By Florence Avakian
Known as “the Gracious One” for his prolific and inspiring writings, the 12th-century Armenian Catholicos St. Nersess Shnorhali was a revered church reformer, theologian, Christian diplomat, poet and composer of exquisite hymns.
In one of the most powerful examples of his Christian belief, he wrote a deeply moving “Letter of Consolation” to a father: an eastern prince who was suffering profound grief at the untimely death of his son.
Some 900 years later, the author of that letter was the centerpiece of a passionate presentation delivered at the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) in New York.
The Zohrab Center’s executive director, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, brought this “great pillar” of the Armenian Church to life on Thursday evening, March 2, 2017.
“Our church” he said, “would not be the same without St. Nersess.”
A Tapestry of Hope
In Fr. Findikyan’s telling, St. Nersess Shnorhali “holds the distinction of being the first modern ecumenist in the world.” The principles of unity with diversity he promoted in the 12th century are still pursued in our current period. “He must be counted among the greatest luminaries in the history of Christendom,” stated Fr. Findikyan.
Focusing his talk on the “Letter of Consolation,” which he spent countless hours translating into English, with rhyming verses, Fr. Daniel revealed that the individual lines of the poem follow the sequence of the 36 letters of the Armenian alphabet.
“In this poem, St. Nersess is a pastor, telling the Gospel story of Easter, fueled by the Bible, and how to bring joyful healing to this decadent world,” he said. “With great sensitivity, as a profoundly personal gift, the Gracious One touches the wounds of a grieving father, as he weaves a tapestry of hopeful images and allusions from sacred Scripture to bring the healing of Jesus Christ.”
In one of the most affecting passages in the poem, St. Nersess counseled:
Look what He gave you secretly,
The caring Father lovingly.
From wicked Earth He snatched your boy—
To dance with angels there with joy.
The holy Light, deep Mystery—
God drew him close and let him see.
In concert with the holy ones,
God’s many cherished, chosen sons.
If you can grasp this hope’s mandate,
Your path the Spirit will keep straight.
The burning fire that sears your heart
Will change to dew, great joy impart.
Now cast aside your gloomy grief
That breaks the hearts of unbelief.
Accept this gift, my offering.
To desp’rate ones great joy it brings.
St. Nersess Shnorhali was born at the start of the 12th century into the noble Pahlavuni family—near today’s Aintab, historic Armenia. After the early death of his father, he and older brother Gregory were placed under the guardianship of his maternal granduncle, Catholicos Gregory II, whose successor then placed the brothers with the monk and noted scholar Stepanos Manouk.
Nersess was ordained a celibate priest at age 17, consecrated a bishop at 35, and became catholicos in 1166, serving until his death in 1173. As bishop and catholicos, he worked to bring about a measure of rapprochement between the Armenian Church and the Orthodox churches of the East—more than 700 years before the modern ecumenical movement.
Eventually, Catholicos Nersess was acknowledged to be a saint by the Armenian Church, which established a saint-day for him, observed in mid-October. He is also recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, which marks his feast day on August 13, the date of his death.