St. Gregory's early life teaches us to listen to our conscience and dedicate ourselves to carrying out good deeds, no matter what kind of a burden we carry. Faith in God, a Christian spirit of love and good works will relieve us of our sins, as well as the sins of our fathers. We must take every step in life with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose wisdom will make us act according to God's will. Like Gregory, we can begin to do this with our own immediate surroundings, especially with younger family members and friends. St. Gregory and all the martyrs of the church set a wonderful example for us, teaching us not to be ashamed of our Christian identity.
St. Gregory's early years
St. Gregory, whose birth name was Suren, was the son of Prince Anag, who was sent to Armenia by the Sasanian, King of Kings of Iran, to assassinate King Khosrov of Armenia and facilitate the Iranian occupation of that country. Our ancestors were convinced that St. Gregory had received the grace of the Apostle because he was conceived near the grave of the Holy Apostle Thaddeus, the first enlightener of Armenia.
Anag and his brother succeeded in murdering King Khosrov in the city of Vagharshabad in about A.D. 240. They fled in haste, but the Armenian contingents stopped them near the city of Ardashad and slew Anag's entire family. Only two infants, Gregory and his brother, were saved from the massacre. Their Christian nurse Sophia took the boys to Caesarea to Eski Shehir, southwest of modern Kayseri in Anatolian Turkey.
In Caesarea Gregory was christened and brought up as a Christian. It is believed that St. Firmilian, the learned bishop of Caesarea, paid special attention to his education. When Gregory was of age, he married a Christian girl named Mariam, daughter of David. Mariam's brother was St. Athenogenes, prelate of Bedochton, who was later martyred and is well known from the works of early Christian writers.
Gregory and Mariam had two sons, Vrtanes and Arisdages. Three years after Arisdages' birth, the couple willingly decided to part from each other. The elder child, Vrtanes, was placed in the care of his nurse and Mariam took the younger Arisdages with her as she withdrew to a convent. The custom of Christian couples dissolving their marriage ties to seek monastic life was common in the fourth century. Gregory himself headed for Armenia to serve as King Drtad's secretary. At the time of King Khosrov's assassination, Drtad, the king's son and heir to the throne, was still an infant. Drtad was saved and taken to Roman territory. Also saved was Drtad's sister Khosrovitukhd. Drtad was raised under Roman protection and later joined the Roman legions. He achieved fame as a valiant soldier and the Romans recognized Drtad as king of Armenia and helped him to reclaim his ancestral throne in 274. While eastern Armenia was still under Iranian sovereignty, Drtad ruled for two years before he was ousted from his kingdom.
St. Gregory Reveals His Christian Identity
It was at that time (between 274 and 276) that Gregory, who had found out about his father's vile deed, decided entered the service of Drtad under a false identity to make amends. He pursued his duties faithfully over a period of several years. Drtad, once again with Roman help, was permanently established on the throne of western (Roman) Armenia in 287. Soon after, the relationship between him and Gregory deteriorated. The ceremony of thanksgiving and sacrifice to the pagan goddess Anahid in the village of Yeres (province of Yegeghik in western Armenia), following Drtad's great victory over the Persians. When Gregory refused to offer wreaths and thick branches of trees to the altar of the goddess at the king's request, he was incarcerated. During an interrogation by Drtad, Gregory remained firm in his faith in Christ and confessed that he feared God and worshipped the Holy Trinity.
In reckoning his father's heinous deed by enlightening our people with the Divine light, he gave the posterity of those who suffered the loss of a king and independence, and opportunity to inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God.
St. Gregory's Passion
St. Gregory's passion, described in detail by the fifth century writer Agathangelos, and perhaps presented with exaggerations, reminds us how enduring one becomes through faith and prayer. St. Gregory constantly attributed his perseverance to divine intervention.
Enraged by Gregory's boldness, King Drtad ordered him to be subjected to twelve different kinds of torture at a site located to the immediate south of Erez, the present-day city of Erzinjan in Turkey. A monastery dedicated to the passion of St. Gregory was erected at this site.
