Friday, August 08, 2014

The Language of the Armenian Church

What is the language of the Armenian Church? Is it Classical Armenian (Գրաբար)? Is it English? Maybe both? It's easy to get tied up in discussions about the linguistic beauty, as well as the linguistic challenges of our tradition, but I would like to propose an answer that transcends earthly and ethnic ideas about language. The language of the Armenian Church is the same as it is, and always was, in every other Christian Church - prayer:  one of the most essential elements of our faith, and yet one of the most mysterious and burdensome.

Mysterious in that there are still so many questions surrounding its practice, and so much time spent talking about what it even means. Also, we are confronted with, and continue to discover different practices attached to prayer, or even customs and traditions to which prayer attaches itself so naturally.

But prayer is also burdensome for the same reasons. Burdensome in that after centuries of practice, we sometimes still don't know what it is, or how to do it, and so for all of us, at one time or another, prayer causes deep frustration. We're fatigued and bored when our prayers go unanswered. It becomes monologue, and so we give up and avoid prayer altogether.

Personally, I relate to both the mysterious and burdensome elements of prayer. And although many of these challenges and obstacles to prayer are quite obvious within our private prayer life where we tend to have one-on-one conversation with God, perhaps reflecting on the Armenian Church's public and communal prayer life can remind us and authenticate the profound beauty and function of prayer.

Of course, the prayer services (there are 9 hours/services*) we celebrate in the Armenian Church have been passed down to us from either monastic or parish practice, and some of the beauty of this form of prayer resides in its structure. Each hour/service calls us together to pray even when we don’t feel like it, and I'm sure I'm not the only Christian who sometimes doesn't want to pray, or doesn't have the spiritual energy to do so. Scheduled and disciplined prayer in a community with like-minded and like-hearted believers allows others to pick up the slack when physical exhaustion, preoccupation, worries, or a bad hair day prevents us from offering the sacrifice of praise with our whole being.

For the Armenian Church, as well as the ancient Church in general, the heart of communal prayer lies in the recitation of the Psalms of the Bible. Without speaking on behalf of other traditions, at least for the Armenian Church, the Psalms make up roughly about 50% of the liturgy, which includes not only the prayer hours/services, but also other sacraments as well. Evidently, Armenians found the beauty of the Psalms to encapsulate the poetic and prayerful nature of our faith and theology. After all, theology within the Armenian tradition is not an abstract or scientific discipline of contemplating ideas. Theology is our faith prayerfully and actively lived out in discipleship to Jesus Christ, and there is a reason why poetry best expresses what we believe as Christians of the Armenian Church.

St. Paul writes, "…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father." ~ Ephesians 5:18-20 (RSV). The Armenian Orthodox Church followed St. Paul's instructions by composing a myriad of hymns, and melodies beyond compare to accompany these hymns. Like the Psalms, the content of these hymns beautifully expresses our theology, as well as the love and gratitude Christian Armenians had for God.

Finally, there is the beauty of community inherent within these prayer hours/services. Not only did St. Paul instruct us to sing and make melody, but also to address one another when doing so. In opposition to the individualistic mentality of our contemporary society (I choose my beliefs, I create my destiny, I am what I choose to be, This is my life, My personal Lord and Savior), authentic Christianity is a communal faith and life, and by its very nature cannot be lived in solitude. Any attempt to do so would be an exercise in something other than the Christian faith. I would even contend that "private prayer" is a practice of and within the Church community. As was mentioned above, when we don't want to pray, we can count on others praying and believing for us. We pray, believe, and are saved as a community; the beautiful and collective Bride of Christ.

As believers, we are invited and are inviting others into this same communion--with God and with one another. But to lead and be led to the heart of God requires a disciplined life of prayer, which is not just asking God for stuff, and can easily devolve into selfish wish-making. Throughout Scriptures, and within various Christian traditions, there are numerous forms of prayer, some of which don't ask God for a thing. They are simply expressions of the privilege we have as disciples of Christ to worship God for who He is. There are numerous examples of these prayers throughout the Armenian liturgy. For example, the priest's prayer from the Armenian Badarak,

«Զքեզ արդարեւ Տէր Աստուած մեր գովեմք եւ զքէն գոհանամք հանապազ…»
"We do indeed praise you and give thanks to you at all times…"

In prayer, we take the ugliness we see in the world, the brokenness we see in others, and the darkness we see in ourselves - the distress, loneliness, materialism, sickness, disease, death, war, violence, poverty, and greed - and those anxieties become prayer and are transformed into beautiful psalmody before the Lord. As St. Gregory of Narek, our holy mystic, opens his monumental prayer book,

"The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to You in the censer (poorvar) of my will".

Through prayer, our ailing hearts find salve and healing by touching the heart of God, which is love. And that love changes us into the image of God, which will then be visible wherever we go, to whomever we meet, and in whatever capacity we prayerfully serve and bless God's beautiful creation.

«Եւ եւս խաղաղութեան զտէր աղաչեսցուք։
Ընկալ, կեցո եւ ողորմեա։»
"Again in peace let us make our request to the Lord.
Receive our prayers, raise us to life, and have mercy on us."

*Morning, Sunrise, Midday 1, Midday 2, Midday 3, Evening, Rest, Peace, Night


Kyriakos L. said...

Insightful ideas on prayer. Your discussion on the christian community within the church aiding in prayer is most true.

Anonymous said...

Your description of prayer as mysterious and burdensome surely rings true with most followers of Christ. Hence, the statement from the Apostles, to Jesus, "Lord teach us to pray."
Now another of your acute observations, the Church Community, communal prayer, Jesus begins to "teach" prayer by praying, and He begins: "OUR Father" He places us together.
I appreciate your definition of Armenian theology as; "our faith prayerfully and actively lived out in discipleship to Jesus Christ," This is a "living faith"
that will impact the world.
One more comment if I may,my "personal prayers" have grown deeper as I spend time in,"The Armenian Prayer Book of St. Gregory of Narek." Powerful ! Some thoughts from Dad.