LOS ANGELES — Two of the most renowned scholars of Armenian medieval literature were hosted in conversation on April 1 by the Ararat-Eskijian Museum in Los Angeles. Dr. Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus of Armenian Theology and Patristics of St. Nersess Seminary, and Dr. S. Peter Cowe, Narekatsi Professor of Armenian Studies at UCLA, discussed a mutual interest of theirs, the Book of Lamentations of St. Gregory of Narek, which has recently been translated and annotated in a critical edition by the former.

The magnum opus of 10th-century monk and poet Gregory of Narek, who was a member of the brotherhood of Narek Monastery near the southern shore of Lake Van in present-day Turkey, this famous book of heartfelt prayers to God rendered in poetic verse is considered by many scholars as the greatest work in the history of Armenian literature. Referred to as “Book of Prayers,” “Book of Lamentations,” (a translation of Madyan Voghperkoutyan), and other titles, it has been beloved by generations of Armenian faithful under the simple name “Narek.” Terian opines that “Penitential Prayers” is a more correct title than “Lamentations” but ultimately he went with a title based on the incipit that is found before each of the 95 prayers: ի խորոց սրտի խօսք ընդ Աստուծոյ (Speaking with God From the Depths of the Heart).

Now, a new scholarly edition in English, From the Depths of the Heart, translated and annotated by Terian, makes this work, which has informed the spirituality of the Armenian Apostolic Church since its completion around the year 1003, much more accessible to the world. The translation was published in 2002 by the Liturgical Press, a Roman Catholic publishing house in Minnesota.

Image of St Gregory of Narek From the Oldest Extant Manuscript Copy (AD 1173) of his Madyan Voghperkoutyan4 Cover of Narek book

Upbringing in an Armenian Convent

Terian and Cowe began their discussion with the story of Terian’s upbringing in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and with recollections of their early acquaintance when Cowe was a graduate student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Terian was born to a family whose ancestors had for generations served as tailors to the monks of the Brotherhood of St. James. As such, the family’s quarters were the closest to the St. James Cathedral, the Armenian Quarter’s main church – so close, in fact, that the church’s interior was on the other side of one of the walls of their apartment. Terian attended services often and could also hear them as a boy from his home, the singing of the priests and deacons coming through the walls. In such a quasi-medieval environment, where all the liturgical services of the Armenian Church were constantly being performed, Terian was imbued with the cadences of Classical Armenian hymns and prayers as a young child, giving him a familiarity with the language that would eventually become the basis of his scholarly career.

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After teaching at multiple institutions, Terian spent the last phase of his career giving back to the Armenian community and church by taking a position at St. Nersess Seminary in New Rochelle, NY (which has since to Armonk, NY) where he remained from 1997 to 2008. At the same time, he served as there as academic dean.

It was by happenstance that he became associated with the Liturgical Press, a Roman Catholic publisher in Collegeville, Minn., affiliated with St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary and the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University, a family of Catholic private colleges.

Terian related that one year at a convention for Biblical scholars held in San Diego, he was walking by the booths where various publishing houses displayed their latest books. On a whim, he approached the table of the Liturgical Press.

While teaching at St. Nersess, Terian and the other professors had often made ad hoc English translations of important classical Armenian works that were used as the primary sources for the coursework. After retirement, he realized that with a little extra work and editing, he had the material for several books. With this in mind, he began to speak with the publisher’s representative, telling him that he had a translation of some of the works of St. Gregory of Narek. After inevitably having to explain who St. Gregory of Narek was, the representative was intrigued, and told Terian “you’ve sold me on it, but I have to talk to the rest of the editorial staff, and get back to you in about four months.”

It was only a couple months later, in February 2015, that Pope Francis announced his proclamation of the Armenian St. Gregory of Narek as a “Doctor of the Universal Church,” provoking surprise and interest throughout the Catholic world about this saint previously unknown to most of them, especially considering he came from a church that was technically not in communion with Rome during his lifetime. The next day, Terian received a call from the Liturgical Press; they were going to pick up his translation.

The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek was published by the Liturgical Press in 2016. This translation, which Terian had been working on, brought to light some of the lesser-known works of Narekatsi, his joyous poems and songs on the occasion of feast days of the Armenian Church, which contrast with the penitential mood of the Book of Lamentations. But when the publishers realized that it was this latter volume which had made the saint go down in Armenian history and for which he was recognized by Pope Francis, they pushed Terian to produce a translation of Narekatsi’s magnum opus.

