In 2015, Pope Francis declared as a Doctor of the Church the sainted Armenian monk and poet, Gregory of Narek. In raising the medieval mystic to the vaulted halls of the universal Church — one of just 36 men and women recognized for their theological and spiritual contributions — Pope Francis honored a man and his faith tradition once regarded by Catholics as dissident. The timing of the pope’s declaration was also important. In the same year, Armenians held commemorations mourning the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians (and Assyro-Chaldean Christians) in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, the so-called Year of the Sword.

Key to understanding St. Gregory of Narek (950-c. 1005), and his contributions to the universal Church, is reflecting on the precarious position of the Armenian Church, of which he is inextricably linked.

Armenian Christianity

Looming high above the clouds in eastern Anatolia, an extinct volcano marks the site where the children of Abraham — Jews, Christians and Muslims — believe humanity regenerated after the great flood. According to the Book of Genesis, here, on Mount Ararat, Noah’s ark rested. And on these sacred slopes God promised Noah he would never again destroy creation with water.

In the shadow of Ararat — which lies just within the modern demarcation line dividing Turkey from Armenia — perched on a lesser hill but severed today from the mountain by barbed wire, a small church stands above a dungeon: Khor Virap.

For more than 13 years this pit, some 23 feet deep, interned the future “illuminator of the Armenians,” a Christian nobleman named Gregory who healed a king and baptized a nation into Christ in the year 301.

Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Persia and Rome, Armenian Christians digested the philosophical positions and theological vocabularies of the great learning centers of the early Church — Alexandria and Antioch, Athens and Rome, Constantinople and Seleucia, Edessa and Nisibis — and began the development of an alphabet for the Armenian vernacular. These rich cultural advances occurred even as an independent Armenian nation expired at the hands of their non-Christian Persian neighbors.

Armenian Christians were conscious of the great theological controversies that rocked the early Church, but rebellion against the Persians prevented them from actively participating in these debates, especially the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451).

These disputes, particularly those centered on the person and nature of Jesus and His relationship to the Creator, grew as Christianity spread throughout the wider Mediterranean world, embracing converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic worlds, each of which had its own culture, history, language, philosophy, vocabulary and worldview.

In Alexandria, theologians tended to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus, as opposed to theologians in Antioch, who emphasized the humanity of Jesus. These distinctive understandings of Jesus, or Christology, reflected largely the culture and language that defined them, and are recognized today by Church leaders and theologians as authentic and complementary.

In 448, the Persian emperor demanded his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Eastern Roman (Byzantine) rival. Appeasing Persian oppression, the Armenian bishops called for a national council.

Gathering near the very dungeon that had once imprisoned St. Gregory the Illuminator, the council declared the Armenian peoples’ fealty to the Persian emperor, but their steadfast spiritual loyalty remained with Christ: “Nobody can move us away from this faith, neither angels, nor people, nor sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any severe ordeal. For we have a covenant of faith, not with human beings … but an indissoluble vow with God, from whom it is impossible to stay away neither now, nor tomorrow, nor for ever and ever.”

A century after Chalcedon, the Armenian bishops denounced the Christological decrees of the council, and reaffirmed their adherence to a more conservative understanding of Jesus’ nature and asserted their independence from the churches of Constantinople and Rome.

Though the bishops of the Armenian Church underscored its apostolic identity and independence, they did not demand the severance of commercial or cultural relationships with the Byzantine Empire, including the imperial church of Constantinople.

For more than 400 years, trade between the two flourished. Byzantine emperors employed Armenian monks and scribes, who flocked to Constantinople. Byzantine subjects served Armenian prelates and members of the nobility. Armenians engineered Byzantine defense systems and restored the dome of Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. Armenians even ascended the Byzantine throne, establishing dynasties of emperors who supported the redevelopment of an independent Armenia, which cushioned the barrier between the Byzantine Christian and ascendant Arab Muslim worlds.

The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani — now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia — demonstrates the sophistication and wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of a 1,001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices, such as blind arcades and ribbed vaults, later employed to support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.

Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels depict kings and catholicoi (heads of Eastern churches), saints and angels, birds and crosses, revealing Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences.

The liturgical rites of the Armenian Church, particularly the Soorp Badarak, or Divine Liturgy, mirror the cosmopolitan nature of Armenian ecclesiastical art and architecture. While historians suggest the supremacy of Syriac sources, they also recognize influences from the churches of Antioch, Cappadocia, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.

Gregory of Narek

This golden age of the Armenian civilization is personified by Gregory of Narek — priest and poet, theologian and philosopher, monk and mystic.

Gregory was born about 950 to a family dedicated to the Church. His father, Khosrov Antsevatsi, served as a bishop and theologian of the Armenian Church. After his wife’s death, the bishop entrusted the boy to the care of an uncle, Anania. A respected scholar and monk, Anania founded the Narek Monastery (known as Narekavank) on the shores of Lake Van in what is today eastern Turkey and reared Gregory as one of the monastic community, to which his pupil remained attached for the rest of his short life.

Few details of Gregory’s life are known, but hints of the man’s years of pain and suffering suffuse his writings, particularly his “Book of Lamentations.”

Written in the waning years of the first Christian millennium, “Lamentations” is considered by scholars a metaphor for the preparation and celebration of the Badarak — an “edifice of faith,” wrote Gregory.

The 95 lamentations are grouped together, mirroring the different stages of the liturgy, from the dismissal of the catechumens, the profession of faith and Communion to the final prayers in preparation of death and judgment.

The work of St. Gregory of Narek encouraged the development of classical Armenian as a literary language, even as his work has been translated into many languages and adapted for music. His writings adorn much of the liturgical life of the Armenian Church, apostolic and catholic, including the Eucharistic liturgy, which Gregory’s father described as “the great medicine”: “We beseech you,” the priest prays silently as he ascends the sanctuary, “with outstretched arms, with tears and sobbing prayers.”

Lamentations As Symbol

Gregory died about a year after he completed the final prayer of his masterpiece.

“By your noble and glorious blood, offered unceasingly to please God who sent you, may the dangers be lifted from me, may my transgressions be forgiven, may my vices be pardoned, may my shamelessness be forgotten, may my sentence be commuted, may the worms shrivel, may the wailing stop, and the gnashing of teeth fall silent,” he wrote.

“Let the laments lessen and tears dry. Let mourning end and darkness be banished. May the vengeful fire be stamped out and torments of every kind exiled….

“May you who grant life to all be compassionate now. Let your light dawn, your salvation be swift, your help arrive in time, and the hour of your arrival be at hand.”

Seventy years after Gregory penned these words, Armenia disintegrated when the Seljuk Turks defeated the imperial forces of the Byzantines in the Armenian town of Manzikert. As the Byzantine emperor’s army retreated to Constantinople, the Turks and their allies rushed to fill the void, overrunning Armenian and Byzantine territory, including St. Gregory’s Narekavank.

Nevertheless, Narekavank thrived for nearly a millennium, becoming a notable center of illuminated manuscript production, scholarship, pilgrimage and prayer. Early in the 20th century, the monks founded a boarding school and a seminary within its walls — a source of pride for the influential and wealthy Armenians of Ottoman Turkey, who dominated trade in luxury goods and spices and served as bureaucrats for the sultan.

But the development of national movements, which began in the Ottoman provinces of the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities, especially its Armenians.

Fearful of the national aspirations of the empire’s Armenians, which were nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, agents of the Ottoman sultan assaulted Armenian communities and institutions, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread throughout the empire, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria.

In 1915, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were driven from their communities in eastern Anatolia — many to their deaths. Narekavank, and the tomb of its great saint, was abandoned. Open to the elements, the monastery was defiled, and its churches pillaged.

Today, nothing remains of this important center of the Eastern Christian tradition. Yet, the writings of the newest Doctor of the Church, an “angel in human form,” survive, carrying to God the cries of millions of hearts.

Michael LaCivita, K.C.H.S., is communications director for CNEWA and oversees the publication of its award-winning magazine, ONE, as well as the ONE to ONE blog.