A Saint in a Beerhouse

I heard the clear, loud, angry voice of a man demanding beer and vodka . . . “I have money, parishioners have donated it!” the man repeated in a thunderous voice behind me, with people laughing and looking at each other contemptuously . . .

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Originally appeared at: Orthodox Christianity

February 22 was the seventh anniversary of the uncovering of the relics of the Venerable Confessor Archimandrite Gabriel (Urgebadze), a “fool-for-Christ”.

We offer our readers some little known stories from the life of “Mama Gabrieli”.

Why did he use foul language?

Archpriest Archil Mindiashvili:

Once in the early morning Elder Gabriel, accompanied by several parishioners, came to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Tbilisi, where I served as rector. At that moment I was hearing confessions. “Fr. Archil, will you receive guests?” Fr. Gabriel addressed me warmly. “Every guest is a gift from God,” I replied and called the dean to lay the table in the refectory. The table was laid, and we began to eat.

Elder Gabriel looked as if he was very drunk and sometimes even spoke thickly. At some point he addressed a woman with indecent, we might even say obscene, words. Those words were so shocking that I stood up and said to the elder angrily:

“Father Gabriel, this is no longer holy foolishness, but foul language.”—“Oh yes, Father Archil, forgive me,” replied the elder, while continuing to speak to the woman using bad language.

I was at a loss. Some time passed, and I learned that the very woman to whom Elder Gabriel had spoken with obscene words had burst naked into the cell of a monk to seduce him. And only then did I understand why those words had been said—the elder as a “fool-for-Christ” exposed the impurity of the woman’s intentions and thoughts in this way.

Night-time communications with invisible powers

Abbess Teodora (Makhviladze):

I first met Elder Gabriel at Sioni Cathedral [the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Tbilisi, which bears the name of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.—Trans.] in 1986. His unusual behavior attracted my attention—he would shout at the top of his voice during the Liturgy. When I went out of the church, I saw Fr. Gabriel throw himself at the Patriarch’s feet and apologize. From that day on his image was imprinted on my memory. We often observed his odd behavior. He could call a taxi and not pay the driver; likewise, he could pay another driver many times over than he was supposed to. He could drive out any official and any ordinary citizen from the church with a shout for no apparent reason. He treated people individually.

One day we were heading for the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. Suddenly the elder began to pester people for money and beg alms. And people started giving him alms. He gave all the money to me in a showy way. There were acquaintances of mine amongst the flock. By their surprised faces I understood how weird I looked, but nothing worried me when I was by the elder’s side. With him I would lose the sense of time and I couldn’t understand whether our meeting lasted for hours or minutes. As time went on, I realized ever more that the elder’s words and deeds, no matter how strange they might seem, were a reflection of his deep faith and sacrificial love for God and his neighbor.

At night his voice could often be heard from his cell. First he shouted, then he quarreled with someone or carried on a dialogue. But we knew that he was alone there. His secret nighttime communications with invisible powers would sometimes frighten me. I personally never doubted that Fr. Gabriel had his own, special perception of the world. He devoted his entire life to the love of God and his neighbor. He encouraged everyone, restored them to life, inspired hope in them… This continues to this day. He is with us.

A “rebel” in a beerhouse

The servant of God Revaz:

In the late 1980s my family was on the verge of ruin because of my chaotic life. There was not a single day when I didn’t drink alcohol. I also took to gambling. I lost my job and friends… My whole family suffered from that. Deep in my heart I realized what state I was in, but I was unable to control myself. Most likely I was already getting used to this kind of existence. I was told—and I myself remember—that I had lost my human appearance, everything around annoyed me, and at some point I began to feel as though I was unwanted. Back then I wasn’t seeking any spiritual refuge, and it didn’t occur to me to go to church since I didn’t take the clergy seriously.

This would have gone on for years if one fine evening Elder Gabriel had not gone to the beerhouse where I, drinking another glass of beer, was preparing a reckless act. Yes, dear friends, your eyes haven’t deceived you: Elder Gabriel was there!

This is how it happened. Amidst a great noise, I heard the clear, loud, angry voice of a man demanding that beer and vodka be poured into the largest glass—otherwise “his heart would break”, and “he would pay any sum.” “I have money, parishioners have donated it!” the man repeated in a thunderous voice behind me, with people laughing and looking at each other contemptuously. At that time I didn’t know the meaning of the word “parishioners”; in addition, I was sitting with my back to the man speaking, not really interested in who he was. I remember one thing for sure: I imagined the man as a tall, coolly dressed “rebel” who, like me, was drowning his sorrow in wine. The voice wouldn’t stop, sounds of swallowing and some screams could be heard... And all of a sudden the “rebel” began to sing a Georgian song, and so beautifully that I turned involuntarily and saw a shortish, gray-haired priest in rags in the middle of the beerhouse. Spreading his arms, as if he were drunk, he was making dancing movements in time with the words of the song.

The whole beerhouse fell silent and was staring at him. And he was gazing at me with his big, extraordinary eyes. At some point he drew close to me, looked right into my eyes and said: “Revaz, burn what you have here, in your pocket!” He hit me on the chest in a showy way, raised his hands to heaven, and made the sign of the cross over me in a split second.

It happened so quickly that the visitors didn’t even notice that, and many, including myself, thought that the sign of the cross was some kind of dancing movement. Soon the elder finished his dance and went outside—to applause and comments: “Such a nice person… Well done, father! Wow!”

I was standing, dumbfounded, with tears in my eyes. I wasn’t crying because I had at once understood the meaning of the elder’s actions—I was crying because his words struck me like a surge of electricity, and I wondered how he could know what was in my pocket. And what I had in my pocket was a suicide note, written a few hours before, in which I said good-bye to my family. I was about to commit a terrible, irreparable act. But Elder Gabriel came by the will of God and made such a show especially for me!

The most amazing thing was that from the next day on I didn’t want to hear about gambling anymore, and I gave up alcohol along with the disordered lifestyle I had led for years.

I regret having been unable to find that priest in Tbilisi. I asked many people and heard the same answer everywhere: he was a “madman who didn’t always appear.” Soon I converted to God and began to go to church. Only a few years later, when my family and I travelled to Mtskheta and visited Samtavro Convent, on one grave where people were crowding, on a large photograph I saw the very man who had saved me and sobered me up. I was standing rooted to the spot, and tears welled up in my eyes. The elder was smiling to me from the photograph, and I smiled to him in response after he had given me a wink from the portrait… As if he were asking me with humor: “Well, Revaz, you’re here. You’ve come to the ‘rebel’, to Elder Archimandrite Gabriel (Urgebadze)?...” To the dear father who is loved throughout the world of Orthodoxy, who saves and will save many people by his love.

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