19th Sunday after Pentecost / Sts. Cyprian and Justina; St. Andrew, Fool-for-Christ / 2 Cor. 11.31 – 12.9; Luke 6.31-36
F/S/HS. Brothers and sisters, Matushka Anastasia and I had a profitable time away this past week, high in the beautiful snow-capped mountains of Montana. It is good for my soul to dwell in God’s natural beauty, and good as well to have a wonderful book to read along the way.
I am referring to a relatively new arrival to our book store, which I fetched the night before leaving for Montana. An email from Fr. Silouan some weeks back alerted me to this priceless pearl. It is titled Great Art Thou, O Lord!, and subtitled The Life And Preaching Of St. Gabriel (Urgebadze), Confessor And Fool For Christ.
I was somewhat acquainted with the life of St. Gabriel prior to opening the book, which I am two-thirds of the way through now. Yet I was entirely unprepared for the affect that the life of this humble and unusual saint would have on me. I was riveted by his life. His life convicts me of my own sinful life. His life inspires me to more greatly strive towards God and a righteous Orthodox life. And not just me! Thousands upon thousands flock each year to Samtavro Women’s monastery in the country of Georgia, to venerate the incorrupt relics and grave of St. Gabriel.
Fr. Gabriel reposed in the Lord on Nov. 2, 1995, and his glorification into the choir of saints was achieved an almost unheard of seventeen years later, on December 20, 2012. During that glorification, hundreds of thousands—over a million people—came and participated. In the years since, millions from within Georgia and around the world make pilgrimage to be in the presence of the one who, for those who knew him, called Fr. Gabriel the great love of the twentieth century, words very much associated with the placard that he wore around his neck, beneath his cassock, which read A man without love is like a pitcher without a bottom. No grace accumulates in him.
While in the mountains of Montana and pondering this morning’s Gospel and my homily, it landed on my soul that Fr. Gabriel’s life is a fulfillment of the virtues espoused in this morning’s Gospel.
Fr. Gabriel loved not only those who loved him. He did not do good only to those who did good to him. He never lent money or food or clothing or other possessions with the expectation of receiving something in return. Even sinners love those who love them, and do good to those who do good to them, and lend to those without expecting something in return, observes this morning’s Gospel.
No, Jesus calls us to a righteous and holy life that is of another standard altogether. Even if you believe in God—well, that too does not achieve the standard set forth by our Lord. You believe that there is one God, observes St. James in his general Epistle. You do well! Even the demons believe—and tremble! (James 2.19).
No, something else altogether is expected of us, of the nature of holiness and righteousness, if we are to aspire to our Lord’s high calling. And it was this something else that I gleaned from the life of St. Gabriel over this past week. I highly commend reading his life, dear ones.
Not because we are to be fools for Christ, as was St. Gabriel. The category fools for Christ is reserved for an exceptionally rare type of Christian. Their foolishness represents an utterly unique embodiment of Christian faith. Yet there are many virtues of spirit in such fools that we can indeed aspire to. And it is to two of these virtues that I want to now turn—the virtue of love, and the virtue of courage. O dear Lord, in this day and age when love and courage are so compromised, help us to aspire to such virtues, as did Fr. Gabriel.
Born with the name Goderdzi on August 26, 1929, the young Goderdzi was a most unusual youth. He lost his father, who was likely murdered. As a young boy he heard his neighbors fighting. One of them said, You have crucified me like Christ. Goderdzi asked: What does crucified mean? And who is this Christ? Not knowing how best to answer, the neighbors sent Goderdzi to a local church, wherein the warden of that church advised the young boy to read the Gospel. He saved up his money and purchased a Gospel. Within a few years Goderdzi knew most of that Gospel by heart.
As a teenager he started wandering away unannounced from his home, to nearby monasteries. He took monastic vows at age 26, receiving the name Gabriel, after St. Gabriel of Mt. Athos, the starets who had walked through the water and brought to shore the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God, which had floated to Athos over the top of the sea. Throughout his entire life, Fr. Gabriel revered a wonder-working copy of that same icon, at the Samtavro Monastery.
Fr. Gabriel did not reside permanently at any one monastery, but roamed from monastery to monastery, leaving at times without anyone knowing. The first of his virtues was that of love, most especially love for God, but also love for everyone he encountered. Yet Fr. Gabriel’s love blossomed in the most unusual of ways. During worship services, if he sensed that your love for God or neighbor was diminished, he would tell you—sometimes the entire church!—Down on your knees!
Because everyone knew that Fr. Gabriel was full of holy love, they went to their knees without taking offense at his bold request. Once, while serving in the altar, he not only ordered the presiding bishop to his knees—the future Metroplitan Daniel—but then told him to walk on his knees out the deacon’s door and reside before the icon of the Theotokos, until his heart softened with love for God. A half-hour later Bp. Daniel arose from his knees, humbly appreciative of Fr. Gabriel’s bold love!
