Blessed George the Pilgrim, the Barefoot Wonderworker, Part 1

Blessed George the Pilgrim Blessed George the Pilgrim In 2017, the Romanian Orthodox Church canonized Blessed George Lazar (1864–1916). A simple peasant who knew the entire Psalter by heart and recited it every single day, he would go around the surrounding area daily with cross in hand, pressing the Psalter to his heart, always barefoot and without a hat in any weather. He would speak a word of God to those he met, help everyone however he could, and pray every night until morning in church. He was greatly loved by the people, and he brought up an entire firmament of remarkable monastics.

A wanderer who brought forth an abundance of fruit of prayer and podvig, he fed on and was sated with the abounding love of God, and passed it on to others. And now he has become the Heavenly patron of all who honor his simple testament: to give alms and to open the Psalter every day, praying to God in psalmody. George of Șugag led just such a way of life from childhood, while still in his father’s house, and the Psalter enlightened him and led him to Christ through love for men, and now we remember him as Blessed George the Pilgrim.

Village of Șugag in Transylvania, Blessed George’s hometown Village of Șugag in Transylvania, Blessed George’s hometown     

The sun has just risen; it hasn’t yet dispersed the twilight, the frost is crackling in the yard, and from Ștefan Vodă tower descends a man who is warmed more by prayer than by his shabby coat covered in patches. The snow crunches under his bare feet, rough as walnut shells and cracked all over. When he stops, the snow beneath his feet begins to slowly melt as if from fire.

The city of Piatra Neamț, the Royal Church of the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner with a bell tower—the Ștefan Vodă Tower The city of Piatra Neamț, the Royal Church of the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner with a bell tower—the Ștefan Vodă Tower     

From the coat hanging wide open on his chest, under a coarse linen shirt, a massive wooden cross can be seen hanging around his neck. His disheveled gray beard doesn’t reach to the Psalter, tightly pressed to his heart. In his right hand he holds a wooden cross. He never parts with this book and cross, no matter what happens! From his uncovered head a stream of steam curls up when a whitish mist rises over the Piatra Neamț.

He makes the Sign of the Cross over himself and with the words, “God, help me,” sets off down a wide street, slowly singing the Psalms of David aloud, by memory. He walks and sings, and his bare feet leave warm footprints in the snow.

Blessed George the Pilgrim with his disciples Blessed George the Pilgrim with his disciples Dogs would see him, and forgetting the merciless frost and begin to nuzzle up to him, wagging their tails. Children running after each other would stop and become sweet little kids. In their purity, they sense the gentleness and kindness written on his face and in his clear gaze. Noisy merchants rush to him to kiss his Psalter and ask him for a kind word, a blessing. There’s not a man in the entire city who doesn’t know him and doesn’t ask:

“Grandpa George, my daughter is sick. Pray for her!”

“Grandpa George, come into my shop. Maybe God will have mercy on me and I’ll get lucky. I have nothing to raise the children with!”

“Grandpa George, accept these shoes and this hat. You must be awfully cold!” he would hear from those who, not acquainted with his podvig would pity him, like the Disciple Peter, who out of sympathy wanted to dissuade the Lord from going to the Cross (Mt. 16:22).

“That’s not necessary, my darling. My feet will be warmer than yours!”

He gives no other explanations. If his bare feet calmly enduring the cold and ice doesn’t tell them anything about the power of God, then what could he explain to them in words?

“Thank you, my dear, but I don’t need anything. May God accept your love. Give it to others who are poorer!”

“Take a few coins, Grandpa George, and pray for us!”

But Grandpa George doesn’t take more than one coin from anyone. He drops the coins into a bag that he carries with him, and then when he gets to the bakery, he buys a whole bag of bread with it. A great deed! After all, the main food at the market is mămăligă.[1] People don’t have anything to buy bread with every day. Then Grandpa George sends someone with this bag of bread to the bell tower, where he waits for the saint to return at sunset.

This man of God walks around the city from morning to night, chanting the Psalter and rejoicing in everyone he meets along the way. He interrupts his psalmody only to briefly and without any pompousness speak a word from the Gospel to those who seek counsel from him.

As the Psalter begins to come to an end, Grandpa George turns back to the bell tower. Finishing the last psalm, he already sees a crowd of beggars waiting for him. They’re used to meeting him by the tower in the evening, knowing he’ll treat each of them with bread and a soul-profiting word. Some widow will ask him for money and marvel when Grandpa George shoves his hand into the bag, and without looking, pulls out exactly as much as she needs, never counting the money.

After meeting with the beggars and the market panhandlers, Grandpa George “would climb the bell tower alone, carrying only the Psalter in his hands. There he would remain in mystical prayer until the evening. And after sunset, he would eat some boiled vegetables and then immediately go to sleep,” reports Archimandrite Ioanichie (Balan) in the Romanian Patericon. If it was Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, Grandpa George wouldn’t eat anything.

