Christian Saints Podcast

Saint Shushanik of Georgia

October 16, 2021 Darren C. Ong Season 1 Episode 52
Christian Saints Podcast
Saint Shushanik of Georgia
Show Notes Transcript

Saint Shushanik (also known as Saint Susanna) was a 5th century martyr and queen of Georgia. She was born as Vardeni Mamikonian from a prominent Christian Armenian family, and married Varsken, ruler of southern Georgia. In order to gain the favour of the neighbouring Persian empire, Varsken converted to Zoroastrianism, and abused and imprisoned Saint Shushanik when she would not do the same. Saint Shushanik held fast to her faith despite much suffering, and performed miracles even in prison. Saint Shushanik died as a martyr after six years in prison for Christ.  

 God is glorious in his saints! 
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate the Queen-Martyr Shushanik of Georgia
Shushanik was born as Varvedi Mamikonian, from an influential Armenian family. She was a 5th-century Queen of Georgia, at a time when Christian Georgia was under the thrall of the Zoroastarian Persian empire. She was of Armenian descent. She married Varsken, the viceroy of Georgia, who was also from a pious Christian family. However, Varsken converted to Zoroastarianism to gain favour with the Persians. Varsken took another wife, the daughter of the Persian king, and promised that Shushanik too would convert to Zoroastarianism. 
 We will read of the geopolitical background of the saints martyrdom, from Saint Shushanik of Georgia-Women in Early Georgian Church

Lasha Tchantouridze, in the Canadian Journal of Orthodox Christianity

 The 5 th century account of the martyrdom of Saint Shushanik, the

oldest surviving Georgian language manuscript, describes the final years

in the life of the queen of a Georgian principality. A daughter of a

distinguished Armenian general, Saint Vartan Mamikonian, Shushanik was

married to a Georgian feudal and viceroy of significant influence and

power, Varsken. Christianity had been the official religion of Georgia since

326, and Varsken, a son of Christian parents, was nominally a Christian

ruler as well, under a Christian king. Viceroy Varsken inherited the throne

from his father, who distinguished himself by supporting the Church and

protecting Christianity. However, in search of power and new alliances,

Varsken betrayed his king and religion, and converted to a pagan religion

of the neighbouring Persian Empire. Persians at that time were

predominantly Zoroastrians and so Varsken also became one – he

pledged his allegiance to the Persian King, and even asked his daughter’s

hand. Varsken’s wife, Shushanik; however, refused to follow his husband

into his new religion, and condemned his apostasy 
In response to her husband’s apostasy, St Sushannik gathered the children and fled to a small cottage near the church. When Varsken returned to Georgia, he receives a chilly reception from the priests of the land, and a harsh rebuke from his wife. This account is from the Georgian text of the Martydrom of St Sushannik, translated by David Marhsall Lang in his book LIVES AND LEGENDS


The next day, the Pitiakhsh (that is Varsken) summoned us priests as

soon as he had got up, and we went to him. He received

us agreeably and said to us, 'Be at your ease and do not

shrink away from me.' In reply we said to him, 'You

have brought damnation on yourself and on us also!'

Then he began to speak, and said, 'How could my wife

allow herself to do such a thing to me ? Now go and tell
 her that she has degraded my person and sprinkled

ashes upon my bed and forsaken her rightful place and

gone elsewhere.'

To this St. Shushanik replied, 'It is not I who either

exalted your person or degraded it. Your father raised

up sepulchres for the martyrs and built churches, and

you have ruined the deeds of your father and destroyed

his good works. Your father invited saints into his house,

but you Invite devils. He confessed and believed in the

God of heaven and earth, but you have renounced the

True God and bowed down before the fire. Just as you

have despised your Creator, so I pour contempt upon

you. Even if you inflict many tortures on me, I will have

no part in your doings.*

We reported all this to the Pitiakhsh, as a result of

which he became angry and bellowed with rage.
Varsken summons Saint Shushanik back to the palace, and she is forced to comply. When she refuses to drink wine at a family dinner, Varsken’s is furious and beats her savagely. Varsken’s brother Jojik rescues her from futher abuse, and even a Persian official at the court urges Varsken to not treat her so harshly. We continue from Lang’s translation of the martyrdom of Saint Shushanik:
 Varsken began to utter foul-mouthed insults and

kicked her with his foot. Picking up a poker, he crashed

it on her head and split it open and injured one of her

eyes. And he struck her face unmercifully with his fist

and dragged her to and fro by her hair, bellowing like a

wild beast and roaring like a madman.

