February 27: St. Gregory of Narek, Abbot and Doctor

Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
Widely venerated in Armenia


<<<      A mystical Eastern monk praises God like a troubadour      >>>

A crowning glory of the Armenian people is that their nation was the first to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Approximately twelve years before the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, an Armenian King converted to Christianity. Following the universal custom of mankind, the King’s religion then became his people’s. Though the actual conversion of individual souls required decades of subsequent evangelical effort, this early baptism of an entire nation has granted the Armenian Apostolic Church unique status as the custodian of Armenian national identity. Living proof of Armenia’s ancient Christian pedigree is found in the old city of Jerusalem. An Armenian patriarch, cathedral, and seminary anchor the peaceful Armenian Quarter, one of the four neighborhoods packed behind the walls of the city where it all began.

Today’s saint, Gregory of Narek, was a medieval Armenian monk who wrote mystical poetry, hymns, and biblical commentaries. He is one of Armenia’s greatest literary figures and poets. His principal work, the “Book of Lamentations,” consists of ninety-five prayers he composed as an encyclopedia of prayer for all people. The twentieth-century Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that while Western Medieval piety developed the rosary as a lay substitute for praying the Psalms, the Armenian tradition developed hymns and songs to Mary as the primary expression of popular piety, as seen in the works of St. Gregory of Narek (CCC #2678). Pope Saint John Paull II also referenced St. Gregory in his encyclical on Mary, Redemptoris Mater: “…with powerful poetic inspiration (St. Gregory) ponders the…mystery of the Incarnation, …an occasion to sing and extol the extraordinary dignity and magnificent beauty of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Word made flesh” (31).

Like St. Ephrem, a centuries-earlier Syrian archetype of Eastern monasticism, St. Gregory uses metaphor, songs, litanies, and poetry to communicate Christian truth. The Western tradition, especially since the time of St. Augustine, tends to communicate the truths of Christianity in less artistic ways—through close reasoning, apologetics, the synthesis of Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine, and by showing the internal harmony of Scriptural texts.

The Armenian Christian tradition, like related ancient churches born near the cradle of mankind, has not sharpened its sword of thought by constant clashing with enemy metal, as has occurred in the West. The benefit of a monoculture—of a people who all speak the same language, kneel before the same God, profess the same faith, and sing the same songs—is deep unity. A monoculture has no need to hone arguments. When everyone agrees on the fundamentals, when the tapestry of a culture is not torn or frayed, the writer, priest, poet, composer, or monk can sing, whistle, ruminate, and dream like a madman or a troubadour. When he describes a rainbow as God’s bow in the sky, hears the sweet voice of Mary in a lark, imagines a devilish sea-monster lurking in the wine-dark sea, or is convinced that the blood dripping from the side of Christ soaks and sanctifies the earth itself, the faithful quietly nod in agreement and humbly whisper: “Thus it is. Thus it shall always be.”

Little is known of the life of St. Gregory of Narek, other than that he was a dedicated monk who lived his entire adult life in a monastery situated in todays’ eastern Turkey, in the Armenian homeland between the Black and Caspian Seas. Saint Gregory’s essence is truly to be found in the spaces between his words. He is his writings. Saint Gregory was never formally canonized, a not uncommon fact for holy men and women of his era. During a Mass in 2015 commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks, Pope Francis declared St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church, the thirty-sixth person so honored and only the second from the churches of the East.

Surprisingly, St. Gregory was not a Catholic, though he did pertain to an apostolic church with legitimate sacraments and a hierarchical structure which, however, is not in formal communion with Rome. The narrow theological arteries that run east from Constantinople become thinner as they spread ever eastward, often terminating in ecclesiastical cardiac arrest—in churches without people, in thrones without bishops, in altars without sacrifices, and in monasteries without monks. It is one of the holy obligations of the still robust Roman Church to exalt those whom others cannot, to witness to beauty wherever it may be found, and to call Christian leaders to gather in the immensity of St. Peter’s Basilica to anoint the memory of a gifted Christian of long ago with the noble title of doctor.

Saint Gregory of Narek, your quiet, humble, and hidden life produced a rich garden of poems and prayers. May your redolent words and rich images fire our imaginations and inflame our hearts so that our flame of faith burns as hot as yours in its love for Christ and Mary.

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