Monday, February 23, 2015

Saint Gregory of Narek!

I am excited about Pope Francis' newly proclaimed Doctor of the Church.  What an exceptional choice!

Saint Gregory of Narek (951-1003). He was from Armenia and a vibrant member of this brilliant Christian culture which was about to get invaded and destroyed toward the end of his life. And he wrote this tantalizing book they call "The Narek".  It is considered the greatest work of Armenian literature.  They use lines from his Narek in the Armenian Liturgy. Naturally I wanted to learn all about this.  I never even heard of him!  So I found an introductory link.  And I started to read his Book and some of it reads like Shakespeare.

Here is an introduction of his Book:

And here is a section from this Introduction written by Thomas J. Samuelian.  Quote:

The Fragrant Sacrifice of Words

For St. Gregory, prayers are not only meant to enlighten or to serve as a means of communication with God. They are also meant to be things of sincere beauty made of thoughts and words—thoughts and words being the best offering that could be given by the creature God honored with his image and endowed with the higher faculties of cognition and speech. As St. Paul said of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: "I have all and abound: I am full... an odor of sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God (Phil. 4:18)."  St. Gregory explains the experience of grace and inspiration as "the thunderbolt of wisdom... upon the movements of my tongue... that I might offer thanks to You with unfailing voice and unbroken speech (Prayer 22e)."

His incantational style of cascading verses and Homeric listings contribute to making these prayers charming in the etymological sense of the word. They exude grace. As the Evangelist Luke wrote, "Out of the good treasure of his heart the good man produces good... for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:46)." That grace is expressed in the vividness, abundance and variety of images that St. Gregory employs to turn the ineffable sighs of the heart into human words of prayer to God.

His images cover a wide range of recurrent metaphors. For example, he often uses the image of a field and weeds, a common theme from the Gospels, or the ship wreck and the sea. Some of the other most common images are horses, pottery, judgment, debts/mortgages, and healing salves and remedies.  Following the Gospels, St. Gregory constructs "word pictures" and uses parabolic language to make the invisible graphic, the ineffable expressible, the obscure clear, and the unknowable graspable.

The generosity of images, language and metaphor is striking, as St. Gregory transcribes his vision of the object of his adoration and contemplation into a rapid sequence of phrases from a wide range of perspectives.

Spare me that I may not
labor without birth,
sigh without tears,
meditate without voice,
cloud without rain,
struggle without reaching,
call without being heard,
implore without being heeded,
groan without being comforted,
beg without being helped,
smolder without aroma,
see you without being fulfilled. (Prayer 2c)

Two cups in two hands,
one filled with blood, the other with milk,
two censers flickering,
one with incense, the other with crisp fat,
two platters piled with delicacies,
one sweet, the other tart,
two goblets overflowing
one with tears, the other with brimstone,
two bowls at the finger tips
one with wine, the other with bile,
two windows of sight
one crying, the other erring,
two refiner's cauldrons
one heating, one cooling,
two outlooks on one face
one mildly affectionate, the other fiercely raging,
two lifted hands
one to strike, the other to shield, (Prayer 30c)

The piling on of metaphors and similes and the repetition of formulaic contrasts and paradoxes are entrancing. The repetition and variations of sound and ideas set up a two-fold resonance, within the text and between the text and the reader/listener. Each image in the text casts light on the other, and each speaks to different people at different times in different ways:

Look at me,
I am
unworthy of good, undeserving of favor,
incapable of love, drawn in by the strands of sin,
wounded in the depth of my inner organs,
a broken palm tree,
spilled wine,
damp wheat,
breached mortgage,
ripped up verdict,
counterfeit seal,
deformed image,
singed garment,
lost goblet,
sunken ship,
crushed pearl,
buried gem,
dried up plant,
broken beam,
rotten wood,
mutilated mandrake,
collapsed roof,
dilapidated altar,
uprooted plant,
oily filth on the street,
milk flowing through ash,
a dead man in the battalion of the brave. (Prayer 67b)

The prayers are designed to calm and focus the distracted and distraught mind of the person at prayer. Because of the variety and quantity of images, they constantly delight, so we do not lose the strand of the prayer—even in moments of distraction, which are only human. For in the next phrase a similar idea is presented from a new perspective that refocuses the mind and reconnects it with the central impulse of the message. St. Gregory designed them to be rhetorically highly textured, liturgical prayers, meant to assist in that most difficult task of translating the sighs of the heart into an offering acceptable to God.

