The Adventures of an Atheist Mother in Jerusalem

I met with a friend not long ago. She relocated from Tbilisi to Moscow many years ago, but she comes home every summer. She has been a churchgoer for a long time, but her parents joined the faith when they were already on the threshold of eternity. I wanted to record what I heard. Here is my friend’s story:

We learned about my mother’s disease suddenly. Understanding that the time was short, we decided to prepare her as we could for her departure to eternity. Things weren’t just complicated with her—they were super complicated, confusing, and elusive for what my sister and I had planned. Having grown up in Soviet times, my mother absolutely could not accept my sister and my choice to live the Church life. We came to the Church long ago and prayed for our parents as much as we could, that they would turn to God at least at the end of their lives. They lived relatively amicable lives: Mama always knew how to find a way to Papa—that golden key that opens any “lock” of difficult situations.

But she flatly refused to listen to anything regarding the Church. Literally everything irritated her: priests, relics, bows—what atheists call the “trappings.” At the same time, she did everything to hinder our malleable father.

My sister and I chipped in and bought my parents tickets for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We were really hoping that the grace of this holy place would touch my parents’ souls and that they would come to believe.

But the trip itself was in question. Convincing my mother was actually completely unthinkable. Mama resisted with all her might, and said something like this: “What kind of nonsense is this?! We’re going to go to the edge of the world, and for what? No, no, and no! Your father would have nothing to do there. They say it’s hot there and there’re tarantulas. And yes, Hamas terrorists. I won’t go there, and that’s that.”

We somehow managed to convince our mother that the trip was just a changeover on the way to Tbilisi: There were no other flights and there wouldn’t be for six months.

In the end, Mama gave in, and we took off. Of course, I was ready for the tricks of the dark forces who desperately fight for every soul on the path to eternity, but reality surpassed my expectations.

It started with the fact that as soon we settled into the hotel, Mama fell in the bathtub and hurt her knee. It was swollen. I fell into a stupor: A ten-day trip to the holy places awaited us, and the majority of the route had to be done on foot. You can imagine the turmoil that arose. I ran off to look for ice because Mama was demanding it and nothing else, and arguing with her in an emergency situation is a losing situation. It’s a waste of breath and you’ll have a rotten mood the whole day. Papa stayed to watch the knee and fan it. Soon other members of the group were involved in the process and managed to show sympathy. The whole mess with my mother’s leg would be long and tedious to describe, but I “raised the alarm” with all the saints so they would somehow guide our journey. The next morning was like a squeezed lemon, and the tour bus was already waiting for us.

Just the day before, Mama had laid into me for a bad trip “to this unbearable city,” and now she suddenly woke up in a wonderful mood and said, as if nothing had happened: “Where are we going today? My leg is better.”

I just crossed myself and rushed to gather my parents for the road. Until we reached the scheduled church, Mama grumbled and moaned, berated and denounced the priesthood for all sins, imaginable and unimaginable, and at the same time, Papa and I for embroiling her in this stuffy adventure. After fifty years of married life, nothing penetrated through to Papa. He just walked next to her, silently. I prayed silently and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. The priest walking nearby noticed my sufferings, and he elegantly took my mother by the arm and led her away. Out of politeness, Mama immediately stopped slinging muck at the priesthood and tried to have a casual conversation with Batiushka, but in the pauses, she managed to stealthily shake her fist at papa and I as if to say, “I’ll remember this!”

Batiushka led her into the church “on autopilot” and showed her where to kiss, and where to bow. And Mama did it all surprisingly stoically, without protests or speeches about twenty-first-century obscurantism.

We went around to several holy places this way. Then came the Holy Sepulcher’s turn. The dark forces launched a counteroffensive on all fronts. The Via Dolorosa—the road the Savior walked to His Crucifixion—awaited us to be walked on foot. The day before, my mother’s unfortunate knee was acting up again, and she wanted me to immediately get a plane ticket and take her to Tbilisi, because she had grown tired of “staggering around so many churches.”

Papa was also on the edge of a breakdown. I was saying the Jesus Prayer as usual. To travel to Jerusalem and not visit the Holy Sepulcher because of my mother’s stunts would be the height of idiocy. The next morning we still somehow ended up on the bus with everyone else, but I providentially took a wheelchair for Mama.

So I was pushing her along the Via Dolorosa in a wheelchair; the heat was unbearable, and with the voice of Leviathan, Mama was denouncing the Church for swindling gullible people, and I was covered in sweat and wondering how I could take her to such a holy site. Papa was trudging along behind.

At the entrance, Mama asked to be left in the shade to watch what was happening. I left her and went inside to pray. In my absence, our tour guide, Irina, approached her to ask if she needed anything.

And Mama asked, thoughtfully surveying the motley crowd of tourists and pilgrims: “What are you supposed to do there? I see a total mishmosh—some people are just going in to gawk, some don’t know what do…”

Irina told her that you have to go there on your knees, with covered head, and whispering the Jesus Prayer.

Mama thought for a bit and suddenly said, “Alright, let’s do it your way, but most people don’t have any clue. It’s complete ignorance, and the guides aren’t doing their job.”

I nearly collapsed when I saw my mother crawling on her knees towards the Edicule.[1] For me, knowing her rabid atheism, it was a world-class miracle.

I saw my mama, who had abused the Church the whole way there, crawling on her knees towards the Lord’s Tomb!

In another church, we all decided to take Communion. I’d already read the preparatory prayers with Papa, but then Mama jumped in: “Don’t accost your father with your obscurantism. The spoon isn’t sterile. It’s dangerous. What if something happens?”

I had to give up and accept that my father would go without Communion. I left Mama outside by the church and went inside to venerate the relics. I came out and saw a picture: Mama was sleeping, and Papa was speaking with our tour guide Irina; then she took her cross off, put it on Papa, and led him to Communion while Mama was sleeping. Thus, Papa communed for the first time in his life.

Another small miracle happened with my parents in Nazareth: I really wanted my mama to take a plunge in the miraculous spring, but the dark powers were again aroused: Mama protested. Her hands were covered in some strange red spots, and naturally, her mood deteriorated sharply. Everyone had already plunged in and come out joyful and was heading for the bus, and I looked: Our guide Irina was approaching my mama with a bucket, and, without saying a word, doused her from head to toe with water from the spring. I thought Mama would grab her by the hair for such familiarity and really let her have it.

But no. Mama looked at her through the water dripping from her glasses and said in the most peaceful tone: “That was great. Pour it on my husband too; he’s hot.”

She didn’t have to ask Irina twice.

By the way, by evening those curious spots had disappeared by themselves. I don’t know what to attribute it to.

Now, recalling this pilgrimage, I’m amazed how the Lord fulfilled all my secret petitions for my parents, giving them that very charge of grace that my sister and I had dreamed of.

Arriving home from Jerusalem, Papa and Mama finally got married in the Church…

Maria Saradzhishvili
Translated by Jesse Dominick


[1] The edifice over the Lord’s Tomb—Trans.

damjan3/16/2021 7:39 pm
Great story with a dynamite ending. Your patience is exemplary, but God rewarded you for it. Your dad is a question he just always like that?
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