For thirteen centuries, the Khor Virap church has stood on a small hill in the Ararat plain with Mount Ararat visible in the distance. Now a remote landmark in the middle of farmland, this hilltop and those around it were the site of the ancient Armenian capital Artashat. It is here that St. Gregory – known as “the Illuminator” for his role in spreading the gospel to Armenia – was imprisoned for his faith (Khor Virap means “deepest pit”).
History tells how Gregory, whose parents were of noble blood, narrowly escaped death as a child in retaliation for his father’s part in the assassination of the king of Armenia. He was hidden away and raised by a Christian nurse, receiving his education from another Christian, Father Phirmilianos, who confirmed him in his faith. As a young man, he joined the court of the Armenian king, Tiridates III, hoping to atone for his father’s action by bringing the Christian faith to Armenia. But when called upon by the king to participate in the worship of idols, Gregory refused and spoke openly about his faith. Court officials, having uncovered his identity as the son of an assassin, enraged Tiridates against Gregory.
The king’s men subjected Gregory to a series of frightful tortures before throwing him into a pit, where he was expected to die a slow death from starvation. A pious widow who brought him bread helped him stay alive. Meanwhile Tiridates – like the emperor Diocletian who ruled at the same time – persecuted the Christians in his realm until God punished him by making him mad. God told the king’s sister in a vision that Gregory alone could cure Tiridates’ madness, and after twelve years he was taken from the pit and brought to the king. Gregory’s prayers healed Tiridates and brought him to faith, and from that moment the two men worked together to spread the Christian faith to Armenia, which in AD 301 became the first country to officially adopt Christianity as its religion.
Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness’s haunting “Prayer of St. Gregory,” written immediately after World War II, recalls the saint’s ordeal in prison, with a solo trumpet giving voice to Gregory’s enduring faith.