St. Gabriel Urgebadze:  The Fool for Christ

From the land of Georgia, an independent nation that was  once a republic of the Soviet Union, a new light shines for Orthodox Christians around the world.  Georgia, the first nation to adopt Christianity as the national religion in the 4th century, has produced a host of holy women and men and the most recent, St. Gabriel Urgebadze.  St. Gabriel has become one of the most popular Orthodox saints in Georgia and icons and photographs of him are found everywhere:  in churches, schools, cars, public transportation.  He has become known throughout the Orthodox world and is honored with the titles “Confessor of the Faith”:  one who suffered for Christ and also with the unusual title “Fool for Christ”. 

St. Gabriel was born in 1929 with the name Goderdzi Urgebadze to a father who was an official in the Communist party but was murdered in 1931.  Goderzi came to faith in Christ on his own while still a young child.  One day he overheard neighbors fighting and one shouted “You have crucified me like Christ”.  Goderdzi did not know what “crucified” meant or who Christ was.  The neighbors were afraid to answer his questions so they sent him to the local church.  The local church had been closed by the Communists but a guard who worked there showed him an icon of the Crucifixion and told him to read the life of Christ.  Saving his money, he bought a copy of the New Testament which he read day and night as he learned for the first time about this Jesus who was crucified because of His love for him.  His new-found faith and constant prayer and Bible reading worried his mother.  She repeatedly scolded him and wished he were like “normal” children his age.  She threw his Bible into the garbage shouting “It’s ruined your life”.  Goderzi retrieved his beloved book from the trash  and knew he had no choice but to leave home.  He walked for a day and a night until he reached a monastery where he was taken under the care of two holy monks:  St. John Maisuradze and St. George-John Mkheidze.  After three months of searching for her son, his mother promised that she would not interfere with his spiritual life if he returned home.  He remained obedient to her, but continued his daily prayer and study of the Gospels, also helping his stepfather in his bread shop.   

In 1949 Goderdzi was called up to complete his compulsory military service but even surrounded by militant atheists he never abandoned his faith:   he visited churches near his deployment whenever he could sneak away.  His religious faith was eventually discovered and upon discharge from the army was labeled as mentally ill because only such people believed in God, angels and demons.   Returning home after his military duty he began building a small chapel in the yard of his home.  He would scour the local landfills to search for icons for his chapel which people had discarded under the influence of the atheistic Communists.  While he desired to enter a monastery, the Communist authorities made it extremely difficult for any young man to pursue a religious vocation. 

Finally in 1954, upon the recommendation of the Patriarch of Georgia- Melchizedek,  Goderzi entered the monastery in Motsameta and was tonsured as a monk with the name Gabriel in honor of St. Gabriel of Athos.  After a period of probation he was ordained deacon and then priest.

PERSECUTION

May 1 is a major Communist holiday “International Workers’ Day”, and in 1965 the Communists held a parade and rally in a major square, which also happened to be Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha.  Father Gabriel was returning from serving the Divine Liturgy and saw a 26-foot picture of Lenin decorating a side of a building with the caption “Glory to Great Lenin!”.  Unnoticed by the guards, Father Gabriel went up to the portrait and set it on fire.  As the flames devoured the portrait he cried to the crowd: 

“Why are you bowing down before idols?  Glory is due not to this corpse but to Jesus Christ Who trampled down death and gave us eternal life!”

The mob descended on him, beating and kicking him and would certainly have killed him if not for the intervention of the police.  He was in a coma for a month with eighteen broken bones.  The Communists sentenced him to be executed but the story of the incident became known to Western news media.  Instead of killing him, Father Gabriel was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he was drugged, beaten and tortured.  He was classified as a schizophrenic psychopath whose belief in God was part of his mental illness.  Interestingly, his official medical diagnosis chart from the Communist doctors has the official number “666”, which happen to be the number of the antichrist in the Book of Revelation. 

