The golden age of the Armenian civilization is personified by Gregory of Narek — priest and poet, theologian and philosopher, monk and mystic.
Gregory was born in the year 951 to a family dedicated to the church; his father Khosrov Antsevatsi served as a bishop and theologian of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After his wife’s death, the bishop entrusted the boy to the care of an uncle, Anania. A respected scholar, mystic and monk, Anania founded the Narek Monastery on the shores of Lake Van in eastern Anatolia and 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 considered by scholars a metaphor for the preparation and celebration of the Divine Liturgy — an “edifice of faith,” to use the poet’s words.
The 95 Lamentations are grouped together, mirroring 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. His writings also adorn the liturgical rites of the ancient Armenian Church, including the Badarak, or eucharistic liturgy, which Gregory’s father described as “the great medicine”: “We beseech you,” the priest says to himself as he ascends the sanctuary, “with outstretched arms, with tears and sobbing prayers.”
St. Gregory’s monastery thrived for nearly a millennium, but it did not survive the bloodshed known to the Armenian community as the Armenian Genocide (1915-1922), in which some 1.5 million Armenians — as well as Assyrians, Chaldeans, Greeks and Syriac Christians — died. Yet, the writings of this “angel in human form” survive, carrying to God the cries of millions of hearts.
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.