The Anchor, the Bear, and the White Horse

The Saints of November 23

Today I would like to write about three saints who, in one place or another, share this day: a bishop, a missionary, and a soldier.

November 23 is, here in the Republic of Georgia, a public holiday, the Feast of St. George or Giorgoba. Although Georgia does not actually derive its name from the saint, St. George is one of its best-loved heavenly patrons. According to legend, St. Nino, the evangelizer of Georgia and the country’s other major patron saint, was a relative of George, and established his feast day here as November 23; the rest of the Christian world observes St. George’s Day in April or May, and the Georgians have a secondary celebration then as well.

We decided not to go to church this morning, in part because we were warned that it would be unusually full of people. But our host father turned the TV to a channel showing the ceremonies at Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi, which happens to be one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Everything was red and white and gold. The ancient and bent Georgian patriarch Ilia II, an acolyte carrying the long red train of his mantle, slowly circled the church, censing the icons with trembling hands, while a large men’s choir sang hymns in traditional polyphony.

Later, our host parents drove with us into the hills behind our village. There is a crumbling road that runs along a ridge. Along it are placed a convent, cemetery, and series of shrines. The road ends at a hilltop monastery that commands the view in all directions. Today we stopped at a round stone building that was half-ruined, apparently an old shrine to St. George. Though there are few houses within easy walking distance, many people from the villages below had come, some even with live chickens to slaughter. They were coming and going, crossing themselves and burning candles. It was a unique look into local religious practice.

November 23 is a notable day in western liturgics as well, being the feast of “Pope” St. Clement I. St. Clement’s Day was at one time quite popular in England as a minor holiday, especially among metalworkers, who regarded him as a patron. It is also the feast of St. Columbanus, an eminent Irish Catholic missionary to Europe in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. The Orthodox Church observes St. Clement’s feast in a day or two, while St. Columbanus is little known in the east.

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