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A common belief is that “Georgia” , the western name for our country, is named after Saint George. There is significant conjecture amongst historians on this point however, One school of thought is that the ancient Greeks referred to Colchis and Iberia as “The Land of Farmers”, having witnessed relatively well organised agricultural activity here when they engaged in trade and establishment of their colonies on the Black Sea coast, and developed the name Georgia from the Greek word georgos (γεωργός) .  Other writers suggest the word is of Persian origin, which is possible given that much of Georgia has been under Persian influence culturally and linguistically for 2500 years.

Regardless of the origin of the name, there is no dispute that Saint George has a special place in the hearts of Georgian people. Having originated in Cappadocia in Anatolia, it is believed that he was the cousin of Saint Nino, the Enlightener of the Georgians, and we are already familiar with the great reverence in which she is held. Tradition holds that Saint Nino taught the people of Iberia about the many martyrs of the persecutions of Diocletian, including her cousin Saint George.

This account expands upon our previous post on Saint George, which focussed upon his tortures on the wheel prior to his martyrdom.

17th-century-georgian-manuscript-depicting-st-georges-life-and-martyrdom_4

The Holy GreatMartyr George the Victory-Bearer, was a native of Cappadocia (a district in Asia Minor), and he grew up in a deeply believing Christian family. His father had accepted a martyr’s death for Christ, when George was yet a child. His mother, owning lands in Palestine, resettled there with her son and raised him in strict piety.

Having grown up, Saint George entered into the service of the Roman army. He was handsome, brave and valiant in battle, and he came to the notice of the emperor Diocletian (284-305) and was accepted into the imperial guards with the rank-title of “comites” – one of the higher military officer ranks.

The pagan emperor, while having done much for the restoration of Roman might, and who was quite clearly concerned, as to what sort of danger the triumphing of the Crucified Saviour might present for pagan civilisation, in especially the final years of his reign intensified his persecution against the Christians. Upon the advice of the Senate at Nicomedia, Diocletian afforded all his governors full freedom in their court proceedings over Christians and in this he promised them all possible help. 

Saint George, having learned about the decision of the emperor, distributed to the poor all his wealth, set free his servants, and then appeared in the Senate. The brave soldier of Christ spoke out openly against the emperor’s designs, he confessed himself a Christian and appealed to all to acknowledge the true faith in Christ: “I am a servant of Christ, my God, and trusting on Him, I have come amidst ye at mine own will, to witness concerning the Truth”. “What is Truth?” – one of the dignitaries said, in repeating the question of Pontius Pilate. “Truth is Christ Himself, persecuted by ye”, – answered the saint.

Stunned by the bold speech of the valiant warrior, the emperor – who loved and had promoted George, attempted to persuade him not to throw away his youth and glory and honours, but rather in the Roman custom to offer sacrifice to the gods. To this followed the resolute reply of the confessor: “Nothing in this inconstant life can weaken my resolve to serve God”. Then by order of the enraged emperor the armed-guards began to jostle Saint George out of the assembly hall with their spears, and they then led him off to prison. But the deadly steel became soft and it bent, just as the spears would touch the body of the saint, and it caused him no hurt. In prison they put the feet of the martyr in stocks and placed an heavy stone on his chest.

The next day at the interrogation, powerless but firm of spirit, Saint George again answered the emperor: “Thou wilt become exhausted sooner, tormenting me, than I being tormented of thee”. Then Diocletian gave orders to subject Saint George to some very intense tortures. They tied the GreatMartyr to a wheel, beneathe which were set up boards inset with sharp pieces of iron. With the turning of the wheel the sharp edges tore at the bared body of the saint. At first the sufferer loudly cried out to the Lord, but soon he quieted, not letting out even a single groan. Diocletian decided that the tortured one was already dead, and he gave orders to remove the battered body from the wheel, and set off then to a pagan temple to offer a thank-offering. But at this very moment it got dark all over, thunder boomed, and a voice was heard: “Fear not, George, for I am with thee”. Then a wondrous light shone, and at the wheel appeared an Angel of the Lord in the form of a radiant youth. And just as he lay his hand upon the martyr, saying to him: “Rejoice!” ‑- Saint George stood up healed. And when the soldiers led him off to the pagan temple, where the emperor was, the emperor could not believe his own eyes and he thought, that in front of him was some other man or even a ghost. In confusion and in terror the pagans looked Saint George over carefully, and they became convinced, that actually a miracle had occurred. Many thereupon came to believe in the Life-Creating God of the Christians. Two illustrious officials, Saints Anatolios and Protoleon, – secretly Christians, therewith openly confessed Christ. And right away, without a trial, by order of the emperor they were beheaded with the sword. Present also in the pagan temple was the Empress Alexandra, the wife of Diocletian, and she too knew the truth. She was on the point of glorifying Christ, but one of the servants of the emperor took her and led her off to the palace.

The emperor became all the more furious. But not having lost all hope of swaying Saint George, he gave him over to new quite fiercesome torments. Having thrown him down a deep pit, they covered it over with lime. Three days later they dug him out, but found him cheerful and unharmed. They shod the saint in iron sandals with red-hot nails, and with blows they drove him back to the prison. In the morning, when they led him back to the interrogation, cheerful and with healthy feet, he said to the emperor, that the sandals had fit him. Then they beat him with ox-thongs so much, that his body and blood became mingled with the ground, but the brave sufferer, strengthened by the power of God, remained unyielding.

Having decided, that magic was helping the saint, the emperor summoned the sorcerer Athanasias, so that he should try to deprive the saint of his miraculous powers, or else poison him. The sorcerer gave Saint George two goblets with drugged ingredients, the one of which should have quieted him, and the other – to kill him. But the drugs also did not work – and the saint as before continued to denounce the pagan superstitions and glorify the True God.

To the question of the emperor, what sort of power it was that helped the saint, Saint George answered: “Think not, that the torments do me no harm thanks to human powers, – I am saved only by calling upon Christ and His Power. Whoso believeth on Him hath no regard for tortures and is able to do the deeds, that Christ did” (Jn. 14: 12). Diocletian asked, what sort of deeds were they that Christ did. – “To give sight to the blind, to cleanse the leprous, to grant walking to the lame, and to the deaf – hearing, to cast out devils, and to raise up the dead”.

