Cherished Strangers: St. Jacob of Nisibis and Mar Awgen

Quite peculiar is the relationship between the Armenian people and the two saints that are commemorated this Saturday: St. Jacob (James) of Nisibis [Hagop Mdzpna Hayrabed], and Mar Awgen [Marugeh]. Most Armenians have probably never heard of either one, yet by all accounts, they are among the most beloved saints in the Armenian Church. They have the distinction of being among the five or six saints whose names are invoked every day in the liturgy of the Armenian Church. In fact, we call on them in the same breath as Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the apostles James, and St. Gregory our Illuminator. Five churches in our diocese and countless other Armenian churches and historic monasteries are dedicated to St. Jacob. Medieval Armenian authors claim that Jacob was our holy Illuminator’s first cousin, though earlier sources do not identify him as an ethnic Armenian at all. Still, whether they realize it or not, most men named Hagop have this great fourth-century Syriac-speaking bishop as their patron saint. And yet curiously, most of us today have forgotten why our ancestors so cherished St. Jacob. As for holy Marugeh, even the peerless 20th-century scholar and linguist Hrachya Adjarian, who authored a massive five-volume biographical encyclopedia of every person ever known to the Armenians, has no idea where his name comes from, and can only say that he was a companion of St. Jacob.

So who are these cherished strangers?

Jacob probably had little more than peach fuzz tickling his chin when he left behind his family and everything else and abandoned the hustle and bustle of his hometown for the barren, rocky caves outside the city limits. Nisibis in the late fourth century was one of the great cosmopolitan centers of the eastern world. Located about 75 miles southeast of Dikranagerd/Diyarbekir, just inside the modern Turkish border with Syria, Nisibis was a cosmopolitan university town that until the Genocide always had a visible Armenian minority. Already by the turn of the fourth century, the city was home to a thriving Christian community. Like the Armenians, the Christians of Nisibis traced their roots to the Apostle Thaddeus, but their language of prayer and worship was a dialect of Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue.

It may be hard for us today to envision a city where Christianity is something fresh and exciting; where the followers of Jesus were not gray-haired old timers but swanky twenty-something urbanites who flocked to the coffee houses and churches of the day to chat up theologians, priests, and composers of hymns and prayers. But it was in such an environment that Jacob fell in love with the Lord. So vivid and electrifying was his bond with Jesus that he decided to forego everything else—an education, his inheritance, and his whole future—so that he could devote himself entirely to knowing God even more intimately. History tells us that he even discarded his clothing when he settled in a crevice in the craggy mountains outside the city, trusting in the Lord to provide for his needs and subsisting on whatever food nature provided. All Jacob wanted was to revel uninterrupted in the joy of God’s presence and to be captivated by God’s loving grace.

From the seclusion of his dank crevice, Jacob’s holiness came to the attention of the Christians of Nisibis. Waves of people, young and old, trekked out into the wilderness to see this young man who had found blissful peace with the Lord in the strangest of circumstances. When the bishop of Nisibis died, a delegation went out to see Jacob and to beg him to be their next bishop. The Christian community of Nisibis was by now one of the largest, and most urbane churches in the entire East. Something like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company today, the person appointed to the Holy See of Nisibis immediately rose to the highest ranks of authority and prestige. But Jacob refused the offer. Again and again, they pleaded with him, notables from the community making the perilous climb up to Jacob’s rocky perch to try to persuade the holy man to come back to civilization to lead their church.

Why did the elders of the Church of Nisibis seek out Jacob—of all people—to be their bishop? He surely had no graduate degrees hanging from the walls of his cave. He had no hands-on experience administering non-profit or charitable organizations. Nor was Jacob known for being particularly eloquent as an orator or savvy in his people skills. Clearly, the Nisibenes saw something else in Jacob that attracted them. The skills he possessed were not those prized by Wall Street, but rather the godly qualities endorsed by Jesus: an honest awareness of his own limitations and faults, gentleness, a yearning for what is right, kindhearted compassion, sincerity, dedication to peace at all cost, and an eagerness to grow ever closer to God. Jacob’s integrity spoke for itself. The Church of Nisibis seemed to recognize in Jacob one who might not develop a compelling strategic plan and raise capital, but one who would uplift the people and steer them along God’s path, as he taught them, healed them, and cared for them in genuine love. Those priorities, they believed, would put their church right before God and bear fruit accordingly.

Eventually, when he could no longer turn away his pursuers, Jacob consented. He was consecrated a bishop around 309AD, right around the time that the Armenian King Trdat was converted to Christianity by the holy Illuminator. It is not unlikely that that startling development just up the road in Armenia emboldened Jacob in an era when followers of Jesus Christ were still subject to immediate arrest and execution.

