Saturday, December 03, 2016

Book Summary: "The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek"

The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek: Annotated Translation of the Odes, Litanies, and Encomia

Abraham Terian
Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2016

Dr. Terian, Professor Emeritus of Armenian Theology and Patristics at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, has done the fields of Armenian Studies, Theology and Liturgical Studies, as well as the Armenian Church in general, a tremendous favor. His newly published book is a translation, from Classical Armenian, of all of the odes (songs of praise), litanies (petitionary prayers), and encomia (expressions of praise) composed by St. Gregory of Narek (945-1003). These formerly little known works are liturgical pieces composed for the various dominical and other feasts of the Armenian Church.

Scholars actually know rather little about the life of St. Gregory of Narek, most of it having been gleaned from his own writings, and from a brief biography by St. Nerses of Lambron (1153-1198). Gregory (Grigor) was born ca. 945, the third and youngest son of another important Armenian theologian, Bishop Khosrov Antsevatsi. As a widower, Bishop Khosrov sent two of his sons, Hovhannes and Grigor, to the monastery of Narek. Located near the southern shore of Lake Van, and founded by Gregory’s maternal cousin, Anania, the monastery of Narek is where Gregory spent his entire adult life.

Across his lifetime, St. Gregory produced a variety of written works including homilies, hymns, biblical commentaries, and other various admonitory or cautionary letters and treatises. His most renowned work is his prayer book, commonly referred to as the Book of Lamentation, written with the help of his brother, Hovhannes. St. Gregory died ca.1003, but his influence lives on as one the most revered saints of the Armenian Church. He has also gained the popularity of those outside the Armenian tradition; last year Pope Francis declared St. Gregory a Doctor of the Catholic Church.

In general, Gregory’s writings tend to be extremely sophisticated and complex both linguistically and theologically, so translating his works is particularly challenging. Furthermore, as a mystic, St. Gregory developed an extraordinarily intense sense of God’s presence. Consequently, his language and worldview are rather different from most of us today. This is surely one reason why, prior to Terian’s work, many of these texts were neglected or misunderstood.

Indeed, Terian is uniquely competent in Classical Armenian, medieval theology and mysticism, and Biblical exegesis. He is also a poet, sensitive to the movement and structure of the genres in which St. Gregory thrives. As important, Terian lives a life of faith making him not only aware of the sacredness of St. Gregory’s texts, but also of the Armenian Orthodox tradition from which these texts were born.

The odes and litanies vary in length ranging from 10 to 165 lines, and are in the form of poetry. The subjects apply to the various feasts celebrated throughout the church year, with headings such as Ode for the Blessing of Water, Ode for the Coming of the Holy Spirit, and Litany for St. Gregory the Illuminator. Given their content, erudite tone, and the fact that they call for communal musical participation, the assumption is they were composed for public and liturgical use. Although various odes and litanies are chanted in our current liturgical worship, particularly on festal occasions, how the festal works of St. Gregory were employed, if they were used at all, is unknown. Similarly, we do not know the setting of the encomia, lengthy prose texts dedicated to praising subjects such as the Holy Virgin, the Holy Cross, and the Holy Apostles.

Gregory’s poetry is replete with vivid imagery and descriptors, drawn from his panoramic view of Scripture. Employing various literary techniques, he takes advantage of the flexibility of his native tongue and creates evocative compound words to express his theology, as is his custom in his Prayer Book. Common to all three genres presented in this book is a sense of the worshipping community’s joyful praise. By contrast, his famous Book of Lamentation contains markedly more introspective prayers written in the first person.

Read, for example, these lines from his Ode for the Raising of Lazarus (p. 43):
The Gift able to transform the speechless, dead body,
The dead body wrapped in burial clothes, to be clothed
and sealed with breath again by the Caller to Life.
The seal of death was broken as were the torments of hell,
The torments by the (evil) one who cannot harm the blessed assembly.
The great Hebrew assembly, a galaxy of thousands, praises in song the glory,
The glory of the One who bestows light, now and eternally.
Although the subject of the ode is the raising of Lazarus, St. Gregory is able to link that event with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, and ground the entire theme in the divinity of Christ. This ode affirms that it is not the story of the person of Lazarus that draws the attention for Armenians, rather what it tells us about Jesus Christ. The raising of Lazarus becomes a visible testimony that death will be a temporary chapter in our lives because Christ is the ‘Caller to Life,’ the Creator who breathes us into living beings.

The festal works of St. Gregory can be read by anyone today for personal edification, while they also appeal to specialists in the field of liturgics. Reading them will not only enhance one’s experience and understanding of the feasts of the Armenian Church, but will be an exercise in theology and a way to contemplate Scripture. Terian’s work also raises the question of incorporating these pieces into today’s Armenian liturgy, thereby allowing them to flower in a contemporary context. Thanks to Abraham Terian, we once again have the profound privilege to hear the voice and message of the Armenian Church come through St. Gregory of Narek.

This article is featured in the Volume 2/Number 4 issue of The Treasury.

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