Knowing, that never whether by sorcery, nor by any of the gods known to him, never had they been able to resurrect the dead, and wanting to test the trust of the saint the emperor commanded him to raise up a dead person right in front of his eyes. To this the saint replied: “Thou wouldst tempt me, but for the salvation of the people which shalt see the deed of Christ, my God wilt work this sign”. And when they led Saint George down to the graveyard, he cried out: “O Lord! Show to those here present, that Thou art the One-Only God throughout all the world, let them know Thee as the Almighty Lord”. And the earth did quake, a grave opened up, the dead one came alive and emerged from it. Having seen with their own eyes the Almighty Power of Christ, the people wept and glorified the True God. The sorcerer Athanasias, falling down at the feet of Saint George, confessed Christ as the All-Powerful God and besought forgiveness of his sins, committed in ignorance. The obdurate emperor in his impiety thought otherwise: in a rage he commanded to be beheaded both the new-believer Athanasias and likewise the man resuscitated from the dead, and he had Saint George again locked up in prison. The people, weighed down with their infirmities, began in various ways to penetrate the prison and they there received healings and help from the saint. There resorted to him also a certain farmer named Glycerios, whose ox had collapsed. The saint with a smile consoled him and assured him, that God would restore his ox to life. Seeing at home the ox alive, the farmer began to glorify the God of the Christians throughout all the city. By order of the emperor, Saint Glycerios was arrested and beheaded.

The exploits and the miracles of the GreatMartyr George had increased the number of the Christians, and therefore Diocletian decided to make a final attempt to compel the saint to offer sacrifice to the idols. They began to set up a court at the pagan temple of Apollo. On the final night the holy martyr prayed fervently, and when he dozed off, he beheld the Lord Himself, Who raised him up with His hand, and hugged him in giving him a kiss of greeting. The Saviour placed on the head of the GreatMartyr a crown and said: “Fear not, but rather make bold and be vouchsafed My Kingdom”.

In the morning at the court the emperor offered Saint George a new test – he proposed to him to become his co-emperor. The holy martyr with a feigned willingness answered, that from the very beginning the emperor had seemed inclined not to torture him but rather shew mete mercy, and with this he expressed the wish to go forthwith into the pagan temple of Apollo. Diocletian decided, that the martyr was accepting his offer, and he followed after him into the pagan temple with his accompanying retinue and the people. Everyone waited, whether Saint George would offer sacrifice to the gods. He however, in going up to the idol, made the sign of the Cross and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “Thou wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people”. “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.

There began a general confusion. In a frenzy pagan-priests and many of the throng pounced upon the holy martyr, they tied him up and began to beat him and demand his immediate execution.

Into the noise and the shouts rushed the holy empress Alexandra. Pushing her way through the crowd, she cried out: “Thou God of George, help me, in as Thou Alone art All-Powerful”. At the feet of the GreatMartyr the holy empress glorified Christ, Who had humiliated the idols and those worshipping them.

Diocletian in a rage immediately pronounced the death sentence against the GreatMartyr George and the holy Empress Alexandra, who without being accompanied, followed Saint George to execution. Along the way she collapsed and slumped senseless against a wall. Everyone thought, that the empress was dead. Saint George offered up thanks to God and he prayed, that he should end his path worthily. At the place of execution the saint in heated prayer besought the Lord, that He would forgive the torturers that knew not what they did, and that He would lead them to the knowledge of Truth. Calmly and bravely, the holy GreatMartyr George bent his neck beneathe the sword. This occurred on 23 April 303.

In confusion the executioners and the judges catch glimpse of their Conqueror. In a bloody agony and mindless thrashing about ended the era of paganism. It lasted for all of ten years more – up until the time of the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Constantine, who was one of the successors to Diocletian upon the Roman throne, and who gave orders to imprint the Cross on his military-banners, as a testament also sealed by the blood of the GreatMartyr George and that of the blood of thousands of unknown martyrs: “By this sign thou wilt conquer”.

Of the many miracles, worked by the holy GreatMartyr George, the most famous are depicted in iconography. In the native-region of the saint, at the city of Beirut, were many idol-worshippers. Outside the city, near Mount Lebanon, was situated a large lake, in which lived an enormous dragon-like serpent. Coming out of the lake, it devoured people, and there was nothing the people could do, since from one of its nostrils it infected the very air.

On the advice of the demons inhabiting the idols, the ruler there adopted this decision: each day the people would draw lots to give over as food their own children, and when the turn reached him, he promised to hand over his only daughter. That time indeed did come, and the ruler, having dressed her in her finest attire, sent her off to the lake. The girl wailed bitterly, awaiting the moment of death. Unexpectedly for her, the GreatMartyr George rode up on his horse and with spear in hand. The girl implored him not to leave her, lest she perish. But the saint, having caught sight of the serpent, signed himself with the Sign of the Cross and with the words “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, he rushed off after it. The GreatMartyr George pierced the throat of the serpent with his spear and trampled it with his horse. Then he bid the girl bind the serpent with her sash, and like a dog, lead it into the city. The people fled in terror, but the saint halted them with the words: “Be not afraid, but rather trust on the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in Him, since it be He Who hath sent me to you, to save you”. Then the saint killed the serpent with a sword, and the people burned it outside the city. Twenty-five thousand men, not counting women and children, were then baptised, and there was later built a church in the name of the MostHoly Mother of God and the GreatMartyr George.

