We all seek peace in some personal way. Sometimes solitude can be both comforting and afford us the opportunity to regenerate our capabilities. When I am in Armenia, participating in Soorp Badarak gives me such an experience. I truly feel the presence of God. Perhaps it is the emotional tranquility of knowing that this is the land where “the only begotten descended” or simply the focus I feel when in the homeland. During my recent time in Armenia, I attended services at the St. Anna Church in Yerevan. You may know this church as the one built next to an old chapel (Katholighe) at the corner of Sayat Nova Avenue and Abovyan Street. The chapel was the favorite of the renowned late Der Dajad Davidian who served for decades in Watertown, MA and spent many years ministering to the needs of the faithful in the homeland.
Soorp Badarak in Armenia is generally very late on Sunday mornings compared to here in the United States. Most times, it begins at 11 a.m. I imagine if that happened here, we would hear complaints not simply about the length of the service, but that it interferes with football kickoffs. There are many challenges we face in the church in America, but I take a peaceful break from that turmoil during my time in the homeland. Living in Armenia through the citizens of the nation can be very different from our perception in the diaspora. The emotional and spiritual impact of attending church is an example for myself.
I arrived at the church just before 11 to purchase a few candles. The adjacent chapel is now used as a location for memorial candles and silent prayer. Most people will go there before entering the sanctuary for the service. I must admit that I don’t always light memorial candles in my own parish, but I always do when in Armenia. I think about my grandparents and their peers particularly and remember them. They were all ardent patriots, yet none lived to see our Republic of Armenia. In these quiet moments, I pray for their souls and thank God for our good fortune.
The sanctuary is full with the people of Yerevan. I am particularly taken by the gender and age diversity of those attending. A complete cross section of the demographics is participating. One of the most beautiful experiences in attending badarak in Armenia is near the beginning of the service when those serving on the altar begin the tapor or procession around the church to bless the faithful. On this Sunday, the tapor is led by a young deacon carrying the Holy Gospels, followed by many sacred banners depicting Our Lord, Holy Mary Mother of God and other important pillars of our faith. The procession usually takes about 20 minutes as virtually every participant seeks to kiss the Gospel Book, touch the banners and also receive a blessing from the celebrant priest. Witnessing the participation is an emotional moment. The group slowly makes its way around the periphery of the sanctuary.
One of the most beautiful participatory traditions in the church is the offering of incense or “khoong.” We are all familiar with the incense in our churches, but in the US, the khoong is supplied by the church and used by the deacons and priests. In Armenia, small packets of the incense are available where you acquire memorial candles (narthex) and are offered by the faithful into a sack held by a deacon or acolyte during the tapor. It is a beautiful gesture of both participation in the sacrifice and expression of belief by the faithful. I remember being taught that the incense is symbolic of the Holy Spirit as it always rises upward when dispensed. When I entered to secure memorial candles, I inadvertently forgot to purchase a small amount of the incense. Upon discovering my lapse, I decided to forgo this one time. In a beautiful gesture of Christian unity, at least four individuals came up to me to share their incense to ensure I was able to participate. I felt a bond of our ancient faith with these people with whom I shared only our common heritage and faith. An older woman shared some of her incense pebbles with me and responded to my gratitude with a warm smile. I did not know her name, and I will probably never see her again, but she represented the bonding nature of our faith. As I gazed around the crowd lining the path of the celebrant, there were multiple examples of individuals with the offering looking to share with those who were empty handed. When I’m in Armenia, I am constantly reminded that our “differences” are merely environmental circumstances. Our common core values remain intact. During the Genocide, geographic position decided a great deal of the survivor migration. In Western Armenia, we could draw a line from west of Erzurum to Van where the Russian Czarist army had advanced. Armenians to the west were forced south and generally settled in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. To the east, many resettled in the geography of today’s republic. There were countless exceptions, but it is a reasonable generalization. Our good fortune here was the opportunity for education, earning wealth and stability. Today, it is our time to share the homeland our ancestors left. Just as we in the diaspora are passionate about the unfinished business of justice for the Genocide, we must become equally committed to giving to the homeland in a responsible manner. Those historic circumstances are all that essentially differentiate us. The more time I spend in Armenia, I realize that these are our people and what unites us is overwhelming. The differences are superficial. When you keep it simple, it is easy to feel the bond. When we allow our heart to be open, we experience amazing opportunities.
The first time I visited Armenia, I was in a constant state of emotion as we were making initial connections to images I had read and seen pictures of my entire life. I am certain many of you have had a similar experience—the first view of Ararat and standing in the beauty of Holy Etchmiadzin. I looked and felt like a typical diaspora tourist. There were moments, however, where the education I received in my home parish afforded me unprecedented spiritual experiences. On one particular Sunday, we attended services at the Soorp Gayane Church in Etchmiadzin City. It is a beautiful, seventh century church with classic Armenian architecture. We entered the sanctuary near the end of the morning service and decided to stay for some portion of the badarak. When the tapor began, I was standing with a friend on one of the large stone flooring slabs. I kept thinking of all of the priests who celebrated badarak in this ancient church and that I was now standing in the same area as common citizens from the last 14 centuries. It was one of those moments when you felt you were truly a part of the Armenian nation. As the procession drew near, I was overwhelmed with a spiritual emotion as men and women, young and old, offered the sacrifice of the khoong and sought to embrace the holy banners and cross. A spontaneous release of tears began streaming down my face as I truly felt the beauty of our church and the presence of God. It was one of the most deeply spiritual and peaceful moments of my life. I was interrupted from this exquisite state when our tour guide reminded us that we need to leave for our next item on the itinerary. It was similar to being abruptly awakened from a wonderful dream. My friend and I blurted out in an unplanned synchronization, “We cannot leave now. We will not.” I had never felt so close to our church, our history and to our Lord than at that moment. Nothing could or should have altered that experience. We essentially ignored our guide and simply stayed. When our time at the church concluded, I felt strangely exhausted upon leaving. I sat quietly in the tour van unable to speak for several minutes. If Soorp Badarak is intended to be a time of communion with our Lord filled with love, I experienced it optimally. I learned that day that attending badarak requires us to limit distractions and to focus on prayer to reach the height of spiritual blessings. I have returned to Armenia many times since and have always felt this sense of inner peace when attending badarak in Armenia. Perhaps it is the acknowledgement of the history before us or the inspiring conduct of the faithful, but it is always a beautiful experience. It gives me the strength to continue our work in Armenia with an inner expression of joy.
There is no question that the Soorp Badarak in Armenia is full of our rich traditions and in some ways is different from our experience in the diaspora. While we struggle here with the decision of which traditions to retain and which to discard, there is no struggle in Armenia. It would be interesting to determine if the youth in Armenia feel the disconnect from the ultra-traditional approach of our church or if they embrace it as part of our core culture. Judging by the presence of many in their mid-teens to early thirties, there is at least some level of identity. Obviously, the language is not an issue, and intermarriage is significantly under the radar. In contrast, these are among the top three challenges among Armenian Americans. The church as an institution has a variety of credibility issues in Armenia, but its position as a spiritual vehicle seems secure. It is encouraging to observe countless individuals above 40 who were educated during the Soviet times. There does not seem to be a generation gap in church participation. Regardless of the causes, the term sanctuary is quite relevant for a spiritual experience in the homeland. I can leave the busy streets of Yerevan and enter the sanctuary of the church under the loving umbrella of our Lord and experience the essence of our faith.