught and instructed the people in the pious life, providing an example of sanctity and healing the sick.

The reports of the deeds of the 13 Syrian Fathers spread about among the people such, that the Katholikos-Archbishop of Georgia Eulabios (533-544) proposed having a council of bishops meet and choose certain of these ascetics to fill empty cathedra-seats. Because of the difficulty of whom to choose, since all alike were worthy of the dignity of bishop, they proposed to go to the city of Zadeni, where the ascetics dwelt, and to choose those who at the time were celebrating the Divine Liturgy. In this manner thus became bishops: the PriestMonk Habib and the MonkDeacon Ise, appointed to the Tsilkani cathedra-seat.

Having arrived in his diocese, Ise was astonished by the rampant pagan rites, customs and superstition. He zealously concerned himself with the restoration of piety, preaching constantly and making frequent Divine-services. His work bore fruit – in the Tsilkani diocese Orthodox piety was affirmed, and with it also was affirmed the Church of Christ. Continuing also his ascetic efforts, Saint Ise attained to great gifts of prayer and wonderworking. Through his prayer, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ there separated off from the River Khana a stream of water, which – in following the course that the saint intended, formed the bed of a canal and stretched to the church of the MostHoly Mother of God (near Tsilkani).

Having put his diocese in good order, Saint Ise set off preaching to the mountain peoples of the great Caucasus Mountain range. He made the rounds of the ravines and the rocky crags with the Gospel and cross in hand, everywhere affirming the teaching of God’s revelation.

Saint Ise learned about his impending end through a revelation from above. Gathering his flock and clergy, he preached a spiritual instruction, communed the Holy Mysteries, and with hands upraised to Heaven he offered up his soul o the Lord. This transpired at the end VI Century. (The known exact day of the saint’s death is 18 August). The venerable relics of Saint Ise, already glorified by healing at the time of his burial, were consigned to earth in the church of the MostHoly Mother of God at Tsilkani, betwixt the altar-table and the table of oblation. The Church subsequently enumerated Saint Ise to the rank of the Saints and set his day of memory as 2 December.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze,  St. Herman Press:

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