He was released from the hospital under one condition:  that the Patriarch of Georgia suspend him from his priestly ministry.  St. Gabriel became a pariah, even his former friends and fellow priests avoided him.  He continued attending church services, humbly receiving Communion while standing in line with the lay people. Finally, in 1971 the Patriarch of Georgia lifted his suspension, restored his priestly ministry and appointed him the priest of the convent of Samtavro.  Here he lived simply, fasting severely and praying, living for a time in a wooden hut which was an abandoned chicken coop.

FOOL FOR CHRIST

Before his return to ministry, Father Gabriel took upon himself the difficult ministry of that of a “fool for Christ”.  He purposely acted as if he were insane in order to avoid the praise, honor and esteem of others.  The most difficult sinful passion to overcome is that of pride.  It has been said that people will turn away from money and riches, will avoid lust and sexual pleasure but no one will turn away from honor, glory and recognition.  He is an example of holy men and women like him throughout history who outwardly acted absurd in order to challenge people’s worldly opinions.  Father Gabriel lived the words of the Holy Bible: 

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God”.  (1 Corinthians 1:25-29)

He explained his often-bizarre behavior very simply to one of his spiritual children:

“When it seemed to me that I was an important person or that I was better than others, I would act that way (foolishly); and when people would laugh at me I’d be humbled and see that I’m garbage.”

While his behavior attracted laughter and ridicule, he had a clear purpose:  to save someone’s soul and place them on the right path.  One day he was walking through the courtyard of the monastery several priests were seated on a bench outside the church.  Father Gabriel went up to them and began dancing wildly in front of them.  The onlookers where horrified and the priests quickly got up to get away from the “mad monk”.  However, the priests all secretly knew why Father Gabriel was dancing in front of them.  Yesterday, they had all taken off their cassocks and were drinking and dancing in a nightclub. 

On another occasion, a man came to him for confession and for his penance Father Gabriel instructed him to go out and buy a pornographic magazine.  The penitent was outraged by this request and complained to the abbot about the “mad monk”.  However, he soon remembered that he had hidden in his office several indecent photographs but had failed to mention it in confession. Father Gabriel, through his gift of clairvoyance, saw into the man’s soul and was trying to lead him to complete repentance.

In 1995 his health was declining and he prepared himself for death.  His final words were “I have been following You from the age of twelve, Lord, and now I am ready.  Take e to Yourself”.   He breathed his last on November 2, 1995 just as the Archbishop read the final words of the “Canon for the Departure of the Soul”.   Father Gabriel was glorified as a saint on December 20, 2012 by the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.  His memory is kept each year on October 20 / November 2. 

SOME TEACHINGS OF ST. GABRIEL

Your conscience is a small God. Before going to bed, render a short account to yourself: how you spent the day, what you did, when you sinned, what should have been done. Be demanding towards yourself.

In the End Days a man will be saved by love, humbleness and kindness. Kindness will open the gates of Heaven; humbleness will lead into the Heaven; a man, whose heart is filled with love, will see the God.

Every sin is enmity with God!  Aren’t you afraid to be enemies with Him?  Once you have committed a sin, do not carry it on your back for a long time; it hangs over your life like a death-dealing sword.  Go speedily to a priest and repent.  There the Lord Himself, Who forgives sins and is merciful, will forgive you your sins through the mediation of His servant.  Woe to him who does not understand the mystery of Confession.  After all, it is God’s saving mercy sent down to man by God.

The Lord allows temptations to come upon us, so that we would be tested and learn, and attain greater progress. For if temptation increases, God’s grace also increases.

How can we learn to love?  The Lord shows us other people’s tragedies in order to teach us:  Do not be indifferent to your neighbor’s pain.  If you can help him, do so; if you can’t do anything to help, you can in any case have compassion.  Pray for him.  Prayer raised with love has great power.  By this we increase ourselves in love and learn to love.

If you could see what grace descends during the Divine Liturgy in church, you would gather the dust and wash your face with it!

If you have contempt for even one person, you are far from the Kingdom of Heaven.  Love is the mother of all virtues.  The heart belongs first and foremost to the One Who gave it to you – This is the first and great commandment.  (Matthew 22:38)

- Father Edward Pehanich

 

 


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