Icons and photographs of St. Gabriel (Urgebadze; 1929-1995; commemorated November 2) can be found everywhere in Georgia: in churches, in educational institutions, cars, public transport, en route… The elder was called “the great love and wonder of the twentieth century”, which indicates that this man of God unceasingly poured out his love on all who were near him. He is also called “the good grandfather” in Georgia. And truly he is a good elder and gives instruction and great hope to all people who flock to him to this day. He is a modern hero in the annals of the Georgian Church, a grace-filled elder and legend of his time. He endured suffering and persecutions for Christ and survived, as his mission was to witness to the truth and to preach love.
We talked with Abbess Seraphima (Chitanava) about Elder Gabriel’s abundant love, his personality and holiness.
—In 1994 I lost my son. Though I knew very little about Church life, I then went to Samtavro Convent in order to light a candle for the repose of my son’s soul. At that time I didn’t fully understand the meaning of Church prayer, intercession lists, etc. My acquaintance, Nun Febronia, suggested that I go to the Samtavro Convent’s abbess—Mother Ketevan (Kopaliani). I agreed and we went to her. And then I spotted a monk who was sitting by the tower and looking at me in a strange way. On that day it seemed weird to me, but now I realize that he was “reading” my soul as if I were an opened book. All of a sudden he said, addressing me, “You will come here, to us! You must come here…” I smiled to him and thought that the abbess was somewhere else and that we were going in the wrong direction. But there was no access to where the elder pointed me. Some years passed, I was tonsured a nun and came to live at the convent. And it was then that the abbess reminded me of Elder Gabriel’s words.
Thus he foretold my monastic future, but I even didn’t understand what this “strange monk” was speaking about. May the Lord forgive us all we did wrong to the elder, for we didn’t completely comprehend and appreciate the saint’s merits as a true pastor of Christ’s sheep, we didn’t show enough attention and respect to this wonderful man.
—You frequently visit Russia. In your opinion, what does Elder Gabriel mean to Orthodox believers of Russia?
—I have an impression that he is loved in Russia just as he is loved in Georgia. Many Russians know about Elder Gabriel and share numerous miraculous stories associated with him, which at times really amaze me! Churches in honor of our beloved elder are being built in Russia. By the way, soon we are going to Orsk [a city in southern Russia, in the Urals on the Ural River near the border with Kazakhstan], where Fr. Sergiy (Baranov) has built a church that is to be consecrated in honor of St. Gabriel soon. And your film, “The Elder’s Diadem”, has played and is still playing a significant role in the holy elder’s glorification. And I am very happy about that. As for Elder Gabriel’s love, I cannot help but mention that he loved Russia dearly! He used to say: “My cross is Georgia and Orthodox Russia!” I was present at a screening of the film, “The Elder’s Diadem”, on a number of occasions and became convinced that no political discord, no troubles can ever affect our mutual relations based on love—the relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Georgian Orthodox nations!
Love and mutual understanding have never ceased on Church and human levels, and these are the two major aspects of unity in Christ! I saw and observed with what emotion people watched this movie!
And I see how many Russians come to Georgia! And they, of course, appreciate the love with which Georgia and Fr. Gabriel meet and welcome them there. He is our much-loved elder, and I feel confident that he will contribute to our countries’ reconciliation on political level as well! There can be no other way! It is inconceivable that Russia could live without Georgia or Georgia without Russia!
—Mother Seraphima, in your view, what can we learn from Elder Gabriel’s podvig [spiritual, ascetic labors]? What is his greatest merit?
—It is love! He teaches us to love people and never judge them. I recall a story that happened in the life of my spiritual brother, now Archpriest Archil.
One day the elder suddenly left the convent and did not return for several days. It was during the Nativity Fast. The sisters began to judge him for his absence, but soon they received news from Tbilisi that Fr. Gabriel was very sick. The nuns repented, prayed for him and decided to go and visit the elder with gifts. On their way the sisters expressed their sorrow about the saint’s condition. At last they approached the house where Fr. Gabriel was staying and got out of the car. At the same time, Elder Gabriel came out of the house with a joyous smile. The nuns came up to him, asked for his blessing, embraced him and apologized for condemning him. Fr. Gabriel was silent and only kept smiling. At one moment he called some feminine name loudly. At once a neighbor of the elder responded, went out through the front yard and (moving with a dancing gait) walked towards him, holding savory grilled shish kebabs on the stick in her hands.
“Here you are, Gabriel! I have grilled shish kebabs for you, just as you asked! The meat has come out just fine!”
Can you imagine the sisters’ reaction? They started denouncing the elder again! “We thought that he was ill and felt unwell, but in reality he is indulging himself during the fast and enjoying shish kebabs!”
