St. Gregory of Narek’s classic, the Book of Lamentations, the Մատեան Ողբերգութիւն/ Matean Oghbergut’ean needs no introduction. It is perhaps the most well-known text written in the Armenian language. Revered for a thousand years, the book is so closely identified with its author that it is sometimes simply called the “Narek.” The book itself was regarded with such high esteem that its prayers, known as Բան/Ban/Pan, meaning most literally “word,” which we can translate as discourse, chapter, prayer, or perhaps even reflection, were seen as healing prayers. In fact, the Մաշտոց/Mashdotz, the collected book of Armenian liturgical services and “rituals,” begins a short service of healing, “Prayers for Healing,” with a selection from the Book of Lamentation. Moreover, the physical object of the book itself was often venerated, treated as a sacred book alongside the Bible. So, it is perhaps unnecessary to write much about this singular source in the Armenian Christian tradition, one of the most beloved sources in all Armenian Christianity.
Nonetheless, this week is a wonderful moment to consider the work of St. Gregory of Narek and his masterpiece, the Book of Lamentations. We are now in the season of Lent, a penitential period, which Bishop Daniel Findikyan has described in his annual Lenten message as a period where the Christian answers God’s call: “Come back to me.” In other words, Lent, as a penitential period, is a time of return to God. There are thus two important reasons why Lent is the perfect season to reflect on the work of St. Gregory of Narek. First, the Book of Lamentations, is often seen as a series of penitential prayers. Much of the book focuses on “the mystic’s separation from God” (Russell xv), and is therefore perfectly related to Lent, which is often described as a long meditation on human’s separation from God—hence Lenten practices such as celebrating Divine Liturgy with a closed curtain. There is actually a wide range of theological reflection to be found in the pages of the Book of Lamentations, though as the title and the idea of a lament makes clear, much of it is indeed penitential.
The other reason for considering St. Gregory of Narek during Lent is the emphasis on returning to God, of turning back towards God, as part and parcel of the Lenten project. We can see this in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, one of the most famous parables of Jesus Christ, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the parable, the younger son of a wealthy man takes his inheritance early, squanders it, and finally returns to his father’s house, repentant but immediately welcomed in love by his father. When read in the context of Lent, especially considering that the previous Sunday of Lent is known as the “Sunday of the Expulsion,” recalling the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, then the parable of the prodigal son read the following Sunday makes the Lenten theme of return to God quite explicit. In the work of St. Gregory of Narek, return is also a major theme. In fact, one of the debates in the scholarship around St. Gregory is the influence of Neo-Platonism, specifically the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, on Narek’s thinking. The scholar Tamrazyan makes the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus absolutely central to the education and thinking of the “school of Narek,” while Dr. Sergio la Porta, “sees no clear terminological indications of a direct Dionysian influence in Gregory’s works” (Terian xxii). In the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, the soul’s descent and ascent to God—in other words, a return—is crucial to his theological understanding. So, the idea of return, so central to the spirituality of Lent and to the parables read in the Armenian Apostolic Church this Sunday, is also a cornerstone of a potential philosophical and theological influence on the thinking of St. Gregory of Narek.
|Matean oghbergutʿean = Book of lamentations||St. Gregory of Narek’s classic of Armenian Christian literature. Here published as a facsimile of an earlier printing in the original classical Armenian. With an English introduction by James Russell.|
|The festal works of St. Gregory of Narek : annotated translation of the odes, litanies, and encomia||Translated with an introduction and notes by Dr. Abraham Terian, this volume includes a huge collection of liturgical works and hymns written by St. Gregory of Narek.|
|The Doctor of Mercy: The Sacred Treasures of St. Gregory of Narek||By Dr. Michael Papazian, a new book about St. Gregory of Narek and his place in the Armenian Christian tradition.|
For these reasons, the Book of Lamentations is a superb source for Lenten spirituality. The 2005 translation into English by Dr. Thomas Samuelian, especially the small “pocket” version, would be a great addition to any Lenten spiritual practice. The book “is a prayer book of ninety-five poems or meditations, of which most are divided into three or four sections” (Russell xv). “The Armenian people have traditionally assigned various powers to different chapters recited as prayers, and there are changes in mood and imagery from chapter to chapter. Although each meditation is concerned with the mystic’s separation from God and is therefore a lamentation, some chapters are suffused with hope in God’s grace and His healing power” (Russell xv). Ultimately, each prayer is rich in dense theological imagery, partaking of a highly developed Armenian interpretative tradition while remaining strikingly beautiful poetry. The phrase “speaking with God from the depth of the heart,” appended as a subtitle to every Ban, accurately portrays the spiritual intensity of the book. In fact, the phrase so perfectly encapsulates the book that Samuelian’s translation gives the title as Speaking with God from the Depth of the Heart.
Given the overwhelming love for the Book of Lamentations as a source of Armenian Christian spirituality, it is easy to forget some of the other important work by St. Gregory of Narek—or even to ignore the few facts we know about his life. We know, based on a few colophons (a written statement at the ends of manuscripts) written by him and some of the autobiographical information in his work, a little bit about him: he was born around 945 A.D., “the third and youngest son of Khosrov, later bishop of the Province of Andzewats’ik’” (Terian xviii), and an important commentator about whom we have written before. Since Khosrov was widowed, he sent his two younger sons to the Monastery of Narek, which was under the direction of Abbot Anania of Narek, a relative “who had established the monastery in 935” (Terian xviii). Both Anania and Khosrov had contentious relations with the Catholicos of the time, and both had to defend themselves against accusations of association with the heretical movement of the time, the Tondrakians. Gregory himself would also later write against the Tondrakian movement. Both these ecclesial battles and his own battles with his health shaped his writings. He lived nearly his entire life in the monastery of Narek, which is why is always referred to St. Gregory of Narek, or Narekatsi.
In addition to his most famous work, St. Gregory of Narek wrote several other important pieces. We have referred several times to his Commentary on the Song of Songs, which Dr. Roberta Ervine has translated into English with an important and substantial introduction. There is a commentary—extant in a single manuscript!—of Chapters 38 and 39 on the Book of Job, the favorite portion of the Biblical Book for Armenian thinkers. Finally, Dr. Abraham Terian has recently translated The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek, which includes many of St. Gregory’s poetic compositions meant to be sung in the context of the Armenian liturgy. The gandz genre of Armenian liturgical song is intimately tied to St. Gregory of Narek. There are other short works, including discourses and letters, attributable to St. Gregory of Narek. This rich literary output makes St. Gregory of Narek one of the greatest sources of Armenian Christian spirituality and Armenian Christian literature. Dr. Michael Papazian has published, just this past year, a new book about the St. Gregory. Perhaps the greatest testament to the influence of St. Gregory of Narek is that, in 2015, Pope Francis I declared St. Gregory a “Doctor of the Church,” an honor the Catholic Church has bestowed on only 36 saints in the history of the church!
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