Nestled in the bosom of Mt. Ararat,
Khor Virab Monastery
(click on the image to open a larger version)
We are all familiar (or we should be) about the 13 (some say 14) years that Saint Gregory spent in the pit at Khor Virab. The following describes that Saint Gregory endured much more prior to Enlightening Armenia.
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.
Last year, this statue, over 12' high, of Saint Gregory was erected near the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The statue features a golden colored Armenian Cross and Flame of Saint Gregory.
Author's footnote: While attending a lecture on "Epics" at NAASR, given by. Professor James Russell of Harvard University, I was surprised to learn that the origin of the fabled English epic of the Sword in the Stone had its roots in the Armenian culture!
During his lecture, Professor Russell made a passing remark of the origin and was pressed to tell the story. I remember it thusly.
Nearing the end of his life, Saint Gregory retreated to a cave in the mountians. King Drtad, whose life journey was also nearing its end, paid Saint Gregory a visit. During his visit he presented Saint Gregory with his sword (probably as a sign of reconciliation for all they had been through together). Saint Gregory, causing the sword to float in the air, turned it 180 degrees to handle side up. Prof. Russell mentioned a passage from the Bible which states: That which is a sign of death shall be made into that which is a sign of life. Hence, the sword with the blade up (a sign of death) was made to resemble a cross (that which is the sign of life). Saint Gregory then caused the sword to become inserted into the the rocks of the cave. Never to be used again.
An account of what happened reached a tribe called the Allens residing on the northeastern border of Armenia. The tribe later migrated to what is now England. They carried the story with them and adapted it to their own culture as is done with epics.