By David Carlson
Sometimes when we step out of our normal routines, life surprises us with unexpected gifts.
That is what happened to me a few weeks ago. I was traveling home from an interfaith gathering on the north side of Indianapolis, and, as I usually do, I was flipping back and forth from one classic rock station to another.
That night, the two stations were playing songs that didn’t interest me. Perhaps one of the topics of the evening at our interfaith gathering was still affecting me.
My mind was certainly troubled, as a Jewish friend had shared the sad news that bomb threats at Jewish schools and centers were reported across the country, and in Evansville someone fired a shot at a synagogue.
Feeling downcast at the state of my country, I turned to a classical music station. A haunting melody for organ and trumpet seemed to reach out and touch my sorrow. The piece of music was over far too quickly, but fortunately, the announcer identified the piece as “The Prayer of St. Gregory The Illuminator.”
As I am teaching church history this semester, I was intrigued by the title. I knew of a number of St. Gregorys, but not one called “The Illuminator.” After the depressing news from my Jewish friend, I certainly was seeking some illumination that evening.
Two days later, I searched online for “The Prayer of St. Gregory The Illuminator.” To my delight, I found seven renditions of this six-minute piece of music, some by the most noted trumpeters of our time.
Before reading about the composer, I read the account of St. Gregory The Illuminator, who was a fourth-century Christian missionary sent to the nation of Armenia. There he was arrested and thrown into a deep cave, his only companions being poisonous snakes.
Thirteen years later, the king who had imprisoned him was ill, and Gregory was released from the cave so that he might heal the king. In the legend, the king was healed by Gregory’s prayers, and not only did the king convert to Christianity, but he permitted Gregory to preach openly in the country. Gregory was called the Illuminator because he brought the light of faith to Armenia. To this day, St. Gregory is considered the patron saint of Armenia.
The piece of music that so grabbed my attention, “The Prayer of St. Gregory The Illuminator,” is a musical treatment not of the prayer that healed the king but of the prayers Gregory prayed from the darkness and misery of the cave. The moods of the composition range from despair to anger, but faith in the end shines through.
The story made me curious about the composer, Alan Hovhaness. My knowledge of classical music is limited, so I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t recognize the name. Alan Hovhaness was an American composer of Armenian ancestry, and at first I thought his heritage was the reason he’d written “The Prayer of St. Gregory The Illuminator.”
But as I read more about Hovhaness, I came upon a story almost as amazing as St. Gregory’s. In 1942, Hovhaness was invited to the famous music center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he shared some of his Armenian-inspired compositions. Two giants in classical music, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, ridiculed Hovhaness so thoroughly that he fled Tanglewood in disgrace.
Perhaps you can guess what followed. Hovhaness wrote “The Prayer of St. Gregory The Illuminator” as part of an opera in the years after his humiliation at Tanglewood.
I cannot help thinking that Hovhaness identified with the Armenian saint. The despair and anger in the composition are Hovhaness’ despair and anger as much as St. Gregory’s. Yet, something else is just as true. The faith of this fourth century saint was what soothed Hovhaness’ wounds.
None of us makes it through life without being humiliated. If humiliation, anger, or despair have been your lot recently, I recommend listening to this amazing composition online. And if the music soothes your own wounds, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for Alan Hovhaness and St. Gregory the Illuminator.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World” available in bookstores or on Amazon.com.