St. David Armenian Church of Boca Raton, Florida (courtesy https://www.stdavidfl.org/)

Reflecting on Life Through the Liturgy: Prayers from an Adopted Son of Armenia

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By John Hughes

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Standing in the sunlit back row of St. David Armenian Church in Boca Raton, Florida, the part of me that seeks God’s attention kneels at the unlit altar of St. Zoravor Church in Yerevan, Armenia – too many miles away, but as close as the earthy smell of incense.

It has been 12 years since my prayers in St. Zoravor asked for guidance as I returned back to life in America. For just as many years (2000-2012) Armenia was my home. From evening glimpses of snowy Mount Ararat to morning walks on the sands of the Atlantic, the path there to here has not been straight and could not have been predicted.

So here I am hearing again a language I still don’t understand but listening to a voice that doesn’t need words, sorting out the journey.

Till very recently I’ve not lived in a place where there was a Diaspora community. Finding Armenians in Boca has been a bonus. I’ve bought Armenian string cheese and Jermuk spring water in a Russian market here. Some of the names on mailboxes in my building end in “ian”. My name doesn’t; but it’s likely that I’ve experienced more of the ancestral home than most of these who are now my neighbors.

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I’ve arrived at St. David early (proof that my odar DNA hasn’t been altered by my years in Armenia, where late arrival for anything in assumed). My pale, freckled skin that not even the Floridia sun can darken makes me easily spotted, even if being a foot taller than everybody else doesn’t.

“Good morning,” Father Sevak says.

“Bari Luys,” I reply.

“Oh, you speak Armenian,” the reverend says. I’m not going to lie to a clergy, so my first confession this Sunday informs the pastor that “hello” and “thank you” are about the extent of my linguistic abilities.

I tell him that I lived in Armenia; that I was a journalist there; that I had an Armenian wife and have Armenian stepchildren.

He tells me that he is from Echmiadzin, that he got his theological training in Sevan. And the simple mention of those well-known places connects me to him.

People: John Hughes

When I see him several minutes later, Father Sevak is dressed in liturgical attire in the company of deacons extending the silver cross to this congregation. I kiss the relic and am rushed with memories of my baptism at St. Zoravor, of Father Hovaness, and his gracious indulgence of my needing an interpreter to relay his sanctifying blessings; of the rose-gold cross my “brother” Armen put around my neck.

Back to the reality of this Sunday I watch the rituals of these transplants whose roots go deeper than mine. And for the first time in my Armenia Experience, I think I understand how it feels to be away from home.

Like much of today’s global church congregation, this one is mostly elderly. Some of the women cover their heads in scarves. Men and women here carry faces of burden, brightened by smiles of faith, or at least of tolerance.

Most here, I suspect, are forever diaspora – descendants from Lebanon or maybe Syria. Or maybe they are simply snowbirds from Watertown, but all are heirs to the displaced of the original genocide. Liturgical sameness dissolves borders and timelines. Fellowship over common dishes after the service connects disparate nations of one people.

I wonder whose faces show up in their prayers. In mine I see shop tenders and bus drivers and doctors and children whose names I’ve never known but whose presence in a place are the threads of my ties to their home. And I see those who became family: Armines and Gayannes and Anahits; several Armens and Aras; Harut and Hayk; Tadevos and Seda; Ashot; Zorab.  And Babken, my little brother who survived the Gyumri earthquake and became my best man.

And these days, especially, I see the faces of friends I made in many visits to Artsakh. And I remember lighting candles inside Ghazanchetsots Church in Sushi and ache to know that it has now been ruined by enemy bombs. I recall laying flowers on the grave of an eight-year old in Martuni killed in the first Karabakh war. Now I wonder what un-survivable suffering his family must endure after being forced from their home and his eternal rest. . .

I’ve not been back, and recently my companion asked why. I told her it was because I wanted it to always be the way it was, and I know that it won’t. That’s the Irish in me. It’s complicated.

But this anointed incense (khoung) wafting through St. David – 7,000 miles from St. Zoravor – is so familiar, so effective in its ability to transport a willing spirit, that I am taken there and loved ones are joined. And it feels like home in the heart.

(Journalist John Hughes founded New Times Journalism Training Center in Yerevan and was editor of its online news daily, ArmeniaNow 2001-16.)

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