November 2, 2015 was the twenty-year anniversary of the repose of Georgia’s beloved new saint, Elder Gabriel (Ugrebadze). Author Larisa Khrustaleva made a pilgrimage to Georgia and spoke with people who had known the elder in his lifetime. From the author’s article we have translated accounts by Mother Parasceva, the nun who was blessed by God to take care of the elder in his infirmity before departing this world, Abbess Ketevan, and Metropolitan Seraphim.
Nun Parasceva (Rostiashvili).
I was born in Dusheti, an entirely unremarkable place. My parents worked in the school: papa was the principal, mama taught history. At the end of her life she became a nun with the name Matrona and was buried in Samtravro Monastery.
At age sixteen I was already sure that I wanted to dedicate my life to God, but I didn’t know how to do it. After all, in those days there were no service books at all. One day a book about St. Anthony the Great fell into my hands. After reading it, I understood how monks should live and pray. But these rules seemed very difficult and impossible to fulfill.
In despair I began to call on the Mother of God for help turning to her Iveron icon and saying, “Mother of God, Most Holy Theotokos, I want so badly to be a nun. But the typicon is so hard that I am afraid I won’t be able to do it. What should I do? I don’t know. Tell me what to do, help me, teach me.” I prayed this way for a long time, and suddenly, to my terror, I saw that the icon as if came to life and the Most Pure One Herself came out of the icon and said, “Your path is appointed to the monastery. Go, and have no fear. I myself will help you.” After these words the miraculous vision ended.
Some time later I set out for Samtavro Monastery, learned the typicon, and started living in the world like a nun. After finishing school I worked at an electrical appliances factory, went to church, and lived an ordinary life like everyone else—but no one knew that in secret I prayed the monastic rule.
I always had the presentiment that I would be taking care of someone. That is what later happened.
Soon I was tonsured a ryassaphore nun with the name Seraphima. My obedience was to herd the cows, which I did with great pleasure. Fr. Gabriel was undoubtedly a clairvoyant man. Several times he would smile, look at me, and say, “I need one Friday…” You know, Parasceva means Friday. But then I didn’t understand him and wondered why he was talking about some sort of Friday. Then, during my tonsure into the mantia with the name Parasceva, father came to me, placed a prayer rope in my hands, and said, “I bless you with this pray rope. See that you don’t lose it. I will recognize you by it when you come to the Lord.”
So, I tended the cows. Meanwhile, I would look for Fr. Gabriel. I was always drawn to him, always wanted to be near him. At that time he was beginning to be ill. I would run to him and ask him if he needed anything. I would straighten his pillow, bring him water, or tidy up. Then I had a strange dream. It was as if the Lord was saying to me, “Just as you take care of those animals, that is how you will take care of My saints.” I was very surprised. What could it mean? And I didn’t tell anyone about it.
Fr. Gabriel continued to be ill. One day Bishop Daniel (Datuashvili) came to the monastery. After talking with the ailing elder he said that he needs to be taken care of. Then the abbess decided that since I go so often to the elder, let it be my obedience. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was. After all, before this I did it all secretly, and now I wouldn’t have to hide it! I ran immediately to Fr. Gabriel and told him about the abbess’s decision, and also told him about my dream. He heard me attentively, then asked if I had told the abbess about this. When he heard that I hadn’t he was sad. He said, “you should have told her. That dream was from God.”
That is how I began my service to Fr. Gabriel, and it went on to the day he died.
The Mother of God, as she promised, always helped me and strengthened me. I often felt her help. During his final years the elder was very ill. He would periodically feel better, but then he would feel so bad that that we had to place another cot in his cell so that I could be with him all the time. I asked him to be my spiritual father, and he consented, saying that my spiritual father always watches me.
Extraordinary grace could be felt in the cell—the elder prayed very much, at times throughout the night. He kept a skull in his cell—the head of an ascetic—and he said that a monk simply must have such a thing.
Almost everyone who came to him venerated him as a saint. They understood that before them was an amazing man, a special man. I saw how he always and in everything sought only God’s will. He often displayed foolishness-for-Christ, and at other times was extremely stern.
But it was not always easy with him. Sometimes he would get angry and intentionally insult me. I even cried. But then he would call to me, console me, and reassure me that he was doing this for my benefit, for my speedy spiritual growth. And the more he tempted me like that the more he loved me, saying that God gives grace to the humble. I believed in him and submitted to him, knowing that an extraordinary man was near me.
