People, Look East: Armenia’s Poet of the Soul

The pontificate of Francis could be summed up as one of symbolic surprises, employing pastoral gestures with far-reaching consequences. In February 2015, the bishop of Rome declared as a doctor of the church the sainted Armenian monk and poet, Gregory of Narek. In raising the medieval mystic to the vaulted halls of the universal church — one of just 36 men and women recognized by the church — the Roman pontiff honors a man and his church once regarded by Catholics as dissident or even heretical. Last month, Francis instructed that the feast of Gregory of Narek, observed on 27 February, be added to the general Roman calendar. 

The timing of the pope’s initial declaration was also important. Later in 2015, the pope joined with millions of Armenians worldwide in commemorations mourning the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians (and Assyro-Chaldean Christians) in Ottoman Turkey beginning in 1915, which many Middle East Christians remember as the “Year of the Sword.”

Key to understanding St. Gregory of Narek, and his role in the universal church, is reflecting on the precarious position of Armenian Christianity, of which he is inextricably linked.   

Armenian Christianity.  In the shadow of Mount Ararat — where Jews, Christians and Muslims believe humanity regenerated after the great flood — a small church stands above a crevice in the rock: Khor Virap. For more than 13 years this pit, some 23 feet deep, interned a Christian nobleman named Gregory. The future “illuminator of the Armenians” would later heal the king and baptize a nation into Christ in the year 301.

Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Persia and Rome, Armenian Christians digested the philosophical positions and theological vocabularies of the great learning centers of the early church and began the development of an alphabet for the Armenian vernacular. These rich cultural advances occurred even as an independent Armenian nation expired at the hands of their non-Christian Persian neighbors. 

Armenian Christians were conscious of the great theological controversies that rocked the early church, but rebellion against the Persians prevented them from actively participating in these debates, especially the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451). These disputes, particularly those centered on the person and nature of Jesus and his relationship to the Creator, grew as Christianity spread throughout the wider Mediterranean world, embracing converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic worlds, each of which had its own culture, history, language, philosophy, vocabulary and world view. 

A crowd gathers for a blessing of a statue.
Pope Francis blesses a statue of St. Gregory of Narek, a tenth-century Armenian monk, during its dedication in the Vatican Gardens on 5 April 2018. Present for the event were Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin II and Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Aram of Cilicia. (photo: CNS/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)

Today, church leaders and theologians, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic and Orthodox, recognize that these distinctive understandings of Jesus largely reflected the culture and language that defined them, and are regarded as authentic and complementary.

In 448, the Persian emperor demanded his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Eastern Roman (Byzantine) rival. Appeasing Persian oppression, the Armenian bishops called for a national council. Gathering near the very dungeon that had once imprisoned St. Gregory the Illuminator, the council declared the Armenian people’s fealty to the Persian emperor, but their steadfast spiritual loyalty to Christ: 

“Nobody can move us away from this faith, neither angels, nor people, nor sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any severe ordeal. For we have a covenant of faith, not with human beings…but an indissoluble vow with God, from whom it is impossible to stay away neither now, nor tomorrow, nor for ever and ever.”

A century after the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, the Armenian bishops denounced the Christological decrees of the council, reaffirmed their adherence to a more conservative understanding of Jesus’ nature, and asserted their independence from the churches of Constantinople and Rome. While the Armenian bishops underscored their autonomy, they did not sever relationships with the Byzantine Empire, including the imperial church of Constantinople. 

For more than 400 years, trade between Armenians and Byzantines flourished. Byzantine emperors employed Armenian monks and scribes, who flocked to Constantinople. Byzantine subjects served Armenian prelates and members of the nobility. Armenians engineered Byzantine defense systems and restored the dome of Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. Armenians even ascended the Byzantine throne, establishing dynasties of emperors who supported the redevelopment of an independent Armenian kingdom, which cushioned the barrier between the Byzantine Christian and ascendant Arab Muslim worlds.

