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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Ave Maria
Vol. 35, Nos. 1 (July 2, 1892) and 2 (July 9, 1892).

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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No. 1
St. Nerses the Armenian and Our Lady
By Rev. W. H. Kent, O.S.C.

In turning from the Greek writings of St. John Damascene to the works of the Armenian St. Nerses, we seem to be passing from familiar surroundings to a far country and a strange tongue. The contrast is fully as great as that which must have struck our readers on a former occasion, when we led them from the holy Abbot of Clairvaux to the Syriac poet of Edessa. For if, on the one hand, many among us are probably more at home with the Latin Fathers than with Greeks like St. John, on the other hand, the language and literature of the Armenians are less known and studied than those of their Syrian neighbors. It is likely enough that some readers are not even aware that this ancient nation has a literature of its own, and have not so much as heard the name of St. Nerses the Gracious. This is, no doubt, due to the difficulties of the language, and the lack of motives for learning it, or to the scarcity of translations from the Armenian writers. In any case, it is not to be explained by  p2 anything in the literature itself. Writings such as those of St. Nerses have a sterling value of their own, and it still further enhanced by the romantic history of the Armenian nation.

Few lands can boast a record so chequered and eventful, and withal so darkened by misfortune, as that of Armenia. If it was never one of the great imperial powers, like Babylon or Persia or Macedon, it played an important part in their history, and often became the battle-ground of its more mighty neighbors. After serving many masters, the Armenians at length enjoyed some years of freedom, and under Tigranes the Great became conquerors in their turn. But the voice of Tully and the sword of Pompey checked them in mid-career. Robbed of their conquered provinces, they still retained for a while their national independence; but they were soon to fall once more under the yoke of strangers.

Christianity found its way into Armenia at a very early date, — so early indeed that some writers consider that this was the first nation converted to the faith.​1 This took place during an interval of freedom, and it might have seemed that the Armenian Christians were going to escape the hard lot of the faithful in other lands. But if the days of domestic persecution were shortened by the early conversion of king and people, years, nay centuries, of national martyrdom were yet to come. After suffering much at the hands of the last pagan emperors, Maximin and Licinius, the Armenians did not long enjoy the peace which came with their Christian successors. Early in the fifth century the unhappy country fell under the power of the Persians, who sought to impose the teaching of Zoroaster upon this Christian land. And even when this fierce persecution of the Armenians had spent its force, the blessings of peace and religious freedom were still hidden from their eyes. Other masters followed in the track of the Persians; and Saracen and Mongol, Kurds and Turks swept down in turn upon this devoted land. There were some brief intervals of brighter days, especially at the time of the Crusades; and Lesser Armenia maintained its independence till near the end of the fourteenth century, when the last remnant of national freedom went down before the Moslem power. Persian Armenia was ceded to Russia in 1828, but the Turks still hold the portion which fell to their share. A considerable part of the Armenian nation is now scattered through many countries of Europe and Asia, still retaining their language, religion and national character. Those who remain in the ancient cradle of their race have much to suffer at the hands of the unbelieving Kurds; for the days of their martyrdom are not yet ended.

The story of this prolonged persecution is sad enough, but unhappily this is not the darkest page of Armenian history. A great part of this ancient Christian nation has long been severed from Catholic unity, and the fraud of false teachers has succeeded only too well where the sword of the tyrants proved unavailing. Their isolation from the churches of the Empire, and we may add the strong national spirit engendered by oppression, made the Armenians a ready prey to schism and heresy. And when we remember the many difficulties of their position, we may well hope that ignorance rather than malice is the source of their errors. It is well to add that the mutual misunderstanding and want of intercourse which first wrought this evil has since made it seem greater than it really is. The errors and abuses of individuals have been ascribed to the people as a whole, and national customs or the expressions of early writers have been invested with a meaning which they were never meant to bear. While students  p3 of the Armenian language were few and far between, most of our historians had to content themselves with information at second-hand. In this way, we may remark, the somewhat exaggerated statements of a well-meaning ­missionary of the seventeenth century have been perpetuated in the pages of some of the most eminent and orthodox writers.

