A thousand years ago St. Gregory of Narek (951-1003) set out, with much trepidation, on a sublime mission to translate the pure sighs of the "broken and contrite" heart1 into an offering of words pleasing to God. Beginning each prayer with the incantation "speaking with God from the depths of the heart," he referred to himself as "a living book (Prayer 39b)" and to his book as a compendium of prayers for all times and nations2 - "a testament... its letters like my body, its message like my soul (Prayer 54e)." Thus, the man equated himself with the book, and ever since, the book has been equated with this saintly man.3 So the book like the man came to be known affectionately as Narek.
The Narek was written in the last years of St. Gregory's life when he appears to have been suffering from a debilitating, terminal illness.4 Toward the end he wrote, "and although I shall die in the way of all mortals, may I be deemed to live through the continued existence of this book. This book will cry out in my place, with my voice, as if it were me (Prayer 88b-c)." So powerfully have these prayers cried out to the Armenian faithful that for centuries they have been worn as healing talismans and placed under the pillows of the infirm. Indeed it was one of the earliest and most often reprinted Armenian books, with more than 50 printings between 1673 and 1875, testifying to the power of the book and the size, level and appetite of the Armenian readership.5 Although he wrote in Classical Armenian, the language of Armenian Church rites to this day, St. Gregory believed he was inspired to write this book for all people and hoped that it would be translated and recited by many nations, by people of all stations and in all times. (Prayer 3b, 55a, 66a, 88b, 90f). This translation, offered with trepidation - for St. Gregory is among the most sacred names in Armenian letters - is a small contribution to the realization of his act of faith.
St. Gregory's Book of Prayer is also sometimes called the Book of Lamentations.6 The book is known in Armenian as Girk aghotits (literally, 'book of prayer') or Matean voghbergutyan (literally 'book of tragedy or lamentation'). 'Lamentation' is one possible translation of the Armenian word voghbergutyun, which also can be translated as ‘tragedy,’ as it has been translated into French. In the second line of the first prayer St. Gregory gives a clue as to why this book might be a tragedy and from whose perspective. For God, the Seer of Secrets, our failure to recognize our sins and our attempts to conceal them are tragic. It might be compared to the experience of an audience seeing the flaws, infidelities and betrayals of the characters on stage, while the characters do not, usually until it is too late.
The Book of Prayer occupies a unique place in the religious writing of the Armenian Church and the church universal. It has been compared with David's Psalms and Augustine's Confessions, and bears some resemblance to the Hymns of St. Gregory's Byzantine contemporary Simeon the New Theologian, and the Hymns of the fourth-century saint, Ephrem the Syrian. Like the Psalms, it is a work of universal worship, and like the Confessions, it is a personal effort of the heart in search of reconciliation with God. In their quantity and quality the Prayers are especially reminiscent of the Psalms, that paradigmatic work of inspired prayer, praise, confession and worship, which are a staple of liturgical life in the Armenian Church. St. Gregory spoke of the Psalms in terms similar to his prayer book: "songs of everything for the pure in heart: a testament of life, written for all people (Prayer 51c)." Indeed, several of St. Gregory's prayers are meditations on the Psalms (Prayers 60-62) and the phrase "sighs of the heart" has its roots in several Psalms (Ps. 38:9-10; Ps. 6:7, Ps. 51:17), as further developed in the Letters of Paul, e.g., Rom. 8:26.
The Narek is a comprehensive course of prayer and meditation based on a distillation of biblical wisdom and Christian doctrine. Where some theologians analyzed with the head, St. Gregory plumbed the depths of the heart in search of God's loving truth. It is the difference between reading an article about a person and learning about that person by talking to him directly.7 As he notes in his Prologue, the book was designed to be an applied synthesis of theology and worship, a handbook for the spiritual development of ordinary Christians and monastics the world over. It is like a rule of spiritual formation presented as an experiential exercise. The theoretical indoctrination and instruction is ingeniously implicit and designed to be inculcated by the practice of learning to pray.
The Narek is a masterpiece of intuitive and direct communion with God. According to tradition, St. Gregory saw God, to which he gives witness in Prayers 5c and 27f, where he regrets his wrongdoing "toward the one, whom I saw with my own eyes." St. Gregory also testifies that the book, an "edifice of faith." (Prayer 10b), was written by the finger of God and it was, it appears, his second attempt to compose the book : "I destroyed with my own hand the golden tables of speech, dedicated to your message, written by the finger of God.8 That was true destruction. And now, with ashen-faced sorrow, I provide a second copy, made in its likeness. (Prayer 34j)."
