The son of a bishop, Gregory was educated by a relative based at the Narekavank, the monastery of Narek, on the southern shores of Lake Van (modern Turkey). He was based there almost all his life. He is best known for his Book of Lamentations, a major piece of mystical literature.
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."
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 and was eventually excommunicated by Catholicos Anania Mokatsi for his interpretation of the rank of Catholicos as being equivalent to that of a bishop, based on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Grigor and his elder brother Hovhannes were sent to the Narekavank—the monastery of Narek—where he was given religious education by Anania Narekatsi (Ananias of Narek). The latter was his maternal great-uncle and a celebrated scholar who had elevated the status of Narekavank to new heights. 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. Arshag Chobanian and Manuk Abeghian believe he did, while Hrant Tamrazian 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 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 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 also authored a number of other works. His first 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.Ara Baliozian considers it a prose masterpiece. There is an English translation of the commentary by Roberta Ervine. The commentary was written at the behest of prince Gurgēn-Khach‘ik Artsruni (Գուրգէն-Խաչիկ Արծրունի) of Vaspurakan. Gregory makes frequent use of St. Gregory of Nyssa's Letters on the Song of Songs, though as Ervine points out, he does not slavishly follow Nyssen's reading. The commentary contains explicit condemnation of Tondrakian practices and may have been commissioned to counter heretical teachings attributed to the Tondrakians on marriage and sexuality.
Although the commentary on the Song of Songs is Gregory's only surviving complete commentary on a biblical book, there is also a single extant manuscript of a commentary on chapters 38 and 39 of the Book of Job. A monograph by Arousyak Tamrazyan is devoted to this commentary.
Gregory later wrote hymns, panegyrics on various holy figures, homilies, numerous chants and prayers that are still sung today in Armenian churches. Many of the festal odes and litanies as well as the panegyrics (ներբողք) have been translated and annotated by Abraham Terian. While there is a long tradition of panegyrics and encomia in classical Armenian literature that closely adhere to the Greek rhetorical conventions of this genre, scholars have noted that Gregory often departs from the standards of this tradition and innovates in interesting and distinctive ways. Of particular importance for the understanding of his Mariological teachings are the two recensions of the encomium on the Holy Virgin. In these he affirms the doctrines of Mary's bodily Assumption (Վերափոխումն), perpetual virginity, and perhaps the immaculate conception.
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 (Սուրբ Յակոբ Մծբնացի), a fourth century Syriac bishop who has been and remains today highly esteemed among Armenians. Finally, there is an encomium on the Holy Apostles.
Gregory also authored around two dozen tagher (lays or odes), personal poems that are the first religious poems in Armenian literature, and spiritual songs called gandz, both in verse and prose. Abraham Terian has translated many of Gregory's tagher into English. Gregory also composed music for his odes, but they are not considered sharakans (chants).
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. Namely, Christian Neoplatonic 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 criticized. Soviet philologist 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.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 created up to 2,500 new Armenian words, although many of which are not actively used.
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."
Paruyr Sevak opined that the Narek has not been read by Armenians as much as it has been kissed.
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] Furthermore, his contemporary historian Ukhtanes (c. 940-1000) called Gregory a "Universal vardapet" («Տիեզերական վարդապետ»), while Nerses Lambronatsi (1153-1198) called him "an angel in a human body" («հրեշտակական վարդապետ»).
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." 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 September 2, 2015. On 5 April 2018 a two-meter-high bronze statue of Gregory, erected by Davit Yerevantsi, 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".
^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 2018-12-28. Retrieved 2018-12-30.((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.
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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.