Fr. Gabriel’s love especially blossomed around those who were suffering physical, emotional, or spiritual afflictions. Yet once again his love manifested itself in a most unusual fashion. A man who adored Fr. Gabriel brought his alcoholic friend to him, the alcoholic friend desperate for healing. Fr. Gabriel feigned drunk and incoherent during their visit. Greatly offended, both men eventually left. Five days later the alcoholic called his friend, perplexed as to why he had no desire whatsoever to drink any alcohol since his visit with Fr. Gabriel!
Says Fr. Gabriel about love: Kindness will open to you the doors of paradise, humility will lead you into it, and love will enable you to behold God. Only in true love can God be seen, because God is Love. How does one learn to love? The Lord God reveals the unhappiness of others so that we might learn not to be indifferent to the pain of our neighbor. If you can help him, do so. If you cannot help him by deeds, at least support, encourage, and pray for him. Prayer offered up with love is of tremendous significance. By it we are instructed in love and learn to love.
So great was the grace of love in Fr. Gabriel’s life that some could hardly endure it. Metropolitan Nicholas reports a scene following the Paschal service, in preparation for their festal meal. Laity and clergy were all gathered and seated. Fr. Gabriel was sitting with us, smiling, laughing, and talking. And at that moment I felt—never again did I experience this feeling—I felt how as he spoke my lungs and rib cage were filling with joy, and I thought, “How much longer can this go on?” But Fr. Gabriel did not stop. He kept on talking, joking, and reminiscing…. [so much so] that I could not bear it any longer, so powerful and alive was that sense of grace, which kept pouring into you, until it seemed you would burst…. At that moment I asked God, “Please, send no more of this grace, because I can contain no more.”
Coupled with the grace of love was a second virtue of spirit—Fr. Gabriel’s tenacious courage. During a large swath of his life, Georgia was smothered in atheistic Communism. The security forces often raided homes and churches and monasteries, removing icons and hauling them off to local dumps. Defiant, Fr. Gabriel could be seen scouring through the dump, gathering up icons. If their frames were broken he would take them to his cell and replace the frame, but not just any frame.
A place of constant spiritual pilgrimage for thousands to this very day, Fr. Gabriel built a small church on the property of his family, where his mother lived. What a sight that church is. One Orthodox pilgrim from America called it an Orthodox Disneyland. Strings of various lights, including Christmas lights, multi-colored paint schemes, and icons of shapes adorn the walls and ceilings. The frames of some of these icons are made from tin that Fr. Gabriel cut from sardine cans that he took from the dump.
Short biblical sayings and the sayings of favorite church fathers adorn the walls of his church, many of these sayings not composed per the normal historical scheme—from left to right, or right to left, or top to bottom, but instead from bottom to top! The Communists destroyed Fr. Gabriel’s home-built church not once but twice, threatening each time to kill him if he tried to rebuild it. Go ahead and shoot me, he taunted as he started back in each time to rebuild his church. After the third time, the security forces left him alone.
Fr. Gabriel had no tolerance for blasphemy, pharisaism, pride, or cruelty. So immense was his courage in the face of such vices that on May 6, 1965, during a huge demonstration, he snuck through the crowd and poured a liter of kerosene across the bottom of a thirty-six foot tall cloth banner of Lenin, and then set fire to it. He was arrested and eventually put into an insane asylum, where he was tortured and befriended many of the mentally ill residence during his six month stay.
Let me close dear ones by reading The Last Will and Testament of Father Gabriel. It is a priceless testimony to the character of Fr. Gabriel, to his love and his courage, and to so many other virtues that adorned his humble spirit like a beautiful bouquet.
Glory to Christ God! I ask for forgiveness and the blessing of His Holiness and Beatitude, Illia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. To all the clergy and monastics, I leave my blessing and reconciliation through forgiveness. God is love and although I tried hard, I was unable to attain the love of God and neighbor according to the commandments of the Lord. The entire acquisition of the Kingdom of Heaven in this visible world and the inheritance of Eternal Life lies in love. Let me be buried without a coffin, wrapped up in my mantia. Be kind and humble. The Lord remembered us in our low estate, for He grants grace to the humble. Be humble, kind and loving to all people, as they are children of God. I carry a love for all within me—both to Orthodox people and to every child of God. The purpose of this life and of all this visible world is to acquire the Kingdom of God, to draw close to God and to inherit Eternal Life. This is what I wish for all of you. I leave my blessing to all of you, that no one be deprived of the great mercy of God and that all be found worthy to acquire the Kingdom. There is none who live on earth and do not sin. I alone am a great sinner, unworthy in every way and exceedingly feeble. With all my love, I beg of you, when you pass by my grave, pray for forgiveness for me a sinner. I was dust and to dust I have returned. Truth is in the immortality of the spirit. Monk Gabriel. F/S/HS.