The troublous history of the Armenian race would hardly lead us to expect much from their literature. Where was the leisure for writing, or the means of preserving what was written? It certainly says much for the genius and industry of this long-suffering race that they have produced a rich and varied literature in the face of so many difficulties. The fifth century, which is known among them as the "age of translators," may be called the golden age of Armenian letters. At this time, with the aid of the alphabet then lately devised by St. Mesrop, many of the ancient classics and the chief writings of the Greek and Syriac Fathers were rendered into the Armenian tongue. Needless to say, these versions derive great importance from their antiquity; and in many cases they have the additional advantage of preserving works no longer extant in the original. For these reasons a knowledge of Armenian is often of service to the student of early theology. Thus, to take an instance ready to hand, the Armenian translation formed an important factor in the latest controversy on the Ignatian Epistles. In the words of the late Dr. Lightfoot, it was felt to be the key of the position. These versions, however, do not concern us now: we are looking for some evidence of Armenian devotion to the Blessed Mother of God, and for this we must turn to the comparatively neglected writings of native teachers.

The Fathers of the Armenian Church may not be so great or so numerous as the Greek and Latin Doctors, but for all that they are a goodly array of gifted writers. There are preachers and theologians, poets and historians, among them; and it would be no light task to give an account of their works, or to say which of them all should be allowed the foremost place. In the present matter, however, they could hardly have a more fit representative and spokesman than St. Nerses Clajensis, a younger contemporary of the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

The latter, as we were reminded by the centenary of last year, was born in 1091; while the birth of the Armenian Saint took place in 1098, or, according to some authorities, in the last year of the century. He was sprung from an ancient family, which had already given two saintly teachers to the Church of Armenia, in the persons of St. Nerses the Great and St. Gregory the Illuminator, the apostle of the land. Our Saint and his elder brother Gregory no doubt derived their names from these two glories of their house. The young Nerses was devoted to the service of the altar from a very early age. His brother Gregory, succeeding another kinsman, became the Catholic or Patriarch of the Armenians, and held this high office for the lengthy period of three and fifty years. He fixed his patriarchal seat at Rom Klaj (Fortress of the Romans), from which our Saint takes his name of Clajensis, to distinguish him from his great namesake of the fourth century. Well knowing the abilities and merits of his younger brother, the Patriarch soon called him to share his labors, and, much against his wish, consecrated him bishop.

Gregory was happily in communion with the Holy See, and was endeavoring at the same time to break down the barriers which separated the Greeks and Armenians. And in this, as well as in the care of his own flock, he found a valuable assistant in his brother Nerses. It was through him that Pope Innocent II sent a pastoral staff and a veil to the Patriarch Gregory; and when the Greeks were anxious to  p4 come to an understanding on the points at issue between them and the Armenians, Nerses was chosen as the most fitting spokesman of his countrymen. Both in his discussions with the philosopher Theorian, and in his letters to the General Alexius and the Emperor Manuel Comnenus, he sets forth the teaching and customs of the Armenian Church, and defends them from the attacks of their enemies. The position taken by the Saint in this matter lends fresh weight to all that he has to say on Our Lady; for it assures us that he speaks for the faith and devotion of his countrymen, and not for himself alone. As the long reign of Gregory drew to a close, Nerses was very naturally chosen to succeed him in the patriarchal office, which he held for some seven years. He must have been well over the allotted threescore years and ten when he was called to receive the reward of his labors, in the year 1173.

St. Nerses has left many writings behind him, both in prose and verse. His prayers for the twenty-four hours of the day are possibly known to a few of our readers; for they have been several times published in a polyglot form. A copy of the eighth edition of this curious little work now lies before us. It was brought out in 1862 by the Armenian monks of San Lazaro (near Venice); and gives the prayers of St. Nerses in no less than three and thirty languages, from Armenian and Greek to Chinese and Malayalim. A portrait of the Saint is prefixed to the volume, which is altogether a marvel of typography.