The staircase Blessed George would climb up the bell tower. Photo: Adrian Sirbu The staircase Blessed George would climb up the bell tower. Photo: Adrian Sirbu     

At 11 o’clock at night the Elder would descend from the bell tower, shut himself up in the church, and pray alone, unknown to anyone, until morning. He had a key given to him by the priest, and he would spend whole nights in vigil in the Church of St. John. He would do prostrations on the cold stone floor, send up prayers, commemorate those who gave him alms, pray for everyone, and simply call upon all the saints in order according to the calendar:

“Most Holy Theotokos, have mercy on us sinners! Holy Hierarch Fr. Nicholas, pray to God for us! Baptist of Christ John, pray to God for us!” and so on.

Church of the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner in Piatra Neamț Church of the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner in Piatra Neamț As it turned to dawn, he would return to the bell tower, rest for an hour or two, and set off again with the Psalter, which was

the most beloved prayer book in Elder George’s life. He knew it by heart from a young age and would read the whole thing every day. The Elder would read the Psalms aloud, slowly, beginning with the words:

“And now let us begin, my dears, the prayers of the first kathisma!”

After finishing the first one, he would add:

“And now let us begin, my dears, the prayers of the second kathisma!”

And so he would continue until he finished the entire Psalter. Then he would distribute alms and again ascend the bell tower.[2]

So, barefoot and without any hat, in fierce cold or unbearable heat, Grandpa George preached for decades. The softness of his voice, his unusual appearance, the Psalter and the cross he clutched to his chest wherever he went, spiritual advice—brief and humble, charity, prophecies and the miracles that he worked—all of this made him famous not only in Piatra Neamț, but in all of Moldova.

How George of Șugag became a pilgrim

Formally, he was a simple layman. George Lazar was born in 1846 in the village of Șugag, Alba County. He had two brothers, Andrei and Nicolae. His parents were peasants, mostly working in cattle breeding. It was obvious to everyone that the boy George was humble, obedient, simple, and innocent, with love for the Church and the Psalter. Everyone knew that he “eats little, and that fasting,” according to Archimandrite Ioanichie (Balan), who compiled the life of the future saint.

In 1870, at the age of twenty-four, he married the pious young woman Pelagia Todescu, a Romanian Orthodox peasant who ended up living to the age of ninety. They didn’t have the usual wedding with music and dancing, but rather a modest, Christian celebration. One of Blessed George’s daughters, Nun Martha, told about something wondrous that she heard from her mother’s own mouth:

“The next day after the wedding,” said the Eldress, “Papa disappeared. He was just gone. Mama and the relatives looked for him just about everywhere except the garden. When someone finally did go into the very depths of the garden, they found him standing in prayer. He was kneeling motionlessly, his hands raised to Heaven. Everyone was amazed, and no one dared disturb him. But having realized that they saw him, he dropped his hands and went inside.”

He had five children with Pelagia: two boys (Ioan and Vasilie, who died in infancy) and three girls (Maria, Anna, and Marta). Seeking silence, the young George built himself a little house two and a half miles from the village, in the mountains, where he had a pasture. “In this house, he read the whole of the Psalter every day,” writes Archpriest Dumitru Staniloae. At night, he would go out to the edge of the forest, make hundreds of prostrations, stand long in prayer with his hands raised to Heaven, and then read the Psalter and give alms from what he had, and he always fasted.”

Fr. Dumitru also writes:

In 1883-1884, after fourteen years of family life, George decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with some others from his village. His wife, who would be left alone with four children, consented. He took a Gospel and Psalter with him. He had the unceasing Jesus Prayer in his heart.

They walked on foot to Constanța and there boarded a steamer. He slept only a few hours at night and prayed unceasingly. He spent four days in Jerusalem and went to the Holy Sepulcher three times every day, to Liturgy and other services. Then he went around to other holy sites of Palestine and spent some time in monasteries in fasting and unceasing prayer. One great hermit said he didn’t need to become a monk, but just to walk around the world, praying and fasting so as to arouse faith in people. And to prepare for this, he should spend forty days in the desert in complete austerity.

This journey, which changed his life, is written about in detail by Fr. Ioanichie (Balan). George went to ask for

the blessing of one holy hermit who was laboring in the cave of St. Xenophon. The ascetic said to him:

The cave of St. Xenophon, near the St. Savvas Lavra (marked with a white arrow on the right) The cave of St. Xenophon, near the St. Savvas Lavra (marked with a white arrow on the right)     

“Know, brother, that you’re not called to become a monk, but you will bear a podvig higher than that of the monastics. For you will walk from place to place in prayer, fasting, and great deprivation. But if your mind will be unceasingly with God, His grace will ever be with you, and you will overcome every temptation of the enemy. Don’t gather any belongings to yourself, honor the monastics and priests, give counsel to the laity, help the poor as much as you can, pray day and night in church, and you will be saved.”

