The son of a bishop, Narekatsi 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
Grigor Narekatsi 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.
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 Narekatsi 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 Narekatsi 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 Narekatsi could not have lived solely on literary ecstasy.
Narekatsi 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’yan) is widely considered Narekatsi'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 Narekatsi'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] In 1853 American missionary H. G. O. Dwight wrote that the book "it is esteemed as one of the best specimens of fine writing in the [Armenian] language." 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.
The book's first complete publication was done by Voskan Yerevantsi in Marseille, France in 1673. While the first complete commentary was published in Constantinople in 1745. The work has been translated into English, Russian, French,Arabic and Persian. There are three English translations of the book, with the first one appearing in 1977.
Narekatsi 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 T'amrazyan 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 Narekatsi 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.
Narekatsi 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. Narekatsi also composed music for his odes, but they are not considered sharakans (chants).
Outlook and philosophy
"Narekatsi was the first in Armenian literature to express nature in its full texture and color; man was found to be the greatest of nature's adornments."
The central idea of Narekatsi's philosophy is eternal salvation relying solely upon faith and divine grace, and not necessarily upon the institutional church, in which Narekatsi's views are similar to those of the 16th century ProtestantReformation. This interpretation of Narekatsi as a precursor of Protestantism has more recently been challenged. Narekatsi is believed to 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 Narekatsi 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, Narekatsi followed his predecessor at the monastery of Narek: his great-uncle Anania, who was condemned for supposedly Tondrakian beliefs.
According to Ara Baliozian Narekatsi 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 Narekatsi'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 modern scholars have compared Narekatsi's worldview and philosophy to those of later Sufi mystic poets Rumi and Yunus Emre, and 19th century Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Michael Papazian, a scholar of Narekatsi, 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."
Narekatsi 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 Narekatsi 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" Narekatsi shaped, refined, and greatly enriched Classical Armenian through his works. According to Hrachik Mirzoyan, Narekatsi created up to 2,500 new Armenian words, although many of which are not actively used.
According to Hacikyan et al. Narekatsi "deserves to be known as one of the great mystical writers of medieval Christendom."Vrej Nersessian considers Narekatsi 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. This view has been echoed by Levon Zekiyan. Armenian-born Russian critic Karen A. Stepanyan writes that Narekatsi's genius makes him comparable with Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Dostoevsky.
France-based Western Armenian writer Shahan Shahnour has been Narekatsi'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."
Author and critic Ara Baliozian argues that Narekatsi is "our greatest writer because nobody reads him."Paruyr Sevak opined that the Narek has not been read by Armenians as much it has been kissed.
His name is listed among the saints for 27 February in the Roman Martyrology, where he is defined as "monk, doctor of the Armenians, distinguished for his writings and mystic science." During a mass on June 25, 2016 in Vartanants Square in Gyumri, Francis stated that he "wished to draw greater attention" to Gregory of Narek by making him a Doctor of the Church. In Yerevan's Republic Square Pope Francis suggested that Gregory can "be defined as a 'Doctor of Peace'."
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 Narekatsi, 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, Armenia's 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 Narekatsi 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 Narekatsi. Narekatsi 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 Narekatsi 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.
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^Lamentations of Narek: mystic soliloquies with God, translated by Mischa Kudian, published by Mashtots Press in London in 1977
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^The Book of sadness, translated by Khachatur Khachaturyan, published by Nairi in Yerevan in 2007 ISBN 9785550012116
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^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.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."
^Russell, James R. (2005). Armenian and Iranian Studies. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780935411195. (About the book): A number of studies also deal with the visionaries of the Armenian tradition—Mashtots’, Narekats’i, Ch’arents’.
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^Vinogradov, Leonid (15 September 2018). "Карен Степанян о Достоевском, читавшем Сервантеса, и поисках Бога в литературе". pravmir.ru (in Russian). Orthodoxy and the World. Archived from the original on 28 December 2018.
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^"Catechism of the Catholic Church". vatican.va. Archived from the original on 9 January 2021. But in the Ave Maria, the theotokia, the hymns of St. Ephrem or St. Gregory of Narek, the tradition of prayer is basically the same.
^"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...
^"On the 1700th anniversary of the "Baptism of Armenia"". vatican.va. 2 February 2001. Archived from the original on 9 January 2021. St Gregory of Narek, the great Marian Vardapet (Doctor) of the Armenian Church...
^"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...
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