In 1833 Father Joseph Cappelletti published a Latin translation of the prose works of St. Nerses. This edition, which appeared at Venice in two large octavo volumes, contains some twenty-two letters, two sermons, and a commentary on the opening chapters of St. Matthew, together with some smaller works. In his prefatory notice, the translator attacks Father Galan and other writers, who ascribe erroneous teaching to St. Nerses, and tell us that he was only set right by his Greek antagonist. Cappelletti shows that the Saint had already taught the orthodox doctrine in letters which were written before his discussions with Theorian. From this he concludes that the Greek account of those discussions must be rejected as spurious. This is probably going too far; for the story may be colored by the partisan­ship of the Greek writer without being a mere fabrication. But, in any case, the evidence brought forward by Cappelletti should serve to modify the sweeping statements of some of our historians. Now that the letters of St. Nerses are available in his Latin version, there is less excuse for repeating the old, one-sided story of the Greek chroniclers.

These prose writings throw a flood of light on the history and theology of Armenia, and it is unfortunate that they are so little read amongst us. In the present matter, however, they are only of secondary importance. St. Nerses is mainly occupied in dealing with those points of doctrine or discipline on which the Greeks and Armenians were disagreed, so that we can not hope to find much about Our Lady in his dogmatic letters. Here and there he is led to say a word on the subject of her power and dignity, and these passing allusions are certainly striking. Thus in his letter to Alexius he has to meet the objection of a Greek critic who found fault with the Armenians for omitting the Magnificat from their daily Office. St. Nerses answers that the objector is altogether wrong in supposing that they neglect the recitation of this canticle, and he explains that the practice which had given rise to the charge was really due to their devotion to the ever-blessed Virgin. "For so much do we honor Mary, the Mother of God, who is most worthy of honor from all in heaven and on earth, that we never sing her words on working days with the words of the Three Children and of the Prophet David,  p5 but only on Sundays and the feasts of Our Lord."​2 In another place, after explaining the meaning of the Trisagion in the Armenian Office, he goes on to say: "After this we take the Mother of the Word of God as the Mediatress of intercession with her only-begotten Son, saying, 'Offer our prayers to thy Son and our God.' "​3 Elsewhere he speaks of her unsullied virginity, and compares and contrasts her with our mother Eve.4

These stray passages, slight as they are, would still be enough to show us that St. Nerses was not ignorant of Mary's high dignity, or wanting in love and devotion to the Queen of Saints. But they would hardly warrant us in taking him as a spokesman of his race, and setting him side by side with such writers as St. Bernard and St. Ephrem and St. John of Damascus. And readers who only know the Armenian Saint through Cappelletti's version of his prose writings will probably think that we are building much on very slight foundations; but we must remind them that these writings are only a part, and by no means the more important part, of the Saint's works. The collection of letters and discourses may be fairly complete; but there still remain the hymns and sacred poems, which, so far as we are aware, have never yet been rendered into Latin — or, for the matter of that, into any other Western language.

No. 2
In his preface to the prose works of St. Nerses, Cappelletti spoke of the great beauty of the Saint's poetry, and alluded to the extreme difficulty of preserving this in a foreign version. At the same time he made a half promise of attempting the task himself; but he does not seem to have had an opportunity of doing this. The Armenian text itself is happily available; for an excellent edition, in 24mo, was brought out by the Mechitarists of San Lazaro in 1830. A copy of this little volume now lies before us, containing upward of five hundred and eighty closely but clearly printed pages. It is probable that the Saint, who was evidently a fluent writer of poetry, may have left behind him other verses which are still unpublished, and others again which have since perished. But what is here is enough to give him a foremost place in the rich choir of Marian singers. Besides some stray passages in the longer historical poem, and elsewhere in the course of the book, there are several hymns entirely devoted to the praise of our Blessed Lady. Some of these are so very beautiful that, in spite of Cappelletti's warning on the difficulty of the task, we are tempted to offer our readers an English rendering of these hymns from the far East. Let us take as an instance the following lines on the Annunciation:

Mary, Mother of our Maker,

Daughter sprung from kingly David,

Bearing for us the New Adam,

Ancient Adam's race renewing.

