The Memory of the Holy Martyr SHUSHANIK (SUSANNA)
Christ’s holy and glorious martyr Shushanik was the daughter of Vardan, the supreme commander of the Armenian army, who achieved a glorious victory over the Persian King Yezdegerd (451). She had lived in devotion and the fear of God from her youth, and had been married to the Georgian Prince Varsken, who ruled over Kartli. He also had received a Christian education, but, being attracted to the court of the Persian King Peroz at Ctesiphon, he gave himself heart and soul to the Mazdean religion, receiving in exchange high honours from the King, who named him viceroy. The king also offered him his daughter as second wife. When she learned of her husband’s apostasy, Saint Shushanik fell to the ground and shed bitter tears over the wretch who had denied the living God to worship fire. Taking her three sons and daughter with her, she went to church to raise fervent prayer.
That evening, she refused to return to the palace and shut herself up in a small house near the church, to weep and lament there. Varsken arrived three days later, and became violently angry when he learned that his wife had abandoned the family home. He sent priests to tell her that she had dishonoured him by her conduct. Shushanik sent this reply to him: ‘Your father built shrines in honour of the martyrs and founded churches, and you have wrecked all his work. He invited saints to his table, and you invited demons. Know that I will have no part in your impious ways, even if you inflict terrible tortures on me.’
The furious Prince sent his brother Joyik and his wife to order her back to the palace, threatening to have her taken by force. She replied to them: ‘Do you think that I was only his wife? I had hoped, through our life together, to guide him to the knowledge of the true God. As he remains in his impiety, and you are joining in his godlessness, I no longer consider you to be kin to me.’ Giving in finally to their importunities, she followed them, taking with her the Gospel book that she had drenched with her tears, and the Lives of the holy martyrs.
Returning to the palace, she did not, however, live in her apartments but used a small room, praying God to come to her aid in the confession of His Name. Two days later, her husband gave a dinner in honour of Joyik and his wife, and, at their request, the Saint also was summoned. Shushanik went, but had no appetite and, when her sister-in law offered her a glass of wine, she threw it in her face. Varsken, beside himself, covered his wife with insults and, throwing her to the ground, beat her with a poker and gravely wounded her in the eye. Then, bellowing like a wild beast, he beat her mercilessly with his fists and dragged her across the floor by her hair. Joyik was scarcely able to wrest this lamb of Christ from the claws of the furious wolf. She fell to the ground half dead, while Varsken went on hitting her and accusing her of dishonouring his house. He fettered her with a heavy chain and shut her in a cell, forbidding anyone to visit her.
The Princess’s confessor succeeded, however, in gaining access to her cell and, seeing her wounds, burst into tears. Shushanik said to him: ‘Don’t weep, Father, for tonight my joy begins!’ She refused to let him wipe the blood off her face, saying: ‘Leave it, Father, as this blood was shed to wash away my sins.’ Rejecting all food, she accepted only a little wine. In the meantime, the confessor was summoned by the prince, who ordered him to take all Shushanik’s jewels from her, which the Saint handed over with joy and relief. As Lent drew near, she shut herself in the house near the church, giving herself to fasting and prayer. On Easter Monday, when Varsken returned from a battle against the Huns, who were threatening to invade Persia from the north, he ordered that Shushanik be brought before him. The Princess was dragged through mud and thorns as though she were a corpse. Once brought before her husband, who shouted curses and blasphemies at her, he ordered that she be beaten with three hundred blows from rods. She endured the torture without a murmur; and, at the end, although her blood was pouring down, simply said: ‘You wretch; if you will have no pity on me, at least have pity on yourself.’
Varsken then had her chained by the neck and thrown into a dungeon until she died. A great crowd of lamenting men, women and children accompanied the cortege taking the Princess to the fortress, while Varsken, on horseback, continued to hurl his insults. Shushanik said to them: ‘Don’t cry like this, my brothers and sisters, but pray for me, as you will not see me again alive.’ She was shut in a dreadful, dark dungeon and left without food.
The third Sunday after Easter, the Prince sent a guard to find out if she was still alive. He replied that she was more dead than alive, as she had not eaten any food. Varsken implacably replied: ‘Never mind. Let her die of hunger.’ Joyik gained his brother’s permission to remove the chain from around Shushanik’s neck, but she would not allow him to break the fetter on her foot. She remained chained in the fortress for six years, permeating this foul place with her piety, her fasting and her vigils, and working many miracles for the people who came from all sides to ask her prayers.
When the blessed woman was told that her children had also been converted to Mazdaism, she turned to God with copious tears: ‘Lord, they were not mine, but were gifts from Thee. May Thy will, then, be done.’ At the end of the sixth year, Varsken attempted once again to recall her to the palace, but she gave him the same refusal as on the first day. Reminding him that he had sworn that she would not leave the fortress alive, she added: ‘If you can raise the dead, then bring me out.’
The dreadful conditions of her imprisonment combined with the insalubrious climate of the region, which did not allow the inhabitants a long life, had ruined the Princess’s health; added to which, after long periods of standing, her legs were covered in ulcers in which repulsive worms had settled. One day, she took one of them in her hand and said to her confessor: ‘Would it not be better to be devoured here below by corruptible worms than to become the prey of the deathless worm for all eternity?’
When her last days drew near, she agreed to receive her brother-in-law Joyik and his family, whom she blessed. She then took a touching farewell of the bishops, the dignitaries and the common people who had gathered round her deathbed. After having received Communion, she told her confessor to bury her in the place where she had endured her first trials; and, giving thanks to God, Who embraces all men in His mercy, she fell asleep to reign with Christ in His eternal Kingdom (17 Oct. 466 or 472).
Shortly afterwards, the King of Iberia engaged in a victorious campaign against the godless Varsken and had him hanged. A church in honour of Saint Shushanik was built in Tsurtav; and, when this town passed into the hands of the Armenians (586), the precious relics of the martyred Princess were translated to Tbilisi, where they are still venerated.
Her Life,written in about 480 by her confessor James of Tsurtav, is the oldest
manuscript in Georgian literature. See Z. Machitadze: Lives ofthe Georgian Saints,
Platina CA, 2006, p. 308