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Deacon-structing: St. Gregory of Narek

Deacon Pedro

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Mosaic of St. Gregory of Narek in the Mekhitarist Monastery on San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.
Some 1000 years ago, Armenian St. Gregory of Narek set out to write what is today considered to be one of Christianity’s spiritual masterpieces. St. Gregory’s Book of Lamentations, is a “colloquy,” a conversation with God, an attempt to offer the “pure sighs of the broken and contrite heart” (as the book’s description puts it) as words pleasing to God. In this compendium of 95 prayers in 10,000 lines, St. Gregory offers himself truly as words themselves – “its letters like my body, its message like my soul” – so much so that the book is simply and commonly knownas “Narek.” Gregory was asked in his later years, while suffering a debilitating terminal illness, “What can we offer to God, our creator, who already has everything and knows everything better than we could ever express it?” Gregory’s response is this book: “The sighs of the heart.”
Born in the city of Narek around 950 CE, in the region of Lake Van in modern-day Turkey, St. Gregory came from a line of scholars and churchmen. This included his father, Khosrov, who was a priest. After the death of his mother when Gregory was around 10 years old, Khosrov sent him and his two brothers to study at the Monastery of Narek, under the care of an uncle who was a monk there. Gregory wrote that at this time he came under the maternal protection of the Mother of God: “My spiritual Heavenly Mother of light cared for me like a son more than any earthly breathing physical mother.”
After being widowed, his father was ordained a bishop and appointed to the nearby diocese of Andzevatsik. He is the author of the earliest commentary on the Divine Liturgy. Sadly, Bishop Khosrov was accused of heresy and excommunicated. Gregory was also accused of heresy, but was exonerated. These accusations must have caused him great pain, which shows in his writings.  However, we can conclude that these experiences led Gregory to choose to create words that heal. He says in one of his early prayers in Lamentations that “if the danger of death besieges a person with physical pain, may he find the hope of life when he prays to you through this book. If anyone is suffering a heart smitten with uncertainty, may she be made whole by your gentleness through these words.”
Gregory became a priest at the age of 25, and dedicated himself to God. He lived the rest of his life in the monastery of Narek, where he taught at the monastic school. His first writing was a Scripture commentary on the Song of Songs, which was commissioned by an Armenian prince. He also wrote a number of famous letters, sharagans (Armenian liturgical hymns), treasures, odes, melodies, and discourses. Many of his prayers are included in the Divine Liturgy celebrated each Sunday in Armenian Churches around the world.
Often compared to Augustine’s Confessions, the central theme of Lamentations is man’s separation from God and his quest to reunite with Him. It emphasizes the sacramental life, especially Baptism, Reconciliation, and the Eucharist. He called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations”: it was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer for people all over the world. It is considered an Armenian classic, influencing nearly all Armenian literature since. It was first published in Marseille in 1673, has been translated into at least 30 languages. Its Russian text has been set to music.
On February 21st 2015, as the world observed the centenary of the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman Empire, Pope Francis officially proclaimed Gregory of Narek as a Doctor of the Universal Church. As a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Pope Francis’ declaration makes St. Gregory of Narek the first Doctor of the Church to have lived outside of direct communion with the Bishop of Rome, yet places him in the company of a great group of foundational thinkers like Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas,  Chrysostom, Basil, John of the Cross, Bonaventure, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Hildegard of Bingen.
Founded by St. Jude Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, Armenia is considered the first Christian nation, but its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon led to its eventual separation from the Church of Rome. After the initial split there were many attempts at reunification, until in 1742, Pope Benedict XIV established the Armenian Catholic Church. It is one of 23 Eastern Rites churches that are in full communion with the universal Catholic Church. The Armenian Apostolic Church is still not in full communion with Rome, but in recent decades, and to a large degree thanks to St. John Paul II, the two are closer to reunification than ever. Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia in 2016 has brought us even closer to full unity.
On April 5th, 2018 a statue of St. Gregory was unveiled at the Vatican and blessed by the Holy Father. His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of all Armenians, as well as Catholicos of Cilicia, His Holiness Aram I (the heads of the Armenian Apostolic Church), and Armenia’s President Serge Sargsyan, were present for the ceremony. St. Gregory of Narek is remembered by the Armenian Church on the second Saturday of October and in the Roman Catholic Church on February 27.
With all of this in mind, it is more significant that on April 27, 2024, Toronto’s Archbishop Francis Leo will join the Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Canada, Bishop Abgar Hovakimyan, for a special “Armenian Vespers in Honour of St. Gregory of Narek” at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church in Scarborough, Ontario. The evening prayer will feature an ecumenical exchange of gifts: Liturgical vessels from Armenians fleeing genocide during the last century will be returned, and an icon of St. Gregory of Narek will be received by the Archdiocese of Toronto. 
This milestone commemoration is part of the “receptive ecumenism” series that is taking place during a 2024 year-long Festival of Prayer sponsored by the Archdiocese of Toronto. It witnesses to the “Beauty of Holiness” that is ours in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:15-16) as well as marking the 60th anniversary of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism that continues to invigorate the commitment to seek the unity willed by our Lord for the Church for the life of the world (John 17:21).
Be sure to tune in to our live broadcast of Armenian Vespers in Honour of St. Gregory of Narek, on Saturday, April 27, 2024, at 6:00 pm ET / 3:00 pm PT.
Gregory of Narek asked God in prayer, “How would the mass of all the sins of the universe appear to the generosity of your almighty eyes?” God responded: “In comparison with the Cross, all the sins of the world are like a drop of rain that trickles away.” Gregory died, at age 50. In his short life, he discovered God's love within all things, including unjustified, inexplicable suffering. He wrote his prayers to make this discovery available to all, especially to those whose faith is weak. St. Gregory shows us that God's forbearance, gentleness, redemption, forgiveness, and glory will prevail to all ages and generations.
May his intercession bring healing to all, especially victims of genocide, and lead us to unity in the Church.

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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