Saint George went on to become a talented military officer and to amaze the world by his military exploits. He died, when he was not even 30 years old. Hastening to unite with the Heavenly army, he entered into the history of the Church as the Victory-Bearer.

from Orthodox Liurgical Calendar, Saint John of Kronstadt 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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As our brothers and sisters from the Orthodox communities of the Greek Diaspora, and our Romanian friends, prepare to celebrate Christmas tonight, and we in Georgia prepare for the Feast of the Nativity on January 7, we should pray for our fellow Christians in Syria who are facing persecution and martyrdom for their faith at the hands of Jihadists. Home to Christian communities from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Melkite and Assyrian Catholic, Nestorian and Protestant congregations, over 2.5 million Christians face a very uncertain future in the geographic cradle of the Christian faith.  The connection between Syria and Georgia is significant, as the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers were very significant evangelists to the Georgians during the Persian occupation of Georgia in the 6th century, and are widely venerated today for their energy in establishing new temples and monastic centres while Georgia was governed by Zoroastrians hostile to the Christian faith.

Armenia has been resettling many Syrians of Armenian descent in Yerevan as refugees, but in Georgia most Syrians living here are business migrants rather than refugees. Georgia being well acquainted with the horrors of war and internal displacement of innocent people, it is to be hoped that Immigration officials are not overzealous in excluding Christian families seeking temporary respite here.

This press release from the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, Mor Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, documents the largest massacre of Christians in the Middle East of the past decade, and the near-destruction of their village. The Syriac Orthodox Church is of the Oriental Orthodox Community, in communion with the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches. Please keep these people in your prayers as you enjoy your Christmas festivities.

Devastating Images & Report from the Christian Town of Sadad in Syria – Exclusive - News | Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE

My brothers and sisters

The peace of the Lord be with you:

I present to you a glimpse of the events which have overtaken Sadad over the weeks since its occupation by armed men and terrorists.

1- Sadad is a small Syriac town of 15,000 people located 160 km from Damascus

2- It has 14 churches and a monastery with four priests and five halls for social activities and celebrations.

3- Most citizens are poor, because of the lack of natural resources

4- They live in the middle of the desert, and it is a harsh, dry climate, where no rain falls..

5- The number of families which immigrated to Sadad from the different villages and provinces, owning to the Syrian crisis, is 600.

6- The terrorists entered Sadad on 21-10-2013 and occupied it for a week.  On 28-10-2013 they were driven out and some of them were killed.

7- 2,500 families fled Sadad because of this occupation by the terrorists. They spread out between Damascus, Homs, Fayrouza, Zaydal, Maskane, and al-Fhayle.

8-  1,500 families were held as hostages and human shields for a week, amongst them children, old men, young men, and women.  Some of them fled, walking 8 km from Sadad to al-Hafer to find refuge.

9-  Some were killed and some were threatened by the bullet, by strangulation, execution and with the destruction of their houses. 45 civilians were martyred including women, children and men.

Devastating Images & Report from the Christian Town of Sadad in Syria – Exclusive - News | Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE

10 – 10 persons have gone missing, and the number of injured is 30

11-All the homes of Sadad have been robbed, their possessions looted, by all the forces which entered Sadad.  The commercial premises shared the same fate.

12- They destroyed the churches and stole some of their possessions, money and ancient books, and graphitized insults  against Christianity.

All government, school, and council buildings were destroyed, along with the post office, the hospital and clinic, as well as  the Finance and the Agricultural Ministry branches.

14- The crisis in Sadad led to the forced migration of some 500 families of al-Hafer, and the looting and destruction of some of their houses.

15- The families of Sadad fled from their town only in the clothes they were wearing, and anyone who brought with him money, gold or documents was robbed of them.

16- Our children have lost their future because of the destruction of the schools, the nursery, and the youth centre.

Photographs of the devastation done can be seen here via Devastating Images & Report from the Christian Town of Sadad in Syria – Exclusive – News | Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE.

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As I have remarked many times before in these pages, the history of the Church in Georgia is rich with stories and anecdotes of foreigners from countries hostile to Georgia, who have heard Christ’s call to serve, have submitted to baptism and often ordination, and have paid the heavy price of martyrdom at the hands of their own people. The story of Saint Abo Tbilieli is a good example of this.

Georgia, particularly eastern Georgia, has a very longstanding relationship with Iran. Many Georgians were carried off into slavery in Iran over the past two millennia, and Georgia served as a battleground between the Roman and Persian worlds for many centuries. The Georgian language has a huge number of loan-words from Persian, and Persian names are commonly adopted by Georgian people. Many historical figures in Georgia, such as King Mirian and King Vakhtang Gorgasali, were of Persian descent. The history of the interaction between Georgian and Persian peoples has sometimes been co-operative and sometime hostile; Persia’s colonial occupations of Georgia were characterised by intermittent periods of toleration and persecution of the Christian faith.

This history of the conversion of the Persian military commander Omar to Christianity in 7th century Georgia, his ordination and consecration as a Bishop, and his ultimate martyrdom at the hands of the Persian Zoroastrians, is well known by Georgian Christians, and a reminder that the Church in Georgia transcends race or national origin. It ialso provides inspiration for those who may seek to reach out to the 16,000 Iranians currently living in Georgia; the country has a long history of baptising and integrating Persians, and there are few families in eastern Georgia without a Christianised Persian ancestor.

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

 The holy hieromartyr Neophytus of Urbnisi descended from a line of Persian fire-worshippers.

In the 7th century, by order of the Saracen emir Mumni (Mu’min), the military leader Ahmad attacked Georgia with an enormous army. After overrunning the central part of Shida (Inner) Kartli, Ahmad dispatched two of his commanders, Omar and Burul, to the capital city of Mtskheta. At the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, across from the village of Tsikhedidi in the rocky Sarkineti region, the invaders discovered a group of caves and plotted to occupy them. They tried to cross the Mtkvari but were unable. 

Having suffered a setback, the enemies asked their captives what was located in those caves. They were told that this was the Shio-Mgvime Monastery, where dwelt God’s chosen, who had deprived themselves of every earthly blessing.

Surprised at this reply, the commanders decided to pass this information on to Ahmad. Then, as though it were commonplace, Ahmad sent Omar to the monastery to ask the monks to pray for him and remember him at the grave of their abbot, Saint Shio. “Pray for me, O slaves of God, and accept these gifts of aloe and incense. Offer these as a sacrifice to your abbot,” he told them.

