Holy Hiero-schema monk Ilarion the Georgian (Ise Qanchaveli in the world) was born in 1776 in the village of Losiantkhevi, in the Shorapani district of Kutaisi. His parents, Khakhuli and Mariam Qanchaveli, were pious and God-fearing nobles.
According to God’s will, Ise’s uncle, the hermit Hierodeacon Stepane, took his six-year-old nephew into his care. When Stepane reposed, Ise moved to Tabakini Monastery, but learning that a seminary had opened in Tbilisi, he set off for it. On his way he visited a certain Bishop Athanasios of Nikozi to receive his blessing, but the bishop, delighted by the youth’s fervent prayers, advised him to return home to his family: “My son, you will learn much more in the wilderness than you ever could in the classroom. Return home, and the Lord, having instructed you in prayer, will lead you on a path that will serve your people and the Church.”
Ise returned to the bosom of his family, and his father took him to Kutaisi to be raised in the court of the Imeretian king. King Solomon II (1789-1815) soon recognized that the young Ise stood above all the other courtiers in piety, and he appointed him to be his personal spiritual adviser and instructor. At the king’s suggestion, Ise married the Princess Mariam. Soon after his marriage, the humble nobleman was ordained to the priesthood and appointed confessor of the court church. Only two years later Princess Mariam reposed, leaving Fr. Ise a widower.
After the Russian annexation of Kartli-Kakheti, the imperial court of the tsar increased diplomatic correspondence with the court of King Solomon II. The king was urged likewise to unite the Imeretian Kingdom to Russia. Solomon summoned a council of noblemen, and it was decided that Imereti would remain independent, while maintaining friendly relations with Russia until the king’s death. However, it was agreed that since King Solomon had no heir, after his repose the court of the imperial tsar would acquire jurisdiction over the region.
But the political climate in Georgia became increasingly tense, and the ability of the Imeretian court to govern was severely undermined.
The court was suddenly besieged with cases of envy and treason, and it became necessary for the king to flee to Turkey. Protopresbyter Ise Qanchaveli accompanied King Solomon II to his place of exile and remained with him to the end of the king’s life.
After the king’s death in 1815, Fr. Ise received an amnesty from Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) on behalf of the king and his court. Ise himself planned to go into reclusion in the village where he was born, but King Solomon’s widow, Queen Mariam, summoned him to Moscow where she was being held in “honorable captivity.” Fr. Ise brought to her a piece of the Life-giving Cross of our Lord, which had belonged to King Solomon, and the queen preserved her husband’s treasure in the court church.
But life at the imperial court was tiresome for the God-fearing Fr. Ise, so he exchanged his clothing for beggars’ rags and set off for Mt. Athos in the year 1819.
Fr. Ise appeared before the holy fathers of Mt. Athos as an unknown pilgrim, who had come to venerate the holy places. He first visited Iveron Monastery and from there crossed over the peninsula to Dionysiou Monastery.
In 1821 Ise was tonsured a monk and given the name Ilarion. He was presented with new monastic garments for the tonsure service, but asked permission to remain dressed in his own rags.
Fr. Ilarion fulfilled his every obedience with love. He was dispirited only by his ignorance of the Greek language, which prevented him from hearing and understanding the Word of God during the divine services. Finally he received permission from the abbot of Dionysiou to borrow some of the Georgian books from the large collection of sacred manuscripts at Iveron Monastery.
Upon arriving at the monastery, Fr. Ilarion went to venerate the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God. While praying on his knees before the icon, a Greek archimandrite whom he knew from Moscow saw and recognized him. He bowed before him, kissed his hands and cried out: “Fr. Ise! Holy Shepherd! Confessor of the king!”
Soon the news spread through all the monasteries of Mt. Athos that the spiritual father of the king had concealed himself as a beggar.
Everywhere the monks greeted him with great reverence. But Fr. Ilarion, ashamed of the attention, withdrew to the wilderness not far from the monastery.
At that time, in retaliation for the Greek Insurrection of 1821, the Turks were pillaging Greece and slaughtering the Christians. In 1822 a certain Abdul Robut-Pasha surrounded the Holy Mountain with an enormous army and commanded the abbots of all the monasteries to submit to his authority. Representatives of all the monasteries, including Fr. Ilarion and two others from Dionysiou were sent to Chromitsa to petition the pasha. Fr. Ilarion stood boldly before the pasha, burning with a desire to be martyred at the hands of an unbeliever.
Having learned that Fr. Ilarion was a Georgian, Robut-Pasha was overjoyed: he himself was also Georgian by descent but had been kidnapped by the Turks in his early adolescence.
The pasha proposed that St. Ilarion leave the monastery and move to his palace in Thessalonica, promising him every kind of material wealth. But Fr. Ilarion refused and condemned the ruler’s unbelief. The furious pasha began to curse the Orthodox believers and all the Christian saints, among them the Most Holy Theotokos. The holy father was allowed no opportunity to reply to the pasha’s blasphemous remarks; instead they released him and took the other monks captive.
