On April 12, during the Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome dedicated to the Armenian Genocide Martyrs, Pope Francis declared St. Gregory of Narek a universal doctor or teacher of the Catholic Church. The juxtaposing of martyrdom with sainthood was not accidental. The Armenians are a martyred nation and have paid dearly for the sake of sanctity and truth. It is with this spirit of martyrdom that this nation, resurrected from the ashes of genocide and victorious over death, offers one of its greatest saints to humanity.

     This event was a historic turning point. The holiness of St. Gregory of Narek, his intercession and legacy are henceforth a source of spiritual edification and life transformation in the Catholic world. This was not so much an honor for St. Gregory, for saints are honored by God, beside which human honors pale. Rather, through this new universal recognition of his sainthood, St. Gregory became for the multitudes a living reality and teaching and a source of blessings and enlightenment. Humanity has been presented with a great opportunity to learn from this thousand-year-old saint and to be guided by his writings.

     The Book of Lamentations (Narek) holds a special place in the literary legacy that has reached us from St. Gregory of Narek. It was written circa 1000 AD and has lived on for over a thousand years as one of the masterpieces of Armenian identity. The author's introduction suggests that it was written at the request of his brethren, monastics, and ascetics. In this respect the Narek is a crystallization of the concentration of ascetic-contemplative life, the search for perfection of numerous men and the spiritual ideals of the time. Long-revered as miraculous, the Narek is said to have healing powers and to inspire life-changing transformations. It is considered by Armenians as the holiest literary treasure after the Bible.

     This is a prayer book with rich theological and mystical contents. It laments the tragedy of human life separated from God and points to profound repentance as the way to reuniting with God. Human liberation and reconnection with God are the main themes of the book. This is perhaps the most profound literary work written in the genre of prayer. Rather than a one-sided appeal to God, it is a dialogue with the Heavenly Father who loves His children deeply. The book breaks the mould of conventionality, which is an obstacle to apprehending an infinite God for the finite, sinful and futile condition of humankind. The Narek is an amazing expression of freedom of communication with God.

     Prayer is the most natural state of a human soul. As the physical body cannot live without oxygen, the human soul cannot live without prayer. Prayer is the breath of the soul. Everyone prays, consciously or not. As all plants reach toward light, human souls strive for heaven. In fact, every meaningful word is a prayer. When we talk about something and believe that what we say makes sense and that this meaning is ultimately connected to some higher meaning, then we place an element of prayer in the symbolism of words. Prayer in itself is the highest form of communication as a purifying communion with the source of meaning. In this sense, the human ability to speak is a solemn performance through which ideas are embodied and the formless assumes a shape. The Son of God appears to us in the symbolism of speech, showing the supreme essence of the word in creation… “And the Word was God… And the Word became flesh…”

     The Book awakens us and shows the importance of prayers and spirituality in our lives. Absent the spiritual, human life risks disaster and absurdity. People often sense this intuitively, but they cannot perceive the solution. As a comprehensive depiction of human tragedy, the Narek provides us with an opportunity to begin our ascent to perfection from the depths of our being, eradicating the deep-rooted causes of distortions in our lives, and allows us to seek communion with God not in the distant, hazy uncertainty but within ourselves — in our inner temple. How? Through prayers. According to St. Gregory, the prayer is the offering of words served on the inner altar of our heart, which must be offered with the complete strength and richness of our soul. Our sacrifice is acceptable if it is sincere and complete. We must perfectly offer ourselves to God. And when God accepts us, then we are His. Through the offering of prayer, we become fully Human, in the image and likeness of God.

     Historically, several accusations were made against St. Gregory of Narek. Initially, it appears there were canonical and dogmatic accusations against his father Khosrov Andzevatsi, and his teacher Anania of Narek, who were the luminous figures of 10th-century Armenian theology. Another reason might be St. Gregory’s spiritual ties with or respectfulness toward the foremost clergy from other traditions. The third and main reason is the unique freedom expressed through his work, which shook the foundations of fossilized church circles.

     Opinions about the Narek have not been unequivocal. The book is not easy to digest. Reading it requires focused spiritual efforts. Thus, it was very popular in monastic environments, setting higher criteria for those who aspired for spiritual perfection and contemplative life. In secular circles, people have simply believed in the Narek’s exceptional spiritual power often without even reading the book, sometimes ascribing magical properties to it, bordering on idolatry. For over a thousand years, the Armenian people turned the Narek into a touchstone of national identity. Earthly suffering led people to see the source of their identity in the spiritual realm. Today, secular notions of spiritual perfection have rendered the book less accessible to modern readers. Nevertheless, the book continues to play a key role in the life of the Armenian people.

     The book does not mention "Armenia" or "Armenian,” although it does make reference to Mt. Ararat, a mountain sacred in Biblical and Armenian traditions. The author states that his writing is a universal message to God, bringing together the voices of seekers the world over. On the other hand, he also says that the author of the book is not himself, but God, that is to say, the book is the echo of the human quest for the divine. And this book makes that echo audible. He makes a prediction that through this book people from all over the world will communicate with God. And indeed, his prediction has come true, as the book is translated into many languages and read by the faithful worldwide. However, inadequate translation may be to convey the nuances of St. Gregory’s creativity, the universality of the message comes through and works its transformational wonder across time and geography.

     Surely the declaration of Narekatsi as a Doctor by the Roman Church will serve as a cause for new translations, research, and commentaries on the Book of Lamentations. All this will also bring human distortion. Narekatsi’s richly complex expression sometimes becomes a distraction for the wanderers in spiritual ambiguity. Indeed, the Narek is at once a pinnacle of language, thought, theology, and philosophy. However, we should bear in mind that it is entirely the culmination of potent spiritual experience. One should enter a temple through the door. Other ways of entering a temple are shameful. The entrance to this book-temple is prayer, as stated by the author. Humanity has the opportunity to be guided by this living book of prayer. However, first and foremost, we, the stewards of the Narek, beyond cherishing it, must open this book and speak with God.

  • Fr. Mesrop Aramian