Feast of the Holy Translators

  • About St. Mesrob Mashdotz and the Armenian Alphabet

    Mesrob Mashdotz and the Creation of the Armenian Alphabet

    Mashdotz's Early Years

    Mashdotz was born in the village of Hatsekatz, in the province of Daron, some time in the late 4th century.  As a child, his father, Vartan, sent him to learn Greek literature. 

    Eventually, he served in the royal court of Armenia, where he was admired for his understanding of law and military matters.  But Mashdotz still found time to read the Bible and the works of Christian philosophers.  He was eager to learn more about God.  He was filled with such love for his faith that he left his duties in the court, became a monk and, for a time, lived alone on a mountainside with little to eat or drink.  He hardly slept, praying day and night, thinking about his new life.

    His Mission

    Soon he had a group of young followers who wanted to learn from him.  With his students, Mashdotz went to the province of Goghtn, a place still untouched by Christianity, where he successfully taught about Christ.  Mashdotz was overjoyed to see the people reject their superstitions and fears and accept the word of Jesus.  He was so moved that he became more determined than ever to spread the teachings of the Lord.

    Mashdotz went immediately to his spiritual father, Catholicos Sahag.  This great man had the same concern, and they prayed together for strength to carry out their plan. 

    They called a council of priests to see what might be done to develop an alphabet for Armenia, since the Armenian people would need to read and learn in their own tongue.

    With the blessings of the king and Catholicos Sahag, Mashdotz sent his pupils on a mission; some were sent to Edessan to learn Syriac while others were sent to Samosata to learn Greek.  These were the alphabets already used in worship and in Bible reading and the students needed knowledge in them to be better translators.

    While his students were eagerly training, Mashdotz withdrew from the world and prayed day and night for help from God.  It seemed an impossible task to devise an alphabet out of absolutely nothing.  But it is not impossible with the help of God.  With guidance provided by God came all the letters of the Armenian alphabet. 

    God Provides the Alphabet

    They came to Mashdtoz in a vision, which showed the letters carved into rock.  They were all as clear and well defined as if they had been traced on snow.

    Mashdotz found a Greek scribe who was able to draw all the letters with the right curves and lines.  Once this miraculous set of letters was finished, Mashdotz brought his pupils together at once to translate the Holy Scriptures into the new written Armenian. 

    They began with the proverbs of Solomon.  Not surprisingly, the first words written in the new Armenian alphabet were, as tradition tells us, "that men may know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight."  Immediately they began to teach others the alphabet and set out translating at a feverish pace.

    Though the people of Armenia had been visited by the great St. Gregory the Illuminator less than a hundred years before, they had not yet taken the faith into their hearts because there was no written language.  Now they were beginning to worship, read Scripture, and learn all the profound concepts of their faith for the first time.

    A great teaching movement began: young men were taught the Armenian alphabet and sent off to teach both the alphabet and the faith to their countrymen allover Armenia.  And in turn, people from all over Armenia came to study these letters and the Word of God.

  • Learning about the Poetry of St. Gregory of Narek

    The Power of Poetic Prayer

    Gregory of Narek

    The Feast of the Holy Translators commemorates the work of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob, founders and propagators of the Armenian alphabet and the first Armenian translation of the Holy Bible itself.  Yet not only are these men and their colleagues honored on this feast, but the many who followed in subsequent centuries, men who translated great works of theology, philosophy and history into Armenian and also wrote original masterpieces.

    Indeed, the "Holy Translators" are a diverse group of brilliant writers whose dates extend as late as the 12th century and include the brilliant clergymen, St. Gregory of Narek (951-1003) and Catholicos St. Nersess Shnorhali (1102-1173).

    St. Gregory of Narek (in Armenian Kri-kor Na-re-gah-tzee), was one of the greatest mystic poets in the history of the Armenian Church.  Called "mystic" because his poems focused on the wonder and mystery of his relationship with God. 

    He was born in the village of Narek on the southern shore of Lake Van.  He was educated and spent his entire life at the monastery of Narek -- taught and encouraged by his father, bishop Khosrov; and his uncle, the famous scholar Ananias. 

    Among many other well-known works, his most famous is "The Book of Lamentations" which confessed his unworthiness before almighty God.  This collection of poems, eventually called simply the "Narek" were considered so full of strength and life that they were placed at the side or under the pillow of anyone ailing.

  • Examples of the Poetry of St. Gregory of Narek

    Understanding the  Prayers and Poetry of St. Gregory of Narek

    Three exercises to understand the power of poetic prayers

    St. Gregory of Narek's Prayer 39

    From his "The Book of Lamentations" l

    I am a living book,

    written like the scroll in the vision of Ezekiel, inside and out,

    listing lamentations, moaning and woe.