Jojik his brother rose to protect her, and came to grips

with him and struck him. After her veil had been torn

from her head, Jojik dragged her from Varsken's hands,

like a Iamb from the claws of a wolf. St. Shushanik lay

like a corpse upon the ground, while Varsken abused her
 kinsfolk and called her the denier of his home. And he

commanded her to be bound and chains to be attached

to her feet.
 When he had calmed down a little from his outburst

of rage, the Persian came to him and urgently begged

him to free St. Shushanik from her chains. After insistent

pleading, he ordered her to be unchained and taken to

a cell and carefully guarded. She was to have one

servant, and nobody else would be allowed to visit her,

neither man nor woman.

When it was dawn, he asked her servant, 'How are

her wounds?' He said to him, 'They are past healing.'

Then he himself went in and looked at her, and was

greatly astonished at the size of her swelling. And he

directed the servant not to let anyone come and see her.

He himself went out hunting.

The priest Jacob, the author of this text, finds a way to visit the saint while in prison, and sees first hand the terrible injuries suffered by Saint Shushanik for the sake of her faith. Even by visiting like this Jacob puts himself in terrible danger. We continue with his account under Lang’s translation.
 But I got up and went and said to the guard, *Just let

me in by myself to have a look at her wounds.' But he

said to me, 'What if he finds out and kills me ?' I said to

him, 'Miserable man, did she not bring you up and edu-

cate you ? If he kills you for her sake, what have you to

regret?' Then he let me in secretly.

When I went in, I saw her face all slashed and swollen,

and I raised my voice and wept. But St. Shushanik said

to me, 'Do not weep for me, since this night has been for

me the beginning of joy.' And I said to St. Shushanik,

*Let me wash the blood from your face and the dust

which has fallen into your eyes, and apply ointment and

medicine, so that please God you may be cured.' But

St. Shushanik said to me, 'Do not say that, Father, for

this blood is for the cleansing of my sins.' But I gently

forced her to take some food, which had been sent by

Bishop Samuel and John, who secretly watched over her

and saw to her welfare. St. Shushanik said to me,'Father,

I cannot taste anything, because my jaws and several of
 my teeth are broken.' Then I brought a little wine and

bread, and dipped it in, and she tasted a little. And I

made haste to go out.
Varsken is distracted by a military campaign against the huns, but upon his return continues with his abuses against Saint Shushanik and against the church.
 On Monday in Easter week, the Pitiakhsh returned

from fighting against the Huns. The Devil animated his

heart, and he arose and went to the church and said to

Bishop Aphots, 'Give me my wife! Why are you keep-

ing her away from me?' And he began to curse and

utter violent maledictions against God. But a priest said

to him, 'Lord, why are you behaving like this and utter-

ing such evil words and cursing the bishop and speaking

with anger against the saintly Shushanik?' But he struck

the priest in the back with his staff, so that he dared not

say anything more.
 So St. Shushanik was dragged out by force through

the mud and over the thorns from the church to the

palace, just as if they were dragging a corpse along. And

he ordered her to be tied up and beaten, and reviled her

saying, 'Now you see that your Church is no help to you,

nor those Christian supporters of yours, nor that God of

theirs!' Three hundred blows they struck her with a

stick, without any moan or complaint passing her lips.

After this St. Shushanik said to the impious Varsken,

'Unhappy man, you have had no pity on yourself, and

cut yourself off from God, so how can you have pity on


When he saw the blood flowing abundant from her

tender flesh, he ordered a chain to be fastened round

her neck, and commanded a chamberlain to take

St. Shushanik to the castle and imprison her in a dark

dungeon to die,
Saint Shushanik would remain imprisoned for six years. While in prison, her faith did not waver, and she continued to observe church services, reading holy books. God even granted her the grace to perform miracles, which became renowned all over Georgia.
 But St. Shushanik was not released from her shackles

until her death. For she remained six years in the castle,

and blossomed forth with her religious observances, ever

fasting, keeping vigil and watching, in unwearying

adoration and assiduous reading of holy books. The en-

tire castle was made radiant and beautiful by the lyre of

her spirit.

From now on, her works became renowned through-out 

all Georgia. Men and women used to come for the

fulfilment of their vows. Whatever they had need of was

bestowed on them through the holy prayer of the blessed

Shushanik, namely a child to the childless, healing to the

sick, and to the blind, restoration of sight.

The priest Jacob ends his account of Saint Shushanik’s last days in prison thus. She is in a miserabele condition, but continues to give thanks to God in her last days. 
 When she had passed six years in this prison, excessive

weariness from her feats of courage and devotion brought

sickness upon her. Furthermore that place was incredibly

infested with fleas and lice. In the summer time the heat

of the sun burns like fire, the winds are torrid and the

waters infected. The inhabitants of this region are them-

selves afflicted with various diseases, being swollen with

dropsy, yellow with jaundice, pock-marked, withered

up, mangy, pimply, bloated of face and brief of life, and

nobody attains old age in that district.

