Saint Gregory of Narek was a monk, poet and theologian who lived in 10th-11th century Armenia. He was declared a "doctor of the church" in the Roman Catholic church. He is best known for writing his "Book of Lamentations", a collection of poem prayers to God, which expresses deep Christian theology in a beautiful way.
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God is glorious in his Saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. I am recording from my parents’ house today, and unfortunately I forgot to bring my microphone, so I am using the laptop mike. The audio quality is probably going to be worse that usual for this episode, but I hope it will still be OK.
Today, we commemorate Saint Gregory of Narek.
Saint Gregory of Narek was an Armenian monk who lived around the late 10th or early 11th centuries. Armenia has a very ancient Christian tradition, in fact it was the first country to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion. Not much is known about St Gregory’s life, but his poetry and theological writings have been very influential, both inside and outside Armenia.
The legacy of St Gregory gained a greater urgency as the Armenian people suffered persecution, with their faith and culture threatened by the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Most significantly, the Armenians suffered a genocide in the hands of the Ottomans, with around 1 million Armenians perishing in this genocide in the years 1915 -1916. The tomb of St Gregory of Narek was defiled and destroyed during this genocide. Today, Turkey, the successor state fo the Ottoman empire, continues to deny that this genocide happened.
Let us read an account of St Gregory of Narek’s life and legacy by Mark del Cogliano. This account appeared in Theology Matters, which is the newsletter of the Dept of Theology, in the University of St Thomas:
On April 12, 2015, Pope Francis officially proclaimed St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church, bringing the number of saints honored with this title to thirty-six. Those recognized as Doctors of the Church must meet three criteria: (1) eminens doctrina, “eminent learning, outstanding scholarly achievement” that is of great advantage to the Church, (2) insignis vitae sanctitas, “a high degree of sanctity” that is exemplary for all Christians, and (3) ecclesiae declaratio, “proclamation by the church.” Enrolled in this august group are some of the holiest saints and profoundest theologians the Church as has ever produced, such as Sts. Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Given that St. Gregory of Narek is virtually unknown among Roman Catholics, the choice by Pope Francis to name him a Doctor of the Church came as a surprise. The choice, nonetheless, is not without significance.
St. Gregory of Narek lived and died as a member of Armenian Apostolic Church, making him the only Doctor who was not in communion with the Catholic Church during his lifetime. To the present day, the Armenian Church preserves a very ancient tradition of Christianity. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity officially, traditionally in 301, years before Constantine converted to Christianity and initiated the Christianization of the Roman Empire. In that year, St. Gregory the Illuminator, a Greek-speaking Christian from Cappadocia, healed King Trdat (Tiridates) of Armenia of a mental illness, prompting his conversion. Through the efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the Christian faith spread rapidly throughout Armenia and became deeply embedded within Armenian culture. In the early fifth century, an alphabet was created to write the Armenian language, and soon thereafter the Bible was translated into Armenian, leading to a literary, cultural, and religious renaissance in Armenia. In the aftermath of the Council of Constantinople in 553, however, the Armenian Church severed its ties with the Latin- and Greek-speaking churches over Christological differences, becoming most closely aligned with the Syriac and Coptic Orthodox Churches. As in many Christian traditions prior to modern times, in Armenian Christianity, monasticism was seen as a fundamental expression of the Christian life. Hundreds of vibrant monasteries were founded. Unlike western monasteries, which tended to be isolated from lay persons and political centers, Armenian monasteries were deeply integrated in the ordinary lives of lay Christians, and monks were seen by kings as trusted advisors and confidants. Monasteries were also centers of Christian learning and education. Kings often sent their sons to monasteries to be educated. The chief scholars were known as vardapets, Armenian for “church teachers.” One such vardapet was St. Gregory of Narek.