Approaching the monastery caves, Omar sent a messenger to inform the monks that he was coming to them in peace and bearing gifts. Drawing near to the monastery gates, the commander saw an army of incorporeal hosts descending from the heavens and among them an elder, radiant with a great light. 

The meek and modest behavior of the monks left a great impression on Omar. He soon understood that the strange armies he had seen on the steps of the monastery were angels of God and that the elder was Saint Shio of Mgvime, abbot of the monastery. He related his vision to the monks and vowed to return to them, receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism, be tonsured a monk, and remain there to join in their holy labors.

Soon Omar abandoned all his possessions, his military rank, and his wealth and was baptized in the Christian Faith at the Shio-Mgvime Monastery as he had promised. Two of his slaves were baptized with him as well. Omar received the new name Neophytus (Newly Planted / From the Greek word neophytos, which in I Tim. 3:6 refers to a new convert.), and his slaves became Christodoulus (Christ’s Slave) and Christopher (Christ-bearer).

According to God’s will, Saint Neophytus was consecrated bishop of Urbnisi, and all were amazed at his wisdom and steadfastness. He was a true father to his flock: “He strengthened the weak, healed the sick, raised the fallen, cleansed the possessed, directed the lost and sought out those who were perishing, protecting them, and forbidding them to wander off again.”

But the enemy could not tolerate the native Persian’s apostolic activity, and he convinced the fire-worshippers to kill the Christian shepherd. So the unbelievers devised an ambush and attacked Neophytus’ isolated cell, then tied him up and began to mock, curse, and revile him. They knew that Saint Neophytus longed to become like the holy protomartyr Stephen, and they plotted to stone him to death.

When his time to depart this world had arrived, Saint Neophytus turned to his persecutors with a tender voice, saying, “Sweet is death to me, O unbelievers! Sweet it is to me. I desire to sunder the link between my mortal and immortal nature.… With my own blood I will confirm the Holy Church, which is founded upon the Precious Blood of the Son and Word of God, Whom I preach. May that which was foreordained for me by the Providence of God be fulfilled, for He has called me to His light from the depths of ungodliness!”

The furious pagans stoned the saint to death. With his last breath Holy Hieromartyr Neophytus cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ receive my soul!”

 

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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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The Great Martyr Shushanik is commemorated on this day. Her story is an interesting one, as she was an Armenian princess and was martyred by her apostate Georgian husband for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism, the national religion of the Sassanid Persian Empire at the time (5th century). The deep attachment that Georgians display to the two great Matryresses, Saints Shushanik and Queen Ketevan, are a further indication of the high status of women in Georgian Christianity. Her remains were originally buried in Armenia, in Tsortag, but the Tsortag church later came under the control of an Armenian Apostolic bishop ( a non-Chalcedonian sect not in communion with Eastern Orthodox churches), and the Catholicos-Archbishop of Georgia Samuel IV (582-591) transferred the holy relics of Saint Shushanik to the city of Tbilisi, where in the year 586 they were put into a chapel of the Metekhi church, on the south side of the altar. This structure was destroyed during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and the relics have been lost.

The Persian Empire had encroached upon Georgian territory since the 3rd century and a certain amount of Zoroastrian proselytising in Iberia is recorded. Indigenous pagan cults and the Iranian religion were well established in most parts of the country.

The first King of Iberia to accept Christianity, King Mirian of the Chosroid dynasty, was reputed to be of Persian ancestry; some accounts record him to be the son of Persia’s Sassanid Shah, other accounts suggest him to be the son of a Parthian chieftain. Iberia under King Mirian was staunchly pro-Persian and Iberian troops fought alongside Persian soldiers in their battles against the Roman Empire. The Peace Treaty of Nisibis between Rome and Persia recognised Iberia as being under Roman influence but with Mirian still ruling as king. Mirian rapidly took advantage of the change in circumstances, developing strong commercial and military linkages with the Roman Empire, and ultimately accepting Christianity as his court’s religion in 337, and declaring Christianity as the state religion in 339.

For twenty years after King Mirian’s death, a power struggle ensued between Rome and Iran for the control of Iberia, until the 387 Treaty of Acilisene acknowledged Persian control of Iberia. Zoroastrianism was propagated much more vigourously following this, and some tensions developed between Christian royalty and citizens on one hand, and Zoroastrian overlords on the other. For the most part the Chosroid kings of Iberia remained loyal to Persia until King Vakhtang Gorgasali’s rebellion began in 482.

During the reign of King Vakhtang, an Armenian princess of Rana named Vardandukht was married to an Iberian nobleman, Varxenes, who held the title of Pitiaksh (governor) in the country’s administration. Vardandukht preferred to be called by her pet-name Shushanik (Susannah). The story of her confrontation with her apostate husband and her ultimate martyrdom form the basis of Georgia’s oldest literary work, “The Passion of Saint Shushanik” , in Georgian წამებაჲ წმიდისა შუშანიკისი დედოფლისაჲ, C’amebay C’midisa Shushanikisi Dedop’lisay, which is of great interest to Georgian linguists and historians both devout and secular. The implications of her life and work are ably described by Georgian theology student Besiki Sisauri:

The life of Shushanik is the oldest surviving work of Georgian literature. It was composed between the years A.D. 476 and 483 by Jacob of Tsurtaveli, father-confessor to the princess, and is remarkable for its directness of language. The background of the saint’s life is well known from other historical sources. Shushanik’s father, Vardan Manukonian, was the hero of the Armenian nation A rising of the year 45, directed against the authority of the Zoroastrian king of Iran, Yezdegird. Shushanik’s husband, the Georgian prince Varsken, occupied a strategic position as Pitiakhsh (from Iranian Bitakhsh, a viceroy) of the frontier region between Armenia and Georgia. As we see from the life of Shushanik, King Peroz of Iran sent Varsken to fight against the Huns who threatened to invade Persia from the north via Derbent and the shores of the Caspian Sea. Varsken was also supposed to exercise control over the king of Eastern Georgia (Iberia), whose capital at Mtskheta was within easy reach of Varsken’s castle in Tsurtav.