But how can I fulfill all of this? I’m weak and infirm,” asked George the Pilgrim.

“Go to the desert, where there’s no human being, and fast for forty days. But for the sake of the weakness of nature, take some water and bread with you. But be vigilant, for you will pass through many temptations and evil enticements. And if you successfully finish these days, you will find great grace from God and overcome all the snares of the evil one.”

The blessed ascetic fasted for forty days, unceasingly praying, fortifying himself from time to time with meager food. The enemy terrified him with visions of beasts and poisonous snakes, and at other times tormented him with hunger, thirst, heat, and most of all mosquitoes. But with God’s help, he overcame everything.

When he had fulfilled forty days of fasting and prayer in the Jordan desert, the pilgrim George again went to the desert hesychast. Fr. Ioanichie continues:

And the hermit kissed him and said:

“Brother George, since you’ve defeated the enemy and didn’t allow yourself to be caught in his net, behold, God gives you the gift of pure prayer and spiritual strength for your podvig. For you will spend your whole life walking barefoot and with uncovered head, but neither cold nor heat nor illness will do you any harm.”

Then the Elder, having prostrated before his teacher, returned to Jerusalem, venerated the Holy Sepulchre, communed of the Most Pure Mysteries, and left for Mt. Athos, where he spent a year and a half, venerating the sacred treasures in all the holy monasteries and visiting the ascetics in the sketes and caves. Then, having asked a blessing from all, he returned to the family fold.

After that, George didn’t stay long in Șugag. Having set his family affairs in order and having again received the consent and blessing of his wife, George, guided by thirst for God, set off on his journey. He first went around Transylvania, stopping in those villages and monasteries where they agreed to let him into the church for his night vigils. And when it was impossible, he would pray in the bosom of nature, but he never abandoned his nighttime prayer.

Fr. Dumitru Staniloae writes:

He walked, always reciting the Psalms by heart. He went about unhurriedly without worrying about anything. A large and heavy wooden cross could be seen under his peasant shirt. And he always had joy and great love for Christ in his heart. He felt neither the heat nor the cold nor hunger. He wore the same leather clothing all his life, occasionally washing them. He never spoke about anything that didn’t have to do with God and salvation. He prayed twenty to twenty-two hours a day. The whole country knew him.

His labor wasn’t dry and formal; he was inspired by love for God. “His soul was wounded by the love of Christ,” writes Archimandrite Ioanichie (Balan).

George the Pilgrim addressed people with “dear”:

Oh, dear, I will die when the people are troubled… That’s not necessary, my dear. My feet will be warmer than yours… Stay, dear ones, with God and the Mother of God… My dear, think about hell and death, because if you think about hell, you won’t go to hell… My dear, allow me to finish preaching… My dear, you won’t find peace until you fulfill your promise… Brother Ioan, my dear, you’ll be saved where there are more temptations… Let’s go, my dear, let’s go to the monastery!

He attracted many disciples who, impressed by what this man so filled with Divine grace conveyed, asked for his spiritual guidance and learned from him the unceasing Jesus Prayer and love for the Psalter. Many of them became monastics, deeply impressed with the overwhelming life of the barefoot wanderer, and maintained with Blessed George a spiritual connection worthy of the Patericon.

So Grandpa George reached Moldova and began to go around to the monasteries there, stopping at all of them. Neamț, Văratec, Sihastria—wherever he went, the monks received him warmly, sensing that he was a true man of God. He humbly asked the monks for advice, and the monks asked advice from him, desiring to imitate his virtuous life.

Nun Anna (Niceu) of Văratec Monastery heard from the older nuns the “legend” of the wonderworking wanderer. She told us the following:

Grandpa George came to Văratec Monastery and spent two weeks here. He had a kallyva somewhere behind the monastery and he would retire there at night. He fasted until evening until, tormented by hunger, he would ask for something to eat from one of the nuns. The nuns pitied him as a man of God, and it was painful for them to see drops of blood dripping from his bare and cracked feet.

Văratec Monastery. Photo: Oana Necifor Văratec Monastery. Photo: Oana Necifor     

Part 2

Ionela-Christian Raciu
Translation by Jesse Dominick


[1] Mămăligă is a porridge made out of yellow maize flour, traditional in Romania, Moldova and West Ukraine.—Trans.

[2] Quotes without an author indicated are from Archimandrite Ioanichie (Balan’s) Romanian Patericon.

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