The son of a bishop, Gregory was educated, ordained and later stationed at Narekavank, on the southern shores of Lake Van (modern Turkey). Gregory is considered by scholars of being the most beloved and significant theological and literary figure of the Armenian religious tradition.
He is best known for his Book of Lamentations, a major piece of mystical literature, a confessional prayer book present in every Armenian religious household. His works have inspired many Armenian literary figures and influenced the Armenian literature in general throughout the ages.
Life and background
Gregory was based throughout his life at the monastery of Narek (Narekavank), seen here circa 1900. His chapel-mausoleum was located inside the monastery walls before it was destroyed in the mid-20th century.
Gregory's birth and death dates are placed by scholars circa 945–951 and 1003 or 1010–11, respectively. He lived in the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, which is "notable for the high cultural level that it achieved." Vaspurakan, centered around Lake Van, is a region described by Richard Hovannisian as "the cradle of Armenian civilization".
Little is known about his life. He was born in a village on the southern shores of Lake Van, in what is now eastern Turkey, to Khosrov Andzevatsi, a relative of the Artsruni royal family. Khosrov was ordained a bishop after being widowed and was appointed primate of the diocese of Andzevatsik. His father was suspected of pro-Byzantine Chalcedonian beliefs, a doctrine not accepted by the Armenian Apostolic Church, and was eventually excommunicated by Catholicos Anania Mokatsi for undermining the Armenian Church with his interpretation of the rank of Catholicos, the highest rank in Armenian church clergy, as being equivalent to that of a bishop, a lower rank in Christian churches, based on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century Greek Christian theologian and mysticist. Grigor and his elder brother Hovhannes were sent to the Narekavank (lit. the monastery of Narek) where he was given religious education by Anania Narekatsi (Ananias of Narek). The latter was his maternal great-uncle, who was a celebrated scholar and the founder of the monastery. Being raised in an intellectual and religious fervor, Grigor was ordained priest in 977 and taught others theology at the monastery school until his death.
Whether Gregory led a secluded life or not has become a matter of debate among Armenian scholars. Both literary critic Arshag Chobanian and scholar Manuk Abeghian believe he did, while literary critic Hrant Tamrazyan [hy] argued that Gregory was very well aware of the secular world and his time, had deep knowledge of both peasants and princes and the complexities of the world. Tamrazian believes he could not have lived solely on literary ecstasy.
Gregory was buried inside the walls of the monastery of Narek. A rectangular-shaped chapel-mausoleum was built on his tomb, which survived until the mid-20th century, when the monastery, abandoned in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide, was destroyed by the Turkish authorities, and later replaced with a mosque.
Book of Lamentations (Narek)
A 1173 manuscript of the Book of Lamentations
The Book of Lamentations (Classical Armenian: Մատեան ողբերգութեան, Matean voghbergut’ean) is widely considered Gregory's masterpiece. It is often simply called Narek (Նարեկ). Completed towards the end of his life, circa 1002–03, the work has been described as a monologue, a personal lyric and confessional poem, mystical and meditative. It is composed of 95 chapters and over 10,000 lines. Almost all chapters (except two) are titled "Words unto God from the Depths of My Heart". The chapters, which are prayers or elegies, vary in length, but all address God. The central theme is the metaphysical and existential conflict between Gregory's desire to be perfect, as taught by Jesus, and his own realization that it is impossible and between the divine grace and his own sense of one's own unworthiness to receive that grace. However, the love and mercy of the all-embracing, all-forgiving, and amazing grace of God compensates the unworthiness of man.
The book is considered a masterpiece of Christian spiritual literature and has been described by Agop Jack Hacikyan et al. as the "most beloved work of Armenian literature." It has been historically kept in Armenian homes. Scholars have described its popularity among Armenians as being second only to the Bible.[d] For centuries, Armenians have treasured the book as an enchanted treasure and have attributed to it miraculous powers. For instance, one passage has been read to the ill in expectation of a cure. In the 21st century, psychiatrist Armen Nersisyan has claimed to have developed a unique type of therapy based on the book, which can cure many diseases, at least partly.
Gregory's second most known extant work is a commentary on the Song of Songs (Մեկնութիւն երգոց երգոյն Սողոմոնի, Meknutiun yergots yergoyn Soghomoni), written in 977, the year he was ordained a priest. The commentary was written at the behest of prince Gurgen-Khachik Artsruni of Vaspurakan. Gregory makes frequent use of St. Gregory of Nyssa's Letters on the Song of Songs. The commentary contains explicit condemnation of marriage and sexuality practises by Tondrakians, an Armenian Christian sect named as heretics by the Armenian Apostolic Church.  Gregory may have been commissioned to counter these heretical teachings. Armenian author Ara Baliozian describes the commentary as a prose masterpiece.
