August 17, 2018

Saint George the Pilgrim (+ 1916)

St. George the Pilgrim (Feast Day - August 17)

George (Gheorghe) Lazar was born in the village of Șugag, in Alba county, in 1846, at a time when Transylvania was part of the Habsburg Empire. From a young age he liked fasting and solitude, praying in the village church, and finding remote places to converse with God. He especially loved reading the Psalter.

He married a young woman named Pelagia at the age of 24 and was blessed by God with five children. Even as a husband and a father, he did not abandon his Christian duties of work, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Though he himself lived in poverty, he always loved the poor. To all of them he would say: "Do not be disturbed, God cares to feed us; it is our duty to constantly pray and to do His will." Through such words he encouraged himself and others. For this reason he was always at peace, with a bright face and gentle heart. Unceasing prayer and heavenly joy were his companions till the end of his life.

After fourteen years of marriage, with the approval of his wife, George went with several pilgrims to worship at the Tomb of the Lord in 1883 in the Holy Land. He took with him only a Gospel and Psalter. For forty days he visited the Tomb of the Lord three times a day, attending the various services. Then he went to the other places: Bethlehem, Jericho, Jordan, Nazareth, Tabor. At the Cave of Saint Xenophon he met a hermit who prophesied to him that he would not be a monk, but would live from place to place, in poverty and unceasing prayer; only so would he save his soul and kindle godliness in the hearts of many people.

After this, he remained in the desert of upper Egypt for forty days in strict fasting, facing many temptations from the devil. Sometimes the enemy frightened him with beasts and poisonous snakes, other times he struggled with hunger, thirst, heat and mosquitoes. Once, the devil threw off his hat from his head, wishing to anger him, but the mighty soldier promised God that he would go until death with his head uncovered. Then the devil threw his boots away; for this reason all his life he was barefoot both in summer and winter. Once the devil appeared to him in the form of a plowman, who praised him for his endeavor, to make him fall into the temptation of pride, but the wise George conquered him with humble thoughts. Thus, with the help of God and with great perseverance, he passed the test of forty days of fasting, escaping from all the temptations that came either from the infirmities of the flesh or from the devil. Soon after this, the good man went to Jerusalem, where he worshiped at the Tomb of the Lord. As he entered the church to light the candle at the Holy Sepulcher, as an unequivocal and comforting proof that his prayers and fasting were received by God, the candle in his hand lit by itself.

Then, after a year and a half on Mount Athos, he returned to his country, having been away for three years. Back home he continued to be harassed by the devil to frighten him away from his God-pleasing struggles. After living with his family for a few years, and having put his children’s affairs in order, he retired as a pilgrim to the monasteries of Moldavia in 1890. He went from church to church where he prayed almost all night; he walked hurriedly, barefoot and head uncovered. Nearly every year he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, guiding several other pilgrims.

George established himself permanently in the city of Piatra Neamţ in 1895, living in asceticism like a true hermit in the bell tower of the Church of Saint John the Baptist, built by Stephen the Great, in the middle of the city for 26 years, until his death. There he labored alone in fasting and prayer, summer and winter, without fire, without bed, without a coat, and without shoes on his feet, living in God’s grace. In a short time he became known to priests, monks, and laity who valued him as a true spiritual man.

He slept no more than three hours a night, made hundreds of prostrations, walked the streets during the day barefoot with head uncovered whispering the psalms. He did not return to his cell until he completed the entire Psalter. Monday, Wednesday and Friday he did not eat anything until the next day, and if it was a Great Feast, he tasted something in the evening. The other days he would eat once a day. He spoke to men only about God and the spiritual life, and when he did not speak with his tongue and lips, he preached through his complete silence, always carrying in his arms either the Gospel or the Psalter.

He often went into a bakery and bought a bag of bread that someone would take to the tower. At the time of his return, a lot of poor people gathered around him, and the happy George shared his loaves. Those who demanded money he gave them what he had received on the way. The wise man conversed with each one, encouraging them, counseling them and praying for them, and men felt the grace and the mercy of God descend upon them through the prayers and counsel of the Holy One.

All the surrounding monasteries he exceedingly loved, but especially Bistrita, where the icon of Saint Anna was. Near the Sihastria Monastery, George dug up a hole in his hiding place, praying there almost all day; and when he returned to the monastery, he was thankful to Father John, the abbot of this monastery: "Today I was in heaven!"

Once, the Saint wanted to take the train somewhere, but he boarded without a ticket, because he had no money. The conductor, who by no means knew him, took him off the train at the first station, though travelers who knew him asked him to let him go where he wished. George went off and walked along the railroad, bidding farewell and offering his blessing. When the conductor then tried to start the train, it would not start. They then changed locomotives, but still it would not start. Then one of the station officials said to go get George, because he was a holy man, and on his account the Lord would not allow the train to start. They ran after him, brought him up, got him in the train and immediately the train started and left the station.

Another miracle, narrated by Father Cleopa Ilie, took place in Târgu Neamţ. A young Jewish woman could not bear her child and was ready to die. Many doctors came, but nothing happened. Then her relatives went to George, and they asked him to pray for her. When George opened the door of her house, he cried, "Open up with God and the Mother of God!" And immediately her womb opened and she gave birth, and the Holy One went and crossed the child's head. She became healthy, and she and her baby were baptized, and named him George after the Saint. And then all her relatives in Târgu Neamţ were baptized.

The day of his death he had known beforehand, and he uttered these prophetic words: "I will die when the people are troubled, and at my death they will celebrate, and they will ring the bells in the land." He reposed on August 15, 1916 and was buried in the town cemetery. His funeral was just as he predicted, with countless people in attendance. Eighteen years later, in the summer of 1934, one of his disciples, wishing to move his relics to Râşca, came with the train to Piatra Neamţ, and he set off on his way. But by divine order, the train did not reach Râşca, but to the Văratec Monastery, in which the tomb can still be venerated until today. He is known as “Grandpa George” among the pious faithful. His relics, kept beneath the main church in the monastery, are fragrant. He was glorified by the Romanian Orthodox Church in 2017.