Tornike Eristavi1 (later John of Mt. Athos) was a Georgian army commander famed for his victories in war and a favorite of King David Kuropalates. Eventually he abandoned his worldly glory and set off in search of his spiritual father, Saint John, on Mt. Olympus. There he learned that Saint John had moved to Mt. Athos, so he journeyed there and settled with him in a monastery headed by Saint Athanasius the Athonite. He was tonsured a monk and given the new name John.
Soon many Georgians became thirsty for the ascetic life and arrived to labor on the Holy Mountain. To serve the young community, Saint John built a church in honor of Saint John the Theologian and constructed cells nearby. In such a way, the first Georgian community on Mt. Athos was established.
At that time, Bardas Sclerus, commander of the army of Asia Minor, led a revolt against Basil and Constantine, the young Byzantine emperors. The dowager empress Theophania, hoping to receive assistance from Georgia, requested that John-Tornike travel to his homeland, inform the king about the difficult situation in Byzantium, and rally the Georgian armies for support. At first John-Tornike refused, doubting his preparedness to return to life in the world. But after the other brothers pleaded with him and he received Saint Athanasius’ blessing, he returned to Georgia and delivered Theophania’s letter to King David Kuropalates. The king was overjoyed at the sight of his favorite military leader, and he consented to the empress’ request, provided John-Tornike would command the army. The king was resolute and John-Tornike was compelled to honor his will. With God’s help and under the wise leadership of John-Tornike, twelve thousand Georgian soldiers defeated the army of the godless Bardas Sclerus, banishing the conspirator from Byzantium (ca. 979).
After this great victory John-Tornike returned immediately to Mt. Athos. The brothers met him with great joy and gave thanks to God for returning him safely to the monastery.
Saint John-Tornike was a perfect example of humility. He renounced his own will completely and would do nothing without a blessing from his spiritual father. “I entrust myself and my will to you. Save me according to your will!” he would tell Saint John.
The brothers of the monastery often asked John-Tornike to recount his military glories, and he was obliged to recall his past. Once Saint John requested that he share his memories with a certain Elder Gabriel, a man who spoke not a single vain word. John-Tornike agreed, and after he had narrated his glorious past to the elder, he ceased speaking entirely. He spent the rest of his life in silence, hoping in God, and reposed peacefully.
1A Georgian title, meaning literally “head of the army.” An eristavi was the ruler or governor of his province and a pillar of the Georgian monarchy. During certain periods of Georgian history the title was hereditary. The title is equivalent to a European duke.