St. Gregory was born somewhere between 940 and 951 in the Armenian town of Andzevatsik, which is located in modern-day Turkey. At an early age, he entered the monastery in the village of Narek on the south shore of Lake Van, which is also located in modern-day Turkey, and remained a monk there until his death in 1003. Gregory lived during a time of peace and prosperity, which enabled him to live the monastic life in all its rigor and devote himself to spiritual writings. His earliest extant writing is a commentary on the biblical book the Song of Songs in 977, which is notable for its ample use of earlier Greek commentators on the biblical book, particularly Gregory of Nyssa. Though St. Gregory of Narek is the author of many works, his fame rests upon the Book of Lamentations, a collection of ninety-five prayers he completed shortly before his death. Here his talents as poet, mystic, and theologian are most fully on display. His poetry is deeply biblical and suffused with the images, themes, figures, and events of salvation history, while at the same time being intensely personal. In form, his theology is not an intellectual reflection upon God, but rather a dialogue with God in prayer, “speaking with God from the depths of the heart.” According to Gregory, the goal in life is to reach God, to achieve union with God (insofar as human nature allows), to erase the differences between God and humans. This union cannot take place at the level of the intellect, but only at the level of the heart and feelings through experience of God.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, pointed to four areas of special distinction in the doctrine of St. Gregory of Narek which contributed to his being named a Doctor of the Church: (1) his realistic appreciation for the gravity of sin, which limits human beings and makes them incapable of speaking with God without the mediation of the incarnate Word; (2) his profound dogmatic reflections on the mystery of the holy Trinity; (3) his defense of the sacraments as efficacious mediations of divine grace in the Church; and (4) his devotion to Mary, particularly in her role as mediator between God and humanity.
In recent years, there has been growing interest in St. Gregory among Roman Catholics. Pope St. John Paul II laid the groundwork for this. He mentioned St. Gregory, with approval, in several speeches, in the 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer), and in the 2001 Apostolic Letter to the Armenian church. The Armenian saint is also mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Art. 2678), where his hymns to Mary are praised. In 1996, John Paul II and Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin I issued a common declaration of faith in Christ, in which they agreed that they believe the same things about Christ, even if they express these things in different language—language which in the past unfortunately led to divisions between Catholics and Armenians in the aftermath of the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. Thus, this statement effectively exonerates St. Gregory of any “Christological” errors: even if St. Gregory was not in communion with the Catholic Church, in doctrinal matters there was complete agreement.
When Pope Francis officially proclaimed St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church on April 12, 2015, it is surely no coincidence that it was at a mass he celebrated with members of the Armenian community in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide, which is held to have begun on April 24, 1915. The crumbling Ottoman Empire’s involvement in World War I had brought it to the verge of collapse; after the war it would be dissolved and reorganized into the modern-day Republic of Turkey. The last years of the Ottoman Empire, from the 1890s onward, were accompanied by the rise of a virulent form of Turkish nationalism. The Ottomans wanted to purge their empire of all non-Turks, including Armenians who, for millennia, had lived in what is now eastern Turkey. Armenian lives were thus suddenly imperiled in what was their homeland. Many Armenians were expelled from Ottoman lands, but as many or more were exterminated; scholars estimate that between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman government through 1923. The Armenian Genocide is considered the first modern genocide; in fact, the word “genocide” was coined in the early 1940s by Raphael Lemkin to describe the massacre of the Armenians. Today’s Republic of Turkey has continued to refuse to acknowledge that its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, was responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Armenians want Turkey to admit the Genocide, not only because it is the truth, but also because admission is necessary for justice. It would also be the first step for reparations. Armenians suffered tremendous losses of life, property, and cultural heritage. For example, the monastery where St. Gregory of Narek lived had remained active until 1915 when it was abandoned. It was destroyed by the Turks in the 1950s, and a mosque was built on its site. So by naming St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church, Pope Francis is not only recommending the writings and exemplary life of a great poet and theologian for our intellectual and spiritual enrichment, but also showing the solidarity of the Roman Catholic Church with the Armenian Church—a very powerful statement in the face of those who continue to deny the Armenian Genocide.
As alluded to in the previous passage, at the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, Pope Francis canonized St Gregory of Narek and declared him a doctor of the church in a ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica. Let us read of the address to the Armenian people he gave in this commemoration, which touches on the significance of St Gregory to both the Armenian people and to the Christian faith:
MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS
ON THE 100th ANNIVERSARY OF "METZ YEGHERN"
AND PROCLAMATION OF ST GREGORY OF NAREK AS A DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
Dear Armenian Brothers and Sisters,
A century has passed since that horrific massacre which was a true martyrdom of your people, in which many innocent people died as confessors and martyrs for the name of Christ (cf. John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001). Even today, there is not an Armenian family untouched by the loss of loved ones due to that tragedy: it truly was “Metz Yeghern”, the “Great Evil”, as it is known by Armenians. On this anniversary, I feel a great closeness to your people and I wish to unite myself spiritually to the prayers which rise up from your hearts, your families and your communities.
