St. Nerses the Gracious (1102-1173)
Սուրբ Ներսէս Շնորհալի
A poet and theologian
St. Nerses preaching, illustration from the 19th century publication of “General Epistle”, Constantinople 1825
His poetic work
Saint Nerses is considered one of the great literary figures in the history of the Armenian Church. He has written very long poems with a great variety of meter in his works. As a rule, his long poems are written in eight-feet lines, with the same rhyme being employed almost everywhere throughout the poem. A practice that he used to abandon in certain cases for, as he himself remarks, “it might tire the reader”! Many of his poems are written in couplets of short lines. These couplets are characterized as the most musical and successful of his works.
He composed prayers, liturgical songs, and chants written acrostically, consisting of thirty-six verses, based on the Armenian alphabet. By this way, when the first stanza begins with “A”, the next stanza begins with “B”, and so on, in alphabetical order. In many cases, the letter in the beginning of each stanza is repeated at the end of the stanza.
He has also created metrical acrostics of his own name. He composed several works written acrostically in alphabetical arrangement based on the spelling of his name. Thus, in many of his works the first stanza begins with the letter “N”, the second stanza begins with the letter “E”, and so on, and the name “Nerses” appears acrostically. He has also created acrostics based on the titles of his poems. Nevertheless; these contrivances were in common use in his time. These artificialities do not spoil his works. In fact, they are so unobtrusive that they might easily escape the reader’s notice.
Armenians regard St. Nerses as their Homer. Most of his elegies are considered perfect gems of poetic art. These gems can be found among the Armenian ecclesiastical hymns, known as “Sharakans” (in Armenian: շարական), as well as inside the Book of Hours of the Armenian church, known as “Zhamagirk” (in Armenian: ժամագիրք). St. Nerses enriched the liturgical life of the Armenian Church by his numerous prayers, songs and hymns. His language is simple and expressive. He has simplified the texts of the religious poetry and the melodies of the liturgical chant, bringing them closer to the style of the Armenian folk music.
Every time we sing “Aravod Looso” (“Առավոտ Լուսո”: Morning of Light) during the morning service at church, or each time we sing “Norahrash Bsagavor” (“Նորահրաշ Բսագավոր”: Newly and Marvelously Crowned) at the festivity of St. Vartanantz, we are in front of two of the most inspired hymns “sharagans” written and musicalized by Nerses Shnorhali.
St. Nerses was a prolific writer with an extremely rich poetic work:
He wrote many daily prayers. Some of them remain so influential that they have been so far translated into many different languages.
He also wrote verses for children, and riddles, both in the vernacular.
He wrote twenty-five Canticles in a collection of sacred poems containing hymns and prose, with rhyming.
A rhyming for the mysteries of Salvation and the brilliant actions of the Saints whose feast is solemnly celebrated during the course of the year.
A prose for the fasting days of about eighty verses of five syllables each.
A piece of verse on the end of the world, the day of judgment and the reward that will be given to the works of each one. This piece is about four feet on rhyme, about two hundred and thirty verses.
A collection of quatrains containing about five hundred and sixty verses, on different subjects, where each quatrain is a kind of enigma; the author gives the historical fact which characterizes the main event of the life of the great men of the Old Testament and of some other famous personages, etc.
He has also composed short fables. People of his time used to recite them at weddings and at several religious festivals.
St. Nerses has also written several theological reviews:
I) Commentaries on the first five chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. II) The discourse of the Neoplatonist Armenian philosopher David the Invincible (6th century A.D.). III) Gregory of Nyssa’s discourse “On Evil”. IV) Commentaries on the final judgement and the mysteries of Salvation.
He has also written numerous theological works:
Two homilies, decrees, and canons touching the ecclesiastical discipline in twenty-four chapters; Declaration of the Faith of the Church of Armenia and its Ecclesiastical Decrees; reciprocal letters from Emperor Manuel and Nerses.
Letters from Nerses before he becomes patriarch, written in the name and by the order of Patriarch Gregory III, on the occasion of some disputes between certain priests about the impassibility or not of the divine nature in Jesus Christ.
