The Venerable Confessor Gabriel of Samtavro, ‘Fool-for-Christ’ (secular name: Goderdzi Vasilyevich Urgebadze), was born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) on 26 August 1929. The family called him Vasiko after his Communist father who had been murdered in unclear circumstances when the future saint was a little child. He had a brother, Mikhail, and two sisters named Emma and Juliet.
From childhood Vasiko was endowed with Divine grace. He would build little churches from pebbles and light matches inside them. The boy avoided noisy games with his peers, preferring loneliness and silence. Sometimes he would run down the street with a long stick. At those moments birds would flock around him with his stick and accompany him with their chirping.
Vasiko first heard about Christ when he was seven. Having come to the church of the Great-Martyr Barbara and seen the crucifix, he burst out crying: ‘Why were you crucified?’ The church caretaker, who heard his words, advised Vasiko to buy a book about the life of Jesus Christ. When Vasiko acquired the Gospel (which he soon learned by heart), it was the beginning of his new life. From that day until his death, his mind was filled with only one thought and the desire to live for Christ alone.
Once Vasiko was standing on a balcony in thought. Looking up, in the crystal clear sky he saw a large shining cross, cutting through the firmament right to the horizon. At that moment the boy was very surprised, but he later came to understand that it was his cross that he was to carry to his Golgotha.
His family did not understand Vasiko and so he tried to read the Gospel without their knowledge. But when his mother – though a honest, hard-working and not irreligious woman – found out about this, she threw out the Holy Scriptures in a fit of anger. After her act Vasiko left home. Frozen and hungry, the youth completely relied on the will of God. He wandered from monastery to monastery, from church to church because the authorities forbade monks to admit minors. The boy did not return home until the spring. Now the family resigned themselves to his choice and no longer hindered him.
During the Second World War, when Vasiko was twelve, people learned about his extraordinary gifts and flocked to him. The boy would tell them whether their loved ones were to return from the front or not, console them, give them wise advice and even preach Christ, often saying, ‘Go to church, don’t renounce Christ and don’t abandon spiritual life.’ The young saint saw through people and would often stop and say to strangers who, fearing the Soviet government, hid their icons in attics or other places, ‘Give the veneration due to your icons! If you don’t need them, give them to me – I will keep them and you can take them back any time if you decide to give them due veneration.’ Despite his strange behaviour, many people saw boundless love in the boy and loved him; though many laughed at him and mocked him, persecuting and humiliating him as a madman throughout his life.
The efforts of Vasiko bore fruit: little by little people began to return to the faith. He would always humble himself in different ways. Thus, Vasiko could sit by a heap of rubbish in a very conspicuous place for hours and repeat loudly, ‘Don’t forget, Vasiko, you are rubbish and don’t think highly of yourself.’ According to tradition, when the teenager ran away from home for a time, a kind woman who was a fortune-teller gave him refuge. The saint was full of pity for people who wallowed greatly in sin and wanted to save her. When the woman fell ill, he said he would receive people in her place. But instead of ‘fortune-telling’ Vasiko preached the Gospel to her visitors, telling them to mend their ways, repent and take Communion and revealed their forgotten sins. Inspired by him, the woman later abandoned fortune-telling and began to go to church.
Years later Vasiko built a church with seven cupolas in the courtyard of his house in Tbilisi to pray – the Soviet regime repeatedly destroyed it but he rebuilt it each time. This church – now with one big cupola – still exists. He dug a grave-like hole in one of the rooms of his house. It served him as a bed.
The young saint did his two-year military service in Batumi: despite the very strict regime, he kept all the fasts and went to church secretly. After the army he worked as a caretaker and singer at the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.
In 1955, at the age of twenty-six, Vasiko became a monk with the name Gabriel in honour of the Venerable Gabriel the Athonite. Three days later, at the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul in Kutaisi Bishop Gabriel (Chachanidze) ordained him hieromonk. Later the elder used to say: ‘There is no greater heroism than monastic life.’ Enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Father Gabriel fearlessly preached the Orthodox faith during the years of persecution. He first served at Sioni Cathedral, and between 1960 and 1962 – at Betania Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God, where he became close to some holy ascetics of Betania. When the monastery was closed by the atheist authorities, the saint moved back to Tbilisi where he served at the Holy Trinity Cathedral for a few years.
At the May Day parade in 1965 in Tbilisi, he burned down a huge twelve-metre portrait of Lenin hung on the building of the Supreme Soviet of the GSSR, urging people to worship Christ, not an idol. Only thanks to Divine help was he not executed by firing squad, though he was severely beaten and even earlier he had been declared insane – ‘a psychopathic individual who believes in God and angels’. He went through KGB detention centres where he was repeatedly mercilessly beaten, prison and spent seven months in a mental hospital. After he was released, he was suspended (by some Georgian bishops who wanted to please the authorities) from serving in the church for years and even denied him access to church and Holy Communion for some time. Father Gabriel related:
‘I lived under five Patriarchs, slept in cemeteries for twenty-five years and spent fifteen years in poverty. When I froze from the cold in winter, I turned from one side to the other since the stone was warmer. In the cemetery the Lord delivered me from fear, my children.’
