Taking a leaf from the Armenians' book

Sacred Mysteries: the ancient civilisation of Armenia remains exotic
and unknown in the West, but a holy monk from lake Van has just been
declared a Doctor of the Church

St Gregory of Narek: "This book will cry out in my place."
Life on board cruise ships
Ever wondered what it's like to work on a cruise ship? Find out from
cruise director Katy Ickringill
Sponsored by Thomson Cruises

By Christopher Howse
7:00AM GMT 28 Feb 2015

There's a little book on my shelf that I can't read. It is in
Armenian, and I cannot even make out the attractive curly alphabet.
Byron, by all accounts, did rather better, taking lessons in the
language, from 1816, at the monastery where my book was printed.

This is at San Lazzaro, an island in Venice, between San Giorgio and
the Lido. It was granted to the Armenian monks in 1717. The little
community was brought there in that year by their first abbot Mechitar
of Sebaste, after whom the monks are called Mechitarists.

This monastery was of Armenian Catholics, in other words, Armenians
who recognised the primacy of the Pope. The majority of Armenians
belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenians are fond of telling
you that theirs was the first country to adopt Christianity, in 301,
thanks to St Gregory the Illuminator. Armenia, with its Indo-European
language unrecognisably related to ours, has a proud civilisation, but
to say that its history in recent centuries has been difficult is an

I was thinking about the Armenians because, in the bright winter sun
on Tuesday, I stumbled across the Armenian church in Kensington, St
Sarkis, its white Portland stone shining exotically amid the red-brick
mansion flats around it. It was built in 1922 in memory of the
philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian's parents.

The Prince of Wales visited the Armenians in London a few weeks ago at
their nearby church of St Yeghiche as part of his efforts to draw
attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. He mentioned
the destruction last November (by Islamists of the al-Nusra Front) of
the Armenian church at Deir ez-Zor in Syria. It had been built as a
memorial to the thousands of Armenian refugees from Turkey who died
there in the second decade of the 20th century.

With these thoughts in mind, I discovered that Pope Francis had last
Saturday named a great Armenian saint, Gregory of Narek (pictured
above), as a Doctor of the Church. That is a rare title, there having
been only another 35 in the history of the Church - people like St
Jerome or St Athanasius.

St Gregory (950-1003) lived as a monk at Narek, near lake Van in what
is now Turkey. A little more than 1,000 years later, the great
monastery with its conical domes in the Armenian style was destroyed
and the Armenians living around it killed.

St Gregory of Narek's best-known work, the Book of Prayer, also called
the Lamentations, might have been written as a meditation on that
disaster and the episodess of martyrdom that have punctuated Armenia's
history. The saint's aim is to bring God's mercy to bear on mankind so
that it might share in God's nature. "This book will cry out in my
place, with my voice, as if it were me," he wrote. "May unspeakable
faults be confronted and the traces of evil wrung out."

Last year Pope Francis met the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic
Church, Karekin II, and spoke about martyrdom as a way of reuniting
the Church. He had sketched out his thoughts before by remarking: "In
some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a
Bible; and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are
Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, or Orthodox."

In St Gregory of Narek's day, the Armenian Church, having followed its
own path after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, was presumed by the
Orthodox and by Western Catholics to be monophysite in teaching, with
false beliefs about the nature of Jesus as God and man. It could
hardly have been the case in practice, and the Catholic recognition of
St Gregory and other Armenian saints demonstrated a shared faith. The
proclamation of him as a doctor sets the seal on that unity of belief.
In these murderous times, Christians in the East need all the unity of
spirit they can muster.