It is at this point in the story that we meet Mar Awgen. The word Mar or Mor is the traditional title for saints in the Syriac language, a cross between “saint” and “master.” In Armenian Mar Awgen (pronounced ow gen or ow geen) becomes Maroogeh [Մարուգէ] because the Armenian language does not have the sound ow (as in “cow”), and over time our ancestors forgot that Mar is a title, not part of the saint’s name. In any case, blessed Jacob had hardly taken his place in the bishop’s throne of the Cathedral of Nisibis before he called Mar Awgen to assist him. It is as if from the outset Mar Awgen had been an integral piece in Jacob’s master plan for his new church.

Mar Awgen was an Egyptian whose first career was in business. He had worked as a diver for pearls in the Nile river delta in northern Egypt. Like Jacob, while still a young man, Awgen heard the irresistible Good News of Jesus Christ. The love of God so thrilled him that he could no longer allow anything to stand in its way. Leaving everything behind, he set out for the Egyptian desert, where he became a disciple of another great saint, the famous Pachomius. A man of great sanctity, St. Pachomius had also lived for many years as a hermit. However, he increasingly came to believe that to live an authentically Christian life one must not be isolated, but live together with others to serve them and to achieve true Holy Communion with God and with one another. The monks of Pachomius’ community lived together in a large compound centered on a great church. They split their energies between private prayer and study; common liturgy, meals and fellowship with one another; and helping those in need. The Monastery of St. Pachomius welcomed visitors and pilgrims who sought out the peace and wise, prayerful guidance of the monks. Other Pachomian monasteries welcomed the sick, the poor, and the homeless, becoming the world’s first hospitals. It was in such a dynamic monastic community that Awgen came under St. Pachomius’ fatherly mentorship.

We do not know exactly how Jacob came to know Awgen. Some think that Pachomius sent Awgen north to the region of Nisibis to establish new monasteries on the model of St. Pachomius’ communities of prayer and service. In any case, Jacob recruited Awgen to establish a monastery just north of the city. The fourth-century Monastery of Mar Awgen stands today, recently revived with a cadre of young monks who wish to live the Christian life exemplified by their blessed founder. In enlisting Mar Awgen and devoting the substantial time and resources necessary to build a monastery, Bishop Jacob forged the enduring symbiotic connection between monasticism and the church. That enduring bond is a characteristic and indispensable feature of Orthodox Christianity. In Armenia above all, the monasteries were historically the spiritual, theological, artistic, educational and evangelical engines of the church. There can be no question that Armenia’s budding monastic tradition was strongly influenced by the Monastery of Mar Awgen, and that alone may well explain his cherished and prominent place in the Armenian Church’s heart.

The success of Bishop Jacob’s ministry is confirmed in the remarkable miracles that were attributed to him and to Mar Awgen. In particular, he is said to have healed countless people from physical disabilities and even complete paralysis. His total trust in Jesus Christ, along with his heartfelt compassion for human suffering seemed to be distilled into such concrete and vivid feats of healing. His reputation as a man of God spread far and wide and translated into innumerable cases of Pagans and Jews turning their lives over to Jesus Christ. He is one of the signatories of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325AD. He also set out on an expedition to climb Mount Ararat, where he hoped to find traces of the great flood and of Noah’s Ark. Although he did not succeed in conquering the holy mountain, by miraculous means he retrieved a piece of the Ark and returned it to Nisibis. Today this small, rectangular piece of wood is enshrined in the treasury of Holy Etchmiadzin. Until an earthquake in 1840 wiped it away, an Armenian monastery dedicated to St. Jacob of Nisibis stood on the northeastern slope of Mt. Ararat near the village of Akori, just 20 miles west of the Arax River’s modern border between Armenian and Turkey.

The great saints Jacob of Nisibis and Mar Awgen are our witnesses to the mysterious thrill that comes from dedicating oneself unconditionally and wholeheartedly to the Lord, even when doing so requires us to break from what is considered normal, traditional, and popular. The holy men challenge us to rethink our established assumptions about what is needed to make the church successful and strong; and what should be the primary qualifications of those called to lead it. Our saints furthermore remind us of a time when every Armenian Church in the world was within walking distance of one or more monasteries filled with men and women of great sanctity, devotion, knowledge, and talent, who had consecrated themselves to undertake the work mandated by Jesus: to preach, to teach, and to heal. This should give us pause today, when the number of Armenian monasteries has plummeted from well over a thousand not too long ago, to two or three today. Finally, our blessed saints, cherished strangers, invite American-Armenians of faith to resist the overwhelming inertia of shallowness, self-absorption and strident background noise that mark our times, and to turn sharply to Jesus Christ, and to his sacred Body within the Armenian Church.

As our great Saint Gregory of Narek prays at the end of his magnificent hymn of praise to St. Jacob, “This blessed doer of the will of Christ’s Father—let us join him by a fraction of his faith so that we may arrive at your great glory.”

St. Gregory of Narek’s Encomium on Saint James of Nisibis: A Discourse of Praise is available in a beautiful English translation in Abraham Terian, The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016, pages 344-361.