29 July 2016

Remembering Holy Martyr Eustace of Mtskheta

I’m a big fan of Eustace of Mtskheta for several reasons. Firstly, he was a young working-class man who lived a normal life: a thirty-year-old cobbler and member of the cobblers’ guild, who settled down in Mtskheta, married a Georgian woman, adopted the Georgian faith and raised a family. Secondly, even though he well and truly ‘went native’, he was still a Persian – by birth named Gvirobandak – and even the story of his conversion and martyrdom shows a distinctly Iranian genius for seeking out the ‘holy’, the ‘fragrant’, the ‘excellent’ and the ‘beautiful’, the same love of truth which the Iranian magi imparted to the first Greek philosophers, and which led these former Zoroastrians to Christ. One version of the story has it that Eustace was given the opportunity to flee from his fellow cobblers, but he refused – both out of loyalty to his comrades and to his guild, and because he remembered in the Gospel that ‘he who confesses me before men, I will confess also before my Father which is in Heaven; and whoever denies me before men, him I will deny also before my Father which is in Heaven’.

At any rate, here follows the excerpt of the life of Holy Martyr Eustace of Mtskheta, from Lives of the Georgian Saints:
Saint Evstati, a Persian by descent, was a fire-worshipper named Gvirobandak prior to his baptism into the Christian faith. When he arrived in Georgia and settled in Mtskheta, he was deeply drawn to the morals and traditions of the Georgian people, and he resolved to convert to Christianity. His decision entailed a great risk, as the Persians dominated eastern Georgia, persecuting Christians and forcing all to worship fire, as they did. Catholicos Samoel himself baptised Gvirobandak and called him Evstati. The new convert soon married a Georgian woman and was fully assimilated into Georgian society and the life of the Church.

Once the Persians who were occupying Mtskheta invited Evstati to a celebration, but he declined, saying, ‘I am stamped with the seal of Christ and far removed from every darkness!’

After the celebration the fire-worshippers reported Evstati to Ustam, the chief of the Mtskheta fortress. The chief summoned Evstati and threatened him, saying, ‘You will not remain a Christian without punishment. If you do not voluntarily turn back from this way of misfortune, severe tortures will await you!’

Saint Evstati calmly answered him, saying, ‘For the sake of Christ I am prepared to endure not only torture but even death itself with rejoicing!’

Since he himself did not have the authority to punish Evstati, Ustam sent the accused to the
marzban Arvand Gušnasp. Then the informers appeared again before Ustam and reported that seven more fire-worshippers had converted to Christianity. All eight of them were bound in chains and escorted to Tbilisi.

The furious
marzban ordered his servants to shave the captives’ heads and beards, bore holes in their noses, hang weights round their necks, fetter their bodies in chains and cast them into prison. Anyone who denied Christ was to be pardoned. Two of the victims, Baxdiad and Panagušnasp, could not bear the suffering and denied Christ. The marzban freed them, while the six holy men—Gušnaki, Evstati, Borzo, Perozak, Zarmil and Stepane—remained in confinement.

Six months later Arvand Gušnasp was summoned to Persia, so Catholicos Samoel, the chieftain Grigol of Mtskheta and the nobleman Aršuša took advantage of the opportunity and requested that he release the imprisoned Persian Christians. Arvand Gušnasp yielded to the request of the Georgian dignitaries, but warned that the Christian converts would soon meet their deaths.

Meanwhile, the betrayer Baxdiad fell ill with epilepsy and died, while Panagušnasp lived on in terrible poverty.

Three years laater Vežan Buzmir was appointed the new
marzban of Kartli, and the pagan priests again reported on Saints Evstati’s and Stepane’s conversion. Saint Evstati asked to see his family and said to them, ‘Farewell, for I am not destined to return home again. I will not betray Christ, and for this they will not forgive me. Imprisonment and beheading will await me in Tbilisi. My remains will be brought here according to God’s will.’

Evstati and Stepane were escorted to the new
marzban, and Evstati declared before him that he would not deny Christ. The enraged marzban ordered that he be cast into prison and that his head be chopped off that night and his body thrown behind the fortress wall, to be torn to pieces by the birds. As directed, the marzban’s servants beheaded the saint and cast his body into the abyss behind the fortress wall.

But a group of faithful Christians located Saint Evstati’s body and carried it in secret to Mtskheta. Catholicos Samoel met the holy relics when they arrived, and with great honour they were buried in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral under the altar table.
Rightly hast thou acquired thine honourable name,
O Invincible martyr Eustace!
Cease not to protect those who sing unto thee!

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