'A Doctor of Peace': St. Gregory of Narek

“Remember, [Lord,] … those of the human race who are our enemies as well, and for their benefit accord them pardon and mercy … Do not destroy those who persecute me, but reform them, root out the vile ways of this world, and plant the good in me and them.”

By Kimberly Bruce

On April 12, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, Pope Francis proclaimed St. Gregory of Narek, priest, monk, poet, and saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to be a Doctor of the Catholic Church. Already referenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for his hymns and prayers to the Mother of God, St. Gregory (feast day: Feb. 27) is also referenced by St. John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater for his poems pertaining to the Incarnation and the Blessed Virgin. In 2016, at an Ecumenical Meeting and Prayer for Peace in Armenia, Pope Francis also called St. Gregory a “Doctor of Peace.”

Born at the end of the 10th century in 950 AD, St. Gregory lived in an Armenian village on Lake Van located in what is now eastern Turkey. After the death of their parents, while still young boys, both Gregory and one or two of his brothers were raised by an uncle who was a monk at the nearby Narek Monastery. Gregory was ordained a priest around age 25 and began teaching at the monastery.

Book of Prayer
The saint’s greatest claim to fame is his Book of Lamentations, or “book of prayer,” as it is also known. Saint Gregory decided to write the book after he was asked to answer the following question at his monastery: “What can one offer to God, our creator, who already has everything and knows everything better than we could ever express it?” Saint Gregory’s answer to that question was simply “the sighs of the heart.” Thus, his Book of Lamentations was born. Comprised of 95 prayers, it was completed a year before the saint’s death in 1003.

Saint Gregory called his Book of Lamentations “an encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” He hoped that one day it would guide people in all walks of life to prayer. It is considered an Armenian classic. It has been translated into 30 different languages, and in 1985, its Russian text was even set to music!

Saint Gregory’s “book of prayer” emphasizes the sacramental life, especially Baptism, but also focuses on Reconciliation and the Eucharist. These topics were especially important in the saint’s day because the Tondrakian heresy, among others, was circulating and was directly opposed to the Sacraments. Saint Gregory was instrumental in helping to combat this heresy via his Book of Lamentations, his commentary on the Song of Songs, and his Encomium on the Holy Cross (writings praising the Holy Cross). The Tondrakians rejected the veneration of the Cross as well as of other material objects.

To be perfect
All the chapters in the Book of Lamentations address God, and most begin with St. Gregory’s exultation: “Words unto God from the Depths of My Heart.” The chapters speak to man’s desire to be perfect as Christ is perfect, but recognize that, as humans, we are not. We need God’s grace and mercy, as St. Gregory points out, to compensate for our weaknesses and unworthiness.

Another famous compilation of St. Gregory’s thought is his mystical interpretation and commentary on King Solomon’s biblical Song of Songs. Celebrated for its theology and clarity, it is believed that St. Gregory wrote this after being commissioned to do so by Prince Gurgen-Khachik Artsruni of Vaspurakan. He also penned a commentary on chapters 38 and 39 from the Book of Job.

Pope Francis expressed that St. Gregory was a great proponent of God’s mercy. He said the saint “gave voice to the cry ... of a sinful and sorrowful humanity, oppressed by the anguish of its powerlessness, but illuminated by the splendour of God’s love and open to the hope of his salvific intervention, which is capable of transforming all things.” The Pope continued, citing St. Gregory’s words, “Through his strength I wait with certain expectation believing with unwavering hope that ... I shall be saved by the Lord’s mighty hand and ... that I will see the Lord himself in his mercy and compassion and receive the legacy of Heaven.”

Have mercy
Pope Francis commented on St. Gregory’s striking words beseeching our Lord to have mercy on humanity by offering himself in reparation. Says the saint, “I willingly blame myself with myriad accounts of all the incurable sins, from our first forefather through the end of his generations in all eternity, I charge myself with all these voluntarily.” Says the Pope, “How small we feel before the greatness of his invocations.” And how reminiscent of our Lord’s words upon the Cross are the saint’s words: “Remember, [Lord,] … those of the human race who are our enemies as well, and for their benefit accord them pardon and mercy … Do not destroy those who persecute me, but reform them, root out the vile ways of this world, and plant the good in me and them.”

These words of this Doctor of our Church show just how much St. Gregory sought to identify with sinners in every age, and how fervently he interceded for us, trusting in God’s gracious mercy. Said Pope Francis, “He became ‘the intercessor of the whole world.’” He desired mercy for the whole of humanity, and he wasn’t afraid to suffer on our behalf in expiation.

Saint Gregory passed away in 1003 and was buried within the Narek Monastery. He is depicted holding his “book of prayer.” Several miracles have been attributed to him. A chapel and mausoleum were built upon his tomb, but they were destroyed after the Armenian genocide, when the Turks replaced it with a mosque.

Many of his chants, hymns, and prayers are still sung today in Armenian churches. Some are noted for their affirmation of the doctrines of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother Mary, her perpetual virginity, and possibly even her Immaculate Conception. In his Angelus address on Feb. 18, 2001, St. John Paul II said the Armenian peoples’ veneration of Mary runs deep. They address her as “Queen of Armenia.” Their liturgy, said St. John Paul II, “has a distinctly Marian character.” It is St. Gregory of Narek, said the Pope, that is “one of Our Lady’s principal poets.”

Saint Gregory of Narek, intercede for us, and help us to love all with the merciful love of Christ as you did. Amen!
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