Meet the Newest Doctor of the Church: Saint Gregory of Narek

Meet the Newest Doctor of the Church: Saint Gregory of Narek February 26, 2015

Gregory of Narek, from a 1173 manuscript (public domain image).
Gregory of Narek, from a 1173 manuscript (public domain image).

Vatican Radio announced earlier this week that Pope Francis has declared a tenth century Armenian saint and mystic, Saint Gregory of Narek (Grigor Narekatsi), a Doctor of the Universal Church.

St. Gregory of Narek is the first new Doctor of the Church appointed by Pope Francis. The last saints to be given this title were Sts. Hildegard of Bingen and Juan of Avila, conferred by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Before that, the last Doctor of the Church was St. Thérèse of Lisieux, declared by Pope John Paul II in 1997. In fact, Gregory of Narek is only the thirty-sixth saint to be declared a Doctor of the Church. The Catholic Church has officially canonized somewhere in the area of ten thousand saints, so only 1/3 of 1% of saints receive this honor.

So what is a Doctor of the Church? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Certain ecclesiastical writers have received this title on account of the great advantage the whole Church has derived from their doctrine.” In plainer language, a Doctor of the Church is someone whose theological or mystical writings have been declared exemplary for teaching the truth, beauty and splendor of the Christian faith. In the Middle Ages, seven Church Fathers were seen as the original Doctors of the Church: St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome in the West, and St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory Nazianzen in the East. But over the centuries a number of other renowned saints have been added to this elite group of writers/teachers, including some familiar names like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bede the Venerable, and St. Teresa of Avila. Some of the other Doctors are perhaps not as well known in today’s world, at least outside of scholarly or Church-geek circles: folks like St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Isidore of Seville and St. Peter Chrysologus are hardly household names. Still, their writings are considered exemplary (maybe we need to dust them off and check them out).

Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayerbook of St. Gregory of Narek
Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayerbook of St. Gregory of Narek (“Book of Lamentations”)

Part of what I love about the Doctors of the Church is that many of them are mystics. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bonaventure, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ephrem, and St. John of the Cross all are not only great saints, theologians, and Church Doctors, but also renowned contemplatives. If the ivory tower has made the terrible mistake of separating spirituality and theology, the Church — at least in its recognition of its best and most important teachers — is less susceptible to that fundamental error.

So St. Gregory of Narek joins a small but august group of teachers, writers, theologians and mystics. But who is he, and why should we care?

I’ll confess: before Tuesday I had never heard of St. Gregory of Narek (it’s a humbling thought: how many other great contemplatives and teachers of Divine Union are out there, their writings gathering dust in monastery libraries because they haven’t been noticed by someone with the influence to get them noticed today?). But I can take comfort in the fact that he is not listed in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, which is a pretty exhaustive resource. So needless to say, this Armenian saint has been on the obscure list.

So of course, when the news broke, I immediately read what I could find, and downloaded the anthology of his mystical writings that is currently available on the Kindle, Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayerbook of St. Gregory of Narek. According to Vatican Radio press release,

St. Gregory of Narek is widely revered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Armenian religious thought and literature. Born in the city of Narek in about 950 A.D., St. Gregory … and his two brothers entered monastic life at an early age, and St. Gregory soon began to excel in music, astronomy, geometry, mathematics, literature, and theology … He lived most of his life in the monastery of Narek, where he taught at the monastic school … St. Gregory’s masterpiece is considered to be his Book of Lamentations. Also known as Narek, it is comprised of 95 prayers, each of which is titled “Conversation with God from the depth of the heart.” A central theme is man’s separation from God, and his quest to reunite with Him. St. Gregory described the work this way: “Its letters like my body, its message like my soul.” He called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer for people all over the world.

Wikipedia offers this praise for the Book of Lamentations.

In 95 prayers, St. Gregory … translate(s) feelings of suffering and humility into an offering of words thought to be pleasing to God … it is an edifice of faith for the ages, unique in Christian literature for its rich imagery, its subtle theology, its Biblical erudition, and the sincere immediacy of its communication with God … For Narekatsi, peoples’ absolute goal in life should be to reach to God, and to reach wherever human nature would unite with godly nature, thus erasing the differences between God and men. As a result, the difficulties of earthly life would disappear. According to him, mankind’s assimilation with God is possible not by logic, but by feelings.

It’s a lengthy book — about the same length as the collected works of Saint John of the Cross — so needless to say, I’ve just begun to dip into it. But here is a taste of St. Gregory’s writing for your devotional consideration.

For as Job said, the snares of evil are all around, from these I cannot escape.
But by your good will if the light of compassion should shine,
if the door of your mercy should open,
if the rays of your glory should spread,
if the care of your hand should be revealed,
if the dawning sun of life should break forth,
if the sight of your beautiful morn should be unveiled,
if the bounty of your sweetness should flow forth,
if the stream from the maker’s side should run,
if the drops of your pure love should shower down,
if the good news of the dawn of your grace should resound,
if the tree of your gift should blossom,
if the parts of your blessed body are distributed,
if the dashed expectations should be reassembled,
if the silenced sound of your beckoning voice, Lord, should again be heard,
if your banished peace should return,
then with this blessing
shall the faith of steady hope be forever mine
finding refuge in the Holy Spirit,
who with the Father is worshiped with the voice of sweetness
and together with you bathed in light too bright for human eyes.
Grant life, forgiveness and heavenly bliss to me, a sinner,
holding your incorruptible grace, the true token of faith,
as an indestructible legacy.

This we pray in the name of your awe-inspiring, mighty and holy oneness
and the lordship of your three-fold person
beyond human words and understanding
to you, who are in essence and in existence eternally
exalted, crowned, clothed and
enthroned with sweetness, mercy and benevolence.
Indeed through you, O merciful Lord,
all things, in all ways, for all people, are possible.
To you glory here, now and forever and in the eternity to
come on the great day of revelation. Amen.

— from Prayer 25 (Kindle Locations 3601-3639)

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to getting to know better this saint from 1000 years ago.

N.B.: If you want a copy of St. Gregory’s Book, get it on the Kindle. The Kindle version costs a reasonable $9.99, while the hard copy edition is currently out of print — and given the Saint’s new-found celebrity status, used copies are going for about $400. I’m sure it will come back into print soon enough, but why wait? Get the Kindle edition and start reading it now.

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