God's true Mother we confess thee;

Hail as God the Child thou bearest;

With the Angel's words we greet thee,

Echoing his note of gladness.

Dwelling-place of Light, be gladsome;

Temple where the true Sun dwelleth;

Throne of God, rejoice, that bearest

Him the Word of the Almighty.

Heaven, exalted o'er the heavens;

Than the Cherubim far higher;

From the soaring Seraph's pinion,

Is thy wondrous mystery hidden.

Home of Him that none may compass,

Hostel where the Sun finds resting;

Dwelling of the Fire of Glory,

Where the Word finds fleshly clothing,

Seers of old in figures saw thee;

Moses' Bush which flames consumed not;

Great Isaias' Virgin bearing,

And Ezechiel's fastened Portal.

Daniel's great stone-bearing Mountain;

Solomon's fair Hill of Incense;

Fountain sealed for Him that keeps it;

Garden closed for Him that plants it.

Gideon in the Fleece beheld thee;

David saw the Rain descending;

And Micheas, Bethlehem's glory

Saw, and said from thence He cometh.

Noah's Ark, the true, the living;

Tent of Abraham our father;

Ark of Covenant and Mercy;

Lamp where wondrous light is burning.

God's own Garden, fair with blossoms;

Spikenard of the Spirit's sweetness;

Valley where the Lily bloometh,

Fountain whence the four streams issue.

 p36  Censer of the sweetest incense,

Where the fourfold spices mingle,

Whence amid the saints in glory

Like sweet smoke thy prayer ascendeth.

Lo we pray thee, Life's own Mother,

From the stain of sin to cleanse us,

By thy prayer to God our Maker,

Unto whom the praise and glory!​5

As one of the most striking features of this hymn is the skill with which so many of the types and titles of Our Lady are brought together in these few verses, it may be well to add that this is still more noticeable in the Armenian original, where the thoughts are closely packed in somewhat shorter lines.

St. Nerses has two other poems on the Annunciation; and two more on the Feast of the "Migration," or Assumption of Our Lady, which the Armenians seem to regard as a counterpart of the former feast; making the Angel Gabriel appear with the summons to the heavenly crown, even as he came with the first glad tidings. This may be seen in the Liturgy, where the following verse, or anthem, is sung on the day of the Assumption: "This day the Archangel Gabriel came bearing the prize and crown to the conquering Virgin, calling the Temple of the Most High and the Dwelling of the Spirit to the Lord of all." The same thought, in almost the same words, is found in a hymn of St. Nerses, which we may render as follows:

'Tis the day the Angel Gabriel to the Holy Maid came down,

Bearing her the palm of triumph, bringing her the victor's crown;

'Tis the day he came to call her to the everlasting Lord, —

Her the Most High's chosen dwelling, her the Temple of the Word.

Gathered at the Spirit's summons, came the Apostles one and all,

With the band of holy maidens faithful to the Master's call.

Then the Angels' hosts were humbled in their glory bending down,

While the Word the One-Begotten called His Mother to her crown;

Till she heard and mounted upward like the lightning in her flight

Through the ranks of purest spirits passing to the heavenly height.

'Tis the day they took her body, pure and virginal and fair,

Gave it to the earth in keeping, laid their stainless treasure there.

See the tomb wherein they laid her; round about it angels throng;

All around they sound the heavenly music of their choral song,

While the voices of the Apostles mingle with the hymn they raise,

And the bands of holy maidens sing the Maiden Mother's praise.

'Tis the day that saw her Passing. From the land where senses reign

Passed that fair and painless body to the spirits' high domain.