Terian stated that there already was a very good translation of the Book of Lamentations by Thomas Samuelian, but it was a “dynamic” English translation, intended to get across the feel of the author’s words into easily readable English, for devotional purposes. A scholarly and literal translation of the book was needed to truly introduce Narekatsi to the rest of the world.

Narekatsi According to Terian

Cowe played the role of questioner for the most part, allowing Terian to expound upon his translation and analysis.

Terian described what he felt are some of the primary themes that set Narekatsi apart and make his work so profound. For one thing, Narekatsi describes his work as a “book of prayer for all people.” In one of his prayers, he lists those for whom his work is intended, including kings and commoners, sinners and saints, men and women, young and old, wise and foolish, rich and poor, etc.

Upon Cowe’s question as to whether the work bears a relation to the famous Confessions of St. Augustine, Terian explained that although the work is a collection of penitential prayers in which every sin imaginable is confessed and repented for, it is of course unrealistic to think that Narekatsi was being simply autobiographical and that he himself had committed every sin listed in the book. Rather, the focus is on unity with Christ and with God.

According to Terian, since the beginning of Jewish and Christian thought, many spiritual writers have pondered the meaning of the phrase “made in the image of God.” Philo of Alexandria, on whom Terian is an authority, as well as the majority of other Jewish thinkers and Church fathers, have agreed that the “image of God” is the human mind or capacity for rational thought. The reference in Genesis to God “breathing” into dust to bring Adam to life also references the same thing: the breath of God in humans is again a reference to the rational mind.

Terian reflected that when Christians say that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he again brought himself closer to his creation; the first time, by creating humans in his image (i.e. with rational minds) and the second time by becoming a human himself. When Christ became man, and died on the cross, he took upon all the sins of mankind onto himself, sharing in our pain. When Christians partake of Holy Communion, considered the Body and Blood of Christ, they also become one with Christ, but as Christ has already taken all the sins of mankind upon himself, in sense, so do all Christians when they partake of Holy Communion; they join in solidarity and share the pains of all humankind. That’s why Narekatsi confesses every sin imaginable in his prayers. The point is unity with God and one’s fellow humans.

Cowe asked Terian as to how modern day people could better connect with the writings of a medieval monk. Terian answered by posing a challenge to the Armenian clergy: our tradition is so rich, he stated, and we often ignore or skip over many of our most powerful and moving prayers or hymns. More than that, he stated, we have lost the tradition of continuing to be creative in our church life. In the Middle Ages, monks would be asked by their superiors to compose prayers or odes on different occasions for feast days and other commemorations (such as the “Festal Works” featured in Terian’s first Narekatsi translation). Terian doesn’t see any reason why modern-day Armenian priests should not ask talented and spiritual members of their parishes to do the same.

A question and answer period followed in which Terian was asked which part of the Book of Lamentations, a notoriously difficult-to-translate text, was the biggest challenge for him. He responded by proudly telling of his breakthrough in the decipherment of a hitherto-confusing section in one of the last prayers. In that section, Narekatsi uses letters of the Armenian alphabet to signify numbers. Numerology, or using numbers in a symbolic way, was used in many early Christian texts, but Narekatsi’s numbers did not seem to make any sense until Terian decided to write out the Armenian alphabet in four columns of nine letters each, corresponding to how the letters are used to encode a base-10 numeral system. Then, rather than seeking a meaning to each of the numbers, he merely went through and crossed out on his chart each number Narekatsi mentioned, as if playing a game of Bingo. The result was an image of the cross – something no previous scholar had been able to figure out.

Terian mentioned that one of the proudest moments of his life was when he and his wife were invited to the Vatican last year to present a copy of his translation to Pope Francis. The Pope reportedly told Mrs. Terian to “pray for me,” and the experience was extremely moving for the couple. Terian also reports that the Roman Catholic community has embraced the works of Narekatsi wholeheartedly, thus setting the words of this 10th-century Armenian poet to be what he had always intended — a book of prayer for all peoples.

Terian’s translation, From the Depths of the Heart: Annotated Translation of the Prayers of St. Gregory of Narek, can be found on Amazon.


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