The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani — now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia — demonstrates the sophistication and wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of 1,001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices later employed to support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels reveal Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences. The liturgical rites of the Armenian Church, particularly the Divine Liturgy (also called the Badarak), mirror the cosmopolitan nature of Armenian ecclesiastical art and architecture. Scholars suggest the supremacy of Syriac sources. They also recognize influences from the churches of Antioch, Cappadocia, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.

Gregory of Narek.  Into this golden age of the Armenian civilization Gregory of Narek — priest and poet, theologian and philosopher, monk and mystic — was born in the year 950.

His father served as a bishop and theologian. After his wife’s death, the bishop entrusted the boy to the care of an uncle, Anania. A respected scholar and monk, Anania founded the Narek Monastery (known as Narekavank) on the shores of Lake Van in what is today eastern Turkey. He reared Gregory as one of the monastic community, to which his pupil remained attached for the rest of his short life.

Few details of Gregory’s life are known, but hints of the man’s years of pain and suffering suffuse his writings, particularly his “Book of Lamentations.” Written in the waning years of the first Christian millennium, “Lamentations” is a work of prayer considered by scholars as a metaphor for the celebration of the Badarak — an “edifice of faith.”  

a photo of an open manuscript written by St. Gregory of Narek.
A manuscript of St. Gregory of Narek’s “Book of Lamentations,” from 1173. (photo: Yerevantsi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 95 lamentations mirror the different stages of the liturgy, from the dismissal of the catechumens, the profession of faith and Communion to the final prayers in preparation of death and judgment.

The work of St. Gregory of Narek encouraged the development of Classical Armenian as a literary language, even as his work has been translated into many languages and adapted for music. His writings adorn much of the liturgical life of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, including the eucharistic liturgy, which Gregory’s father described as “the great medicine”: 

“We beseech you,” the priest prays silently as he ascends the sanctuary, “with outstretched arms, with tears and sobbing prayers.”

Lamentations as Symbol.  Gregory died, circa 1005, about a year after he completed the final prayer of his masterpiece: 

By your noble and glorious blood, offered unceasingly to please God who sent you, may the dangers be lifted from me, may my transgressions be forgiven, may my vices be pardoned, may my shamelessness be forgotten, may my sentence be commuted, may the worms shrivel, may the wailing stop, and the gnashing of teeth fall silent. 

Let the laments lessen and tears dry. Let mourning end and darkness be banished. May the vengeful fire be stamped out and torments of every kind exiled. … 

May you who grant life to all be compassionate now. Let your light dawn, your salvation be swift, your help arrive in time, and the hour of your arrival be at hand.

Seventy years after Gregory penned these words, Armenia disintegrated when the Seljuk Turks defeated the imperial forces of Byzantium in the Armenian town of Manzikert. As the Byzantine emperor’s army retreated to Constantinople, the Turks and their allies rushed to fill the void, overrunning Armenian and Byzantine territory, including St. Gregory’s Narekavank. 

pope francis and catholicos karekin II stand together in a crowd.
Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin II, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, arrive for an ecumenical meeting and prayer for peace in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, June 25, 2016. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

Nevertheless, Narekavank thrived for a millennium, becoming a notable center of illuminated manuscript production, scholarship, pilgrimage and prayer. Early in the 20th century, the monks founded a boarding school and a seminary within its walls — a source of pride for the influential and wealthy Armenians of Ottoman Turkey. But the development of national movements, which began in the Ottoman provinces of the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities, especially its Armenians.

Fearful of the national aspirations of the empire’s Armenians, nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, agents of the Ottoman sultan assaulted the empire’s Armenian communities and institutions, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria. 

The monastic community of Narekavank was violently dispersed in 1915. Its churches, shrines and the tomb of its great saint, defiled and pillaged. Abandoned and open to the elements, the monastery fell into ruin. Today, nothing remains of this important center of the Armenian Christian tradition — one of the many that sadly mark historical Armenia. The writings of the newest doctor of the church, an “angel in human form,” nevertheless survive, carrying to God the cries of millions of hearts.

Michael La Civita is communications director of CNEWA. 

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