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Author: Lukas Vischer



In recent years the Georgian Orthodox Church has declared a number of important figures from its history as saints. On 20 July 1987, Ilia Chavchavadze, the famous Georgian teacher, poet and reformer (1837-1907), was canonized. A synod held from 17 to 20 September 1995 added several new names to the calendar of saints, among them personalities from the more recent past like Patriarch Ambrosius I, who died confessing the faith in Georgia in 1927, and Grigol Peradze, who lost his life at Auschwitz in 1942.

These canonizations have recalled to mind names which had fallen into oblivion because of the historical circumstances after the second world war - rightly so, for Grigol Peradze was an outstanding figure. Though forced by the political situation to leave his home in Georgia, he never abandoned his close ties with the traditions of his country and his church.

In the 1920s Peradze was active in the ecumenical movement; and he took part in the first world conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne in 1927 and continued to have links with the ecumenical movement in the decade that followed.

First and foremost an academic and scholar, Grigol Peradze was also a priest, teacher and pastor. His committed work for persecuted Jews in Warsaw, where he taught for a number of years, brought him into conflict with the German occupying forces. He was arrested and died in Auschwitz in unclarified - and probably now unclarifiable - circumstances. The death certificate issued by the Auschwitz authorities contains simply the laconic note:
"Grigol Peradze, died 6 December 1942, 16:45." He was 43 years old.

The life of Grigol Peradze

Grigol Peradze was born on 13 September 1899 in Bakutsiche, Kakhetia, the son of a priest. His father Romanos died when he was 6 and he was brought up by his mother Maria. He began his studies at the small seminary for priests in 1913 and ended them in 1918 as primus of the great seminary in Tbilisi.

During this period major changes were taking place, both in the Georgian Orthodox Church and in the country as a whole. In the spring of 1917 the Georgian Orthodox Church had restored its independence; and in September, shortly before the October Revolution, the Georgian patriarchate was restored. Kyrios was elected as patriarch. The following year Georgia constituted itself as an independent republic, a political step that was destined to be short-lived, for in February 1921 the Red Army put an abrupt end to the young state. Georgia became a Soviet Republic. The church was already going through difficult times during the period of independence. Patriarch Kyrios was found murdered in his summer residence in June 1918, and the crime was never solved. After the short patriarchate of Leonidas, a synod in September 1921 - after the Red Army invasion - elected Ambrosius I as patriarch.

Peradze continued his studies during these turbulent years, completed his compulsory military service and worked intermittently as a teacher. In the late summer of 1921 he was working at the school in the mountain village of Manavi. Shortly thereafter he left Georgia - never, as it turned out, to return. In November 1921 the patriarch decided to send him to study in Germany to take up a scholarship offered by Johann Lepsius (1858-1926), the director of the German eastern mission.

In Berlin Peradze proved to be a brilliant student and a very gifted linguist. Within a few years he had acquired extensive knowledge in the field of Oriental languages and cultures and turned his attention to Georgian literature and the history of monasticism. On the advice of Lepsius, he moved to Bonn, where he spent the next years working on a dissertation on the "history of Georgian monasticism from the earliest times to 1904". He defended his thesis in February 1926 and received his doctorate in December 1927. In the interval he spent almost a year with the Bollandists in Belgium (May 1926 to April 1927) to extend his knowledge of hagiography. Even before receiving his doctoral degree he was appointed as a lecturer in the Institute of Oriental Studies in Bonn. It was also during this period that he attended the Faith and Order conference in Lausanne.

A turning point in his life came in 1929, by which time it had become clear that the borders of his homeland would remain barred to him. Anti-religious propaganda was particularly fierce in Georgia. Patriarch Ambrosius was accused of conspiracy with the West and condemned to several years of imprisonment after a show trial. Although granted an early release from prison, he remained under attack, and on 29 March 1927 he died. His successor Christophor sought peace with the Soviet regime.

Peradze now saw his task as gathering exiled Georgians and caring for them spiritually. While still a layman, he founded the St Nino congregation of the Georgian church in exile in Pards in July 1929, at that time the only such congregation outside Georgia. Soon it became clear that the community could not survive without a priest. On 19 April 1931 Peradze was ordained as a priest by Metropolitan Germanos of Thyateira, the great pioneer and advocate of the ecumenical movement. Peradze gave up his post in Bonn and from then on lived mainly in Paris. From 1931 to 1934 he published a yearbook entitled dsvari vazisa, which means "cross of the vine" - the cross of Saint Nino which is revered in Georgia.

In 1933 he was called to the Orthodox theological faculty of Warsaw -- one of three state theological faculties established there at the end of the 1920s (the other two were Catholic and Protestant). The training of Orthodox theologians and priests in Poland was to be centralized in Warsaw. Peradze taught theology here until the outbreak of the second world war in 1939. Living in Warsaw, he travelled regularly to Paris to celebrate the liturgy, especially for the great festivals. He quickly endeared himself to the students, who not only admired his scholarship but were also captivated by the cheerful and natural way in which he treated everyone. Protopresbyter Vitaly Borovoy, one of his students at the time, remembers: "He did not at all correspond to the Byzantine model of a world-renouncing saint. Disciplined as he was in his life, he was an open-minded, even worldly person, who was not held back by any taboos. A true monk who, when he fasts, `anoints his head'."

