October 17 – Shushanik; John the Dwarf

Shushanik (440–475) (შუშანიკი) was a Georgian princess. Her given name was Vardeni (“Rose”), but her family called her Shushanik (“Little Suzie,” after Susanna of garden fame). When the Persians invaded, her husband Varksen, a pitiakhsh (feudal lord), visited their king and, wanting to get into his good graces, renounced his Christianity for Zoroastrianism. As he was returning home he sent a runner ahead to assemble the court. “How are you doing?” the runner asked Shushanik. She replied, “How is my husband? I mean his soul? Hint, hint.” The runner blanched, but when pressed admitted the pitiakhsh had renounced Christ.

Vardeni fell to the ground, beat her head, went to church, retired to a nearby hut, and wept. When Varksen arrove, he was told his wife had left him. He called the clergy together; they condemned him; he cursed his wife. Hearing of this, Shushanik said, “Tell him his father built churches and he is tearing them down, and other metaphors. Oh, and I pour contempt on him.” After some back and forth, she took her Gospel book and went to meet him. He kicked her and beat her with a poker, splitting her head open and injuring one of her eyes, until his brother Jojik intervened. Varksen then had Shushanik locked up in a cell. The next day her confessor (and biographer) Jacob was let in (against orders) to feed her and tend to her wounds. She asked him to take her jewelry to Varksen, but Jacob demured. The next day the pitiakhsh ordered him to go take it from her.

After a stint fighting Huns, Varksen had Shushanik dragged through the briars and beaten, then force-marched with her hair disordered, “like some woman of the common folk” (sfx: gasp). They were followed by a great crowd who wailed and mourned for Shushanik, while Varksen said words that his mother would have washed his mouth out with soap for, if they had soap in fifth century Georgia, of which I am not sure.

Shushanik was chained up in a castle. When Jojik (who had been elsewhere) heard, he got Varksen to agree to take the chain off her neck, but her legs remained shackled. She lived this way for six years, fasting, reading holy books, and praying (many sought her prayers). Varksen ordered her to return to the palace, threatening to send her to the Persians. She replied, “You wretched idiot. If you send me to the Persians, something good might happen to me.” “Yeah, a Persian might want to marry her,” Varksen thought. He sent her foster-brother to bring her back, but she said, “Tell him to go raise up his sainted mother from the dead. If he can’t do that, then he can’t have me back either.”

As Shushanik’s death approached, Jojik brought his entire family to receive her blessing. She asked Jacob and the bishop to bury her where she was first attacked by her husband. She died blessing God, saying, “On Him I will lay down and sleep in peace.” Her Vita is the oldest extant document in the Georgian language.

John the Dwarf (ca. 339–ca. 405) was one of the Desert Fathers*. One day he left his brother, Daniel, saying, “I want to be like the angels, doing nothing but worshiping God.” A week later he was back, knocking at the door. “Who are you?” asked Daniel. “John,” John said. “Nonsense. John is an angel now.” The next morning he let John in, saying, “We non-angels have to work.” John prostrated himself and said, “Forgive me.”

Later John dwelt in Sketis with Abba Poemen, who, to test his obedience, ordered him to plant a stick in the desert and water it twice a day. The nearest watering hole was twelve miles away. After three years, it sprouted into a fruit tree. Poemen took a laden branch to the other monks, saying, “This is the fruit of obedience. Have some.” John died in exile after the Berbers attacked Nitria. The tree, my sources say, still exists.