I am a living book
Written like the scroll in the vision of Ezekiel,
Inside and out,
Listing lamentations, moaning, and woe.
His thoughts were to be his living testament, sighs from the depths of his heart. The prayers that St. Gregory composed have indeed lived on in his native Armenia and they are recited and loved to this day. They have endured persecution and genocide and emerge today as a gift from the local Church in Armenia to the wider Catholic Church.
St. Gregory of Narek was recently declared to be a Doctor of the Church. There are now 36 holy men and women to be recognized as such. Some of the names on the list might surprise you, Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Bellarmine, yes, these are men renowned for theological acumen and massive amounts of brain power. The honors given to them are no surprise, but also recognized are Saints John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegaard. In what sense are we using the title “Doctor” if our list includes poets and uneducated mystics? Clearly, we are not referring specifically to technical facility in philosophy and theology. The common denominator is not education, but that the list is composed entirely of saints.
Those who are wise, or doctors of the science of the Cross, are those who are nearest to the divine essence, for it is God from whom all wisdom flows and God towards whom all wisdom returns. If we desire to be wise, we must make our way as close to Him as possible. Yes, academics are helpful (and necessary, especially for those of us without the grace of infused contemplation) because knowing the object of our desire helps us to love it better, but ultimately it is love that brings us into the divine plenitude. The Catechism helps us understand when it teaches that Christianity is a religion not of the book but of the Living Word. For this reason, many of the wisest members of the Body of Christ have a wisdom that may seem simple or foolish to those who do not have the eyes to see. They are communing directly with God and their science does not entirely belong to this world. Instead, it circles about and encompasses the world, explaining it with a knowledge that supersedes it. This is the knowledge of who we are, where we are from, and to where we are going.
This being the case, it is fitting that many Doctors of the Church are not so much academics as they are poets. Poetry is the language of the whole, of that which might be and ought to be. A good, beautiful poem is a mirror reflecting heavenly realities that are otherwise unknowable.
St. Gregory of Narek is a mystic, and his greatest contribution to the Church after his sainthood and prayers, is a book of poems. The Book of Prayers, or Book of Lamentations, is a collection of 95 poems. I was completely unaware of their existence and was quite touched by what I began to read. His work is a treasure that deserves attention. For instance, this one is still prayed today by Armenian priests in the Divine Liturgy as they ascend to the altar:
We beseech you with outstretched arms,
Tears and prayers,
As we appear before you,
You, who strike terror in our hearts,
Judge us as we approach with trembling and fear,
Presenting first this sacrificial offering of
Words to your power that is beyond understanding
If Gregory is a saint and a Doctor of the Church today, if his writings continue to be relevant and move us, it is because they are poems that find their eternal wisdom in prayer to the everliving God. The poems know the source of their enduring beauty. They return to that source and give beauty back from the depths of the human soul. In doing so, the poet and all who wrestle with his work are ennobled, carried up to heaven like incense from a thurible.
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