September 30, 2015

The Descendants of St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia

By Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra

After the death of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in 328, the Church of Armenia was exposed in its tender years to the active hatred of the devotees of Mazdaism, and faced with the tenacious persistence of pagan customs. The successors of Saint Gregory at the head of the Church were also his descendants,* since for more than one hundred years after his time, celibacy was not required of any degree of the priesthood. Coming as they did from Caesarea in Cappadocia, the metropolis on which the Armenian Church depended, Gregory's successors did their utmost to achieve a harmonious conjunction of the native genius with the polished Hellenic (Romaic) Christian culture, so that the Armenian people might break free of Persian ascendancy. But their efforts to make Christian morals prevail in the realm came up against intemperance of all kinds that the kings and magnates were addicted to, and the scandal their debauchery gave to the people.

Saint Aristakes, the younger son of Saint Gregory, was born in 270. He devoted himself to the eremitic life until his father and King Tiridates prevailed upon him to cooperate with his brother Verthanes in missionary work. Ordained priest and then bishop by Saint Gregory, Aristakes accompanied his father and the King on their visit to the Emperor Constantine the Great in Rome. After their return, Saint Gregory withdrew to the wilderness, and Aristakes succeeded him as Catholicos for the next seven years (320-327). He took part in the First Ecumenical Synod in Nicaea (325) and died at the hands of Archelaus, the Governor of Sophena, whose dissolute life he had reproved.

His brother, Saint Verthanes, took over the leadership of the Church and became Catholicos, formally, on the death of Saint Gregory in the following year. He was a zealous shepherd of souls and diligent preacher of the Gospel. He miraculously escaped an attempt on his life made by order of the Queen, whose immoral behavior he had rebuked, and he converted the pagans sent to kill him. He died in peace in 342.

Saint Hussik, the younger son of Saint Verthanes, was born at Caesarea in 304. He came to Armenia with his father and uncle, Saint Aristakes, and at first gave himself over to solitude and prayer. God granted him several prophetic visions of the future of the Church and of his lineage. He succeeded his father as Catholicos in 342 and withstood King Tiran, fearlessly taking him to task for the immorality that was the rule in his court. One feast day, he forbade the King to set foot in the church, for which he was straightway seized and beaten to death in 347.

From then on the King made his own choice of patriarchs, who were more accommodating on the point of morals. His successor, King Archak, restored the lineage of Saint Gregory, and Saint Narses (the grandson of Saint Hussik and a descendant of King Tiran) was consecrated Catholicos. Narses had also been brought up in the tradition of Christian Hellenism and ascesis at Caesarea, and had served as court chamberlain. Refusing at first the office of Catholicos, he only accepted when the acclamation of the people made it impossible for him to refuse. As Catholicos he did all he could to bring about a thorough religious and moral reform in the land. He summoned the first national Synod that met at his Patriarchal see of Achtichat. He outlawed superstitious customs and pagan rites, brought in canonical rules for marriage and conjugal life, established schools for the education of the clergy, ordained many priests and founded churches and monasteries. He made the authority of the Church an active principle in the governance of the Kingdom and gave Armenia, for the first time in history, a range of charitable foundations: hospices for the poor, orphanages, leper-houses and hospitals. On several occasions he was sent on embassies to the Emperor at Constantinople, but with his own King his relationship steadily grew worse. When Archak refused to reprieve a nephew he had unjustly condemned to death, Narses excommunicated him, and he was then deprived of his see until Archak himself died at the hands of the Persians. Narses was restored in the reign of the child-king Pap (367), whose guardian he became, and he took up his pastoral work once more. But the King began to lead the same depraved kind of life as his predecessors when he came of age, and was deaf to the remonstrances of the holy Catholicos, who eventually forbade him to enter the church. The King took his revenge by having Saint Narses poisoned in the course of a feast in 373.

King Pap and his successors were irresponsible and oppressive in their dealings with the Church and chose patriarchs to suit themselves, until the Kingdom of Armenia was divided between the Roman and Persian empires. King Khosroes put an end to this sad state of affairs when he had Saint Sahak, the son of Narses and the last descendant of Saint Gregory, consecrated as Catholicos about the year 390. As a diplomat, Sahak showed such skill in dealing with the Persians that he won the respect of the Sassanid King Yazdgerd I (399-420), whom he persuaded to call a halt to the persecution he had set in motion against Christians in Persia. But Saint Sahak is renowned above all for accomplishing the spiritual rebirth of his people. Until his time, the Armenian language had no written form, so the Church had to make do with Greek texts or Syrian translations. Sahak encouraged the holy and learned monk Mesrop (Feb. 19) to devise the Armenian alphabet and to undertake the translation of Holy Scripture, of liturgical books and of a large number of works of the Church Fathers. This enabled the Armenian Church to resist pressures from abroad, and opened the way for the development of a rich and original Christian culture that is especially notable for inspired mystical poetry of surpassing beauty (e.g. the poems of St. Gregory of Narek, 950-1003). Saint Sahak was twice unjustly deposed, the first time soon after he became Catholicos, and the second time as a result of a plot, but he continued to direct his disciples from his refuge. He was an ardent defender of the decisions of the Third Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus in 431, and an effective opponent of the Nestorian heretics who found their way into the country. He fell asleep in the peace of the Lord in 438.

In the years that followed, the Armenian Church became so entrammelled in local controversies that it was in no position to understand and accept the decisions of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon in 451. It adopted a mild form of Monophysitism, and is separated from the communion of the Orthodox Church to this day.

* These saints are not commemorated in the Byzantine Synaxaria but are included here as a group to recall what followed from the work of St. Gregory in the formation of the Armenian Church. They are commemorated in the Armenian Calendar during the moveable Easter cycle of feasts.

From The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Vol. 1, compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra and translated from the French by Christopher Hookway (Chalkidike, Greece: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady, 2001) pp. 236-239.