At our first Husgoom* service on Wednesday evening, when we prayed the prayer of St. Gregory of Nareg (Naregatzi), between the priests, deacons and people we had a nice rhythm going. (There are few occasions when this happens naturally. Most recognizably during the “kohootiun” portion of the Badarak – when a percussion section with high-hat and tom-toms would fit perfectly.)
The words of Naregatzi are intense, to say the least. The words are simple, yet complex. They seem like compound words but lack bridges. They delicately express some of the most basic emotions of the the human soul. His words come from the spirit and speak to the soul.
This week as we were singing, I got caught up in the tempo and beat. It was hypnotic and at the same time made me pay attention to the detail. I saw the punctuation marks and how they split the flow of the words. And then it hit me that those punctuations are so critical to the understanding of St. Nareg’s prayer and lament.
Like most of the liturgies of our Armenian Church, there is a tendency to “perform” rather than experience the prayers and song. That is, we understand the services as part of a prescription for our spiritual well-being – take a two Naregs, one Shnorhali, top it off with a Badarak once a week and call me in the morning. In the event of difficulty breathing, extinguish incense and use flavored candles instead.
Our work toward defining “Armenian Orthodoxy” is exactly the opposite. The words are not there to be taken (swallowed) but to challenge and motivate us to be one with Christ. Each word of Naregatzi stands as a koan waiting to be explored. Each word can become a key to your heart. Each word can be a door to the Kingdom.
Naregatzi – as well as all of our services and prayers – are not meant to be ingredients in a prescription, nor should they be part of formulas that solve spiritual dilemmas. They are the means for us to take the responsibility of our human condition and find peace.
Below, I’ve placed the prayer of St. Nareg that we sang during Husgoom. Read it through. Then, cut and paste it in a word-processor and split it up at each of the commas or semi-colons. If you have a bulleting function on your word-processor, bullet each of these. You will find small meditations that will perhaps haunt or perhaps calm you. Read one bullet and let it take hold of your thoughts and your soul. This is easier said than done, but don’t try to “solve” a word, rather, let it guide your prayer life.
For instance, one of the verses is, “abolish my pleasures of a deceiver, O ever victorious.” Don’t follow the natural tendency to ask “How am I a deceiver? What do I need abolished? How is God victorious?” etc. Because we already know those things! Think about it, you wouldn’t be in a “Lenten Journey” if you didn’t already realize that you had some issues to work out and the solution to those problems are from a source greater than you!” Instead, take this one sentence and let it soak in your heart as you pray, as you worship, as you live, as you love. Let it be a part of your life, so that when you pay for gas at the gas station or when you are stirring the soup (thinking of somethings mundane), the words “abolish my pleasures of a deceiver, O ever victorious” don’t stand out as words, but are nestled inside of you. Don’t rush anything to “Look for an answer.” Instead, pray with this one line in your heart for a week or two. You’ll find that the words begin to have more of an impact on the things you do, your relationships, your movements, your life. Then move on to the next line – to the next bullet.
This is the way of Armenian Orthodoxy. You’ll find the prayer will stimulate you to move toward God.
Prayer of St. Gregory of Nareg
Receive with tenderness, O might Lord God, the supplications of mine embittered self!
Approach me with compassion, I who am in deep disgrace; dissipate my sadness filled with shame, O thou most generous with gifts; remove mine unbearable burden, O merciful one; sever mine unbearable burden, O merciful one; sever my mortal habits from me, O thou inventor; abolish my pleasures of a deceiver, O ever victorious; disperse my demoniacal mist, O lofty one; arrest my course of perdition, O redeemer; destroy the evil devices of the captor, O thou seer of the concealed; scatter the assaults of the warrior, O inscrutable one!
Inscribe thy name with the sign of the cross upon the skylight of mine abode; encompass with thine hand the roof of my temple; mark with thy blood the side posts and the upper door-posts of my cell; imprint thy sign upon the trail of the footsteps of thy supplicants; fortify with thy right hand my couch of repose; free from snares the covering of my bed; protect with thy will my tormented soul; purify the breath of life with which thou endowest my body; surround me with troops of thy celestial army; array them against the battalion of demons.
Grant soothing rest like death unto the slumber in the deep of this night, through the mediatory supplication of the holy Mother and all the elect ones.
Closely envelop the windows of the visual senses of my mind, placing its dauntless against turbulent troubles, worldly anxieties, fantastic dreams, foolish hallucinations, that, through the memory of thy hope, it may remain protected beyond all harm; and that, roused anew with full wakefulness from the profundity of my slumber, standing erect before thee filled with soul renovating joy, I may forward this cry of supplication scented with faith, unto thee in heaven, O most hallowed king of ineffable glories, in unison with the hymns of praise sung by the celestial bands; for thou are glorified by all beings, forever and ever. Amen.
(For St. Nareg’s “Lamentations” check out Prof. Tom Samuelian’s website: http://www.stgregoryofnarek.am/)
* Husgoom = literally means “vigil”. The Armenian Church has seven hours of worship. Two of those hours are the “Peace” and “Rest” hour. At our parish we pray the prayers of these two hours and refer to it as the Lenten Vigil, i.e., “Husgoom.”