Now with overflowing gladness sing the angel ranks today,

While the fair and glorious Virgin mid them wends her heavenward way,

Gifts of healing, gifts of mercy, this glad day are freely given;

Now the face of God's own Mother beams upon us from the heaven.

Thus we keep the Virgin's triumph, thus our thankful songs we raise,

To the Father, Son, and Spirit sending up our prayer and praise!​6

Another hymn on the Assumption is like the above verses on the Annunciation, in the great abundance of the titles and Scriptural figures which are woven together in its musical lines. We may content ourselves with a few flowers from this garland of roses:

Unsullied temple heavenly light enshrining,

God's Mother true, and still a stainless Maiden;

Prophets of old prefigured and foretold thee:

The Tree of Life in God's fair garden planted.

In Abraham's tent was heard the gladsome tidings,

From God's own Word thy motherhood foretelling.

Hail bush of Moses unconsumed by burning!

Hail golden vessel filled with heavenly Manna!

Hail Gideon's Fleece, the gentle dew containing!

Isaias sang of thee, the Maid conceiving;

The lightsome cloud, the book made fast with sealing.

Ezechiel saw the portal barred and bolted;

Daniel, the mount whence the great stone was taken.​7

Here we have some figures which are not found in the other hymn, such as the application to Our Blessed Lady of the words of Isaias, xix, 1: "Behold the Lord  p37 will ascend upon a swift cloud, and will enter into Egypt." The "book" seems to be a reference to Isaias, xxix, 11: "And the vision of all shall be unto you as the words of a book that is sealed."

It is well to remind our readers that we have given them only a few extracts from this little volume, which contains many other passages in the same strain. But what has been given may well be enough to show the character of the Marian writings of this great Saint, who may be fitly called the Armenian St. Bernard. And as these extracts are only samples of the Saint's teaching, so St. Nerses himself is only the spokesman of the other Armenian writers. He does not by any means stand alone in his devotion to Our Lady; and we might find parallel passages, though perhaps not in the same abundance, in the works of his fellow-countrymen. Thus, to take an instance at random, St. Gregory Narekatzy, a writer of the tenth century, observes, in his Commentary on the Canticles, that Adam had the gift of prophecy. "For after eating the fruit, he knew by prophetic vision our salvation which was to be in the hands of a woman, — that is to say, in the hands of the Holy Mother of God. Wherefore he called the woman Life (Eve); for if this were not so, how could he call her Life, who had become the cause of death to all the children of Adam?"

In like manner the liturgical books of the Armenians bear many tokens of a warm devotion to the ever-blessed Virgin. Let us take as an instance the following passage, which is found in the Mass, after the washing of the hands, when the priest, being fully vested, comes before the altar:

"Priest: 'And for the sake of the Holy Mother of God, hear our supplications and give us life.' Deacon: 'Let us make the Holy Mother of God and all the saints our intercessors before our Father in heaven; that He may deign to have mercy on us, and may give life to His creatures, taking pity on them. Almighty Lord, one God, give us life and have pity on us.' Priest: 'O Lord, receive our supplications through the intercession of the Holy Mother of God, the Immaculate Mother of Thine only-begotten Word, and through the prayers of all Thy saints.' "​8

So again in the Breviary we find the following prayer in the Office of Compline (Hang'stean): "For the sake of Thy Holy Immaculate Mother and Virgin, O Lord, receive our prayers and give us life!"​9 And it would be easy to add many like extracts from the same source. Nor is it only in the ancient books of the Liturgy and the writings of the early Fathers that we find tokens of this devotion to Our Lady. If we turn to an excellent little manual of hymns, or prayers in verse, brought out at Venice in 1843, we find a metrical version of the "Hail Mary" and a canticle on the Seven Dolors.

