St. Gregory of Narek (945-1003) is one the most revered saints of the Armenian Church. He has been widely influential due to his penitential flavor of prayerful expression, particularly through his renowned and deeply introspective Book of Prayers. He has also gained the popularity of those outside the Armenian tradition. On February 21, 2015 Pope Francis declared St. Gregory, Doctor of the Catholic Church, joining the company of thirty-five other important figures and saints such as St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Athanasius, St. Ephrem, and St. Teresa of Ávila. More recently, at the Vatican on April 5, 2018, under the auspices of the Pope, in the presence of the president of Armenia and both Armenian Catholicoi, a statue of St. Gregory of Narek was unveiled and blessed.
Besides St. Gregory’s new status in the Catholic Church, his influence lives on in our own tradition. Thanks to Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus of Armenian Theology and Patristics at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, for the first time in English, the Armenian faithful have the chance to rediscover our beloved mystical poet, philosopher, and theologian through the newly published Festal Works of St. Gregory: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia.
The poetical odes and litanies vary in length ranging from 10 to 165 lines, with headings such as Ode for the Blessing of Water, Ode for the Coming of the Holy Spirit, and Litany for St. Gregory the Illuminator. The assumption is they were composed for public and liturgical use, but how the festal works of St. Gregory were employed, if they were used at all, is unknown. Similarly, we do not know the setting of the encomia, lengthy prose texts dedicated to praising subjects such as the Holy Virgin, the Holy Cross, and the Holy Apostles.
Gregory’s poetry is replete with vivid imagery and descriptors, drawn from his panoramic view of Scripture. Additionally, each of the genres included embody a sense of the worshipping community’s joyful praise, serving as a perfect supplement to Gregory’s penitential Book of Prayers. Read, for example, these lines from his Ode for the Raising of Lazarus (p. 43):
The Gift able to transform the speechless, dead body,
The dead body wrapped in burial clothes, to be clothed
and sealed with breath again by the Caller to Life.
The seal of death was broken as were the torments of hell,
The torments by the (evil) one who cannot harm the
The great Hebrew assembly, a galaxy of thousands, praises
in song the glory,
The glory of the One who bestows light, now and eternally.
Although the subject of the ode is the raising of Lazarus, St. Gregory is able to link that event with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, and ground the entire theme in the divinity of Christ. This ode affirms that it is not the story of the person of Lazarus that draws the attention for Armenians, rather what it tells us about Jesus Christ, the Caller to Life, and the temporary chapter that is death.
This book belongs in the library of every clergyman of the Armenian Church, specialists in the field of liturgics, and anyone else interested in personal edification, and enhancing their experience and understanding of the feasts of the Armenian Church. As a mystic, St. Gregory developed an extraordinarily intense sense of God’s presence. Consequently, his language and worldview are rather different from most of us today. His festal works are yet another witness of the profound message of the Gospel transmitted through the Armenian Church.