One day this winter, I found myself staring into a deep, dark, menacing hole.
I mean that literally: I was visiting Khor Virap, an Armenian monastery in the foothills of Mount Ararat and the site of a miracle we could all use just about now. Feeling depressed about the fate of Western civilization? Just think of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
His father, a nobleman, got himself into a spot of bother by assassinating the Armenian king some time in the third century. Naturally, the young Gregory had to flee, and, hallelujah, was raised as a Christian. When he returned home, he entered the service of King Tiridates III, the slain monarch’s son. When Gregory refused to worship the king’s pagan idols, Tiridates had him tortured. It got worse when the king realized Gregory was the offspring of his own father’s killer: Wishing to inflict on the faithful Christian the worst suffering imaginable, he had him thrown into Khor Virap.
The name means “deep, bottom-most pit,” and the place itself does the etymology proud. For my expedition to St. Gregory’s pit, I had my iPhone to light the way, a thick wool coat to keep me warm, and the promise of fine coffee right after my visit. Yet as I climbed down the narrow ladder, I couldn’t help but feel the icy fingers of despair caressing the back of my neck and tempting me to abandon all hope.
Gregory, of course, had none of these luxuries at his disposal. He stayed in the hole for thirteen years, abandoned and alone save for the snakes and scorpions that, astonishingly, did not bother him. An ordinary man would’ve emerged from such an ordeal dead, broken, or mad, but when the princess Khosrovidukht, King Tiridates’s sister, finally rescued Gregory, he rose from his pit illuminated by his convictions. He healed the king—who, driven insane by his own unchecked appetites, had taken to behaving like a wild boar—baptized the royal family, and, in the year 301, converted Armenia, the world’s first Christian nation.
His life is hardly mere history. It’s a story that continues to resonate through the centuries, not only as an example of faith’s triumph but also as the spiritual engine that continues to power modern Armenia. When I first arrived in Yerevan, the capital, my guide, Abel, informed me that Armenians were very religious people. Still a bit jet-lagged, I awkwardly asked if he meant that most people went to church every week. “No,” Abel said thoughtfully, “it’s deeper than that.”
It took me a few days of walking around and talking to Armenians to see what he meant. On paper, Armenians have no reason to feel cheerful these days. Their country is enmeshed in a long war with Azerbaijan with no end in sight. International support is slim, as are prospects for peace. And the specter of the Armenian genocide, still denied by most of the world’s nations, looms large, a grim reminder that Armenians should take their enemies at their word when they threaten annihilation.
But spend a week in Yerevan, and you’ll catch no glimpse of gloom. Look up, and you’ll see gleaming glass towers housing tech start-ups, and even the elderly man soaking up some sun at the corner café will tell you that tiny Armenia, population 2.8 million, nonetheless boasts two unicorns, which is to say start-ups valued at more than a billion dollars. At Epicure, on Pushkin Street, a DJ spins Tropicália beats while a bartender who would have felt right at home in hipster Brooklyn mixes a mean martini. There are construction cranes everywhere you look. The city is busy being born. If you missed the small signs—like the little pictures of smiling young men tucked away in a corner of the American University of Armenia’s student center, recent graduates killed in the fighting in contested Artsakh—you wouldn’t know that you’re a few hours away by car from guards, gunfire, and forced starvation.
I asked every person I met if they felt any hate—toward the Turks, or the Azeris, or anyone else who imperiled Armenia or turned a blind eye to their fate. The question struck them all as strange. “Why would I feel hate?” a former senior government official responded over espressos and biscotti. “There are so many other, more productive things to feel and do.”
Which, hallelujah, is the spirit of St. Gregory incarnate. Far be it from this Jew to opine on the spirit of Christendom, but unless I’ve been gravely misinformed, if it throws in for nothing else, surely Christianity is bullish on hope. Americans should take note. Stateside, hope is in short supply. Last fall, Gallup asked Americans whether they were hopeful that their children will have a better life than they themselves had enjoyed. Their answers revealed some of lowest rates of American optimism in decades, with only 42 percent replying that it was “very” or “somewhat likely” the kids would be all right. Perhaps (actually, I’m sure) this helps explain why fewer Americans are getting married and settling down, and why so many are snuffing out their lives with drink, drugs, and suicide. Too many Americans are seeing only the deep hole, not the light that comes with believing in a higher power and in its ability to redeem even those of us who seem beyond saving.
Armenians have the spirit of Khor Virap to guide them. They realize that faith, especially in the deepest of abysses, isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity, a spirit as essential as the breath of life itself. And they know instinctively that Christian isn’t something you can simply be; it’s something that you must choose to do. See the world this way and every little thing, no matter how banal—sharing a meal with a friend, volunteering at your kid’s school, putting a down payment on a new apartment—becomes an act of faith, a declaration that, all evidence observable by humans to the contrary, God will guide us to a future of freedom, peace, and plenty.
Yerevan is a long way away from New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. There are no direct flights, no hopping on and off red-eyes like we do when we travel to Europe, say, or to Asia. But the Armenian spirit of hope is portable, and we would do well to import it posthaste. The world’s first Christian nation, living in a very troubled neighborhood, is fighting not only for territory but also for an idea, the conviction that true human dignity and liberty only stem from belief, and that real freedom isn’t the nihilistic license to do as we please. Rather, it is the profound knowledge that though we may be, at the moment, plunged in darkness and tormented by every imaginable affliction, we will—in thirteen years or in three minutes—emerge once again into light.
Here’s to St. Gregory the Illuminator. May he teach us this precious lesson.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
Image by Alvaro Marques Hijazo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.