The encomium on the Holy Virgin was written as part of a triptych requested by the bishop Step'anos of Mokk'. The other two panegyrics forming this set are the History of the Holy Cross of Aparank', which commemorates the donation of a relic of the True Cross to the monastery of Aparank' by the Byzantine emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII, and the Encomium on the Holy Cross. By focusing on the cross, both of these panegyrics counter Tondrakian rejection of veneration of the cross and other material objects. Here again, as in the rest of Gregory's corpus, we see that the saint defends orthodoxy against the Tondrakians and other heretical movements. Gregory also wrote a panegyric on St. Jacob of Nisibis, a fourth century Syriac bishop who has been and remains today highly esteemed among Armenians. Gregory also has is an encomium on the Holy Apostles.
Gregory also authored around two dozen tagher (lays or odes), that are the first documented religious poems in Armenian literature, and spiritual songs called gandz, both in verse and prose. Gregory also composed music for his odes, but they are not considered sharakans (chants).
Many of the festal odes and litanies as well as the panegyrics have been translated to English and annotated by Abraham Terian.
Outlook and philosophy
The central idea of Gregory's philosophy is eternal salvation relying solely upon faith and divine grace, and not necessarily upon the institutional church, in which his views are similar to those of the 16th century ProtestantReformation. This interpretation of Gregory as a precursor of Protestantism has more recently been challenged. Gregory may have been suspected of heresy and being sympathetic to the Paulicians and Tondrakians—two major sects in medieval Armenia. He notably wrote a treatise against the Tondrakians in the 980s, possibly to clear himself of accusations of being sympathetic to their movement. In the treatise he states some of his theological views. Although Gregory does not mention the Tondrakians in the Book of Lamentations, some scholars have interpreted certain chapters as containing anti-Tondrakian elements. Other scholars have pointed out that the Book of Lamentation is dominated by the theme of the centrality of the sacraments, especially baptism, reconciliation, and the Eucharist, and thus directly opposes Tondrakian deprecation of the sacraments. In his struggle against the antinomian Tondrakians, Gregory followed his predecessor at the monastery of Narek—his great-uncle Anania, who was condemned for his alleged Tondrakian beliefs.
According to Ara Baliozian Gregory broke from Hellenistic thought, which was dominant among the Armenian intellectual elite since the 5th-century golden age. He was instead deeply influenced by Neoplatonism. In fact, the Narek school was instrumental in instilling Christian Neoplatonism in Armenian theology, particularly concepts such as divinization, the attainment of the power of spiritual vision or discernment through penitential purification of the inner and outer man, and of a symbolic exegetical methodology. He may have been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a pivotal author in Christian Neoplatonism, although this view has been challenged. Vache Nalbandian argued that Gregory's outlook is essentially anti-feudal and humanistic.
The tone of the Book of Lamentations has been compared to that of Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. Some scholars have compared Gregory's worldview and philosophy to those of later Sufi mystic poets Rumi and Yunus Emre, and 19th century Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and A. K. Tolstoy. Michael Papazian, a scholar of Gregory, opined that he is "what you’d get if you crossed Augustine and James Joyce. But his spirituality is also infused with the simple piety of the Desert Fathers; and, although he lived before him, there’s an element of St. Francis in him, too. He’s a synthesis of so many strands of Christian tradition."
Gregory was the first major Armenian lyrical poet and is considered the most beloved person in Armenian Christianity.Robert W. Thomson described him as the "most significant poet of the whole Armenian religious tradition," while Jos Weitenberg declared him the "most outstanding theological, mystical and literary figure of Armenian culture."James R. Russell lists Gregory as one of the three visionaries of the Armenian tradition, along with Mesrop Mashtots and Yeghishe Charents.
According to Hacikyan et al. Gregory of Narek "deserves to be known as one of the great mystical writers of medieval Christendom."Vrej Nersessian considers him a "poet of world stature" in the "scope and breadth of his intellect and poetic inventiveness, and in the brooding, visionary quality of his language"—on a par with St Augustine, Dante, and Edward Taylor.Levon Zekiyan shares a similar view, describing Gregory as a unique figure not just in Armenian national and ecclesiastical culture, but also that of the entire globe. Nersessian argues that Gregory of Narek ranks with St. Augustine and Thomas à Kempis as "one the three greatest mystic writers in medieval Christendom, his monumental Lamentations joins the former’s Confessions, and the latter’s Imitation of Christ to form a natural trilogy." Armenian-Russian critic Karen Stepanyan [ru] writes that Gregory's genius makes him comparable with Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Dostoevsky.