The Narek is also an expression of the universal human search for reconciliation with the divine through a sacrifice pleasing to God. Like the Old Testament prophets, St. Gregory seeks to know how to communicate with God: "With what shall I come before the Lord?" He understands that the Lord requires "not burnt offerings, or thousands of rams, or ten thousand rivers of oil," but "to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Mic. 6:6)." The sacrifice pleasing to God, as the Psalmist teaches in Psalm 51, which is recited daily in the Armenian Church, is a "broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:15-20)." The Narek aims to express in a new and comprehensive way the New Testament "sacrifice of the Word," accompanied and symbolized by the ethereal fragrances of rising incense, which he compares with the Old Testament sacrifice of the fatted calf in rich smoke.9
A man of St. Gregory's erudition and spiritual depth could have written speculative, theological tracts. Instead, in a pastoral way he chose the practical application of his inspiration to compose prayers for saving souls. The result is a bold synthesis of the Old and New Testaments and an encyclopedic prayer book for use by people of all stations and conditions of life. As he explains in the Prologue,10 "this Book of Prayer expresses practical words born of much grief. . . written in response to the requests of hermit fathers and the multitude in the desert (Tenets of Prayer)."11 In a sense, the entire Book of Prayer is a search for a way to teach prayer by example, like that of the Apostles when they asked Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray (Luke 11:1)." In short, these are prayers aimed at learning how to pray.
And with help from our heavenly Father
who has granted salvation and healing
to a failing sinner near death,
I begin this book of prayers with supplications.
I will build an edifice of faith. (Prayer 10b)
Drawing on the Old and New Testaments, he wrote a new book of psalms, which were the staple of daily worship in monastic communities:
A new book of psalms sings with urgency through me
for all thinking people the world over
expressing all human passions
and serving with its images
as an encyclopedic companion to our human condition
for the entire, mixed congregation of the Church universal. (Prayer 3b)
St. Gregory knew and understood the universal, timeless nature of his Book of Prayer, "written for the masses of different nations (Prayer 34a)."
Let the perfume, the bouquet of this book of confessions
be redoubled and affect multitudes
and let it be remembered everywhere, filling the world like
the fragrant oil in the house of Lazarus.12 (Prayer 33b)
I have all earthly ills and thus can serve as an
emissary offering prayers for the whole world. (Prayer 28b)
On the wings of my soul I have soared
through endless generations of mankind. (Prayer 55a)
May it be recited to the ears of all generations,
and may it be preached to all peoples. (Prayer 88b)
St. Gregory was a devoted son of the Armenian Church. He believed that the Armenian Church had a special mission and hoped that his book would help deliver that message: "as I was conceived and born in the womb of the Church... I now should address the great and immaculate queen. . . my glorious mother, so she may be known and proclaimed and the extent of her venerable glory might be told to the nations in the future (Prayer 75a)." Having lost his mother when he was a child, he loved the Church like a mother: "This spiritual, heavenly mother of light cared for me as a son more than an earthly, breathing, physical mother could (Prayer 75k)."
St. Gregory was the son of Bishop Khosrov Andzevatsi. He was from a family of scholars at the Monastery of Narek, on the south-eastern shore of Lake Van, near his birthplace, home to the magnificent, newly built 10th-century island cathedral of Aghtamar.13 He grew up in an atmosphere infused with ritual and Bible. Born in 951 shortly before the first millennium of Christianity, he followed his father and his uncle, the Abbot Anania, into Narek Monastery as did his brother Hovhannes, who later helped St. Gregory with the Book of Prayer. Abbot Anania was an original thinker and teacher, the founder and one of the pillars of Armenian mysticism.