Second profession of faith by St. Nerses. The first, as mentioned below, is presented by his Universal Letter. In his second profession, St. Nerses fights by name Arius, Sabellius, Nestorius and Eutyches. In his second profession extends more than in the first on the distinction of the three Divine Persons and deals in a more developed way the difference of the divine nature and the human nature in Jesus Christ, as well as the distinction of the two wills and the two intrinsic operations. With regard to the Holy Spirit, he recognizes that it comes only from the Father alone.
Finally, the explanation of the Armenian liturgy; but this it is not the work of St. Nerses alone; his nephew, son of his sister, St. Nerses of Lampron (Սուրբ Ներսես Լամբրոնացի 1153-1198), the archbishop of Tarsus, has similarly worked on the explanation of the Armenian liturgy. Nerses of Lampron also composed to the honor of his uncle a poem of 944 verses of eight syllables each.
St. Nerses, illustration of 19th century, 1st page of the book “Jesus the Son”, Mekhitarists printing house, Venice
A review of his major works
“Jesus the Son”
An epic project of Saint Nerses was to reproduce the Bible in poetic form. Written in 1152 under the title “Hisous Vordi” (“Հիսուս Որդի”: Jesus Only Son of the Father) is a reproduction of the Old and New Testaments in poetic form, containing episodes from church history and ending with the events that are to ensue during the second coming of Christ. It is a mystical reading of the Bible, from which he drew a vast poem of 8,000 verses. It consists of 4.000 eight-feet lines with rhymes. These lines, with very few exceptions, end with the Armenian syllable –in.
“Hisous Vordi” was first published by the Mekhitarists in San Lazaro, Venice. Later, in 1824, St. Nerses’ “Hisous Vordi” was published in Constantinople. Ever since, there have been several publications. It has been translated into English with the title “Jesus the Son”.u
One of the widely known poetic works of St. Nerses is the novel Vipasanoutyoun” (“Վիպասանութիւն”: Enlightenment). Even though, this is a novel on its own, it is written in a rich poetic form, in a manner and style that characterizes most of St. Nerses’ top artistic works. As a result, Vipasanoutyoun is unanimously considered as one of his greatest literary achievements.
“The History of Armenia”
Nerses also wrote a long poem narrating the history of Armenia and the Armenian people, from the days of Hayk Nahapet (Հայկ Նահապետ), the legendary patriarch and founder of the Armenian nation, up to his own time in 12th century.
One and a half century later, in 1275, bishop Vahram Rabun continued the poem up to his own time. In a sequel of 1.500 lines, he presented historical information about Armenians in the 13th century, including the annals of the Rubinian dynasty. Considering his work Vahram Rabun noted: “It is a bold act to continue the work of Nerses the Gracious”, but knowing that with the gold thread embroidery, black threads are also sometimes introduced, he consented to undertake this labour.
St. Nerses, illustration of 19th century, Mekhitarists printing house, Venice
“I Confess with Faith”
“I Confess with Faith” is a literary collection of twenty-four prayers (in Armenian: Havadov Khosdovanim “Հաւատով խոստովանիմ”). A prayer for every Christian, and for every hour of the day. It has been considered as one of St. Nerses’ most important works, intended to provide comfort, peace and spiritual strength to the Christians.
“Havadov Khosdovanim” is one of the most prominent prayers of St. Nerses, one of the best known and the most translated. Even though it is not a poetic work, it is characterized by a rich and intense poetic rhythm. It consists of 24 stanzas that symbolize the 24 hours of the day. There is one prayer to be recited at each hour of the day.
Understanding that this sometimes becomes impracticable, St. Nerses suggests that the prayer can be recited in three parts: in the morning, at noon, and at night. He also suggests that in special circumstances the prayer can be recited in two parts: in the morning and in the evening.