Today is a propitious occasion for us to pray together, as we proclaim Saint Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church. I wish to express my deep gratitude for the presence here today of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, Patriarch of Cilicia of Armenian Catholics.
Saint Gregory of Narek, a monk of the tenth century, knew how to express the sentiments of your people more than anyone. He gave voice to the cry, which became a prayer, of a sinful and sorrowful humanity, oppressed by the anguish of its powerlessness, but illuminated by the splendour of God’s love and open to the hope of his salvific intervention, which is capable of transforming all things. “Through his strength I wait with certain expectation believing with unwavering hope that… I shall be saved by the Lord’s mighty hand and… that I will see the Lord himself in his mercy and compassion and receive the legacy of heaven” (Saint Gregory of Narek, Book of Lamentations, XII).
Your Christian identity is indeed ancient, dating from the year 301, when Saint Gregory the Illuminator guided Armenia to conversion and baptism. You were the first among nations in the course of the centuries to embrace the Gospel of Christ. That spiritual event indelibly marked the Armenian people, as well as its culture and history, in which martyrdom holds a preeminent place, as attested to symbolically by the sacrificial witness of Saint Vardan and his companions in the fifth century.
Your people, illuminated by Christ’s light and by his grace, have overcome many trials and sufferings, animated by the hope which comes from the Cross (cf. Rom 8:31-39). As Saint John Paul II said to you, “Your history of suffering and martyrdom is a precious pearl, of which the universal Church is proud. Faith in Christ, man’s Redeemer, infused you with an admirable courage on your path, so often like that of the Cross, on which you have advanced with determination, intent on preserving your identity as a people and as believers” (Homily, 21 November 1987).
This faith also accompanied and sustained your people during the tragic experience one hundred years ago “in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century” (John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001). Pope Benedict XV, who condemned the First World War as a “senseless slaughter” (AAS, IX , 429), did everything in his power until the very end to stop it, continuing the efforts at mediation already begun by Pope Leo XIII when confronted with the “deadly events” of 1894-96. For this reason, Pope Benedict XV wrote to Sultan Mehmed V, pleading that the many innocents be saved (cf. Letter of 10 September 1915) and, in the Secret Consistory of 6 December 1915, he declared with great dismay, “Miserrima Armenorum gens ad interitum prope ducitur” (AAS, VII , 510).
It is the responsibility not only of the Armenian people and the universal Church to recall all that has taken place, but of the entire human family, so that the warnings from this tragedy will protect us from falling into a similar horror, which offends against God and human dignity. Today too, in fact, these conflicts at times degenerate into unjustifiable violence, stirred up by exploiting ethnic and religious differences. All who are Heads of State and of International Organizations are called to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.
May this sorrowful anniversary become for all an occasion of humble and sincere reflection, and may every heart be open to forgiveness, which is the source of peace and renewed hope. Saint Gregory of Narek, an extraordinary interpreter of the human soul, offers words which are prophetic for us: “I willingly blame myself with myriad accounts of all the incurable sins, from our first forefather through the end of his generations in all eternity, I charge myself with all these voluntarily” (Book of Lamentations, LXXII). How striking is his sense of universal solidarity! How small we feel before the greatness of his invocations: “Remember, [Lord,]… those of the human race who are our enemies as well, and for their benefit accord them pardon and mercy… Do not destroy those who persecute me, but reform them, root out the vile ways of this world, and plant the good in me and them” (ibid., LXXXIII).
May God grant that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation, and may peace also spring forth in Nagorno Karabakh. Despite conflicts and tensions, Armenians and Turks have lived long periods of peaceful coexistence in the past and, even in the midst of violence, they have experienced times of solidarity and mutual help. Only in this way will new generations open themselves to a better future and will the sacrifice of so many become seeds of justice and peace.