I remember one incident. Fr. Gabriel asked me to leave the cell. I obeyed. When I looked back at him from the doorway I saw that his face was shining like the sun.
He permitted me to enter his cell without saying the usual prayer, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” but just to cross myself. Well, one day I came in and saw that he was conversing with someone. How could it be? I had just gone out and knew for certain that no one had gone in. And there really was no one in the cell. When I asked him the elder answered that he was conversing with angels.
Father Gabriel loved each person individually, moved by compassion and sympathy. I think that he possessed the same love as St. John the Theologian. After all, his main feature and distinguishing trait was his deep and fiery love for God and neighbor. He had a rare sensitivity for people. And Fr. Gabriel wept and sorrowed over perishing souls. When people would insult or scold him, he would pity and love them even more. “A good monk,” he would say, “must have a sensitive heart, like a woman.”
He taught us also to love. “If you see your neighbor’s misfortune, start praying for him. Learn to do this little by little. And believe that prayer can move mountains.”
He loved monasticism and monastics very much, and he always rejoiced when someone was tonsured. Fr. Gabriel would say with conviction that there is nothing more heroic than monasticism.
His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia came to visit him. He well understood what a man of prayer stood before him, and he loved, appreciated, and respected Fr. Gabriel very much. His Holiness commented, “We are both monks, but the Lord gave you spiritual poverty, while He gave me Patriarchy.”
I feel an invisible connection with him constantly. I ask his advice and help. He is here with us now (during this interview). Where people gather who love him, there he is with them. I know this for sure.
I will tell you a story. After Fr. Gabriel’s death, on the third day, an unfortunate woman came to Samtavro—a month before her only son had disappeared. She didn’t know that the elder had died, and she was very upset because she had come to him for help. I listened to her and advised her to go to his grave and pray to him as if he were alive and explain her request; and she did this. Three days later the happy mother appeared again and told us that her son had returned home unharmed. This was the first miracle that occurred at the grave of Fr. Gabriel. At first I did not pay any attention to this incident but later people told me other stories, and I started writing them down. Then there were very many.
After some time I placed a large perpetual oil lamp at his grave so that people could anoint themselves and take some oil. So it has been since then. This custom spread quickly, and now anyone who comes to the elder’s grave can take not only a little earth, but also some holy oil. I have anointed myself many times with the oil, when I got sick or when some emotional disturbance should happen. I only had to weep a little, pray, and the problems and temptations would go away very quickly.
One day a journalist came to me from a Georgian Orthodox magazine called Kviris Palitra. She asked to do an interview with me, but at the time I thought that I couldn’t talk about Fr. Gabriel. And furthermore I didn’t have a blessing to do so. I refused. Some time passed and I felt such embarrassment and anxiety that I just couldn’t endure it. I went to find that girl, was glad when I found her, and began to answer her questions. Only after that did I feel enormous relief. Since then I have not sent anyone away. I receive the believing as well as the unbelieving, from abroad and from Russia. By the elder’s prayers many have unbelievable miracles and healings or changes in life, and their desires and requests are granted.
Mother Parasceva has written a book about Fr. Gabriel entitled, God is Love. It was written in Georgian and translated into French. Mother Parasceva has also translated it into Russian, but currently lacks the funds to print it.
Mother Ketevan (Tochilashvili)
I came to God when I was twenty. One day my godmother invited me to the feast of Svetitskhovloba in Mtskheta. I took three friends along, and we went.
After the service in Svetitskhovloba my godmother said that she was taking us to a man, he’s a monk. After his blessing people’s lives change, they become brighter and happier. We were very curious. So we entered Samtavro and came to the tower. There were very many people there, a crowd. They told me that I should pray. I knew two prayers—“Our Father”, and the Creed. I obediently knelt and began reading these prayers. Suddenly the door was flung open and a nun came out. This was Deda (Mother) Parasceva, but at the time she was a ryassaphore, with the name Seraphima.
As it turned out, Fr. Gabriel had sent her out with the words, “Invite those people who have just come.” We entered and saw icons on the walls of the room from floor to ceiling. The elder lay on the couch. There were two other pilgrims in the room. Until then I had never met a monk and hadn’t the slightest idea what to do or how to talk to him. Fr. Gabriel paid no attention to anyone but when he looked at me he shouted joyfully, “Oh! What a guest I have today!” I bowed.