There are numerous miracles attributed to the power of this prayer, as reported throughout history. “Havadov Khosdovanim” is a confession of faith. It is also a confession of our sins. It comprises of all types of prayers. It is a prayer of blessing and adoration towards God. A prayer of praise, it glorifies the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a prayer of petition towards God, requesting His divine intercession.
It is a pledge to God for His divine mercy and forgiveness. Firstly, for everyone else, for our beloved ones, for our enemies and for the strangers, and at last for ourselves, we the manifold sinners, acknowledging our sinfulness, through our true repentance and the hope for our eternal salvation.
The prayer in its authentic form was first published in 1790 by the Mekhitarists in San Lazaro, Venice. Within the years from 1823 to 1882 Mekhitarists published “Havadov Khosdovanim” several times, translated in total into 36 languages.
St. Nerses, illustration of 19th century prayerbook, Mekhitarists printing house, Venice
“The Fall of Edessa”
Another poem of great importance is St. Nerses’ elegy on the fall of Edessa. Edessa was a former crusader state that was taken by the Muslims in 1144.
The County of Edessa was the first of the crusader states to be established during and after the First Crusade. It dates from 1098 when Baldwin of Boulogne left the main army of the First Crusade and founded his own principality. Edessa was the most northerly, the weakest, and the least populated; as such, it was subject to frequent attacks from the surrounding Muslim states. Half of the county, including its capital, was located east of the Euphrates, far to the east, rendering it particularly vulnerable. The eastern border of Edessa was the Tigris river. Its capital Edessa is the present-day city of Şanlıurfa, in Turkey.
The Siege of Edessa took place from November 28 to December 24, 1144, resulting in the fall of the capital Edessa. This event was the catalyst that soon after provoked the Second Crusade.
“Voghb Yedesyo” (“Վողբ Էդեսիոյ”: Lamentation on the Fall of Edessa) is a poem written on the specific purpose to put into perspective the fall of Edessa within God’s plans for His people. This poem is an allegory. Edessa allegorically recounts its misfortunes, and addresses itself to other cities of the world, to the mountains and to the seas, begging them not to judge by the present situation, but assures them that Edessa was once a crown bearer and the happiest state ever. But, now Edessa is mourning, as misfortune has befallen her. This has been the will of God for Edessa itself and for its residents.
St. Nerses was a contemporary of these events. As a result, this poem has also a significant historical value, being a first-hand source of information related to the history of the Crusades.
“Epistle to the people of Edessa”
One of his works that represent the breadth of St. Nerses’ ideas. In the town of Edessa pestilence was raging and sufferers from the disease were taken out of the town and segregated. It was considered hopeless to cure them, as it was believed that the disease came as a punishment from God. Nerses sent out an epistle to the plague-stricken people, offering them consolation. In compensation for their suffering, they would receive eternal bliss.
In this letter, St. Nerses declares that the disease was not sent from Heaven as a punishment and people should not avoid the sick; on the contrary, it was their duty to care for their brethren when they were in distress, and assured them that, with patience and right treatment, it was possible to recover.
This counsel made an immense impression on the people, as they heard the Catholicos itself reassuring them that this was not a heaven-sent chastisement. They nursed and offered treatment to the patients. In a short time the pestilence ceased completely its expansion. The progressive ideas of St. Nerses although nowadays commonly held, were very remarkable for the time he lived.
St. Nerses, illustration of 19th century prayerbook, Moscow 1830
The renowned work of St. Nerses “Toukht Enthanrakan” (“Թուխտ Ընթրանաքան”: General Epistle) is an exhortation on Christian behavior and a treatise on pastoral theology. It is dated to 1166. St. Nerses wrote it three months after becoming Catholicos. The whole title of this treatise is “The Encyclical letter by Lord Nerses Catholicos of the Armenians to the entire Armenian nation, whose welfare was entrusted to him by the Lord”.
It is an open letter addressed to the different classes of the Armenian nation. St. Nerses was certainly a great teacher and had strong views about how his Christian flock should behave. In his General Epistle he is offering clear guidance to everyone who reads it.