Before taking leave of this Armenian client of Mary, it may not be amiss to add a few words on the language in which he wrote his prayers and hymns. The Armenian tongue is full of interest to the student of comparative philology. It is unquestionably a member of the Indo-European family, but its exact position in the group is not very easy to determine. Earlier philologists set it down as one of the Persian branch; but there seems to be good reason for connecting it more closely with the European division, particularly the Slavonic. Students of Russian and Polish can hardly fail to note the similarity of many of the grammatical inflections. At the same time some of the Armenian phonetic laws show a remarkable resemblance to the Irish.​10 The native vocabulary  p38 is copious, and is further enriched by a moderate infusion of foreign words. While the inflectional forms can not be compared with those of the Greek or Sanskrit, they are still sufficiently abundant, and the capacity of making compound words is fully retained. We call attention to these facts, because the full powers of this ancient language have been displayed to advantage in the titles and epithets bestowed on the Immaculate Queen of Heaven. It is hardly too much to remark that the Armenian tongue is richer in these titles than any other idiom, whether in the East or the West.

To begin with, the Greek Θεοτόκος and the Latin Deipara are fully represented by the Armenian Astvatsatsin.​11 This word is in constant use, so that the greatest of Mary's titles is never put out of sight. The same idea is also conveyed by another name which is not so common as the foregoing — i.e.Astvatsamajr, Mother of God. Besides these we have Tiratsin and Tiramajr, Mother of (Our) Lord. The latter, it is interesting to note, is also applied to the mother of a priest. Another word, sometimes used to denote Mary's office in the great work of Redemption, is Marmnaran, the place of Incarnation. Passing on to another of Our Lady's glories, we find her called Kujs, the Virgin; M'shtakujs, the Ever-Virgin; and Kusatsin, or Kusamajr, the Virgin Mother. In like manner Our Lord is called Kusordi, the Virgin's Son. Other titles show the sublime sanctity of Our Lady. Thus she is spoken of as Amenasurb (or Amenasurbuhi) Kujs, the all-holy Virgin. And sometimes, as in the case of the Italian Santissima, the adjective is used alone. Besides this, the Armenians make use of several titles conveying the idea of sovereignty, such as Tiruhi, the Mistress or Lady; Iskuhi Kujs, the Queen Virgin; and Ogusta Tiruhi, the Empress.

It is pleasing to find these tokens of devotion to the Holy Mother of God enshrined in the language and literature of this ancient Eastern race. May the lesson and example they give us help to kindle the same flame in the hearts of all who read these pages in the new Western World! And may they at the same time lead many to send up a fervent prayer that Mary may lend her powerful aid to these her children in the far East, comforting those who are yet under the rod of the oppressor, and bringing light and union to those who are in the darker and more fatal bondage of schism or heresy.

Catholic America owes a special debt to the Armenians; for some well-meaning Protestant missionaries from this country have done much to make confusion worse confounded, and lead the scattered sheep yet farther astray. May the prayers of the "Queen Virgin," the "Mistress," the "Empress," the "Virgin Mother," undo the evil work of centuries, and bring back the blessings of truth and peace and unity to the ancient Church of Armenia!

The Author's Notes:

1 "Das armenische Volk war das erste das als solches das Christenthum annahm." Hergenröther, Kirchengeschichte, I.330.º

2 Volume I, p182.

3 Volume I, p186.

4 Volume I, p242.

5 "Tearn Nersesi Shenorhalvuh Ban'kh Tchaphau," p367.

6 Ibid., p407.

7 Ibid., p409.

8 "Liturgia Armena trasportata in Italiano per cura del G. Avetikhian." Venice, 1826. p16. (Armenian and Italian.)

9 "Breviarium Armeniacum." Venice, 1860, p447. (Armenian only.)

10 We may mention as an instance the aspiration or loss of initial p. Thus the Irish for "father" (Sanskrit pitri), athar, agrees with the Armenian hajr; and lan (full, plenus) with the Armenian l'noun (I fill).

11 It may be well to add that in these Armenian words we adopt the Eastern pronunciation, instead of the more modern fashion which finds favor with most writers in the West.

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