St. Gregory lived during the Armenian Renaissance, a lull between conquests, when Armenians had enough peace to enjoy several generations of accumulated learning and creativity.14 These were the triumphant days of Ani, Armenia's "capital city of a thousand and one churches" on the banks of the Akhurian River, before the brutal westward invasions of the Turkic and Mongol nomads from Central Asia. With a population of over 100,000, Ani was a large city by the standards of the times, rivaling the Mediterranean metropolitan centers of Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad.15 Armenian creativity flourished with church-building, miniature painting, music, literature, science, and theology, of which St. Gregory was a guiding light. The national epic, David of Sassoon, also took shape at this time as a new expression of national consciousness.16 It was also a time of religious ferment. In the West, the Byzantines and Romans parted ways over various religious issues that led to the Great Schism. In Armenia, break-away groups, the Tondrakians and Paulicians, were spreading heretical views. When Narek was fifty, the invading Seljuk Turks brought the world as he had known it to a close. Any scholar of his stature and sensitivity could not remain unaffected by the civilization crumbling around him.
Moreover, his father and uncle earned the ire of the church hierarchy for being independent thinkers. According to some commentators, these views may have implicated them in certain doctrinal disputes, which St. Gregory had to wrestle with throughout his life.17 Church tradition relates that, in his old age, he was called before a religious tribunal to defend his adherence to accepted doctrine. On this occasion he prepared a work, called the Root of Faith, once thought lost, but which appears to have been preserved in five doctrinal prayers of the Narek (Prayers 33, 34, 75, 92 and 93).18
That sense of guilt and suspicion is expressed by St. Gregory in numerous ways, for example:
If I see a soldier, I expect death,
a messenger, punishment,
a clerk, foreclosure,
a jurist, condemnation,
an evangelist, the shaking of the dust off his feet,19
a pious person, reprimand,
a snob, sarcasm (Prayer 23c)
In a way, he responded creatively to this hostility and destruction by building an "edifice of faith" (Prayer 10a) that could not be destroyed—a fortress of images, a church of words, a sanctuary for the heart, and a method of atonement for wrongs.
The reverence for St. Gregory was already evident in his life time and his sainthood was recognized by his contemporaries. He is referred to as St. Gregory in the earliest extant manuscript of the Book of Prayer (Matenadaran Ms. 1568, dated 1173), copied and illuminated by the scribe and miniaturist Grigor Skevratsi, containing a hagiography of St. Gregory written by St. Nerses Lambronatsi (1153-1198). During his own life, he was looked upon as a great teacher: "I was dubbed, 'Master,' which testifies against me.20 I was called, 'Teacher, teacher,' (Prayer 72d)." In the manner of the saintly, his unworthiness was ever before him: "There is another ache in my heart, for they consider me to be something I am not. (Prayer 27f)."21 He was uncomfortable with this reverence: "I was called by the highest names, but by my works I earned the worst of these descriptions (Prayer 56a)."
These are the reflection of his doubt, his fear, his shame and his cognizance of the futility and human inadequacy inherent in translating into words the sighs of the heart already known to all-knowing God.22
Narek: A Cure for Body and Soul
For St. Gregory, prayer was powerful medicine for the body and soul (Prayer 28f, 35a, 42b, 43b). And he was in need of powerful medicine. Like the world around him, his body was collapsing, while he was besieged by doubt from within and criticism from without. The work of his mature years, various passages in the Book of Prayer seem to indicate that St. Gregory, although only in his fifties, was suffering from a life-threatening, debilitating illness (Prayer 18k).23
I lie here on a cot, struck down by evil,
sinking in a mattress of disease and torment,
like the living dead yet able to speak.
O kind Son of God,
have compassion upon my misery. (Prayer 18g)
That torment of body and soul combined, as the Psalmist wrote, to evoke "the sighs of the heart," the raw material of his prayers: "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 (Ps. 38:9-10)."
His pleas for God to be a healer, rather than judge are a recurrent theme of the Book of Prayer: "Treat me like a physician, rather than examining me like a judge (Prayers 23b, 79a)." These pleas are particularly poignant given his physical condition. St. Gregory had a profound belief in the power of prayer to make us whole (e.g., Prayers 3e, 53c, 57a, 66a). He grasped the power of the book he was inspired to compose:
And may you make this book of mournful psalms
begun in your name, Most High, into a life-giving salve
for the sufferings of body and soul. (Prayer 3e).
The prayers are woeful not because he laments a hard life or his lot, but because of his own sense of inadequacy for his calling. He expresses this in striking imagery when speaking of "this book of woes, my testament of prayers":
If I were to fill the basin of the sea with ink
and to measure out parchment the length and breadth of a field of many leagues
and were to take all the reeds of the forests and woods and turn them into pens,
I still would not be able to record even a fraction
of my accumulated wrong-doings.