For us Christians, may this be above all a time of deep prayer. Through the redemptive power of Christ’s sacrifice, may the blood which has been shed bring about the miracle of the full unity of his disciples. In particular, may it strengthen the bonds of fraternal friendship which already unite the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The witness of many defenceless brothers and sisters who sacrificed their lives for the faith unites the diverse confessions: it is the ecumenism of blood, which led Saint John Paul II to celebrate all the martyrs of the twentieth century together during the Jubilee of 2000. Our celebration today also is situated in this spiritual and ecclesial context. Representatives of our two Churches are participating in this event to which many of our faithful throughout the world are united spiritually, in a sign which reflects on earth the perfect communion that exists between the blessed souls in heaven. With brotherly affection, I assure you of my closeness on the occasion of the canonization ceremony of the martyrs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to be held this coming 23 April in the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, and on the occasion of the commemorations to be held in Antelias in July.
I entrust these intentions to the Mother of God, in the words of Saint Gregory of Narek:
“O Most Pure of Virgins, first among the blessed,
Mother of the unshakeable edifice of the Church,
Mother of the immaculate Word of God,
Taking refuge beneath your boundless wings which grant us the protection of your intercession, we lift up our hands to you,
and with unquestioned hope we believe that we are saved”.
Let us read a couple of passages from St Gregory of Narek’s most famous work, the book of Lamentations (nothing to do with the book of Lamentations in the Bible). This book of Lamentations is a collection of poem prayers, with deep reflections on the nature of God and humanity. This first passage appears in the Roman Catholic office of readings on his feast day, February 27th:
As far as salvation is concerned, the power of man is shown to be limited in itself. And so you, Author of all blessings, pour out your mercies on us. You, the Almighty, give us strength. You, our Defender, to whom all things are possible, call us to you and pardon us. At your generosity, our Liberator, we rejoice. By you, Incorruptible God, we are made proof against all infirmities and given life. By you, our Renewer, we are illuminated. And so, knowing what my human nature is, I will flee to you, Christ, Son of the living God, wholly Blessed.
Moreover, looking back at the words I had written which led to this prayer, what I wrote then is further justified thus: “It is better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into the hands of men, for as he is great, so also is his mercy great”.
In this book of Lamentations I do not seek to belittle the merits of those who beg for salvation: for without merit, it is impossible to approach God.
But I glorify the Name of the Lord and I praise his grace which is directed to all people. In my words I proclaim all those who have, by a good life, risen to great honour, through the healing power of your great mercy.
For you are Life; you are Salvation; you are Wholeness; you are Immortality; you are Blessedness; you are Enlightenment!
Grant me peace from the sadness of my sins, so that you may have peace, my Judge, from my weeping, my nagging, and the importunities with which I constantly bother you.
For the only thing that truly pleases you is the salvation of man, O forever Blessed!
St Gregroy of Narek is commemorated in February 27th in the Roman Catholic church. In the Armenian church, he is celebrated in a movable feast day that occurs sometime in October.
Thanks for listening to the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider giving us a 5-star review on Itunes or whatever podcast app you use, so more people can find the Christian saints podcast and be blessed by these stories of the saints.
Let us end with another passage from St Gregory of Narek’s book of lamentations. Fittingly for our Christian Saints Podcast, in this passage St Gregory encourages us to venerate, to remember, and venerate the saints, and to seek their intercession in our troubles.
Now let us turn to the happy and glorified ranks
of the saints,
some of whom stumbled slightly but were steadied,
some who doubted a bit but were enlightened
by the radiant purity of the Holy Spirit,
thus exhibiting the faults of the ordinary humans
on the one hand, while on the other,
the ways and virtues of angels,
transcending the laws of nature.
And now, those who are blessed
by the mouth of the Godhead, Father of Christ,1
commanding all alike, the chosen, celebrated, adored, and praised,
who are worshiped as members of the body of Christ
and who are prepared as temples of the Holy Spirit,2
in whom there is no hint of darkness,
but who are instead completely guileless
and glow with righteousness
and are godly as much as humans can be:
their faces are open and unashamed,
their piety uplifting and intrepid,
their lives sober and irreproachable,
their worship stalwart and unwavering,
their ways courageous and unflagging,
their truth uniform and unshakable,
their valor strong and indomitable,
their vision is bright and unconfused,
their wisdom is heavenly and invincible,
their image is clean and incorruptible.
By their examples and in the memory of their names
God taught us to pray and3
through them find help amid troubles,
as your word, Creator, teaches.4