Shushanik’s death was brought about by political as much as by religious considerations. Her refusal to abjure Christianity infuriated her husband, who had embraced Mazdeism to ingratiate himself with the Persian court. Shushanik’s obduracy placed Varsken in a difficult position vis-a’-vis his suzerain, ultimately provoking him to murder her in particularly atrocious circumstances. He did not long profit by his crime, for the Armenian chronicler Lazarus of Pharp tells us that in the year 484, the redoubtable Christian king of Georgia, Wakhtang Gorgaslan (Gorgasali), rose in revolt against the Iranians and took prisoner their renegade ally Varsken, who was put to a painful and ignominious death. In addition to these political sidelights, the life of Shushanik is also of interest to the social historian for the insight it gives into such questions as the relations between the sexes in early Christian society and the climatic and sanitary conditions of ancient Caucasia.”

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

It was in the eighth year of the reign of the king of Persia that Varsken the Pitiakhsh, son of Arshusha, traveled to the royal court. Formerly lie too was a Christian, born of Christian father and mother. And his wife was the daughter of Vardan, generalissimo of the Armenians, bearing the name of Varden, or Rose, after her father, and the pet-name of Shushanik, or Susanna; and she lived in the fear of God from her childhood days. Because of the unrighteousness of her husband, she prayed perpetually in her heart and besought all to pray God to convert him from his deluded ways, so that he might become wise in Christ.

But who could describe tile wickedness of that abandoned and thrice wretched Varsken? For when he appeared before the king of the Persians, it was not to receive honour by rendering service to the monarch, but to deliver himself up hotly and soul by denying the True God. So he bowed down to the fire, utterly cutting himself off from Christ. And this miserable man sought to win favour in the eyes of the king of the Persians by asking him for a wife, adding, “The lawful wife and children I already have, these I will likewise convert to your faith, just like myself.” (In making this pledge, how-ever, he had reckoned without Shushanik.) Then the king rejoiced, and gave him his own daughter to be his bride.

Soon after the Pitiakhsh took leave of the king. And as lie was approaching the borders of Georgia, the land of Hereti it occurred to him to have the noblemen and his sons and retainers informed that they were to meet him, so that in their company he might enter the country like a snake. He therefore dispatched one of his servants on a post-horse. When the servant had arrived at the township which is called Tsurtav, he came in and appeared before Shushanik our queen, and enquired after her well-being. But the blessed Shushanik said with prophetic insight, “If he is alive in soul, you are both alive, both he and thou. If you are both dead in your spirit, that enquiry of thine needs to be addressed to thyself.” But the man dared not answer her. St. Shushanik, however, insisted and questioned him urgently, until the man told her the truth, saying, “Varsken has renounced the True God.”

When the blessed Shushanik heard this, she fell upon the ground and beat her head on the floor and said with bitter tears, “Pitiable indeed has become the unfortunate Varsken! He has forsaken the True God, and embraced the religion of fire and united himself to the godless.” And she arose and left her palace and went into the church, filled with the fear of the Lord. With her she took her three sons and one daughter and brought them before the altar and prayed. And when the evening service was over, she found a small cottage near the church, and went into it, filled with grief, and leant against the wall in a corner and wept bitterly.

Now the bishop attached to the Pitiakhsh’s household, whose name was Aphots, was not at hand, having gone to the house of a certain holy man to consult him about some question. And I too, the confessor of Queen Shushanik, was with the bishop. Suddenly a deacon came to us from home and told us all that had occurred: the arrival of the Pitiakhsh and the conduct of the queen. We were filled with sorrow and wept abundantly, being weighed down by the consciousness of our sins.
But I got up early and went to the village where the blessed Shushanik was And when I saw her afflicted with sorrow, I also wept with her.

While we were conversing, a certain Persian arrived and came in before the blessed Shushanik, and said in lachrymose tones, “How so? A peaceful household has become miserable, and joy has turned to grief!” But he had actually come on a secret errand from Varsken, and said this as a ruse to ensnare the blessed one. But the saint recognized his cunning intention, and became all the more firm in her resolve.

Three days after, Varsken the Pitiakhsh came. And the Persian spoke to him privately and said, “I gather that your wife has left you. I would advise you, however, not to speak harsh words to her. After all, women are always liable to be unreasonable.”

The next day, the Pitiakhsh summoned us priests as soon as be had got up, and we went to him. He received us agreeably and said to us, “Be at your ease and do not shrink away from me.” In reply we said to him, “You have brought damnation on yourself and on us also!” Then he began to speak, and said, “How could my wife allow herself to do such a thing to me? Now go and tell her that she has degraded my person and sprinkled ashes upon my bed and forsaken her rightful place and gone elsewhere.”

To this St. Shushanik replied, “It is not I who either exalted your person or degraded it. Your father raised up sepulchers for the martyrs and built churches, and you have ruined the deeds of your father and destroyed his good works. Your father invited saints into his house, but you invite devils. He confessed and believed in the God of heaven and earth, but you have renounced the True God and bowed clown before the fire. Just as you have despised your Creator, so I pour contempt upon you. Even if you inflict many tortures on me, I will have no part in your doings.”
We reported all this to the Pitiakhsh, as a result of which he became angry and bellowed with rage. Then the Pitiakhsh commissioned Jojik his brother and Jojik’s wife, his sister-in-law, and the bishop attached to his household, and told them to speak to her in the following terms: “Get up and come to your rightful place, and give up these notions of yours! If not, I shall drag you back by force.”

So they came and entered in before the queen and spoke many reassuring words to her. Then St. Shushanik said to them, “O wise men! Do not think I was nothing but a wife to him. I had imagined that I could convert him to my faith, so that he would acknowledge the True God. And do you now try to force me to act thus? Let this never happen to me! You, Jojik, are no longer my brother-in-law, nor am I your sister-in-law, nor is your wife my sister, since you are on his side and take part in his doings.”

