Sahak I Bart’ew was born into a high level of moral obligation. He inherited it.
As the only son of the great Catholicos Nerses I Pahlavuni (353-373), known to posterity as Nerses the Great, Sahak had his father’s very big shoes to fill. Being Nerses’ son made Sahak the fifth descendant from St Gregory the Illuminator. Christianity, the Armenian Church, and the Catholicosate were in his blood. So was the responsibility to nurture and maintain them.
Also on his father’s side, Sahak was the scion of Armenia’s royal family; his grandmother had been the sister of King Tiran Arshakuni. On his mother’s side, he was descended from the noble clan of the Mamikonians, Armenia’s military commanders-in-chief. Thus even beyond his responsibility for tending to the quality of Armenia’s faith, Sahak inherited additional responsibilities for defending faith and country, to the death if need be.
When Sahak was born in 348 the rejoicing that must have attended his birth was short-lived. Within a few months of his arrival as the newest male heir of St. Gregory’s line, Sahak’s mother died. At around the same time, his grandfather Atanakines and great-uncle Pap were both killed in a freak accident. And so it happened that within a short period, perhaps in a single year, Sahak’s 20-year old father was left as a single parent, an orphan, and the only remaining male descendant of St. Gregory except for his newborn son.
Unable to care for Sahak on his own but having no family able to take on the responsibility of raising a child, Nerses entrusted the baby to the Mamikonians, the clan of Sahak’s deceased mother. Thus Sahak spent his formative years in the mountainous province of Taron, his maternal grandparents’ home territory in the northwestern sector of historic Armenia.
When he became of age, Sahak received a stellar education befitting Gregory the Illuminator’s heir apparent. By the time he entered on his higher studies in Byzantium, he was the son of a catholicos; his father Nerses was elevated to the seat of St. Gregory in 353. How much contact Sahak had with his father after that point is not clear, but Nerses’s example of wholehearted charity and devotion must have been an inspiration to him.
At some point in his youth, Sahak married. History does not record the name of his spouse, but in due time the couple had a daughter, named Sahakdukht or Sahakanuysh.
After his daughter’s birth, Sahak’s struggle with his sense of destiny and hereditary obligation became acute. As the heir to the Christian heritage of St. Gregory, it was Sahak’s God-given duty to see that the Illuminator’s noble line continued. And yet, God did not grant him a son. When it became clear that indeed, Sahakdukht would be his only child, Sahak went through a period of deep spiritual distress. God had preserved St. Gregory in the pit and had called five generations of his descendants to fill the sacred role of Armenia’s spiritual head; how could it be that He was now abandoning St. Gregory’s lineage and leaving the Armenian Church to the care of others? What did it mean to be called by God, and yet be denied the means to meet that calling fully?
Only late in life, after he had been head of the Church for many years, did Sahak reveal how God helped him come to terms with the realization that he was to be the last Armenian Catholicos from the line of St. Gregory. He chose to reveal it as an encouragement to the Armenian nobles who by their own actions had caused what seemed like an insurmountable tragedy for Armenia.
At the request of the Armenian nobility themselves, the Persian Empire put an end to the Arshakuni dynasty. But the Persians went farther; in addition to removing Armenia’s royal house, they also removed their Catholicosate. The Persian government dethroned Sahak, and replaced him with a non-Armenian bishop. Realizing what they had done to their country and their church, the repentant nobility hastened to beg Sahak’s forgiveness. They had harmed their country beyond repair. Indeed, it would be four hundred years before Armenians regained the right to rule themselves.
Sahak consoled the nobles. Yes, they had made a grievous error in judgment. All would not be well. But God had not abandoned them. God’s view of Armenia’s future went beyond their mistakes, and beyond their hopes, Sahak assured them. Then he shared with them, in mesmerizing detail, the vision God had given him years before of his own future, and of theirs.
