13 October 2016

Remembering Gregory Photistes, Equal-to-the-Apostles

Holy Father Gregory, Enlightener of the Armenians

During this same era of warfare between Rome and Parthia when many Christians were made martyrs for the faith, one scion of the Parthian house earned the for Christ by working tirelessly to atone for the sins of his family, laying down his life for the sake of his friends, and bringing to Christ the first among the nations - Armenia, along with her king, Tiridates III. This fervent son of the faith was our father among the saints Gregory (Pahlavi), later given the cognomen Photistes for his having baptised the Armenian people. Today (on the old calendar) we honour his memory.

Gregory was born to high nobility and easy life. His parents were Anak Pahlavi, a member of a cadet branch of the Aškānīān dynasty which had once ruled Parthia, and Okohe, a Parthian noblewoman. Anak Pahlavi, though he was a great warrior, nonetheless allowed himself to be goaded by Šapur, the ruler of Persia, into attempting to usurp the Armenian throne (to which he had a claim). He feigned to flee from the Persians, seeking refuge with Armenia’s king Khosrow II. Khosrow welcomed the Parthian into his hall at Vagharshapat, where Anak then stabbed him with a dagger, along with his wife. He fled the court, pursued by Armenian soldiers, and drowned in the Aras River.

Anak’s infant son, in peril of his life for the treacherous crime of his father, was rescued from execution by a Christian nobleman named Euthalios and his sister Sophia, and taken to Cæsarea in Cappadocia. He was raised there and given a very good education. He married a pious Armenian woman named Miriam, who bore him two sons: Vartan and Aristak, both of whom would later become saints in their own right. After some time, Gregory and Miriam decided between them to retire; Miriam to become a nun, and Gregory to make his way eastward in an attempt to atone for the sins of his father. It was there that he met Tiridates, the son of the same Khosrow II whom his father had murdered.

Tiridates was, as Matthew of Tokhat describes him, a giant of a man, fiendishly strong and well-practised in the arts of war. Matthew of Tokhat describes how he challenged the king of the Goths to single combat, bound him and brought him before the Roman Emperor as a prisoner. Yet even as a heathen, Tiridates was also remarkable for his fair dealing and honour: ‘sensible, prudent in his discernment, brave in council and just in his judgement, wise in his government, and in his whole conduct civil and correct, according to the light of nature’. He won for himself his slain father’s kingdom of Armenia, and expanded its borders, but he was eager to bestow honours upon the friend who had come to render him many years of selfless and faithful service: Gregory. He gave to Gregory the honour of sacrificing to the goddess Anahita, which naturally Gregory (being a Christian) refused to do. Gregory would have rendered any other service to the son of his father’s victim, but never once to his idols.

Tiridates became angered at this, and imprisoned Gregory, and subjected him to a number of cruel and degrading tortures, including forcing him to run on all fours with weights upon his back, beating him with switches, suspending him bodily with sharp wires, suffocating him in ashes, mutilating his legs in a vise, and pouring molten lead over his body. But Gregory would neither once curse his tormentors, nor even once yield to their demands to worship Anahita. Gregory was then thrown into a foul pit in Ardašat, full of venomous snakes, and left there to die. The venomous reptiles did him no harm, however, seeing that he was protected by God and by the angels. He spent fourteen years in that dungeon.

During that time, however, a virgin from Rome, named Rhipsime, was fleeing the persecutions of the wicked emperor Diocletian and sought refuge in Armenia, where she built a convent where other holy virgins would be welcome. Diocletian, however, sent a missive to Tiridates to find and return her to Rome, where he would take her as a concubine. However, Tiridates began to desire her for himself, and he came personally in great pomp to overpower her with his majesty. But Rhipsime, having forsaken worldly goods and desire for wealth and ease and prestige, spurned him. Outraged, Tiridates kidnapped Rhipsime’s fellow-nun and foster mother Gaiane and had her beaten and tortured, but, being given courage by Gaiane’s exhortations to her to keep her faith in Christ, refused to yield. Tiridates then tried to rape Rhipsime, but she, being given strength from the Holy Spirit, fought him off for several hours and left him wounded and bleeding in his throne-room. She fled back to her convent to warn the other nuns there of what she had done, and the reprisals they would soon face. Tiridates had indeed sent his soldiers after her, and they tortured her and burnt her alive; and put all the nuns they found there to the sword. Thus the Saintly Virgin Rhipsime, the Saintly Virgin Gaiane, and their thirty-five companions, together met their martyrdom.

After this, Tiridates began to suffer fits of madness, losing all his former formidable faculties of reason and the use of his tongue. In the legend related by Matthew of Tokhat, even his powerful body began to be misshapen, until he resembled nothing so much as a pig; for he had swinishly treated Rhipsime and dealt with her and her companions with total and irrational cruelty. The madness began to spread in his court, until the sister of Tiridates, named Khosrowdokht, told him that she had seen in a vision that he must send for the holy man that he had imprisoned fourteen years before in Ardašat. The courtiers moaned on hearing this; they thought that man had long since perished from the poison of the snakes that lived there. But Gregory was sent for and brought out whole from Ardašat. The courtiers and the king rushed before him and begged him to heal them of their madness and their king of his muteness and deformity.

The saintly Gregory took pity on them, and prayed for them, and instantly his prayers had effect. Tiridates stood before him, and was moved to tears in shame at his ill-treatment of the friend who had served him so faithfully; thus he was healed of his sickness of mind, and his body began to recover. Gregory then told the king and his courtiers to find the thirty-seven virgins they had put to death, to make them decent and to prepare a burial-place for them; they brought out the richest garments they could find in the palace, but Saint Gregory clad the virgins in the very clothes they had worn when they were killed, and so they were buried.

Once free of his madness and infirmities, Tiridates gladly reconciled with his friend and former servant, and accepted to hear the teachings of the Christian faith. For sixty-five days Gregory withdrew to the winepress of the convent and there kept a strict fast as he catechised Tiridates from the Scriptures, and the good news of Christ who heals all infirmities even unto death. At the end of this catechumenate, Tiridates assented to be baptised by Gregory, along with all his court; he then went into the countryside on a campaign to destroy the idols he and his people had once worshipped, accompanied by the long-suffering Gregory and his prayers. The old Iranian holidays, however, were still kept and respected by Gregory and by the Armenian Church; but they were changed to honour holy men and women, servants of Christ, rather than the idols of the older religion. Holy Father Gregory then commissioned the great cathedral at Etchmiadzin, near the very same site where Tiridates’s father Khosrow II had held court. In later days Holy Father Gregory’s blood-sons, Saints Vartan and Aristak, would join their father, and themselves become righteous bishops and shepherds of the Armenian flock; whilst Gregory himself retired to a hermitage in Daranali, there to live the rest of his days in peaceful contemplation and prayer.

Thus was the first Christian kingdom established by the feats of the steadfast and virtuous Gregory, who more than atoned for his father’s infamy but brought out instead through his humility, patience and love for his enemies, an even greater glory. Holy Father Gregory, pray to God for us!

The baptism of King Tiridates and his wife, Queen Ashken
By sharing in the ways of the Apostles,
You became a successor to their throne.
Through the practice of virtue,
You found the way to divine contemplation, O inspired one of God;
By teaching the word of truth without error, you defended the Faith,
Even to the shedding of your blood.
Hieromartyr Gregory entreat Christ God to save our souls!

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