Gregory of Narek

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GREGORY OF NAREK (c. 945c. 1010), or, in Armenian, Grigor Narekatsi, was a Christian mystic, poet, and saint of the Armenian church. Gregory was born in the village of Narek in the region of Vaspourakan (present-day Van, eastern Turkey). His father, Khosrov Antsevatsi, bishop of the nearby province of Antsevatsikʿ, built a monastery, where Gregory obtained his elementary schooling. He continued his education in the Monastery of Narek, where after ordination he spent the remainder of his life.

The rulers of the kingdom of Vaspourakan favored ties with Byzantium. Consequently, the Monastery of Narek trained its novices in the trivium and quadrivium, having incorporated the syllabi used in the educational centers throughout the Eastern Christian empire. Thus Gregory was well versed in Greek philosophy, especially in the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonic school, which by the tenth century had been clothed in Christian garb. Gregory was also well read in the Armenian church fathers of the fourth through seventh centuries and was familiar with the thought of Ignatius of Antioch, the Cappadocian fathers, and Chrysostom.

Gregory's major work, the Book of Lamentation, popularly known as Narek, is a prayer book still much venerated. In it the penitent is made aware of the total otherness of God and of humanity's utter dependence on God, who is the source of all reality. The Book of Lamentation is an analysis of Gregory's own spiritual progress, realized through a fundamental knowledge of Christ and a radical knowledge of himself as sinner. The work also exhibits detailed knowledge of the scriptures and familiarity with agriculture, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, nautical art, and medicine. Among his other literary achievements are twenty-one hymns, or odes; four panegyrical orations, containing historical accounts of the era; and ten discourses, actually spiritual songs, consisting of invocations and supplications. Of special interest is the historical information these discourses contain concerning the stratification of society during the times of Gregory.

Gregory was and remains the mystic of the Armenian church. Central to his mysticism is the belief in a cathartic process that ultimately would lead humankind to a reacquisition of divine similitude, or the likeness of God. The mysticism espoused by Gregory is a uniquely human undertaking whereby humanity tries to encounter God. To meet the Almighty, humanity must rid itself of transgressions. In order to encounter God, who transcends all being and all knowledge, it becomes necessary to renounce all sense gathered through the workings of reason. This apophatic approach to knowledge of God takes the form of negating all meaning in order to emphasize the absolute unknowability of God. According to Gregory, God is incomprehensible, invisible, ineffable, beyond totality, unspeakable, unobservable, without beginning, and without time.

Gregory, however, also embraced the cataphatic approach to God by stressing God's actions in history, which manifest God's love and concern for humankind. In the Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon, Gregory emphasizes the parallelism between the union of Yahveh with Israel and the marriage of the incarnate Logos with the church. As the Lord of compassion and mercy, the Christian God is distinctly a God of action, that is, a living God. Gregory began all his prayers by declaring, "from the depth of heart, a conversation with God."


Gregory's Odes and Discourses are available in the original classical Armenian in Tagher Yev Gantser, edited by Armine Kʿōshkerian (Yerevan, 1981). The Book of Lamentation can be obtained in classical Armenian as Matean Oghbergowtʾen (Jerusalem, 1964). This work is also available in a bilingual edition, with Russian translation by Naum Grebnev and interlinear translations by Levon Mkrtchian and Margarita Darbinian, as Madyan Voghbergoutian/Kniga skorbi (Yerevan, 1977). Parts of the Book of Lamentation are also available in English translation by Mischa Kudian as Lamentations of Narek: Mystic Soliloquies with God (London, 1977). See also the complete French translation by Isaac Kéchichian, Le livre de prières (Paris, 1961). Gregory's Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon is published as Meknoutyoun Yerg Yergots Soghomoni (Beirut, 1963). For further discussion of Gregory, see Malʾachia Ormanian's Azgapatowm, 3 vols. (19121927; reprint, Beirut, 19591961), a comprehensive study of the Armenian church as well as the politics of the Armenian nation. Of particular relevance to Gregory are paragraphs 790, 791, 793, 813, and 814.

Avak Asadourian (1987)