After these words he blessed me and began to weep. Then he said that my life would be very hard. He felt sorry for me, foreseeing all the sorrows and hardships that I would have to experience. In time, this all came true.
“God gave you five talents, and you must double them,” said Fr. Gabriel, “but now help me get up and give me my kukul-bartukul.1 As it turned out, he had a broken leg. I didn’t know what a kukul-bartukul was and Mother Parasceva reached to help me but the elder stopped her sternly.
I helped him get up and sit down on the small stool. Then the elder said joyfully that now we would have a meal and he appointed me the “Tamada” (the head of the table). There was no refusing. He chose me out of several, and I had to submit and do everything he commanded. Five or six hours went by while we were there but it seemed like five minutes. During the meal Fr. Gabriel talked only to me and acted as though there were no one else in the cell. Then he asked Mother Parasceva to bring him a photograph and gave it to me with the words, “Take it.”
After that I would come often to Fr. Gabriel. He was almost always stern, and sometimes very angry. I would note with amazement how he would scream at Parasceva out of nowhere. He would dress her down for something, but then encourage and praise her. He would make her sing, and she would sing obediently, although she said she doesn’t know how to sing. Mother never crossed the elder and always did everything he asked. Only now do I understand that he was doing it for my benefit, showing me that the most important thing for a monk is unconditional obedience.
Thus did a year pass with this extraordinary man. I came to him in November, and exactly two years later, on November 2, he reposed in the Lord. I consider him to be my first and last spiritual instructor.
Do you know, when Fr. Gabriel (Urgebadze)’s canonization was announced all Georgia rejoiced. People have a profound reverence for him. I also noticed that those who love Fr. Gabriel always meet each other. He himself brings them together, because they are kindred souls.
When I saw Fr. Gabriel for the first time, I thought, “This is a chosen one of God.” This could be felt in everything he was.
The elder never remained indifferent to other people’s woes, and he could console for hours the offended and suffering. Seeing people’s deep sorrow and unhappiness, he would start sobbing and praying fervently for them. He said, “If we help each other then God will be merciful to us. He has given us an opportunity to do a good deed.”
Fr. Gabriel was able to feel any kind of fakeness and insincerity in people. He gave the vainglorious tough lessons in humility, but this would be good for them. It happened during a festive meal or gathering of priests he began running around with his arms raised, shouting, “Vainglory! Vainglory!”
He often showed foolishness-for-Christ, and could do the oddest things. Sometimes he would scold using terrible, simply indecent words. Or, just imagine, he did somersaults in church during the Liturgy, rolling around the floor. It was a scandal to many; they didn’t understand what was going on.
Well, one day my friend, a good artist, stood with his friends at the gates of Samtavro—he was very young then—and they were discussing how Fr. Gabriel did somersaults during the Liturgy. There were five or six of them. They said amongst themselves, “Well, we know that he is a saint, but the others don’t know this. What do they think? There are limits. How can he do it? The Liturgy is going on, the bloodless sacrifice is being offered, and he is at the ambo doing God knows what.” Then suddenly a taxi stops. The elder gets out and walks right up to them. They are standing in a circle. He thrusts his head in and says, “Well, are you judging me?” They were stunned and didn’t know what to do. Then the elder calmly walked on.
One day my friend—he was fifteen at the time—gathered his friends and said, “I am friends with Fr. Gabriel, he is a saint, a fool-for-Christ. He feeds everyone. But he himself sits with his bowl of borscht and act as though he’s eating, but in fact he’s not. That’s how he fools us.” He took these kids with him. Fr. Gabriel looked at them, poured himself a full bowl and ate it all! That is how he humbled himself and the children. No one ever saw him eating a lot, but with these children he ate everything.
I am very grateful to the Lord for vouchsafing me the monastic tonsure under the mantle of Fr. Gabriel. This was in 1992; I didn’t have anything needed for the tonsure, and he brought me his new mantle. He had two of them, but he didn’t like new things and always wore the old. For me this is now an enormous sacredness and consolation. When people come to me and ask me to bring out the saint’s mantle, I always fulfill their request and bless them with this mantle.
The prayer of Holy Monk-Confessor Gabriel
Lord, I pray Thee, hear us from the heavens, look down upon us, give us Thy mercy.
Allow us to go in peace, so that we would walk Thy path, fulfill Thy commandments and renounce sin.
Teach us, Lord, to pray before Thee and fulfill Thy holy Law, so that our hearts would become dedicated to Thee, and we would all live according to Thy Law.