We live in an age of entertainment, bombarded by “reality” TV shows and fast-action, high-tech Hollywood films. The lives of many of the saints of the church, however, reveal more real adventure than anything in the popular media, and these stories offer us not entertainment but glimpses of the path to holiness. The life of St. Gregory the Illuminator, whose feast day we celebrate on September 30, was one of unparalleled intrigue, treason, murder, passion, commitment, faith and devotion to our Lord and the spread of his kingdom.
Gregory was born in a time of political turmoil for Armenia. Long dominated by Rome to the south and Persia (Parthia) to the north, Armenia was ruled at the time by a Persian, King Khosrov. But Persia itself had just been overrun by the Sassanids, fierce fire-worshipers, who aimed to take over Armenia politically and culturally. Their first step was to have King Khosrov assassinated. With hopes for a future restoration of power, Khosrov’s family secretly carried the king’s son, Trdat, out of the country and to Rome. Another young boy was fleeing the country at the time – Gregory, according to some reports the son of the assassin, a traitorous member of the royal family. Gregory was taken to Caesarea.
From that time, the boys’ lives took dramatically different paths. In Rome, Trdat made friends with the future Emperor Diocletian and reveled in the coliseum games. He came to appreciate the Roman civil religion which claimed the divinity of the Emperor.
In Caesarea, where there was a large Christian community, Gregory embraced this new faith and devoted his youth to studying it, as well as philosophy, languages, and literature. He hoped and prayed that he would one day be able to return to his own country and preach the Gospel. (Although Christianity had been brought to Armenia by St. Bartholomew, it had been almost completely obliterated by Gregory’s time.) Leontius, archbishop of Caesarea, encouraged Gregory and ordained him to the priesthood as he prepared to return. Trdat also wanted to return to Armenia as king and, with the help of Diocletian, he was able to defeat the Sassanids and regain the throne in the year 287.
The dreams of both men had been fulfilled. Gregory went about the country teaching and preaching about our Lord Jesus Christ, baptizing many as they came to share in the faith. King Trdat re-established peaceful conditions in the country, restoring the old reliance on Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, with special devotion to the Emperor.
As news of the spread of Christianity in Armenia reached King Trdat, he was furious and he began a policy of persecution which he was sure would put an end to this problem. He was eventually able to have the priest Gregory arrested and brought before him. The king was so angered by the calm refusal of the priest to deny Christ that he first exiled him to Mt. Ararat (the place where Noah’s Ark had landed after the flood) and when this did not stop Gregory’s preaching, he had him thrown into a deep and narrow pit filled with snakes and other vile creatures. Trdat thought that his problem had now been solved.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, a dramatic “sub-plot” was developing. The Emperor Diocletian had launched a merciless campaign of torture and execution of the Christians, especially in the capital city. A group of nuns, led by their abbess, Gaiana, came under close scrutiny by the Emperor. One of the nuns, Repsemia, was very beautiful, and Diocletian decided that he must have this woman for himself. Of course, Repsemia refused his advances, and the nuns fled Rome for a safer land. Having heard of the increasing Christian presence in Armenia, they sought refuge there.
Unfortunately, this turn of events was made known to King Trdat. Perhaps personal vanity or a sense of competition with Diocletian led him to believe that the beautiful nun who had refused the Emperor would succumb to his charms. So Repsemia was called before this ruler also. Again she declared herself a “bride of Christ” and asked to return to her monastery. There, all the women suffered the wrath of the spurned king. They were brutally tortured and murdered by soldiers and are now also kept in the Church’s memory on September 30.
After this, King Trdat fell into a severe depression, with bouts of violent anger and destructive behavior. Often, through the years, his family and officials feared for his sanity. Trdat’s sister began to have vivid dreams in which the face of Gregory appeared again and again. She finally decided that this must be a sign from the gods that the Christian priest could help her brother, but she feared that she would find nothing but his bones in the pit where Gregory had been thrown. Her surprise, when she discovered that an elderly Christian woman had been bringing food and other necessities to the priest for fifteen years and that he had indeed survived this terrible ordeal brought her great joy. She had Gregory removed from the pit and brought to her ailing brother.
What followed was a miraculous conversion – a complete change of life for King Trdat and for all the people of Armenia. St. Gregory spent many hours and days with the king, counseling him and telling him the good news of Christ, the Great Physician, who could forgive all sins and heal all ills. The king became a Christian and together he and St. Gregory went about the task of teaching the people and building churches. Armenia became the first country to declare itself a Christian nation. The “mother church” of Armenia was built by St. Gregory after he had a vision of Christ, and nearby are churches dedicated to the memory of the martyred nuns.
Unlike the offerings of our popular culture, this story is true. Real people, who were courageous and faithful, helped bring about a miracle in these dramatic events. May the intercessions of St. Gregory the Illuminator continue to bring about miracles in the dark places of this world.