Before they left, Fr. Gabriel whispered in my spiritual brother’s ear: “Archil, I have prepared a good joke for them, haven’t I?”
—So people’s thoughts were revealed to him?!
There is another story told by an ordinary man, an emigrant.
It was getting dark. He was driving past Mtskheta when he spotted somebody standing on the road with his thumb out who looked like a homeless man. The driver decided not to give him a lift “because of his smell”. So he did not stop his car, drove another 440 yards, but conscience-stricken, turned round and drove back. He finally picked the stranger up and made for Samtavro Convent. Suddenly the driver sensed a pleasant, lingering fragrance. He thought: “Where has this ‘church’ aroma come from?” At the same moment the stranger turned to him and said: “Well, my dear neighbor! Is your car stinking now? Has a foul smell filled the car?” And at once the driver realized what the source of that scent was and that the “homeless man” was able to read his thoughts. Before the narrator of this story dropped the wayfarer off, the latter said that his name was “Monk Gabriel” and that one day the former would come to his grave and bend his knees. Of course, the driver didn’t understand the meaning of these words and thought: “How will I be able to come to his grave? How will I know the time and place of his burial? And why will I do it on bended knee?!”
Several years later the same driver received a donation from Germany for Samtavro Convent. He headed for Mtskheta and after a long journey reached his destination at about three in the morning. Of course, the convent was locked. The man started knocking at the iron door and soon one of the nuns let him in. The driver told the sisters that he had delivered a donation from Germany for the convent. The nuns were so happy; they took his hand and led him somewhere as a token of their gratitude. It was in the dark of night, so our narrator had no idea where they were going. When they stopped, one of the nuns gave him some lamp oil from one of the graves. Next she asked him to kneel down. Not without inner protest, the man obeyed her command and then heard her words: “Don’t think that this is ordinary oil. It is miraculous oil from the grave of our highly venerated Monk Gabriel.” The driver was dumbfounded! His inner anger and protest gave place to amazement! He looked at Elder Gabriel’s portrait and instantly recognized that same “pauper in rags” who had predicted several years before: “You will come to my grave and kneel down.” The driver’s eyes filled with tears. And my eyes also always well up with tears whenever I remember our beloved Elder Gabriel!
—Mother Seraphima, who is Archimandrite Gabriel to you?
—Above all, he is a saintly spiritual brother and friend to me. At any moment I can turn to Fr. Gabriel with my problems, questions, ask for his support and guidance. Every time I come to Samtavro Convent I recall that occurrence when St. Gabriel foretold that I would become a nun. I feel certain that by looking at me “in a strange way” the priest was blessing me. Who knows what exactly he foresaw then? Nobody can explain why his eyes filled with tears at the sight of some people. I only know that but for him I wouldn’t have been able to come and live at the convent, and later, with the blessing of His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, to help prisoners in Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland and many other countries. I give spiritual support, offer talks about God, and you cannot imagine the joy that they feel when I tell them about Elder Gabriel! They are always very touched by the account of his imprisonment. There are icons of Elder Gabriel in many prisons. Through his kind and inspiring image the holy man gives comfort and hope to many prison inmates, and, most importantly, converts them to Orthodoxy. I can imagine no greater bliss than knowing that somebody at least smiled and was converted to Orthodoxy through one’s efforts. And many people smile! And that is why Elder Gabriel is so appealing! He is a source of love that unites all of us!
Mother Seraphima says these words with a smile and I have nothing to add to this except to say, “yes”.
An appeal of Constantine Tsertsvadze to the readers of Pravoslavie.ru:
With God’s help and thanks to you I have composed a song about St. Gabriel, called “Many Years, Father!” Especially for the Pravoslavie.ru portal and for you, dear readers, I would like to present this song through this website.
With enourmous love in Christ I want to thank you for supporting us in the creation of the new Russian language film on St. Gabriel, “I Am Waiting for You at Samtavro”. The whole crew of the film, “The Elder’s Diadem”, would like to make a request for more financial help to complete our joint project of the film, “I Am Waiting for You at Samtavro”. Even the smallest contribution will be received with gratitude!
When you make transfers, please provide your names in holy Baptism along with the names of your deceased relatives. A prayer service for all the donors will be celebrated before the relics of St. Gabriel (Urgebadze) at Samtavro Convent.
Very soon, together with Abbess Seraphima and the film presenters we are going to Russia, taking a reliquary with relics associated with the holy elder and his icon with us. All details are to appear on the website.
The Sberbank card number: 4276-3801-4369-9788.
Recipient: Давид Кобаевич Чикадзе (Mr David Kobaevich Chikadze)