The invasion of Poland by German troops in 1939 made Peradze's position precarious. Not only were the theological courses suspended, but he was also cut off from the congregation in Paris. The sinister features of the Third Reich became increasingly apparent from year to year as the persecution of the Jews intensified. Peradze lived a secluded life in Warsaw. For him being in solidarity with Jews in peril went without saying; and he helped wherever he could. Nor did he hesitate to visit the imprisoned Polish Metropolitan Dionysios. These activities were viewed with growing suspicion by the Nazi occupiers and at the beginning of May 1942, Peradze was arrested and interned.

Little is known of his last months. The few letters that have been preserved show that he had few illusions about the future. According to one source, he gave himself up for execution in place of another man who was the father of a family. There are also reports that a particularly brutal camp commandant set dogs on him. None of these accounts can be verified, but one thing is certain - Grigol Peradze paid with his life for his commitment to the Jews.

The image of a saint

Three features stand out in the image of this saint.
First I would mention his love of Georgia. Although cut off from his homeland he remained close to it in all he did. He became the priest of Georgian exiles. He spoke in public to keep Georgia from being forgotten. He tried to bring Georgia's rich tradition to the Western world. Even in Poland he recited certain parts of the liturgy in Georgian.

Second is his passion for scholarship. Peradze saw academic work as his calling. He had been sent to the West to prepare for it, and scholarly work runs as a constant thread through all the years of his short life. Much of his research was published: his bibliography numbers some seventy titles of monographs and articles in academic journals. A rapid glance at the list shows that, here too, his attention focussed mainly on his own country, although he often visited the countries of the Middle East in search of manuscripts.

Third, I would mention Peradze's commitment to the ecumenical movement. His address at the world conference on Faith and Order was an appeal to the Western churches to come to the aid of the Georgian church. He stressed that everywhere during the years of his exile he had encountered love and understanding. No one had attempted to subvert him from his church. "The Georgian church, which has guided our people through the trials and tribulations of a long history, is the soul of our country. It holds fast to its ancient hallowed traditions. It is therefore not favourable to the idea of a dogmatic union. Nevertheless, it hopes for a helping hand from other churches in its time of need: for the past ten years, for example, it has been without a seminary for its priests."

But what made Grigol Peradze a saint was his commitment to the persecuted. It was by no means obvious that an exile would see through the demonic features of the Nazi regime. After Peradze's bitter experiences in his own country, he might well have been seduced by the Nazis' anti-Bolshevik position. How easy it would have been to refrain from criticisms or actions that attracted attention to himself. It speaks for Peradze's spiritual freedom that he was able to place solidarity with the persecuted above all personal experiences. His death is a witness of spontaneous Christian love undiverted by any self-interest.

In 1938 Peradze published a short spiritual story entitled "Providence", full of biblical images and set in what was obviously an autobiographical background. My forebears, he tells us, were shepherds. One Christmas night, two of the shepherds were awakened by wonderful heavenly music. The experience filled them with great joy. While one of them went into a monastery, the other returned to his village, and his descendants became priests. All of them were told of the marvellous event, but it was not granted to any of them to hear the sounds of eternity with their own ears.

What happened to me, last in the line of the priests, Peradze tells us, is this. In the late summer of 1921, when the Bolsheviks had already occupied Georgia, I was a teacher in a mountain village that was falling into ruins. The villagers blamed the collapse of their houses and streets on evil spirits and did nothing to avert the impending disaster. When school was over I had to earn a wage. I found work in a vineyard, where I lived with simple people and realized how easy it is to be mistaken about them. Rough, uneducated and unattractive as they may be outwardly, they are nevertheless capable of exalted feelings.

One day a young shepherd appeared in the vineyard. As we talked, he told me that he had seen the angel of God in the wilderness and that he was prepared to take me to the place. Everyone warned me that the way was difficult and dangerous, full of snakes and scorpions. "You don't need to go so far to see a white angel," they said. "Every good person is an angel." Mika, the young shepherd, persisted with his suggestion, and I myself was captivated by the idea that it might be given to me to share the experience of my forefathers. We set out, but our worst fears were realized. Mika was bitten on the heel by a snake. I didn't know what to do. When I tried to suck the wound clean, "I had the feeling that I was kissing an ancient reliquary". I carried Mika back to the village, and when he died everyone agreed that this misfortune was ordained by God. "Wherever the word `providence' is pronounced, people become small and insignificant." Everyone visited his grave. From the terrace of my house I could see the place and the people visiting it.

All the elements are present in this story: gratitude for Georgia's spiritual heritage which accompanies him when he is far from home; the misfortune that has befallen his homeland, and the impending disaster; the spiritual experience of Mika, the simple shepherd boy, and the enthusiasm that leads him to his death; the pain that fills Peradze watching from "the terrace of exile"; but above all, his own unquenchable longing to hear the voice of the angels for himself and "to celebrate the holy liturgy in the land of eternity".

The story was written against the background of consternation at the persecutions in the Soviet Union, which reached new heights in the 1930s, with show trials and executions. By 1938 it was already clear that Snakes and scorpions also lurked by the roadside in Poland. Grigol Peradze could not as yet know what his own future would hold - but the story does seem to point to the way that lay ahead for him in the years that followed.


C O M M E N T S
by Besiki Sisauri:

 


 

The essay "A Georgian Saint - Grigor Feradze  (1899 - 1942)"
Autor: Lukas Vischer (professor emeritus of theology, University of Bern, Switzerland).
Issue Jan, 2000
The material brought to you by
Besiki Sisauri (M.Div).
Check out Grigol Feradze's work in Georgian "Etymology of the word "Georgia".


H O M E

©opyright 2000 World Council of Churches
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