Only you can turn the discouragement of blame
into joyous praise,
shame into resilience,
humility into honor,
banishment into the hope of goodness,
separation into the expectation of reunion,
threats into consolation,
final condemnation into a second chance at deliverance. (Prayer 73a)

They also have a liturgical flavor and purpose. For example,

For yours is salvation,
and from you is redemption,
and by your right hand is restoration,
and your finger is fortification.
Your command is justification.
Your mercy is liberation.
Your countenance is illumination.
Your face is exultation.
Your spirit is benefaction.
Your anointing oil is consolation.
A dew drop of your grace is exhilaration.
You give comfort.
You make us forget despair.
You lift away the gloom of grief.
You change the sighs of our heart into laughter. (Prayer 9d)

Some also have the flavor of proverbial wisdom, good counsel for a good life:

As the Good Book foretold
alien, evil forces stole the wise treasure of my heart.
Wisdom waned in me, as the Proverb-teller says,
and evil impulses grew.
I did not fix the eye of my soul on the head of my life, Christ,
who would have led me down the straight path.
For in trying to run too quickly, I dug myself in deeper.
In trying to reach the unreachable, I failed to reach my own level.
In pretending to greatness, I slipped from where I was.
From the heavenly path, I sank to the abyss.
Trying to avoid harm, I was permanently debilitated.
Trying to be completely pure, I was corrupted completely.
I dodged to the left, and left myself open from the right.
Chasing the second, I lost the first.
Seeking the insignificant, I forfeited the important.
Keeping the small vow, I broke the covenant.
Trying to break a habit, I picked up a vice.
Avoiding the petty, I fell prey to the weighty.
What I did, I did to myself,
which is the worst testimony against me.
Only you are able to deliver me, a captive slave, from these things,
restoring to life a soul devoted to death.
For you alone, Lord Christ, revered as Doer of Good,
with the boundless glory of the Father and the Holy Spirit are
blessed forever and ever.
Amen. (Prayer 55f)

And they are replete with doctrinal explanations, as one might expect of a scholar of St. Gregory's erudition and a holy man of his depth:

Three persons, one mystery,
separate faces, unique and distinct,
made one by their congruence and
being of the same holy substance and nature,
unconfused and undivided,
one in will and one in action. (Prayer 13a)

We confess and profess, honor and worship
the shared glory and unity of the Holy Trinity,
Godhead beyond description, always good,
of the same substance, equal in honor,
beyond the flight of the wings of our thought,
higher than all examples, beyond all analogies,
surpassing the limits on high. (Prayer 34c)
Merely entering the vessel of the virgin womb purely,
and coming out joined with a body inseparable in essence,
without any flaw in his humanity and lacking nothing in divinity,
one and only Son of the only Father and
the first born of the Mother of God, Virgin Bearer of the Lord,
Creator becoming a true man as originally created,
not in the fallen state of mortals. (Prayer 34e)

As one would also expect, St. Gregory took the doctrinal explanation and turned it into an immediately comprehensible image, likening the relationship between human and divine in the incarnate Christ "to the wick in the candle."

You gave the oil, and in this oil you placed a wick,
which exemplifies your union, without imperfection, with our condition,
formed and woven with your love of mankind. (93b)

Longing for our Creator

Ultimately, the Book of Prayer is about the longing of mankind for our Creator and our need to communicate with God. It is a longing that gives rise to sighs from the heart, finding its consummation and resolution in death:

sun of justice,
ray of blessing,
cherished desire...
Let your light dawn,
your salvation be swift,
your help come in time
and the hour of your arrival be at hand. (Prayer 95a, c).

The Book of Prayer is packed with so many insights that an introduction cannot do more than entice readers to explore and find the treasure they seek. So as we move from the introduction to the work itself, may the benedictions of St. Gregory be upon us (Prayer 26d), both those who have copied this book through the centuries that we might partake of it and those who recite it out of their love of God, praying that God may "finish the meanderings of our wretched, errant voices with His own mighty words (Prayer 95a)" and that we may

receive a portion of the forgiveness of sin
and be restored to our former spotless purity,
sealed with God's unchanging image.
Amen. (Prayer 90f)

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