If I were to set the Cedars of Lebanon as a scale
and to put Mount Ararat on one side and my iniquities on the other,
it would not come close to balancing. (Prayer 9a)
Though deathly ill, he does not ask, "why me, why now?" He does not lament his plight. Rather he laments his unworthiness for God's grace and his own ingratitude and disobedience before God's good will. Shifting seamlessly between the individual and the universal he equates his ingratitude with that of humankind: "God spoke, but who listened? He himself gave witness, but who believed? (Prayer 28d)." He characterized his own unruliness in a colorful image, comparing himself to "a talking horse with a callous mouth, breaking my reins and shaking off my bit (Prayer 22b)."24
It was a heavy burden, enough to break body and soul and to leave him feeling forlorn, yet never beyond God's care:
This image of destruction reminds me of my misery,
like a captain mourning his ship,
chin in hand,25 tears streaming down,
viewing traces of the wreckage
bobbing on the crest of the waves.
My slain sanity sobs with pitiful grief.
I did not stray from the truth
in selecting these words to mourn
the shattered ark of my intellect.
For the Good Captain with his heavenly host
took pity on the sea of humanity in just this way. (Prayer 25c)
Toward the end of the book, he expresses his doubt of reaching old age. This translates into anxiety that he will not have the strength or time to complete his work or his penance (Prayers 82f, 83b, 85a, 86c, 87b, 91b, 91c)26 in order to realize his hope for deliverance (Prayer 92i) and attain restoration to the light, properly prepared for death (Prayer 94, 95).
Prayer 18, which has been adopted by the Armenian Church as part of its ritual of healing and prayer for the infirm, addresses the torment of terminal illness:
And because the torments of my infirmities
surpass even these examples,
and like a spreading cancer
have touched all the parts of my body,
there is no salve as there was none for Israel,27
for my innumerable sores.
Every part of my body from head to toe
is unhealthy and beyond the help of physicians.
But you, merciful, beneficent, blessed,
long-suffering, immortal King,
hear the prayers of my embattled heart for mercy,
when I cry out to you, "Lord,"
in my time of need.28 (Prayer 18k)
Translating the Sighs of Wonder, Fear,
Gratitude, Regret and Longing
St. Gregory gives many clues to the purpose and inspiration for his work. His primary aim was to translate
the sound of the heart's sighs into an offering of words
The voice of a sighing heart,
its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to you in the censer of my will.
Compassionate Lord, breathe in
this offering and look more favorably on it
than upon a more sumptuous sacrifice
rich with smoke. Please find
this simple string of words acceptable.
Do not turn in anger. (Prayer 1).
He knew that he could not do this alone and that he was not without help or hope. He was a pliant instrument of God's will:
You, the potter, and I, the clay,30
Show me, hesitating at the threshold of these contrite prayers,
the sweetness of your will. (Prayer 2b)
Faced with the awesome task of communicating with the One who knows our every thought yet is willing to listen, is cause for sighs of wonder, fear, gratitude and regret. Indeed at the beginning of the Armenian Divine Liturgy upon ascending the altar, the deacon incants: "Why are you downcast, my soul?" (Prayers 44b, 82d, Ps. 46:2). St. Paul also addressed this sense of inadequacy: "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, and he who searches the hearts of men knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom. 8:26)." In a similar way, St. Gregory offered "his testament of woes," on the one hand, fearful that his effort to translate the pure feelings of the heart into words would be inadequate (Prayers 1, 2, 32c, 37c, 47a, 70d), and on the other hand, filled with wonder at God's willingness to receive our prayers telling Him what He already knows more perfectly than we could ever express it (Prayers 37c, 47a, 66b). In the words of the Hymn of the Angels from the Armenian Divine Liturgy: "You are surrounded by choirs of angels, yet you deign to accept this offering by mere humans."
The sighs of regret are closely linked to his wonder at God's forgiveness and all-powerful love. St. Gregory characterized the power of confessional prayer in a striking image:
For a small teardrop from the eye
can cause an entire evil platoon of the Tempter's army to shrink away
And the faint groan of a sighing heart, rising from the soul,
is like a warm southerly breeze, mixed with sun,
that melts the fiercest blizzard... (Prayer 7a)31
He sighed in wonder at the infinite goodness and power of God:
And when our resources are exhausted
you perform the greatest miracles. (Prayer 53a)
What is impossible for me is easy for you.
