MEET THE NEWEST DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH: SAINT GREGORY OF NAREK
Feb 26 2015
February 26, 2015 by Carl McColman 0 Comments
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. Therèse
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
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
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
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
For as Job said, the snares of evil are all around, from these I
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
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.