And as they were pressing and urging her excessively, the saintly and blessed Shushanik arose to go. Taking her copy of the Gospels with her, she said with tears, “O Lord God, Thou knowest that I am resolved in heart to meet my death.” When she had spoken these words she went with them and carried her Gospel with her, as well as the holy books of the Martyrs.
When she came into the palace she took up her residence not in her apartments, but in a small chamber. And St. Shushanik raised her hands to heaven and said, “O Lord God! Not one merciful man, neither priest nor layman, has been found among this people, but they have all handed me over to die at the hands of Varsken, that enemy of God.”

Two days later that wolf came into the palace and said to his retainers, “Today, I and Jojik and his wife are dining together. Do not allow anyone to come in to us.” And when it was evening they called Jojik’s wife and decided to bring the holy Shushanik to dine with them too. When they had wearied her with their insistence, they obliged her to accompany them to the palace, but she bad no appetite for anything. Jojik’s wife, however, offered her wine in a glass ,and tried to make her drink a little of it. St. Shushanik said to her angrily, “Whenever has it been the custom for men and women to dine together?” And stretching out her arm, she flung the glass in her face, and the wine was spilt.

Then Varsken began to utter foul-mouthed insults and kicked her with his foot. Picking up a poker, he crashed it on her head and split it open and injured one of her eyes. And he struck her face unmercifully with his fist and dragged her to and fro by hair, bellowing like a wild beast and roaring like a madman.

Jojik his brother rose to protect her, and came to grips with him and struck him. After her veil had been torn from her head, Jojik dragged her from Varsken’s hands, like a lamb from the claws of a wolf. St. Shushanik lay like a corpse upon the ground, while Vansken abused her kinsfolk and called her the defiler of his home. And he commanded her to be bound and chains to be attached to her feet.

When he had calmed down a little from his outburst of rage, the Persian came to him and urgently begged him to free St. Shushanik from her chains. After insistent pleading, he ordered tier to be unchained and taken to a cell and carefully guarded. She was to have one servant, and nobody else would be allowed to visit her, neither man nor woman.

When it was dawn, he asked her servant, “How are her wounds?” He said to him, “They are past healing.” Then he himself went in and looked at her, and was greatly astonished at the size of her swelling. And he directed the servant not to let anyone come and see her. He himself went out hunting.

But I got up and went and said to the guard, “Just let me in by myself to have a look at her wounds.” But he said to me, “What if he finds out and kills me?” I said to him, “Miserable man, did she not bring you up and educate you? If he kills you for her sake, what have you to regret?” Then he let me in secretly.

When I went in, I saw her face all slashed and swollen, and I raised my voice and wept. But St. Shushanik said to me, “Do not weep for me, since this night has been for me the beginning of joy.” And I said to St. Shushanik, “Let me wash the blood from your face and the dust which has fallen into your eyes, and apply ointment and medicine, so that please God you may be cured.” But St. Shushanik said to me, “Do not say that, Father, for this blood is for the cleansing of my sins.” But I gently forced her to take some food, which had been sent by Bishop Samuel and John, who secretly watched over her and saw to her welfare. St. Shushanik said to me, “Father, I cannot taste anything, because my jaws and several of my teeth are broken.” Then I brought a little wine and bread, and dipped it in, and she tasted a little. And I made haste to go out. Then St. Shushanik said to me, “Father, shall I send him back this jewellery of his? Even if he does not require it, I shall have no more use for it in this life.” But I said, “Do not hurry, let it remain in your keeping.

While we were discussing this, a boy came in and said, “Is Jacob here?” And I said, “What do you want?” He said, “The Patiakhsh is calling for you.” And I was surprised and wondered why he called for me now, so hurried to go. He said to me, “Do you know, Priest, that I am leaving to fight against the Huns? I have no intention of leaving my jewellery with her, now that she is not my wife. Someone else will have to be found to wear it. Go and bring whatever there is of it.”

So I went and told this to St. Shushanik. She was very glad and thanked God and handed everything over to me, and I delivered it all to the Pitiakhsh. He received it from me, inspected it and found everything complete, and again said, “At some later time, someone will be found to adorn herself with it.”

And when Lent was come, the blessed Shushanik came and found a small cell near the church, and took up her abode in it.

On Monday in Easter week, the Pitiakhsh returned from fighting against the Huns. The Devil animated his heart, and he arose and went to the church and said to Bishop Aphots, “Give me my wife! Why are you keeping her away from me?” And he began to curse and utter violent maledictions against God. But a priest said to him, “Lord, why are you behaving like this and uttering such evil words and cursing the bishop and speaking with anger against the saintly Shushanik?” But he struck the priest in the back wit his staff, so that he dared not say anything more.

So St. Shushanik was dragged out by force through the mud and over the thorns from the church to the palace, just as if they were dragging a corps along. And lie ordered her to be tied up and beaten, and reviled her saying “Now you see that your Church is no help to you, nor those Christian supporters of yours, nor that God of theirs! “ Three hundred blows they struck her with a stick, without any moan or complaint passing her lips. After this St. Shushanik said to the impious a Varsken, “Unhappy man, you have had no pity on yourself, and cut yourself off from God, so how can you have pity on me?”

When he saw the blood flowing abundant from her tender flesh, he ordered a chain to be fastened round her neck, and commanded a chamberlain to take St. Shushanik to the castle and imprison her in a dark dungeon to die.

A certain deacon belonging to the bishop’s staff stood near St. Shushanik when she was being taken from the palace, and tried to encourage her to stand fast, when the Pitiakhsh cast his eye on him. He only managed to say, “Sta . . ,” and then was silent and hastily took to his heels and ran away.

Then they took lieu out. St. Shushanik was led barefoot, with her hair disordered, like some woman of the common folk. Nor did anyone dare to cover her heads because the Pitiakhsh followed on horseback behind her, cursing her with much foul language. With the saint was a great mob of women and wen, countless in number, following behind her, and they raised their voices and wept, and tore their cheeks and shed tears of pity for St. Shushanik. But St. Shushanik looked upon the crowd and said to them, “Weep not, my brothers, my sisters and my children, but remember me in your prayers now that I am taking leave of you from this world. For you will not see me leave the castle alive.”