He was sitting in church near the altar one Easter week, probably as a deacon serving at the solemn Good Friday vigil. He was pondering his future. His father, Nerses, had died. As in the present situation, the Persian government was appointing non-Armenian catholicoses to head the Armenian Church. Sahak knew that even if he became catholicos one day, he would have no successor from his own family. What would his catholicosate be worth if it all ended with him?
As Sahak looked toward the altar, quite unexpectedly he saw a bema covered by a great, white curtain with a shining cross on it. One side of the curtain opened to reveal an altar on which stood bread and grapes, ready for the sacrament. To one side of the altar stood a verdant olive tree filled with fruit. Four of its branches bent near the ground; by contrast with the rest of the tree, their fruit was shriveled and meager. One of the four branches was smaller than the remaining three.
To the other side of the altar stood a crystal throne draped in dark cloth. On its seat was a silver tray holding a carefully folded robe, a kingly golden orb, and a sheet of parchment with writing on it. The first two lines were written in gold letters, then there were two lines erased, then another line and a half of gold letters. The remainder of the parchment was written in red ink.
Standing in a circle around the throne were many young boys. A few young girls stood among them as well. At that moment, there was an earthquake. The throne shook, and all at once the children standing around it grew into young men and women. They ascended to the altar, and then they and the altar rose into heaven together. The vision ended.
What did it mean? As Sahak pondered the significance of what he had just seen, a bright figure came and stood by him, speaking words of encouragement and interpreting the vision. Was Sahak feeling sadness over the daughter God had given him? All those young men and women were her God-pleasing offspring. It was through them that the future of Armenia would be assured, both as kingdom and as catholicosate, despite the earthquake that would rock the country to its foundations. The kingly orb that lay on the throne would be taken up again. The catholicosal robe, carefully folded and kept pristine by Sahak, would be worn again in the distant future, by one of his daughter’s descendants.
In other words, God revealed to Sahak that He does not make His plans on human terms, and that is how it should be. Sahak’s understanding of his calling was too small, his hopes for his offspring too predictable, his dreams for Armenia’s future too focused on what he, with his meager human understanding, deemed good. God graced Sahak with a major adjustment to his viewpoint.
Sahak chose to relate his vision to the assembled nobility for at least three reasons: he wanted to encourage them to maintain their faith through the coming difficult days. He wanted to point out to them that his own mother’s clan, the Mamikonians, were to have an important role as the chosen leaders of Armenia during troubled times. And he wanted to give them a hope that could be passed down from generation to generation until the new kingdom and the restored catholicosate came into being. After sharing his vision with them, the historian Ghazar says, Sahak went into retirement, to pray and teach in peace until his death.
Even before he shared his vision, Sahak had lived by it for many years. Thanks to his vision, he knew God’s plans for the future of the Armenian Church depended on his maintaining the integrity and faith his great ancestor Gregory had taught: it was not Sahak’s obligation to produce a male heir, but to “carefully fold and keep pristine” the robe of his office. Thanks to his vision, Sahak married his daughter to the highly reputed prince Hamazasp Mamikonian. Perhaps with his renewed eyes of faith, he foresaw that from her would come Vardan, saint and champion of Armenia’s Christianity in the Vardanants War.
Once Sahakdukht was married, Sahak no longer worried about the outcome of his reign. Instead, he launched himself wholeheartedly into a monastic life of prayer and teaching, preparing his 65 disciples to translate and interpret in Armenian the scriptures that then were being read in Greek and Syriac in the churches of Armenia. Thanks to his God-given vision, Sahak was prepared to greet his true calling when he encountered the two men who would make it possible: Mesrop Mashdots and King Vramshapuh Arshakuni.
Looking back on his life, perhaps Sahak saw that God had intended him not merely to become Armenia’s last catholicos from the line of Gregory, but to become its third enlightener: St. Gregory had enlightened Armenia’s spirit; Nerses had enlightened its heart; Sahak enlightened its mind. His translation of the Bible, worked on by many but brought to completion by him, has shaped Armenia’s faith and its self-understanding from that time onward.
As God had shown him, the line on his vision’s parchment that contained Sahak’s name, would be written in gold.