When the seventh year had begun, the holy and thrice

blessed Shushanik was afflicted with an ulcer of the flesh.

As a result of her tireless acts of piety, her feet became

swollen, and pustules broke out on various parts of her

body. The ulcers were very large and infested with

worms. One of these she held out in her hand and showed

it to me, and gave thanks to God, saying, 'Father, do

not let the sight of this upset you. There (i.e. in Hell) the

worm is greater, and never dies.' 1 When I saw this worm,

I was afflicted with inexpressible distress, .and wept

greatly. But she retorted sharply, 'Father, why are you

sorrowful ? Rather than being eaten by those immortal

worms, it is better to be consumed here in this life by

mortal ones! *

When Jojik heard that the blessed queen St. Shush-

anik was near to death, he went out and brought with

him his wife and children and his servants and retainers,

and came to the castle to see the saintly Shushanik the

martyr. Then she blessed (16:28) Jojik and his wife and children

and his servants and retainers and all the members of his

household, and bade them walk in the ways of God. And

she took leave of them and sent them away in peace.

After Jojik there came Archbishop Samuel and his

friend Bishop John, who had encouraged her and taken
 part in her good works. Likewise there came the gran-

dees and noble ladies, the gentry and common folk of

the land of Georgia. Their eyes were filled with tears as

they said farewell to her, and they offered up praise to

God for her glorious works, and then they left the castle

and departed.

Then came the day when she was to be called away.

And she summoned the bishop attached to her house-

hold, Aphots, and thanked him for his kindness, which

equalled that of a father and a foster-parent. She called

for me, sinner and wretch that I am, and committed to

us the relics of her bones, commanding us to bury them

in that place from which she was first dragged forth.

And she said, 'Though I am but a worker of the eleventh

hour in the vineyard, if I have any merit, you shall all

be blessed for ever and ever.'

Then she gave thanks to God, saying, 'Blessed is our

Lord God, for on Him I will lay myself down and sleep

in peace.' And she entrusted her soul to the Lord, who

receives all mankind in His mercy.
Varsken would perish himself only a few years later, killed by the Georgian King and Saint Vakhtang in a rebellion against the Persians. Georgia and Armenia remain today Christian nations despite centuries of conlict with Zoroastrian Persia and Musim persia, and this is a legacy of Saint Shushanik’s martyrdom. Lasha Tchantouridze’s article, Saint Shushanik of Georgia-Women in Early Georgian Church sums up Saint Shushanik’s legacy thus:
 St. Shushanik played a crucial role in the preservation of Christianity

in the southern Georgia in the 5 th century. 15 It seems to be a norm in the

Orthodox Church that at a number of crucial times in history it was

women’s dedication that saved the Church. In the ancient Roman Empire

during harsh pagan persecutions female deacons and women in general

kept the Christian communities together. Female deacons would visit

houses of the faithful, give them communion, visit the sick and needy, and

thus maintain the links that were otherwise severed due to arrests and

executions of many clerics and lay Christians. The pagan authorities of

Rome mostly left women alone – either did not suspect them providing

crucial services for the Church or did not see them as a threat.

In more recent times, in the Soviet Russia and Ukraine women

literally saved the Orthodox Church. In many ways, it was mostly old

women who preserved the Church and prevailed over the KGB. They sung

in choirs, helped the priests, attended the services, maintained Tradition,

and basically kept the Church alive. Much like their Roman counterparts,

the Soviet authorities did not see women as threat to their regime – they

would let women, especially the older women, Babushkas, attend church

services, while they would arrest men or prevent them from entering

church buildings.
 When Varsken, the viceroy of southern Georgia, abandons Christ,

and threatens both the Christian church and the unity of his country, he

does not expect such formidable defiance and opposition from his wife.

Everyone else he can subdue with violence, but he cannot make his own

wife comply with him. Varsken’s visible physical violence is met with an

invisible force of Shushanik’s dedication and faith. The viceroy kills his

wife, but in the end he and his supporters are defeated by Shushanik’s

deeds. Shushanik’s martyrdom saves the church, puts priorities in order,

rallies people, and eventually leads to Varsken’s downfall, and the defeat

and expulsion of the Persians.

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Let us end with the Eastern Orthodox Troparion and Kontakion:
Your holy martyr Susanna, O Lord, / through her sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God. / For having Your strength, she laid low her adversaries, / and shattered the powerless boldness of demons. / Through her intercessions, save our souls!

Kontakion — Tone 2

(Podoben: “You sought the heights...”)
 You appeared as a bright star announcing Christ with your radiance, / which is repulsive to this world, O Martyr Susanna; / extinguishing the allure of false gods, / you enlighten the faithful, / always interceding for us all.