Gregory's hands were bound behind him and he was gagged. A block of salt was attached to his back, a harness was placed around his chest, and he was tied with cords and suspended him from a high place in the palace. The cross-examination continued and Gregory refused to give in. The process was repeated to no avail, since Gregory was resolute in his dedication to Christ.
The second torture was more severe. For seven days he was suspended, upside down from one foot, as dung was burned from below and ten men flogged him with green rods. Throughout the ordeal Gregory never ceased from praying for the salvation awaiting him. At the completion of the second torture, Gregory was ready to receive eternal life and dared the king to execute him. But Drtad wanted to punish him for his insulting attitude towards the gods of the state and for his obstinacy.
He ordered his shins and feet to be stretched with cords between blocks of wood until they were bloody. When Gregory defied the pain, Drtad commanded the attendants to drive nails through the soles of his feet. As they made him walk on his feet, blood gushed out and covered the earth. Then they delivered punches to his head, but he did not sway from his faith. His head was placed in a carpenter's vice and a mixture of salt, borax and rough vinegar was poured into his nose by means of a reed tube. Not content with this, they tied a sheepskin sack around his neck half-filled with cinders and left him in that state for six days.
He was once again brought to stand before the king. Gregory's defiance convinced the king that the tortures had not been strong enough to break him. He ordered him to be turned upside down so that water would be poured into his belly by means of a funnel. Then the tormentors shredded the flesh on his flanks with iron scrapers, so that blood gushed out. Following this torture, iron thistles were brought and spread on the ground. Gregory was thrown on these naked and was pushed and pulled until his entire body was torn.
When the king expressed amazement about his endurance once again, Gregory replied that it was due to the grace of God. Enraged at the answer, Drtad ordered the attendants to put iron leggings on his knees and strike them with heavy hammers. Gregory was suspended from the gallows and was left there for three days until his knees were broken. Still unyielding, Gregory was subjected to the most horrible torment. Lead was melted in iron cauldrons and poured over his entire body, so that his flesh was completely burned. He miraculously survived this torture as well.
The king was now ready to speak to him in milder terms, when one of the courtiers disclosed to him the true identity of Gregory as the son of the notorious Anag. At the order of the king, Gregory was bound hand and foot and neck and incarcerated in a dungeon. The site of this dungeon was located in the vestry of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Monastery in Karin (modem Erzurum), a pilgrimage site until 1915.
St. Gregory Is Committed to the Pit
From his dungeon in Karin, St. Gregory was transferred to the city of Ardashad and thrown into a bottomless pit reserved for notorious criminals condemned to death and located in the citadel of that town. The bottom was muddy mire where snakes thrived and the air was bad. Those confined there suffered a sure death as a result of the unsavory surroundings.
It is reported that Gregory survived in the pit for thirteen years. Gregory's survival was made possible through the charity of a widow who lived in the fortress where the dungeon was located. She had received a command in a dream to prepare a loaf of bread everyday and throw it down into the pit. That served as the source of Gregory's sustenance for thirteen years. At the site of the bottomless pit there is now a monastery, called Khor Virabi vank (Monastery of Khor Virab, a place of pilgrimage facing Mount Ararat and almost on the border of present-day Armenia and Turkey). Above the pit there now a small chapel and at the bottom there is yet another small chapel where the pilgrims light candles and pray. The original pit was twice as deep as it is today. As it was very difficult for pilgrims to descend into it, the lower half was filled at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Today, a visitor must descend by means of a metal ladder with 25 rungs. The entrance to the pit is a circular vortex with a diameter of about five or six meters. Within the monastic complex itself there is also a domed church that was originally dedicated to the Mother of God. The present seventeenth century sanctuary, called St. Gregory the Illuminator, replaced the former church.
The Feast of St. Gregory's Commitment to the pit is at present a day of pilgrimage to Khor Virab in the Republic of Armenia. During the night and morning liturgical hours on that day special hymns dedicated to St. Gregory's commitment to the pit are chanted in all of our churches throughout the world. These hymns, grouped together as a "canon," are attributed to the thirteenth century theologian and poet Hovhannes Bluz Vartabed of Erzinjan.