    I am a city without walls or towers,

    a house empty without doors for protection,

    salt in looks but without taste,

    salty water, unfit for drinking to quench the thirst,

    land, unfit for cultivation,

    field, barren and covered with briars.

    My personal acres, cared for by God,

    but formerly cultivated by the devices of the Slanderer,

    an olive tree that is wood without fruit,

    trees that do not bear fruit to be cut down,

    a hopeless, twice dead, talking plant,

    a completely burnt out candle that cannot be lit.

    Questions:

    1. What are the images St. Gregory uses to describe himself?  He says he is a (living book, etc. just look for the simple image, not the elaborations)

    2. How does he elaborate on each image? (Discuss the phrases that follow each simple image.)

    3. What was the most powerful image for you?

    "Conversations with God. from the Depth of My Heart"

    translated by Diana Der Hovanessian and Marzbed Margossian in "Anthology of Armenian Poetry"

    Elegy 55c

    The pagan philosophers labeled death

    evil if it were mindless, purposeless.

    And I agree because we are dying

    like irrational animals and we are not afraid.

    We are lost, and not terrified.

    We are forgiven and do not accept it humbly,

    We are buried and do not struggle.

    We are deported and do not panic.

    We are falsified and do not protest.

    We are worn out and do not try to understand.

    We are diminished and do not replenish.

    We walk and do not look where we go.

    We are enslaved and do not feel put upon.

    While it is true that blessed Job

    called final rest the aim of man

    I might more readily agree if

    I had not the burden of deadly deeds

    to carry and especially when obvious traps

    are laid along the way, but

    the one setting the traps in invisible.

    The present does not exist, the past

    unknown, and the future uncertain.

    I am impatient, my nature is doubting.

    My feet are uncertain and my mind wandering.

    My passions overpowering, and my habits

    intemperate. My body hardened by sin,

    my desires, loving the world.

    My inclination is to follow nature and my nature

    is contrary clay. The rains are tumultuous.

    My needs are numerous and purposeless everywhere.

    My mind is malicious and my desires malevolent.

    My life is one day long and pleasures brief.

    Illusions are stupid, toys childish.

    Labors are in vain and pleasures frivolous.

    The shops are stocked with nothingness,

    and the stockpiles are made of wind.

    I am like a shadow,

    my appearance is ridiculous.

    The commandments, according to Paul,

    were given, but I was found unready.

    Sins took the appearance of justice.

    I died for life and came to life for loss.

    Questions

    1. Underline all adjectives (buried, deported, worn out, etc.).  What do these words tell us about how St. Gregory is feeling as he wrote this poem?

    2. What images in this prayer/poem can one relate to today?

    3. What does the image "contrary clay" mean? (Clay is something you can mold, but contrary brings in the idea of resisting being shaped.)

    Become your own mystic poet

    Take a moment to pray for inspiration.  Then start your poem like this "Lord, I am ..."  Communicate 5 images of yourself as you feel right now.  First a simple image, then follow with a bit of elaboration. 

    For example:

    "Lord, I am a budding rose -- a flower in a big garden, soft and bright and all ready inside to bloom" or

    "Lord, I am a dull book -- filled with pages and pages of rambling stuff that no one's going to care about in ten years."

  • Questions to Think About

    Questions to Think About

    1. The first thing Mesrob did when he felt a call to devote himself completely to the service of God was to live alone and pray.  What would you do?

    2. Everyone is different and is called to do different things in different ways in God's service.  But St. Mesrob had a superb example in what he did -- Jesus himself.  Turn to Mark 1:9-13.  What happens right after Jesus is baptized? He goes into the wilderness to be alone.  Notice he is led by the Spirit and faces temptations there.  What does this tell us? That part of a life in God is facing who we are and how we handle the world's values and that we do need undistracted time to focus on that.  Jesus often withdrew from his busy ministry to pray or simply be alone.

    Mark 1:9-13:

    In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased."  The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

    3. Why do you think it was important to have a written Armenian language?  Think of your own use of reading and writing and its use in a society in general.

    4. Why do you think that St. Mesrob wanted to use this tool to spread the good news of Jesus Christ?   Perhaps to make the process easier, to make people feel comfortable, to unite people in one faith, etc. 

    5. Do you think there is any importance to having the first words and the first book in written Armenian to be the Bible?  Is it a symbol of the importance of faith in Armenian life?