Actually it is a moral-sententious letter aiming to regulate the internal life of the society, relations between groups and classes, to promote people’s consolidation around the Church, cleanliness of their life and habits. The author strives to educate his addressees according to Christian faith and morality. But at the same time it seems that the author aimed to indicate the equality of different social groups and wished to embrace everybody in his letter.
“General Epistle” supplies information concerning the hierarchy of the Armenian Church, the stratification of society, the social classes, and the manner of life in twelfth-century Cilician Armenia, offering an insight view into the daily lives of the Armenian people.
It consists of a long preface and 9 chapters addressed to 1. Monks, 2. Abbots, 3. Bishops, 4. Priests, 5. Princes, 6. Soldiers, 7. Tradesmen and Craftsmen, 8. Farmers, 9. Women. The letter opens with greetings of peace and love to all the Armenians in Armenia. In the prologue we find a very sincere and emotional monologue. Nerses shares his feelings and preoccupations with his addressees asking to pray for him. He tells how he denied and avoided from the post of Catholicos, but the assembly of bishops and his elder brother, the former Catholicos, forcedly ordained him. Becoming the spiritual leader, shepherd of the nation, he realizes himself responsible for each member of his herd.
It seems that he is anxious because of the difficult times, when people have walked so far away from God and divine rules. And he avows: “My eyes knew no sleep and my eyelids no rest… But I understand that God is not remissive to sluggish and careless shepherds… As far as I can’t perform personally my duties towards each of you because of scarcity of time and space, instead of speaking I’m talking to you by writing”. One can say that the addressee of this letter is general, a whole nation, but at the same time it is so personal, referring to each member of the society.
“General Epistle” was published in its authentic form, in 1825, in Constantinople. In 1871, “General Epistle” was published in Jerusalem. Ever since, there have been several publications, including translations of the “General Epistle” into several languages.
St. Nerses, illustrated on Armenian postage stamps
“Exposition of Faith”
In his lifetime, St. Nerses became an ardent defender of the traditional doctrines of the Armenian Church against monophysitism. In 1166, soon after his accession to the patriarchal throne, St. Nerses had sent to all the faithful of Armenia a letter entitled “Universal Letter”. In his letter, after having informed the faithful of his election, he made a profession of faith, where he expressly recognizes the two natures in Jesus Christ.
In 1166, St. Nerses wrote his profession of faith, widely known as “Exposition of the Faith of the Armenian Church” addressed to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenos (1122–1180). 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.
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.
St. Nerses always struggled to maintain the autocephalicity of the Armenian church. He defined the important issues facing Church unity in his letters to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus. Nerses remarked that unity cannot come by imposing royal force but through love, tolerance, and humility. Thus, indirectly warning the Byzantines not to impose their beliefs on other Churches. He saw the truths of Christianity in the unity of its parts, since no single Church may consider the Christian faith its sole possession.
St. Nerses as a defender of the faith and the doctrines of the Church, was quoted in this context by Pope Pius XII in the encyclical Sempiternus Christus rex (1951).
His approach regarding unity was slowly finding adherents when his death halted the progress of further negotiations. He worked hard to bring about reconciliation and intercommunion between the Greek and the Armenian Churches, but forces beyond his power prevented the realization of his noble ideals
“When you see the cross, know and believe that you are seeing Christ enthroned on it; when you pray before the cross, believe that you are doing so, concerning Christ our God and not with inanimate matter. For it is Christ who receives the veneration you offer before the cross; and it is He who hears the supplications of your mouth and fulfills the desires of your heart, which you ask with faith. Whoever does not honor the cross, or insults it, insults Jesus Christ Himself.”
“If one says ‘one nature’ in the sense of unmixable and indivisible union and not in the sense of confusion, and if one says ‘two natures’ as being without confusion and without alteration and not meaning ‘division’ then both are within the orbit of Orthodoxy.”
The Hromkla Fortress (Rumkale) on river Euphrates. The See of the Catholicosate of Armenia (12th-13th c.), where St. Nerses lived and served as the Catholicos of Armenians