When the Pitiakhsh saw the mob and tire lamentation of men and women, old and young, he charged at them on his horse and forced them all to run away. When they reached the castle bridge, the Pitiakhsh said to St. Shushanik, “This is all the walking you will ever do, for you will not come out alive, until the time comes for four bearers to carry you out.” When they had entered the castles they found a small dark hut to the north of it, and there they locked up the saint. They left her with the chain still fastened round her neck, and this the impious Varsken stamped with his seal. Then he left the castle.

On the third Sunday, he summoned a gaoler and asked him, “Is that miserable woman still alive?” He replied, “Lord! She appears nearer to death than to life. She is likely to die from hunger alone, since she will eat nothing.” To which he answered, “Never mind, leave her alone, let her die.”
Then the Pitiakhsh went off to Chor. Jojik his brother was not present when these things were done to St. Shushanik. When Jojik arrived, he hastened after the Pitiakhsh, caught up with him on the borders of Hereti, and implored him to have her released from her fetters. After he had greatly importuned Varsken, he ordered her to be unchained. When Jojik returned, he removed the chain from her neck.

But St. Shushanik was not released from her shackles until her death. For she remained six years in the castle, and blossomed forth with her religious observances, ever fasting, keeping vigil and watching, in unwearying adoration and assiduous reading of holy books. The entire castle was made radiant and beautiful by the lyre of her spirit.

From now on, her works became renowned through-out all Georgia. Men and women used to come for the fulfillment of their vows. Whatever they had need of was bestowed on them through the holy prayer of the blessed Shushanik, namely a child to the childless, healing to the sick, and to the blind, restoration of sight.

They told St. Shushanik, “Your children have been converted to Mazdeism.” Then with many tears she began to worship God and beat her head upon the ground and groaned, saying, “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord God of mines for they were hot mine, but gifts from Thee I As Thou wilts Thy will lie done, O Lord. Save me from the schemes of the Evil One.”

Then the Pitiakhsh sent messengers and said, “Either to my wilt and return to the palace, or if you will not come home, I will send you under guard to Chor or to the Persian court.
St. Shushanik, however, answered, “Wretched and stupid man If you send me to Chor or to the Persian court, who knows if some good may not come to me and this evil be averted?”
The Pitiakhsh pondered over these words which she had uttered, “Who knows if some good may riot come to me ?” which lie took to mean, “Perhaps one of the princes then” might take her to wife.” From then onwards, lie sent no one to her.

Later, however, the Pitiakhsh deputed her own foster-brother to bring her back to the palace. When tie said to her, “Listen to me and come back to the palace, and do not leave your home desolate,” then St. Shushanik replied, “Tell that godless man this You have killed me, and volt declared that I should never come out of this castle on my feet alive I And now, if you can raise the dead, first raise your mother who is buried at Urdi. For if you cannot raise her up, neither can you bring me out of here, unless you drag me by force.”

When she had passed six years in this prison, excessive weariness from her feats of courage and devotion brought sickness upon her. Furthermore that place was incredibly infested with fleas and lice. In the summer time the heat of the sun burns like fire, the winds are torrid and the waters infected. The inhabitants of this region are themselves afflicted with various diseases, being swollen with dropsy, yellow with jaundice, pock-marked, withered up, mangy, pimply, bloated of face and brief of life, and nobody attains old age in that district.

When the seventh year had begun, the holy and thrice blessed Shushanik was afflicted with an ulcer of the flesh. As a result of her tireless acts of piety, her feet became swollen, and pustules broke out on various parts of her body. The ulcers were very large and infested with worms. One of these she held out in her hand and showed it to me, and gave thanks to God, saying, “Father, do not let the sight of this upset you. There (i.e. in Hell) the worm is greater, and never dies.” When I saw this worm, I was afflicted with inexpressible distress, and wept greatly. But she retorted sharply, “Father, why are you sorrowful? Rather than being eaten by those immortal worms, it is better to be consumed here in this life by mortal ones!”

When Jojik heard that the blessed queen St. Shushanik was near to death, he went out and brought with him his wife and children and his servants and retainers, and came to the castle to see the saintly Shushanik the martyr. Then she blessed Jojik and his wife and children and his servants and retainers and all the members of his household, and bade them walk in the ways of God. And she took leave of them and sent them away in peace.

After Jojik there came Archbishop Samuel and his friend Bishop John, who had encouraged her and taken part in her good works. Likewise there came the grandees and noble ladies, the gentry and common folk of the land of Georgia. Their eyes were filled with tears as they said farewell to her, and they offered lip praise to God for her glorious works, and then They left the castle and departed.

Then came the day when she was to be called away. And she summoned the bishop attached to her household, Aphots, and thanked him for his kindness which equalled that of a father and a foster-parent. She called for me, sinner and wretch that I am, and committed to us the relics of her bones, commanding us to bury them in that place from which she was first dragged forth. And she said, “Though I am but a worker of the eleventh hour in the vineyard, if I have any merit, you shall all be blessed for ever and ever.”

Then she gave thinks to God, saying, “Blessed is our Lord God, for on Him I will lay myself down and sleep in peace. And she entrusted her soul to the Lord, who receives all mankind in His mercy.

The beginning of the torments of St. Shushanik was in the month of January, on the eighth day, being a Wednesday. Her second beating took place on Monday in Easter week. And her death was in the month of October, on the seventeenth day, being the festival of the blessed saints and martyrs Cosmas and Damian, and it was a Thursday. This anniversary we set apart for the commemoration of St. Shushanik, and for the praising of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, to whom belong glory for ever and ever, Amen.

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It has long been a source of annoyance to some people, local and foreign, that the Georgian government provides funding to the Georgian Church. For those coming from countries with a complete separation between Church and State, such as France or the United States, it is a very unfamiliar situation. For people coming from countries with an official State Church, such as the United Kingdom or Denmark, it is a more familiar situation.