Having returned to the monastery, Fr. Ilarion regretted that he had not properly rebuffed the blasphemous pasha. His suffering was aggravated when the unbeliever continued to martyr and massacre other Christians. Finally he asked the abbot for his blessing and set off for the Turkish court in Thessalonica. There he stood before the pasha and fearlessly trampled upon his false teachings: “You sought to deny the virginity of the Most Holy Mother of God,” he charged. “Even your prophet Muhammad admits that Jesus was born without seed of a Virgin and that the mystery of the birth of God is necessarily beyond human comprehension. He is the True God, Who took on flesh for the salvation of mankind, to rescue fallen man from the curse of sin and death!”
The pasha began to argue, but St. Ilarion told him, “You, the son of Christian parents, are on such a brutal rampage that you have deadened the pangs of conscience calling you back to the true Faith!”
The pasha laughed and answered that he was glad to have been delivered from the “ridiculous” Christian Faith. “I am indebted to the man who kidnapped me from my parents and sold me to the Turks,” he said, “and I have since rewarded him generously for his deed. If your Faith is indeed true, why have you fallen into the hands of the invaders? Why has your beloved God punished you so?”
“You misunderstand everything, Pasha,” answered St. Ilarion.
“Does not a loving father take up the rod when his beloved son runs wild? Truly he does this not out of hatred but out of love, desiring to save the ignorant from grave misfortune. When the father sees that his child has corrected his behavior, he casts the rod into the fire. The Lord has permitted these sorrows to befall us because of our sins. You are a staff in the hands of the Lord: when He sees that we have mended our ways, He will cast you into the fire as well!”
For three consecutive days St. Ilarion confronted the pasha in his palace, desiring to infuriate him to the point that he would order his execution. On the fourth day St. Ilarion arrived at the palace and began to speak about the falseness of Muhammad and the Islamic faith.
Then the pasha provoked him even further, demanding, “What do you think—where will we go after death?”
Standing amidst believers of divers faiths, St. Ilarion boldly answered that only those who truly believe in God, who are found in the bosom of the Orthodox Faith of Christ, will be saved. The enraged bystanders demanded that the insolent monk be executed, and Abdul Robut-Pasha finally ordered his death. St. Ilarion prepared to meet death with joy, but a pair of the pasha’s servants, Georgians by descent, requested that the pasha repeal his death sentence, since it would be shameful for them to murder their fellow countryman.
They intended to send him in secret to Mt. Athos, but instead St. Ilarion began to minister to the sick prisoners held in Thessalonica, and he selflessly dedicated himself to their service for six months. Then, according to God’s will, he set off again for Mt. Athos. Having returned to his monastery, Fr. Ilarion labored for three years as a hermit and afterwards withdrew to the tower of New Skete (a dependency of the Monastery of St. Paul) to lead a life of strict asceticism.
On Fridays he kept a strict fast, and on other days he ate only tiny pieces of dried bread. These he would place in a narrow-mouthed jar and eat only what he was able to draw out with his hand. He drank just one glass of water a day. Throughout the period of his reclusion in the tower, demons tempted St. Ilarion with terrible visions.
Once a group of faithful Christians desired to visit the hermit. As the elder received no one, they were not admitted. The pilgrims therefore decided to form a human ladder, standing one on top of the other in order to reach the small window of his cell. Fearing for their lives but not wanting to break his vow of reclusion, St. Ilarion temporarily abandoned his cell and fled to the forest.
After some time, St. Ilarion became physically weak from his strict ascetic labors and was forced to leave behind the solitary life. With the help of his faithful friend Benedict the Georgian, he gradually regained some of his strength and moved to the Iveron Monastery.
At the Iveron Monastery he took charge of the Georgian library, organized a catalog, and compiled twelve volumes of Lives of the Saints, which he entitled The Flower Garden. He presented the twelve volumes to the abbot of Zographou Monastery before the latter departed for Russia. In Russia the abbot published the twelve volumes in the Georgian language—without mention of the name of their compiler.
St. Ilarion reposed at St. Panteleimon Monastery, known as the Russikon, in a cell named for Great-martyr George, on February 14, 1864. Though he was desperately ill, St. Ilarion continued to thank the Lord sincerely until his last day. “Glory to God!” he would say. “I desired martyrdom, but God did not grant it to me. Instead He sent me an illness which will be equal in merit to martyrdom if I am able to bear it!”
Prior to his death he asked his disciple, Fr. Sabbas, to bury his body in secret, but circumstances later required that his burial place be revealed. In 1867, during the vigil for the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, a group of monks opened St. Ilarion’s burial vault and immediately sensed a sweet fragrance issuing forth from his body. At that moment one of the hermits saw a brilliant sphere of light shining like the sun over Fr. Ilarion’s cell.
The Holy Synod of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church canonized Hieroschemamonk Ilarion (Qanchaveli) on October 17, 2002, and to differentiate him from St. Ilarion the Georgian (commemorated November 19), called him “Ilarion Kartveli, Akhali” or “Ilarion the Georgian, the New.”