The group attending the Urban Spirituality Retreat

Urban Retreat Seeks to Reconnect People to Church

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By Taleen Babayan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — An innovative approach to discussing spirituality and religion brought together close to 40 Armenian young professionals from across the country during the Urban Spirituality Retreat held February 3-4 weekend at the Lexington Hotel.

Organized by Solange Merdinian, Lara Setrakian and Michelle Nahabedian, with the support of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the event aimed to create an engaging experience into the spiritual world and offer participants the opportunity to not only hear from speakers but also discuss and share their thoughts, concerns and ideas in regards to the Armenian faith and culture.

“Our goal is to share the light of what we come from,” said Setrakian, a journalist, who encouraged everyone to embark on this journey together “in a spirit of non-judgment.”

The idea for the weekend retreat emerged from last summer’s AGBU Focus Weekend, held in Beirut, Lebanon, during a daylong summit to brainstorm ideas of how to make the Armenian community stronger. Merdinian brought up the topic of exploring ways to deepen relationships with the church.

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“Our religion and culture is very related and we need to find a space for each one of us to get to know it more,” said Merdinian, a mezzo-soprano musician. “For me it was through singing and creating a spiritual connection through our music and our Badarak.”

To begin the program, Merdinian offered a musical meditation to the group, singing Der Voghormia [God Have Mercy], followed by the Hayr Mer, which everyone sang in unison.

Discussing faith and fellowship, Very Rev. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center at the Eastern Diocese, stressed the importance of Christian education and the significance of Armenian monasteries, which have diminished over the centuries.

“The Armenian monasteries were the theological engines of the Armenian Church,” said Findikyan, nothing they also served as artistic centers where monks composed music. “We are now a church trying to survive without an engine.”

In order to combat the lack of quality education in Sunday Schools and help answer the question of “who we are as Christian Armenians,” Findikyan, along with several others, formed the quarterly magazine The Fellowship of St. Voski.

“Our idea was to create a resource for educated, urban people exploring life’s questions, who don’t have much to draw on aside from the Badarak,” said Findikyan. “We said we wanted to be part of the solution to provide resources.”

The magazine covers significant figures in the Armenian Church in “modern, intelligent terms,” as well as “explaining the traditions and history of Christian Armenian life.”

“We are here to be of support to the Armenian Church and the children of the Armenian Church through this publication,” he said, remarking that St. Voski was a first century disciple of St. Thaddeus and a miracle worker of Greek descent, who is cherished yet unknown among Armenians.

Recounting his personal journey as he searched for a spiritual home, Deacon Eric Vozzy, who works in the Creative Ministries Department at the Eastern Diocese, shared how he had been a member of various churches throughout his life, despite being baptized in the Armenian Church as an infant. In the midst of a “vocational crisis” when he was 24 years old, Vozzy decided to attend Bible School in Charlotte, North Carolina to study theology. During his time there, he was invited by Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian to St. Nersess Armenian Seminary to meet with Findikyan and discuss his faith.

Through his deep theological discussions with Findikyan, Vozzy realized he truly is Orthodox and enrolled in seminary in 2011, successfully graduating with a master’s degree in Diaconal Ministry.

“My conversion was more about being in communication with God,” said Vozzy. “It’s about union with the divine and that’s what I was drawn into with Orthodoxy.”

“Faith, for me, was an abstract idea,” he continued. “But there’s a fullness that’s only found in Church. The Armenian Church has a voice for the whole world.”

Dr. Roberta Ervine, associate professor of Armenian Studies at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, spoke about the significant role of Armenian queens in regards to the Armenian faith.

Dr. Roberta Ervine speaking at the Urban Spirituality Retreat

“For Armenians, faith has always had a visible and positive effect on life,” said Ervine, whose focus was on “royal women who chose to visibly show their faith and construct projects that are still standing.”

Ervine elaborated on royal women throughout Armenian history and the Armenian Kingdom, including Shushan, Sophia, Shahandukht, Shahandukht II, Kataranide and Mariam Bagratuni, who built two churches on the shores of Lake Sevan.

“These Armenian women built, endowed, served and gave life and energy to institutions that embodied their faith,” said Ervine. “They challenge us today in exactly the same way that they challenged their contemporaries.”

“Whatever we are and whatever we possess it is all a tool in the hands of faith.”

Director of Ministries at the Eastern Diocese, Very Rev. Mesrop Parsamyan spoke about Christian Meditation and how to handle stressful and burdensome schedules.

He noted that the word “meditation” comes from the Latin meditatio meaning to contemplate, ponder and “to unveil the mystery which is in our hearts.”

“If non-Christian meditation practices aim at emptying the mind, Christian meditation engages the mind and the heart in prayer,” said Parsamyan. “Meditation is reflecting on God’s word with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

He remarked that meditation is a process that involves both the heart and the mind and quoted St. Gregory of Datev who said that prayer “is like human being, the words of the prayer, which comes out from the mind, are the body and the desire and affections, which proceed from the heart are the soul.”

After highlighting the importance of the heart and the mind during meditation, Parsamyan gave the participants practical tools on how to start a lifetime of rich Christian meditation. He presented them with the structure of the Christian meditation, which is preparation (recollect and read from the Holy Scriptures), meditation (reflection and prayer) and conclusion (thank God and carry a word and phrase for the day.)

Parsamyan finished with a meditation on Luke 8:22-25 (Calming of the Storm) followed by the St. Mesrob Masdots sharagan (hymn).

At the conclusion of the presentations and discussions, the group had time to digest and reflect on the conversations by breaking out into sessions to talk about their own personal experiences, their relationship to the church and what changes they would like to make in their faith and culture.

The participants were grateful to have the chance to share their opinions among their contemporaries and welcome new ways of discussing these relevant topics.

“It was refreshing and enlightening to see how many like-minded young professionals were engaged in the day’s activities,” said Gregory Surabian. “Given today’s generally anti-religious climate, the discussion of religion and spirituality in our community is more important than ever if we are to ensure the existence of our Christian identity in the future.”

“It was nice to be around a group of people who all have different stories as far as their relationship with the Armenian Church and have reached a point in their lives where they want to learn more about the church itself and its deep connection to the Armenian culture,” said Linda Ravul. “The topic of spirituality has been an integral part of the Armenian Church and culture and hopefully we can spark conversation and essentially make changes for our community today and generations to come.”

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