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

 

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

david icon deer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Yesterday was the Feast of the Ascension, where we relive the Ascension of Christ to heaven and formally end the Paschal season. In Georgia, we concurrently celebrate the forced exile and martyrdom of many thousands of Georgians enslaved by the Iranian Shah Abbas in the 17th century.

I have remarked before at the difficult relationship between Iran and Georgia over the centuries. At various times the Christian Church in Persia was very strong, with large numbers of native adherents and a functioning clerical establishment. Indeed, Orthodox missionaries from Persia were responsible for evangelising some of the North Caucasus tribes. Unfortunately the conversion of the Persian establishment to Islam resulted in such severe persecution of the Church that in many regions the faith was completely extinguished. Today some of the ethnic Armenian minority in Iran still openly practice their faith within the Armenian Apostolic tradition, but there are few native Christians left and the death sentence for apostasy from Islam is still in place.

There is a substantial ethnic Georgian minority in Iran, descended from Kakhetians and Kartlians enslaved by Shah Abbas and deported to Iran. Both the Georgian state and the Georgian Church have been active in reaching out to this diaspora community. Almost all of this community are now Shi’ite Muslims, and the crypto-Christianity practiced by the exiles referred to in this passage appears to have been extinguished over time. There are probably millions of Iranians with some Georgian ancestry, but less than 100,000 identify as being of Georgian ancestry. The Isfahan region of Iran has the densest population of Georgians in Iran, with one small town Fereydunshahr still using a Georgian dialect and Georgian script.

It is also interesting that the “Turkmen” referred to in this passage as having replaced deported Kakhetians have given rise to the nominally ethnic Azeri populations of Sagarejo and Shiraki, who still live in the region in large numbers.

georgian martyrs

Throughout history Georgia has frequently been forced to defend what Saint Ilia the Righteous called its “threefold treasure”— language, fatherland, and Faith. In this regard, the events of the 17th century are some of the most tragic in all of Georgian history. 

In 1616 the bloodthirsty Persian ruler Shah Abbas I invaded Georgia with a massive army. His goal was to level the country completely, to leave not a single building standing. The shah’s army kidnapped hundreds of thousands of Kakhetian Georgians and then sent them to Persia to be sold as slaves. They settled Turkmen in the newly depopulated Georgian regions. In collaboration with the Shah, many Lezgin peoples from the mountainous North Caucasus moved south to occupy the homes of the exiled Georgians.
      

The 17th-century Italian traveler Pietro della Valle described the Georgian exile in Persia: “It would be too long to narrate all that has passed in this miserable migration, how many murders, how many deaths caused by privation, how many seductions, rapes, and acts of violence, how many children drowned by their own parents or cast into rivers through despair, some snatched by force from their mother’s breasts because they seemed too weak to live and thrown down by the wayside and abandoned there to be food for wild beasts or trampled underfoot by the horses and camels of the army, which marched for a whole day on top of dead bodies; how many sons separated from their fathers, wives from their husbands, sisters from their brothers, and carried off to distant countries without hope of ever meeting again. Throughout the camp, men and women were sold on this occasion much cheaper than beasts, because of the great number of them.” (Quoted in David Marshall Lang, Lives and Legends of the Georgian Church (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1956), p. 170.)

The Georgian exiles in Persia included a large number of clergy. Many of them celebrated the divine services in secret and inspired the people to remain faithful to God. Those discovered were punished severely. Many Georgians were martyred for the Christian Faith during the Persian exile. Not only Georgian researchers, but historians and travelers of other nationalities attest to the truth of this. Furthermore, ethnic Georgians currently residing in formerly Persian territories continue to commemorate their fallen ancestors to this day. They make pilgrimages to the sites where their ancestors were martyred and prepare feasts there in honor of their memory. One of these sites has been called “Ascension.”

Of language, fatherland, and Faith, only language remains alive among Georgians in the formerly Persian territories. Most have lost touch with both their fatherland and the Christian Faith. Those fortunate enough to be able to return to Georgia often convert to Orthodox Christianity. In 2001, when Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II visited the ethnic Georgians in Iran, he presented them with a mound of Georgian soil. With great emotion the Georgians scattered the soil over the ground where their ancestors were martyred.

On September 18, 2003, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church prayerfully considered the martyric contest of the Georgians in Persia. The Synod declared all those martyred at the hands of Muslims in the 17th and 18th centuries worthy to be numbered among the saints. Their commemoration day was set on the feast of Holy Ascension, in honor of the place where many of them were martyred.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, St Herman’s Press

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

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

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

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

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

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

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

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

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

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

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

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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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