St. Nerses the Gracious (1102-1173)
“Սուրբ Ներսէս Շնորհալի”
St. Nerses IV the Gracious, Catholicos of Cilicia (in Armenian: Sourp Nerses Shnorhali “Սուրբ Ներսէս Դ. Կլայեցի Շնորհալի”) is a major theologian, poet, writer and hymn composer of the Armenian Church.
Nerses was born in 1102 (or 1098 according to some sources) near present-day Aintab, Turkey. He was a descendant of the noble Pahlavouni family. After the early loss of their father, Nerses and his older brother Gregory were placed under the guardianship of their maternal grand uncle Catholicos Gregory II the Martyrophile (Գրիգոր Բ. Վկայասէր). They were settled in a monastery at Fhoughri, under the custody of monk Stepanos Manouk, a renowned scholar and theologian.
Nerses was ordained as a celibate priest at the age of 17. He was consecrated as a bishop at the age of 35. In 1112 his older brother became Catholicos Gregory III Pahlavouni of Cilicia (Գրիգոր Գ. Պահլաւունի). In 1116, the Catholicosate of Cilicia moved from Dzamentav (Zamidia, present day Zamanti) to Dzovk (present day Gölcük). In 1149, the Catholicosate moved to Hromgla (present day Rumkale) near river Euphrates. In Hromgla, soon after the death of his brother in 1166, Nerses became Catholicos Nerses IV of Cilicia.
As a bishop and later as Catholicos, Nerses strongly supported the efforts for reconciliation between the churches. In 1141, Nerses attended as observer the Council of Antioch. In 1165, Nerses wrote a profession of faith of the Armenian Church addressed to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenos. In his exposition, Nerses referred to the relations between the Armenian and Greek churches, emphasizing the fact that since both churches had accepted the statements of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, there was no reason not to reach in an agreement, albeit the Council of Chalcedon and its Confession.
In 1171, the emperor and the Orthodox Patriarch Michael III addressed an official letter of reconciliation to the Armenian Church. A delegation was sent from Constantinople, and both sides laid the groundwork for the start of an ecumenical dialogue. However, this dialogue ultimately bore no fruit. After the death of emperor Manuel I, the subsequent political events in the Byzantine empire made its continuation impossible.
Nerses for the rest of his life never ceased to support the approach and the reconciliation between the churches. At the age of 70, following the trandition of his family, chose a close relative, who was already ordained as a bishop, to succeed him in his position. In 1173, his nephew Gregory IV (Գրիգոր Դ. Տղայ) became Catholicos of Cilicia.
Nerses IV has been canonized as a saint by the Armenian Apostolic Church. He has received the title of “Gracious” (in Armenian: Shonrhali “Շնորհալի”) because of the divine serenity of his writings. His works are considered to be filled fully with divine graces. St. Nerses is also venerated by the Roman Catholic Church. He and his nephew St. Nerses of Lampron are both considered the champions of the Church unity.
Several of St. Nerses’s works have been adopted in the Armenian hymnology. His major literary achievements include “Aravot Louso” (“Առաւոտ լուսոյ” Morning Light) a prayer for the sunrise service vespers, “Vipasanoutyoun” (Word of Faith) a novel in poetic form, “Voghb Yedesyo” (Lamentation on the fall od Edessa), “Toukht Enthanrakan”, “Hisous Vordi” (Jesus the Son).
“I Confess with Faith” is a literary collection of twenty-four prayers (in Armenian: Havadov Khosdovanim “Հաւատով խոստովանիմ”). A prayer for every hour of the day. It has been considered as one of his most prominent works, intended to provide with comfort of the spirit, peace and spiritual strength. “Havadov Khosdovanim” has been translated into more than 36 languages. This unique prayer bears the faith, trust, and absolute hope of St. Nerses towards God.
St. Nerses IV Catholicos of Cilicia, detail from manuscript
St. Nerses Shnorhali, depiction in religious art
St. Nerses, illustriation from manuscript
St. Nerses Shnorhali, sculpture on Matenadaran building , Armenia