Agop Jack Hacikyan et al. note that through his "lively, vibrant, and highly individual style" Gregory shaped, refined, and greatly enriched Classical Armenian through his works. According to Hrachik Mirzoyan, Gregory may have created more than 2,500 new Armenian words, including, լուսանկար, lusankar, a portrait or image, and օդաչու, odachu, a person who flies, pilot. Many of the words Gregory created are not actively used or have been replaced by other words.
France-based Western Armenian writer Shahan Shahnour has been Gregory's most prominent critic. Shahnour targeted him in his novel Retreat Without Song (Նահանջը առանց երգի, published in 1929) through one of his characters. The latter describes the Book of Lamentations as "the most immoral, unhealthy, poisonous book, a work that had debilitated the Armenians as a nation. The Armenians remain defeated in trying to emulate Grigor's miserable, maimed soul." Criticizing the book's influence on rooting the notion of fate in Armenian popular belief and for making Armenians "conventional, patient, tolerant, suffocating the freedom-loving spirit in [them]."
Paruyr Sevak opined that the Narek has not been read by Armenians as much as it has been kissed.
A bas-relief of Gregory of Narek on the wall of the Armenian Cathedral of Moscow. He is depicted as holding the Book of Lamentations with "Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart" engraved on it.
Gregory of Narek is a saint of both the Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic churches. The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates his feast on the second Saturday of October, during the Feast of the Holy Translators (Սուրբ Թարգմանչաց, Surb T’argmanchats). Dedicated to him, Mesrop Mashtots, Yeghishe, Movses Khorenatsi, David the Invincible, and Nerses Shnorhali, it was declared a national holiday in Armenia in 2001. The exact date of his canonization by the Armenian Church is unknown, but he was already recognized as a saint by 1173, when Nerses Lambronatsi included, in the earliest extant manuscript of the Book of Lamentations, a biographical section on him entitled "The Life of the Holy Man of God Grigor Narekatsi".[e] His contemporary, historian Ukhtanes (c. 940-1000) called Gregory a "Universal vardapet" («Տիեզերական վարդապետ»).
In the 15th century, when the Catholicosate of Aghtamar was at the center of efforts to revive Armenian statehood, monks at the Cathedral of Aghtamar sought to construct a tradition that would link the Catholicosate to Gregory of Narek. One such tradition claimed that Gregory himself had founded the Catholicosate. In ritual books commissioned by Zakaria III and Stepanos IV, Gregory is depicted more than just equal-to-the-apostles.
Gregory became the 36th and the first Armenian Doctor of the Church. He is also the "second saint coming out of the Eastern Church" to become a Doctor and the only Doctor "who was not in communion with the Catholic Church during his lifetime."[g] St. Gregory's proclamation as a Doctor of the Church was commemorated by the Vatican City state with a postage stamp put into circulation on 2 September 2015. On 5 April 2018 a two-meter-high bronze statue of Gregory, erected by Davit Yerevantsi [hy], was unveiled at the Vatican Gardens by Mikael Minasyan, Armenia's Ambassador to the Holy See. The inaugural ceremony was attended by Pope Francis, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Armenian Apostolic leaders Karekin II and Aram I.
Narek (Western Armenian: Nareg) is highly popular male first name among Armenians. In 2018 it was the second most common name given to baby boys. It originates from the village and monastery of Narek and owns its popularity to Gregory of Narek and the Book of Lamentations, popularly known as "Narek." The village of Narek in Armenia's Ararat Province was named after Gregory in 1984.
The Narekatsi Professorship of Armenian Language and Culture, established in 1969, is the oldest endowed chair of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In Yerevan, a public school (established in 1967 and renamed in 1990) and a medical center (established in 2003) are named after Gregory. Gregory is depicted on a postage stamp issued by Armenia in 2001. The Naregatsi Art Institute (Նարեկացի Արվեստի Միություն), has its headquarters in Yerevan, Armenia (since 2004) and a center in Shushi, Karabakh (since 2006).
A statue of Gregory was erected in Yerevan's Malatia-Sebastia district in 2002. A large stone resembling an old manuscript with inscribed lines and images from the Book of Lamentations was unveiled in the Narekatsi quarter of Yerevan's Avan district in 2010.
Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke composed music for the Russian translation of the Book of Lamentations in 1985 named “Concerto for mixed chorus".
^Del Cogliano clarifies that this was facilitated by a "common declaration of faith in Christ" by Pope John Paul II and Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin I which confirmed that the two churches "believe the same things about Christ, even if they express these things in different language" that has led to unfortunate divisions since the Second Council of Constantinople; "this statement effectively exonerates St. Gregory of any 'Christological' errors: even if St. Gregory was not in communion with the Catholic Church, in doctrinal matters there was complete agreement."
^Douglas, John M. (1992). The Armenians. J.J. Winthrop Corporation. p. 177. It was a custom for every Armenian household to have a copy of Nareg.
^Svajian, Stephen G. (1977). A Trip Through Historic Armenia. GreenHill Pub. p. 79. Krikor Naregatzi, a mystic Armenian poet of the Xth Century, wrote his masterpiece, the Nareg, which had replaced the Bible in many Armenian homes.
^ abWeitenberg, Jos J. S. (2008). "Reviewed Work: Saint Grégoire de Narek théologicien et mystique. Colloque international tenu à l'Institut Pontifical Oriental... 20–22 janvier 2005 by Jean-Pierre Mahé, Boghos Levon Zekiyan". Vigiliae Christianae. 62 (1): 100–101. JSTOR20474849.
^Kebranian, N. (2012). "Armenian poetry and poetics". In Cushman, Stephen; Cavanagh, Clare; Ramazani, Jahan; Rouzer, Paul (eds.). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (4th ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 83. ISBN9781400841424.
^Darbinyan-Melikyan, Margarita (2015). "И с горной выси я сошёл..."Literaturnaya Gazeta (in Russian) (6). Archived from the original on 28 December 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2018.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)() "Думается мне, что с Григором Нарекаци и своим творчеством, и как личность сопоставим граф А.К. Толстой, отличавшийся редким благородством как души, так и внешности."
^"General Audience". vatican.va. 18 October 2000. Archived from the original on 9 January 2021. Let us express our desire for the divine life offered in Christ in the warm tones of a great theologian of the Armenian Church, Gregory of Narek (10th century): "It is not for his gifts...
^"General Audience". vatican.va. 13 November 2002. Archived from the original on 9 January 2021. Let us now listen to a teacher of the Armenian tradition, Gregory of Narek (c. 950–1010), who in his Panegyric Address to the Blessed Virgin Mary says to her: "Taking refuge under your most worthy and powerful intercession...
^"Angelus". vatican.va. 18 February 2001. Archived from the original on 9 January 2021. One of Our Lady's principal poets is the great doctor of the Armenian Church, St Gregory of Narek.
^Եղիշե Չարենց, Երկերի ժողովածու, հատոր 1-ին [Yeghishe Charents, Collected works, vol. 1] (in Armenian). Yerevan: Armenian SSR Academy of Sciences Press. 1962. p. 245. Նարեկացի, Շնորհալի, Նաղաշ Հովնաթան— Ինչքա՜ն հանճար, խելք ես տեսել— էլի՛ կտեսնես:
^Hakobian, T. Kh.; Melik-Bakhshian, St. T.; Barseghian, H. Kh. (1988). "Նարեկ [Narek]". Հայաստանի և հարակից շրջանների տեղանունների բառարան [Dictionary of Toponyms of Armenia and Surrounding Regions] Volume II (in Armenian). Yerevan University Press. p. 969. 1984 թ. կոչվել է Ն՝ ի պատիվ մեծ բանաստեղծ Գրիգոր Նարեկացու...
Hacikyan, Agop Jack; Basmajian, Gabriel; Franchuk, Edward S.; Ouzounian, Nourhan (2002). "Grigor Narekatsi". The Heritage of Armenian Literature: From the sixth to the eighteenth century. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp. 274-279. ISBN9780814330234.
La Porta, Sergio (2016). "Monasticism and the construction of the Armenian intellectual tradition". In Murzaku, Ines Angeli (ed.). Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics. Routledge. pp. 330–350. ISBN9781317391050.
Terian, Abraham (2016). The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. ISBN978-0814663189.
Poghosyan, Samvel (October 2014). "Grigor Narekatsi's astronomical insights". Relation of Astronomy to Other Sciences, Culture and Society. Proceedings of XIII Annual Meeting of Armenian Astronomical Society: 380. Bibcode:2015rasc.conf..380P.