Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
St. Gregory of Narek
Born circa 950 to a family of scholarly churchmen, St. Gregory entered Narek Monastery on the south-east shore of Lake Van at a young age. Shortly before the first millennium of Christianity, Narek Monastery was a thriving center of learning.
These were the relatively quiet, creative times before the Turkic and Mongol invasions that changed Armenian life forever. Armenia was experiencing a renaissance in literature, painting, architecture and theology, of which St. Gregory was a leading figure.
The Prayer Book is the work of his mature years. He called it his last testament: "its letters like my body, its message like my soul." St. Gregory left this world in 1003, but his voice continues to speak to us.
The Sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart
Written shortly before the first millennium of Christianity, the prayers of St. Gregory of Narek have long been recognized as gems of Christian literature. St. Gregory called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer by people of all stations around the world.
A leader of the well-developed school of Armenian mysticism at Narek Monastery, at the request of his brethren he set out to find an answer to an imponderable question: what can one offer to God, our creator, who already has everything and knows everything better than we could ever express it? To this question, posed by the prophets, psalmist, apostles and saints, he gives a humble answer – the sighs of the heart – expressed in his Book of Prayer, also called the Book of Lamentations.
In 95 grace-filled prayers St. Gregory draws on the exquisite potential of the Classical Armenian language to translate the pure sighs of the broken and contrite heart into an offering of words pleasing to God. The result 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 my soul is filled with torment,
and there is no cure for my body.
I am tortured and laid low in the extreme,
and I groan with the sighs of my heart.