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The relationship between Church and State in Georgia is an interesting one. The Republic of Georgia is a secular state without a State Church. Unlike other states, there are no seats in parliament allocated to bishops or other religious leaders (as is the case in the United Kingdom and China). However, the Church has a very large role in people’s lives and State leaders not infrequently canvass the opinion of the Patriarch and bishops when determining policy directions.

In 2002, a Concordat (agreement) was signed between the Georgian State and the Georgian Orthodox Church (more formally known as The Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church (Georgian:საქართველოს სამოციქულო ავტოკეფალური მართლმადიდებელი ეკლესია,sak’art’velos samots’ik’ulo avt’okep’aluri mart’lmadidebeli eklesia).  The terms of this agreement were:

(1) The agreement confirmed that all churches and monasteries on Georgian territory are owned by the Georgian Church, with the exception of those in private hands.

(2) The agreement recognises the special role of the Georgian Church in Georgian history and devolves authority over all religious matters to the Georgian Church.

(3) The agreement grants the Patriarch immunity from prosecution and exempts clergy from the Georgian Church from compulsory military service.

(4) The agreement grants the Georgian Church an exclusive role in operating the military chaplaincy.

(5) The agreement grants the Georgian Church a substantial advisory role in government, particularly in the educational sphere.

(6) The agreement recognises the validity of marriages performed in the Church (while still requiring government registration for legal issues).

(7) As a partial owner of assets confiscated by Soviet authorities during the Soviet rule of Georgia (1921-1991), the State agrees to compensate, at least in part, the Georgian Church for its financial and asset losses incurred during that period. 

The seventh point is an interesting one.

The Concordat was agreed in 2002 between His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II and President Eduard Shevardnadze. The President was from a Gurian Bolshevik family with revolutionary credentials, and in addition to having been Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, he had also been the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party (the de facto Head of State of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (GSSR)). The Party which he had headed had in the past engaged in atrocities and persecution of Georgian Christians, but a mere 11 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the immediate aftermath of a brutal civil war, Shevardnadze was not willing to admit substantial responsibility for past misdeeds of his former Party or government.

From the 1990’s to the current day, most of the political and business elite in Georgia were children or close relatives of Communist Party officials, or had developed a power base in the Komsomol (  All-Union Leninist Young Communist League  ). During the Soviet era, identifying publicly as an Orthodox Christian had serious consequences; one could not join the Party or Komsomol, admission to universities was almost impossible, and promotion within State bodies was seriously hampered. Hence, when Georgia became independent, very few of the political elite or intelligentsia came from openly practicing Christian families, and many had engaged in discrimination or persecution of Christians during their official duties prior to 1991. Faced with a resurgent Church, the elite needed to make some compromises with the Church, lest their own conduct and the conduct of their families in the past be brought to light. Church and State negotiated the best deal they could realistically get at the time. With the chaos of the 1990’s in such recent memory, the Church also was wary of going after Communists for compensation and justice too vigourously lest the delicate political balance established be upset.

The Bolshevik takeover of Georgia in 1921 was followed by serious persecution of the Church, as mentioned in my posts before, here, and here. Many thousands of clergy were murdered or exiled to labour camps where they died of disease, cold or malnutrition. Tens of thousands of ordinary Orthodox Christian laity likewise were murdered for their faith, or died in prison camps. Hundreds of thousands had their lives and careers ruined by persecution and discrimination by Communist authorities. To date, not one cent of compensation has been paid to the Church for the wrongful deaths of its martyred clergy. Likewise, the families of martyred laity have yet to receive any compensation. As a successor regime to the GSSR, the Government of the Republic of Georgia bears responsibility for achieving justice for those wronged by its predecessor, but to date nobody has had the courage to do so. Given that many of the elite have family members complicit in past atrocities and persecution, this is not surprising.

It is therefore perplexing to Georgian Orthodox Christians when local secularists and foreigners complain about State funding of the Church. A local article disclosing financial transfers from the State Treasury to the Church can be found here . I cannot vouch for the veracity or otherwise of those figures but they appear to be based on valid government records; a total of GEL200 million since independence is suggested. Given that the new Parliament House in Kutaisi alone has cost over GEL325 million since work started in 2012, the Church’s subventions are a rather minor part of State expenditures in comparison.

In 1921, the Georgian Church was the largest single landowner in the country; that land was confiscated and most of it has not been returned. No formal mechanism of restitution for these assets has been settled upon. Seventy years worth of lost revenue from those assets has also not been considered.

Hundreds of temples and monasteries were razed to the ground by the Bolksheviks;  State funding for the building of new temples and renovation of old structures is hence an appropriate measure of compensation under the terms of the Concordat. Anyone walking around a temple on Sunday morning in any town or village in Georgia can attest to the overcrowding that is routine, with many hundreds of people often standing in the rain or snow outside for services at Feasts. Hence, State support for such construction activities is a compensation payment rather than a subsidy per se.

Some State funds provided to the Church are dedicated to the Church’s charitable activities, such as its hospitals, orphanages, educational facilities and charitable funds, such as the Lazarus Fund. As the most trusted institution in the country, government officials obviously consider subvention of Church charity work to be a worthwhile use of public funds.

Some Georgian political parties have lobbied for the Concordat to be superseded by the Georgian Church becoming an official State Church and therefore an arm of the State.  To date the Patriarch has rejected this concept, saying that he would prefer the existing arrangement to be implemented more fully. No doubt the Church hierarchs are aware that countries with State Churches tend to suffer decreasing levels of religiosity amongst the laity. Likewise,  they are aware of the Georgian Church’s forcible incorporation into the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia in the early 19th century, where as an arm of the official State Church they were ruled by Russian civil servants instead of bishops. The experience was not a happy one and clergy are aware that the Church needs a certain level of autonomy from the State to fulfil its mission faithfully. The freedom for clergy to occasionally criticise State policy where appropriate can only be preserved if the Church is not an arm of the State.

Personally, I believe that a one-off property settlement between Church and State would be preferable to ongoing year-by-year subvention, as this would allow the Church to be financially independent of the State and to faithfully fulfil its mission without fear of of State officials cutting off funds when displeased. Other Georgian Orthodox Christians will have opinions very different to mine of course.

 

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