What is beyond my reach is grasped by you.
What is hidden for me in my fallen state
is within view for your supreme goodness.
What is undoable for me is done by you. (Prayer 57a)
In the face of my evil you are good.
In the face of my indebtedness, you are forgiving.
In the face of my sinfulness, you are indulgent.
In the face of my darkness, you are light.
In the face of my mortality, you are life. (Prayer 58b)
Still the impulse to speak and reconnect with God is overwhelming: "I long not so much for the gifts as for the Giver. I yearn not so much for the glory as the Glorified (Prayer 12b)." That impulse was urgent, since regret delayed could mean absolution denied: "The sighs of the heart that are not delivered now may not be accepted later (Prayer 79d)."
The Narek as a Guide to Worship
St. Gregory aimed to create an "edifice of faith."32 He believed strongly in the church and the need for communal worship (Prayer 75j). His writings have taken their place as jewels in the rites of the Armenian Church. The power of his prayers was recognized by the Church and enshrined in the daily services and feast-day celebrations of the Armenian faithful.33 Every day some part of his inspired writings are recited in the Armenian Church, for example, the Priest's private prayer upon ascending the altar for the Divine Liturgy:
We beseech you with outstretched arms, with tears and
Appearing before you, judge who strikes terror in our hearts,
we approach with great trembling and grave fear,
presenting first this sacrificial offering of words to your power that is beyond understanding. (Prayer 33f).
Like other sacred books, the Book of Prayer has an internal structure that makes it profitable to read from beginning to end. Or like an encyclopedia, it can be consulted for appropriate advice at specific spiritual junctures in our lives. In the course of the centuries, clergy and laity have created a kind of index to the prayers for different circumstances.
For those who wish to approach The Narek as a course in prayer or spiritual development, commentators have suggested that it may be useful to think of the book metaphorically as an "edifice of faith," to be entered just as a person going to church.34 In this sense, The Narek could be viewed as a kind of sequel to the Commentary on the Divine Liturgy written by St. Gregory's father, Bishop Khosrov Andzevatsi.
Worshipers start their journey toward church as converts or penitents, at the entrance or vestibule of the church, where since early Christian times the catechumens (new converts) were required to stay. A vestige of this practice is still evident in the Deacon's instruction to the congregation in Armenian Divine Liturgy: Let none of the catechumens, skeptics, or penitents approach the Divine Mystery. On the porch, vestibule, or gavit of the church, the worshiper prepares for reconciliation and communion with God (Prayers 1-33). Next, the worshiper enters into the church (Prayers 34-52), proclaiming the confession of faith and petitioning for grace and judgment in preparation for communion. The worshiper then prepares for communion with prayers for atonement (Prayers 53-64). Having taken communion, the worshiper prays in anticipation of judgment. Here, in addition to universal prayers, St. Gregory composes prayers anticipating his own death (Prayers 65-74). Church-going leads to prayers for the Church, the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the angels, apostles, and saints, and finally prayers in preparation for death and life eternal (Prayers 75-90), which culminate, if only for a brief moment, in the nexus with the eternal—the ecstatic moment and contemplation of things to come. This moment is captured in two special instructional prayers: one on the wooden bell that calls us to worship like the trumpet on the Day of Judgment (Prayer 92) and the other dedicated to the holy chrism (oil), used for baptism, ordination, consecrations and extreme unction before death (Prayer 93), which are followed by the dawning of the everlasting day of light in the kingdom of the just sun (Prayers 94, 95).
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)."35 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 verses36 and Homeric listings37v 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.38
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,39 or the ship wreck and the sea.40 Some of the other most common images are horses,41 pottery,42 judgment,43 debts/mortgages,44 and healing salves and remedies.45 Following the Gospels, St. Gregory constructs "word pictures" and uses parabolic language46 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,47
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,
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,
ripped up verdict,
dried up 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 foretold48
alien, evil forces stole the wise treasure of my heart.
Wisdom waned in me, as the Proverb-teller says,
and evil impulses grew.49
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.50
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:51
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,
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)
Thomas J. Samuelian
Yerevan, July 2001