After the May Day incident the saint embarked on a very heavy service of ‘foolishness for Christ.’ In his feigned foolishness, he would throw a jug without a bottom over his back, walking barefoot from house to house through the streets, repeating every now and then: ‘A person without love is like this jug without a bottom!’ In his feigned ‘folly’, Fr Gabriel would often wear a diadem on his head, walk barefoot at any weather, and even pretended to be drunk, while boldly and unceasingly preaching Christ in the streets, exposing vice and secretly helping people. Father Gabriel searched for desecrated icons thrown out onto heaps, restored them and emptied ruined churches of rubbish.
The saint spent much of his later years at the Samtavro Convent of St Nino (in the ancient town of Mtskheta which is over 2,500 years old and situated fifteen kilometres north of Tbilisi). The convent was founded in the fourth century. Formerly Mtskheta was the capital of the east Georgian Kingdom of Kartli and it was there that Orthodoxy was proclaimed the national religion of Georgia in 337 A.D. In 1971, with the blessing of Catholicos-Patriarch Ephraim II of Georgia Fr Gabriel was appointed the spiritual father of Samtavro Convent and a seminary attached to it. There he spiritually supported, gave guidance and instructions to the sisterhood.
The elder often left the convent and wandered, alone or with a few companions, sometimes covering great distances, reaching places in dangerous areas or which were difficult of access, visiting the abandoned and ruined churches and monasteries and predicting that the bloody Red regime would go, all of them would be restored and services would start again. St Gabriel would often say: ‘My cross is the whole of Georgia and half of Russia.’
In the final years of his life Fr Gabriel lived in King Mirian’s round tower at Samtavro Convent where he had a tiny cell. But he would spend most of the time performing incredible spiritual feats, living in a small unused wooden shed with large holes which the convent had previously used as a chicken coop. It is unfathomable how he managed to live in such a tiny space where it was impossible to stand erect and to stand the damp and frosts in winter without heating. First the nuns were surprised by the saint’s ‘eccentricity’: the elder could scold the sisters, make them eat from dirty dishes, demand various ‘strange’ obediences from them, make them do something. He particularly tried to eradicate any signs of pride and arrogance in those in his spiritual care. But soon they understood that it was impossible to take offence at him—his eyes shone with tender love and affection.
A visionary and wonderworker, a healer and instructor, a prophet and consoler, clairvoyant and wise, humble and simple like a child who shed seas of tears for sinners, Fr Gabriel gained the love of many of the faithful in Georgia, Russia and even beyond, who flocked to him in great numbers every day. The extreme self-humiliation of Elder Gabriel was amazing. His sister Emma (+2016) recalled: ‘He was a fragile soul from childhood. Human praise weighed down on him. As a priest he would weep bitterly after coming home from services. Once I heard him weeping loudly alone in church when the door was open. I entered and asked him what the matter was. And he replied, “My sister, Christ was born in a manger, while people show me respect and kiss my hand”.’
Let us mention two remarkable facts from St Gabriel’s life. Firstly, once an angel revealed to him the hidden location of a portion of the Svetitskhoveli (‘life-giving pillar’ in Georgian) cross, after which together with the Samtavro nuns he uncovered it and now the relic is kept at this convent. And, secondly, once St Gabriel was visited by some Hindus who argued that the Orthodox teaching of the Holy Trinity was erroneous. And, though the elder demonstrated his miraculous power only in the most extreme cases, he took bread, put it on a tray and said: ‘You see: the bread is one and undivided!’ Then in the Name of the Trinity he made the sign of the cross over the bread – and water, fire and wheat appeared in its place. ‘Look! Water, fire and wheat have appeared instead of bread. Likewise, the Holy Trinity is divided into Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Then he made the sign of the cross over the water, fire and wheat – and they turned into bread again. After that the elder said: ‘The Holy Trinity is One and Undivided just as this bread is one and undivided!’
St Gabriel was planning to move to another monastery and live as a recluse, but in a Divine revelation he was told not to leave Samtavro and serve people wholeheartedly. And the elder received all who came to him, though he knew no ranks and had an individual approach to every person. He knew a ‘remedy’ for each soul: he could denounce and shout at some and be extremely gentle and nice with others. His heart ached because of people’s sins, and he prayed for the salvation of all. He lived by the joys, sorrows and problems of his spiritual children, saving many from spiritual darkness and setting them on the path of righteousness through his gifts of the Holy Spirit. And many felt absolutely transformed in his presence. St Gabriel’s rare gift of love can even be seen in his facial expression and eyes on his photographs, portraits and icons.
St Gabriel foresaw in the spirit the Georgian coup etat, the internal military conflict of 1991-1992. When no one could have imagined this, he would shout: ‘Blood, blood on Rustaveli Avenue! Georgian blood is being spilt!’ He prayed with such a groan, tears and mournful cry to Christ and the Mother of God for the salvation of his motherland. During the conflict he would toll a bell in Samtavro every day and imposed such a strict fast on himself that he barely ate anything over those months.
