When St. Gregory of Narek (951-1003) was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church by the Catholic Church in 2015, few outside the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church in Armenia seemed to have heard of him. After the announcement, those who read the saint’s available writings in translation soon came to wonder how this great Christian poet had escaped notice.
In the United States, readers largely based their assessment on a work printed in Armenia that had been accessible for more than a dozen years: Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayer Book of St. Gregory of Narek (Vem Press, 2015).
Translated by Thomas J. Samuelian, with editing by Diana Der Hovanessian, Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart is a version of Gregory’s book of penitential and mystical poetry, or lamentations, which is considered one of the greatest works of Armenian poetry and one that helped secure Gregory’s place as Armenia’s first great poet.
Consisting of ninety-five prayerful poems and a postscript, the prayer book was composed by Gregory of Narek with the help of his brother John in the year 1001. Samuelian initially translated the book to commemorate Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as its state religion in the year 301.
Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart is a remarkable book reminiscent of the Psalms. In Gregory of Narek, readers also can discover a Christian poet of the quality of St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Romanus the Melodist, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and similar poets. They also can discover a poet with the mystical sensibility of St. John of the Cross, one who inventively reveals the inner workings of his own mind and soul similar to perhaps the greatest of early Christian poets, St. Gregory Nazianzus.
Gregory (whose name also is translated as Grigor Narekatsi), tells us in the opening stanza of his first prayer that he wrote the book as a sacrificial offering. In each of these prayers, we find a master of metaphor who opens his heart to the Lord. In Prayer 22, for instance, Gregory writes of his body using the metaphor of a horse:
My body, the grievous tormentor of my soul,
wounded, untreatable, beyond care or recovery,
is like a talking horse with a callous mouth,
breaking my reins and shaking off my bit,
a surly, wild and incorrigible colt ….
In Prayer 35, he builds on Peter’s fall and Our Lord’s extension of his hand to save Peter to speak of his own struggles:
In the manner of Peter, seeking to follow you, God of all,
I was swallowed by the waves of the sea of my sinful life.
Extend your life-giving right hand to help me, for I am foundering.
Although the book is best read straight through, it can also be used for the study of Scripture or for particular needs. For each of the prayers Samuelian has provided the Scripture passages Gregory references. He also provides an index of themes so that a reader can consult them for prayer in different circumstances. These themes include healing, hope, love, pardon, and repentance.
Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart is an excellent prayer book, one that you can carry with you for quiet moments of reflection and self-examination. It also is a fine collection of poetry containing the wisdom of a monk and spiritual master who rightfully stands with the greatest of Christian poets.
While it complements Gregory’s penitential poetry, The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia (Liturgical Press), the first appearance of these works in English translation, is a different sort of book.
Translated and annotated by Abraham Tertian, The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek will be of greatest interest to scholars in the fields of religion, history, and literature. Like Samuelian’s translation, however, it too is a book that should capture the interest of poets and general readers seeking deep spiritual reading for reflection.
Terian, an emeritus professor of Armenian theology and patristics, offers the reader comprehensive background material on Gregory of Narek, as well as analysis of each of the poems and odes. His analysis helps the reader understand Gregory’s use of poetic forms, his Scriptural knowledge, his use of metaphor and alliteration, and his reasons for their composition. Terian’s extensive footnotes offer further insight.
Because they were written for festal occasions, some commissioned, these works, Terian notes, are celebratory. Among these occasions are the nativity, Our Lord’s raising of Lazarus, the Ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Cross, and the Holy Virgin.
Terian’s translation of these works truly captures their celebratory nature and Gregory’s skill as poet and writer. Gregory demonstrates his skill at using a traditional liturgical form as well as his ability to write of Scripture inventively even when he uses traditional metaphors.
In the “Ode for the Nativity,” consisting of nine tercets, Gregory writes of Our Lord as love:
Love within a cloud, a cloud moved by love
Pervading that same ethereal fleece,
Bringing down drops of rain.
He made known the love begotten of love,
Love blossoming with ardent desire
To unite love with love.
In the “Ode for the Coming of the Holy Spirit,” consisting of six tercets, Gregory writes of the Holy Spirit as fire and gift:
To the one who cleanses with fire we raise
A balanced song (of praise) in nine lines,
For the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit:
Spirit of the Father, coming from his very presence,
Spirit of God, Spirit of might, Spirit of meekness,
Spirit of knowledge (and) wisdom, Spirit of counsel and understanding.
This is fire that transforms, and in an atypical move for these works Gregory transforms his ode into a personal prayer:
I beg you not to convict me, ever.
Abide within me, a temple built by you.
Your will is an accomplished act.
Equally poetic and inspirational language abounds in the litanies and encomia; for example, in the “Encomium on the Blessed Virgin” we read:
For the Lord, who cannot be held by the heights of heaven, the breadth of the earth, the depth of the sea, or the darkness of the abyss, took body from you.
Terian’s book is a masterful work of scholarly translation and poetics that comprehensively explores the accomplishments of Gregory of Narek as poet and writer. But it is more than that. Like Samuelian’s translation, readers will benefit from prayerfully reading these works.
To assist readers seeking fine poetry and spiritual nourishment, I hope that Terian and Liturgical Press will consider removing the bulk of his scholarly apparatus and dividing his masterpiece into two works for the general public, one consisting of the odes and litanies and the other encomia. Each would make an exceptional prayer book in its own right that could take its place alongside Gregory’s better known prayer book.
If you are a scholar of Christian poetry, The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek is without doubt a necessity. If you are not a scholar, however, do not shy away from this book. Terian’s translations of Gregory of Narek’s works will give you material for many hours and years of spiritual reflection that will enlighten your reading of Scripture and take you further along the narrow path.