The Heart at Ground Zero: St Gregory of Narek and Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart

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Where does prayer come from? Especially prayer of the deepest kind with “sighs too deep for words” (Rm 8:26)? Is there a bedrock from which prayer rises utterly pure, sincere, and true?

What Scripture calls “the depths” we could call the ‘ground zero’ of our prayer life—a place which few have explored and mapped as painstakingly as the most recent Doctor of the Church, Saint Gregory of Narek.

When Pope Francis declared St Gregory a doctor in 2015 he ratified the reverence and devotion of centuries of Armenian Christians, and perhaps provided a vital introduction to many Latin rite Catholics unfamiliar with the Saint. A monk of the monastery of Narek in Armenia, St Gregory (951-1003) was a spiritual luminary in his homeland towards the end of the first Christian millennium. His lifetime coincided with a kind of Armenian golden age, a cultural renaissance when learning, art, architecture, theology and spirituality blossomed.

Among the several works for which St Gregory is famous is his Book of Prayer, called Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart by a contemporary English translation,[1] but also known (closer to its Armenian original) as the Book of Lamentations or of Tragedy.[2] Taken together, the titles suggest a prayer book like no other, one whose pages teem with raw, deeply honest sentiments, colored throughout by a specifically Christian sorrow—borne not of defeat, but of triumph. Once you’ve been conquered by the Lord, the memory of what used to rule your life stings the conscience, triggering a salvific sadness. Yet healing and joy are never far.

As he exposes his wounds, St Gregory declares his own restoration:

I who was broken, am restored,
who was wretched, am triumphant,
who was dissipated, am healed,
who was desperately outlawed, find hope,
who was condemned to death, find life,
who was mortgaged by damnable deeds, find the light,
who was debauched by animal pleasures, find heaven,
who was twice caught in scandal, again find salvation,
who was bound by sin, find the promise of rest,
who was shaken by incurable wounds,
find the salve of immortality,
who was wildly rebellious, find the reins of tranquility,
who was a renegade, find calling,
who was brazenly self-willed, find humility,
who was quarrelsome, find forgiveness.

(Prayer 11E)

“Out of the depths I cry to thee, O LORD! Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130:1-2)

St Gregory’s repetition of “Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart” at the outset of each of his 95 prayer-meditations signals a profundity of feeling and supplication on par with the biblical Psalms and Lamentations. We live topside much of the time, avoiding the depths—just dealing with the events of life as they come, but not living simultaneously in that secret inner chamber in which the Lord who sees in secret rewards us with the truth about Himself. Courageous souls willing to descend beneath the surface distractions, passions, and vanities of daily life will find in the Prayer Book words, sighs, and groans for both the journey and the destination.

What is it to speak to God from the depths of the heart? What sits at the bottom of the heart? All that is truest about us, most real, most raw. What Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the soul in Purgatory is perhaps the finest description of the meeting that transpires between God and us in our depths, even in this life:

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. (Spe Salvi, no. 47)

At the heart’s ground zero you find no lies, charades, or masks. There, vanity cannot face itself. Indeed all of our vices are denuded of the dressing that makes them seem respectable to us. There, we are nearest the original wound that cuts through our entire being, running like a fault line through so many of our desires and choices.

Is what we find there ugly or beautiful? Is it something once beautiful but corrupted? At bottom, we are like children in vulnerable infancy, incapable of self-defense. All complexity unravels. We are unintelligent and most wise—like the three Magi dispossessed of any claim to greatness, prostrate, in our place before God.

St Gregory speaks from this only true and authentic vantage point: humility. His prayers come directly from the posture of someone fully aware of God’s greatness and his own littleness and poverty before Him. True “lamentations” and aspirations are only possible and credible from this vantage point. From the mouth of one who hugs the earth in humility are heard only cries for mercy and songs of praise, which amount to the same thing.

In this he stands in the tradition of great biblical figures, for whom nothing was more natural than to self-identify as “dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27), while giving voice to heartfelt thanksgiving, praise, penitence, and wonder.

You did not scald my mouth for daring to
       call myself your co-heir,
did not reprimand me for arrogantly
       associating with you,
did not darken the sight of my eyes for
       gazing upon you,
did not exile me in shackles with
       those condemned to death,
did not break the wrist of my arm for
       improperly reaching to you,
did not crack the digits of my fingers for
       touching the word of life,
did not engulf me with fog for dedicating this
       to you, fearsome Lord,
did not crush the rows of my teeth for
       chewing your communion, infinite Lord,
did not turn in anger as I did with you,
       as with the stubborn house of Israel,
did not dishonor me at your wedding party,
       I, who am unworthy of singing and dancing,
did not scold me for my disheveled clothes,
       I, who am disorderly,
did not cast me into the dark, my hands and
       feet shackled.

(Prayer 5C)

Praying from the depths of heart clearly isn’t about straining the mind with thoughts, deep concentration, or even deep introspection. Even when we take an honest self-inventory, we often suspect that much lies hidden beneath what we can see and verbalize, and so it is.

Although exposing our layers of psychological complexity isn’t St Gregory’s aim, awakening us to the Spirit’s movement within is. Allowing the grace of the Holy Spirit to well up within, to breathe as He wills, to intercede for us with groans beyond words, is to pray from the depths of the heart. Our humble openness to the truths He wishes to reveal, the sorrow He wishes to inspire, the joy He wishes to establish and increase, allows Him to heal the soul from the ground up, so to speak.

Exposing the wounds of the soul as God makes us aware of them, and owning them, is the surest path to healing. What is needed is the courage and trust to see with eyes wide open that part of ourselves which Jesus came to redeem and save. And to realize that the part is the whole of us.

FOOTNOTES

[1] St. Gregory of Narek, Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayer Book of St Gregory of Narek. Transl. Thomas J. Samuelian. Poetic editing by Diana Der Hovanessian. Fourth edition, 2015. Vem Press. A searchable online version is also available: http://www.stgregoryofnarek.am

[2] Thomas J. Samuelian explains with an insightful dramatic parallel: “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 usually do not, until it is too late.” Introduction, ii.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he teaches English at St Michael’s Preparatory School, the boarding school operated by the Norbertine Fathers. He also preaches retreats, is chaplain to the cloistered Norbertine Nuns in Tehachapi, California, and serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California (Our Lady of Nareg Eparchy). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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