The saint possessed a great gift of hospitality. At Samtavro he used to welcome and treat absolutely all guests to the food he would cook himself as long as his health allowed. He strove to bring people as close to God as he could. His words had a special power and penetrated directly into the hearts of pilgrims. He taught everybody to cultivate love for God and their neighbour, repentance, humility and generosity.
His half-sister Juliet recalled: ‘I would ask him: “Listen, you attended school for only six years and didn’t want to study any more. How do you know so many things?” It was so interesting to listen to him. No historian related the things he related. No highly intelligent and educated person would have been able to tell the things that he told us about the Lives of saints, the history of Georgia and Russia. He knew everything from somewhere!’ Though St Gabriel’s life was full of privations, poverty, pain, suffering, sorrows and ridicule, the saint who burned with Divine love always radiated joy and inner peace. When before his death his mother asked him why he had chosen such a heavy cross, Fr Gabriel replied: ‘I couldn’t have lived otherwise.’
For the past year and a half of his life the saint was gravely ill with oedema and was practically bedridden due to a leg fracture. Shortly before his repose he was elevated to the rank of archimandrite by the current Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II. Father Gabriel reposed on 2 November 1995, aged sixty-six. He was canonised in an incredibly short time – seventeen years after his death, and two years later his name was added into the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church. On 22 February 2014, Father Gabriel’s incorrupt relics were uncovered and now they lie in the church of the Transfiguration in Samtavro Convent.
After his repose the Lord glorified His saint with the gift of miracles and healing, so the stream of those who are suffering and come to his holy relics never decreases. Miracles occur not only from his relics, but also from his burial board (according to his last will, he was buried without a coffin, just wrapped in a sackcloth shroud and strapped to a board according to an old monastic tradition), vestments, wonderworking and myrrh-streaming icons (in Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other countries in the former USSR) and holy oil blessed on them. There are numerous reports of his posthumous miracles of healing and appearances all over the world, and by his love, example and prayers he brings people living even in non-Orthodox and non-Christian countries on all continents to Orthodoxy.
His numerous prophecies about the end times, the future of Georgia and Russia are well-known. He used to repeat, ‘In the end times people will only be saved through love, humility and kindness. Kindness will open the gate of Paradise, humility will take them there, and love will make God visible.’ Some call St Gabriel ‘the Georgian Elder Paisios the Athonite.’ There are many books and documentaries dedicated to the holy confessor Gabriel in Georgian, Russian, English and probably other languages.
After St Gabriel’s repose his mother Barbara became a nun in Samtavro with the name Anna and passed away in 2000 at a very advanced age, outliving her holy son by five years. She is buried at Samtavro Convent near him. All believers can experience the power of this wonderworker of our age by praying to him as he is always quick to answer.
Venerable Father Gabriel, pray to God for us!
The Prayer of Elder Gabriel
Lord, I beseech Thee, hear us from Heaven, turn Thy gaze on us and have mercy on us. Let us go with peace to walk Thy path, fulfil Thy commandments and move away from evil. Teach us, O Lord, to pray to Thee and obey Thy holy commandments, so that our hearts may become devoted to Thee and we may follow Thy holy law. Amen.
Some sayings of St Gabriel (Urgebadze):
‘Only he who learns to love will be happy. But do not think that love is an inherent talent. You can and must learn to love.’
‘Without sacrifices for the sake of the Lord and your neighbour you will not succeed in spiritual life at all. Without sacrifice you will not learn to love.’
‘God does not accept empty words. God loves good deeds. Good works – this is precisely what love is.’
‘Live in a way so not only God but people too can love you.’
‘Do not judge. The Judge is God Himself. He who judges is like an empty wheat ear, with his head lifted high he looks down on others. Even if you see a murderer, a harlot or a drunkard lying on the ground, do not judge anyone. God has given them the reins, but He is still holding yours. If he gives you the reins too, you may find yourself in a worse situation by committing the sins you are judging them for and perish.’
‘First God cures, and then the doctor. But he who does not thank the doctor does not thank God either. The labourer is worthy of his wages. The mind and the hands of the doctor do God-pleasing work.’
‘For God it does not matter whether you are a monastic or a lay person. The main thing is to strive for God. But will anyone be able to attain perfection? It is through striving that a person is saved. Monastic things will be required of monastics and lay things of laypeople.’
‘In the end times supporters of the Antichrist will go to church, get baptised and promote the Gospel commandments. But do not believe those who do not have good works. You can know a true Christian only by his deeds.’
‘Hate evil. But love and have pity on those who do evil. Maybe someone who is doing evil today will be cleansed by prayer, fasting, tears and remorse tomorrow and become like an angel. Everything is possible for God. There have been many such examples.’
‘Love is higher than all the canons and rules. If you hate at least one person, you are abominable before God. We must love everybody. But if you cannot, at least wish everybody well.’
‘Keep in mind that God is love. Do good as much as possible so your kindness may save you. Be humble as God blesses the humble. Repent right now so your sins may be forgiven; “tomorrow” is merely Satan’s snare. Love one another, since without love no-one will go to Heaven.’