Mtskheta: the ancient capital of Georgia. This small town attracts tourists and pilgrims – and not without reason. The famous Djvari, Zedazeni, Svetitskhoveli, and Samtavro monasteries are here. It is to Samtavro Women’s Monastery that a torrent of suffering people flows in a continuous stream. They come to the grave of Starets Gabriel (Urgebadze), who was glorified in the choir of saints of the Georgian Church on December 20, 2012. This occurred an unbelievably short time after his repose—17 years later.
In 2006, the Mount Athos Publishing House (“Svyataya Gora”) published a beautiful book entitled “The Elder’s Diadem.” You don’t read this book, you devour it—it’s impossible to tear yourself away from it. The starets was called “the great love of the twentieth century.” He often wore a placard around his neck that said, “A man without love is like a pitcher without a bottom.”
A Man Full of Love
Aliis inserviendo consumor.
(I am consumed in serving others.)
The holy confessor Gabriel (Urgebadze) was born on August 26, 1929. His name in the world was Goderdzi. For a long time, his mother was against her son’s aspiration to monasticism, but towards the end of her life she reconciled herself with his choice, and subsequently she herself took the veil. She also was buried at Samtavro Monastery.
Goderdzi came to believe in God while he was still a child. One time the neighbors were fighting, and one of them said, “You have crucified me like Christ.” The boy began to wonder what “crucified” meant, and Who Christ was. The adults sent the child off to the church, where the church warden advised him to read the Gospel. He saved up his money, bought a Gospel, and in a few years had learned the text practically by heart.
A longing for monasticism arose in him in his youth. Later, the elder would say, “There is no greater heroism than monasticism.” And he proved this by his whole life.
He took monastic vows when he was 26, receiving the name of Gabriel, after St. Gabriel of Mt. Athos, the starets who had walked through the water and brought to shore the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God, which had floated to Athos over the sea. Fr. Gabriel especially revered the wonderworking copy of the Iveron Icon kept at Samtavro Monastery. Fr. Gabriel built a church with several cupolas in the courtyard of his home on Tetri Tskaro Street in Tbilisi. He erected it with his own hands and finished around 1962. Fr. Gabriel found the icons for this church at the town dumps, where in those atheistic times people brought and threw out, along with the trash, a large number of sacred objects. Sometimes he wandered around the dumps days on end. He had a small studio where he cleaned the icons and gave them frames and settings of various materials. The walls of his church were covered with icons. He even framed photographs and pictures of icons from secular magazines.
On May 1, 1965, during a demonstration, Hieromonk Gabriel burned a 12-meter portrait of Lenin which hung on the building which housed the Supreme Council of the Georgian SSR, and he began to preach about Christ to the people who were gathered there. He was severely beaten for this and put into a solitary confinement cell at the Georgian KGB. At the interrogation Fr. Gabriel said that he did it because “it is forbidden to treat a man like God. The Crucifixion of Christ ought to hang where the portrait of Lenin was. And you need to write, “Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ.” In August 1965 Fr. Gabriel was put into a psychiatric hospital for an examination. There he was diagnosed as insane: “A psychopathic individual who believes in God and angels.” They gave him a “white ticket.” But after that even more horrible things happened to him. In order to please the authorities, the hierarchs of the Church did not allow him to come into the church and did not let him into the services—they drove him away. Batiushka did not have the possibility of receiving Holy Communion, which he wanted with all his heart. He could go several days without food, could go a long time without sleep, but he could not live without the Church. And the starets often cried out of powerlessness, opening his soul to his sisters.
Fr. Gabriel settled in Samtavro in the 1980’s, and in the latter years he lived in a round tower. For a while, the nuns wondered at Batiushka’s eccentricities, not seeing in them as yet any special podvig. At first it seemed strange to them that for some time he lived in the hen house, where there were large chinks in the walls, and that in the winter he went barefoot…. The elder’s behavior didn’t fit into any kind of framework and didn’t correspond to any human conceptions. But later they began to feel that extraordinary love radiated from him: he loved everyone. The starets would often shout at the sisters, demand obedience of them, make them do something, or make them eat from dirty plates. But it was impossible to take offense at him—in his eyes shone tender love.
Before Mother Theodora became Abbess, Fr. Gabriel brought her with him to Tbilisi and made her go begging. The two of them would beg for alms, but then the elder would distribute everything to the poor. If they took a taxi back, he might shout at the taxi driver and give him no money at all, or he might pay many times more than he owed.
During Holy Week the sound of continuous weeping could be heard coming from his cell. While he was praying, some people saw him rise 15–20 inches off the ground and saw light coming from him. The faithful revered Fr. Gabriel as a great ascetic and they would come to him as to a living saint. When the starets would receive a large number of guests, he would always see to it that “the professor”—that is what he call red wine—was on the table. He would generously treat his guests, while he himself ate almost nothing. Father used to say that you have to be nourished with Divine love, and not just on food.
Otar Nikolaishvili was Batiushka’s spiritual child and often spent time in his cell. Once Fr. Gabriel unexpectedly said to him that they had to go right then and there to the Monastery of St. Anthony Martkopsky—that it was urgent. Otar didn’t know what to say: his car wasn’t working right, he was having problems with it. Batiushka insisted, and somehow they started out. Then the road began to go up a mountain, and the automobile began to cough and sputter, but the starets suddenly said, “Don’t worry, son—St. Anthony Martkopsky himself is sitting in the back seat—but don’t you turn around.” And the car suddenly tore off ahead so fast that the driver had to step on the brakes. As soon as they drove in through the monastery gates, the engine cut out on the spot. Just at that time, several armed people came in there looking for trouble. The starets stepped out in front and said, “Shoot me.” This embarrassed and sobered the bandits, and they left the monastery.
According to the elder’s will, his body was wrapped in a mat and given over to the earth in the place where St. Nina had labored. Fr. Gabriel died on November 2, 1995 of edema. He suffered terribly from the pains, but never showed it.
A countless number of healings began to occur at his grave after his death. All Georgia deeply venerates the elder.
The Samtavro-Transfiguration Church and the Monastery of St. Nina have a website called Starets Gabriel—Confessor of Christ, which is dedicated to Archimandrite Gabriel. Many well-known people have left their comments about him; among them are:
Mother Superior Georgia of the Gorny Convent in Jerusalem: “You have a true starets. You are in Paradise…” and Schema-Archimandrite Vitaly (Sidorenko): “Monk Gabriel is the greatest monk.”
From the Sayings of the Elder
Whoever learns to love will be happy. Only do not think that love is an inborn talent. One can learn love, and we must.
Without sacrifice for the sake of the Lord and of our neighbor nothing will come of the spiritual life. You won’t learn to love without sacrifice.
God will not accept empty words. God loves deeds. Good deeds are what love is.
Live so that not only God would love you, but also so that people would love you—there is no greater thing than this.