The Armenian Church: Questions and Candles

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Special to the Armenian Weekly


“So, do you believe in God these days?”

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in January, and my mother asks me this. I’m home from school for winter break. We’re in the car, on our way to the yoga studio across town. We’ve just been talking about grocery shopping, about whether we have time to stop for gas, about everything mundane and nothing holy.

“So, do you believe in God these days?” (Photo: The Armenian Weekly)

“Um, what?”

For me and for many of my friends, questions of God and religion are complicated. Whether by popular opinion, education, or most often the strange combination of maturity and naiveté, we’re skeptical. In our twenties, we’re old enough to be jaded, disillusioned, but we’re too young to have lost the sense of invincibility that comes with youth. We’re able to shrug at miracles, destiny, or any sort of higher power because we don’t need one—and don’t particularly want one.

I relay my skepticism to my mother and I feel guilty. I was confirmed when I was 14. Being confirmed at Central Congregational Church means you attended Sunday School since you were little, showed up for Confirmation Class once a month for a year, and wrote a Statement of Faith. You stood in front of the entire congregation on a Sunday morning in May and accepted Jesus as your savior. The pastor placed a cross around your neck, and everyone clapped. I can’t say for sure whether I believed then, or whether I just wanted to believe, but for the next few years I wore that cross every day.

Since then, I’ve read Joseph Campbell’s Thou Art That, compared world religions, and taken enough courses in biology and physics to put stock in medicine over miracles. Besides, even deciding where God does or doesn’t have a hand is a question with enough answers that accepting any one of them makes me feel like one of the selectively faithful. Does He decide who lives and dies? Does He control natural disasters? Or is He really all about free will?

When my mom and I pulled up to the yoga studio 20 minutes later, she surprised me with how unperturbed she was by my confession.

“Lots of people drift away from the Church at your age,” she says, turning the car off, “I suspect you’ll come back one day.”

I can’t say definitively that I don’t believe, either, and not just because of the millions upon millions of people in the world who are devout. It’s more because the Church has always been a part of my life in ways that I can’t seem to ignore.

Like when I was five and my family left New Hampshire for Massachusetts, and just happened to move across the street from the gold dome of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Church. Upon discovering the church’s existence, my dad and his third-generation nostalgia for our Armenian heritage insisted we attend a service.

The Armenian Church is strange if you’ve never been to an Orthodox Church before. At Sts. Vartanantz, the sanctuary is tiny but intricate. You walk in between the rows of old oaken pews. The floor is carpeted. I imagine my bare feet compressing the red fibers were I to take my shoes off, little tufts tickling between my toes. Images of the saints decorate the walls, and one of Mary holding Jesus tenderly is above the altar. There are always candles lit; their tiny, flame-sized shadows dance beneath her.

I think of my mother’s church—a Protestant church, which we ended up joining a year later—with its bare walls and neutral smell. It makes you wonder where it came from—its origins. At the Armenian Church, you know: The Armenian script on the ceiling reminds you; the smell of the incense takes you across an ocean and to a place where my ancestors lived until 1915.

I don’t remember the first time I learned about the Armenian Genocide. In some ways, it feels like something I’ve always known. I spent many school projects trying to understand it. I learned how Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire and how, during the First World War, the Young Turks came to power. I read about how they made promises to the Armenians, and then broke those promises on April 24, 1915.

“They [our family] never had problems until the new Turkish regime,” my Uncle Armen told me once, “and that’s when they decided they were going to make Turkey all Muslim. Got rid of all Christians—Greeks, Syriacs, Armenians.”

On that day, hundreds of leaders in the Armenian community—Apostolic, Catholic, and Protestant alike—were arrested. Most of them were killed. My great grandfather, whom we call Pa, and his father were led away that day, too, but were spared.

“They’d decided not to kill Protestants that week because they were getting heat from the Americans,” Uncle Armen tells me. He says it in a strange way: matter-of-fact, almost offhand.

A month later they took Pa’s father anyway.

At first, no one in my family attended Sts. Vartanantz regularly. But when my dad got laid off five years later, he found the church again and the Armenian community there. Now he runs the Men’s Club and makes pounds of losh kebab (my great grandmother’s recipe) for their functions each month. It fills the house with the smell of ground beef, freshly chopped vegetables, and spices like chili powder, pepper, and cumin. The Women’s Guild adores him, in part for this culinary skill. They give him kisses on both cheeks and tell my mother how lucky she is.

I think these women remind him of his Grandma Shami, my great-grandmother and Pa’s wife. She taught him how to make the losh, dolma, rice pilaf, kufta, and even baklava. In the summertime, he’ll make madzoun soup—but only for himself. The rest of us turn our noses at the watery yogurt.

For Grandma Shami and now for my dad, in true Armenian fashion, food is an expression of love. In fact, most of the stories about Grandma involve food. My own grandmother—Grandma Barbara—tells the story of Grandma Shami supplying food for the men building the Assembly of God Church just down the street from their home on Bellingham Street, in Chelsea, Mass.:

Ma was going to make lunch for the workers. Grandpa was forbidding her to do that and he was arguing his reasons. So, that day, when Grandpa went out by the back door, as did everyone, and Grandma heard the bell at the front door. Two men came to pick up the food—pilaf and chicken as she had arranged. She ignored Pa and did exactly what she thought was right. That was who she was.

No one in the family can remember his reasons. I try to picture Grandma Barbara sitting at the ’50s-style, chrome kitchen table of Bellingham Street. “Grandma Shami and I were very, very close,” she told me. I imagine her smiling as she watches Grandma Shami sneak to the front hallway with the food. Pa had a reputation for being a penny-pincher, so maybe it had something to do with that. I sometimes wonder, if it’s true, whether he was that way because they lost everything in the Genocide.

There are also many stories in family lore about Grandma Shami’s devotion to the church, so maybe she imparted that to my father in a small way, too. Grandma Shami was an Evangelical Christian, which, I learned, was different from how she had been raised. Her mother was Armenian Apostolic—a denomination shared by most Armenians, and the first national church in history.

Her father’s family was Protestant. They lived in the province of Diarbekir, one of the first regions where Armenian Protestantism began to crop up in the early 19th century. Missionaries from the Church of England were sent to what was then the Ottoman Turkish Empire. At first, their presence was met with aggression from local Armenians, as the Protestant teachings were in conflict—and often critical of—the “Mother Church.”

But by 1850, when tensions between the Apostolics and Protestants had subsided, many Armenians converted to Protestantism. My dad says they were attracted to the educational opportunities that the Protestants offered. Grandma Shami converted for different reasons.

At three years old, she and her sister, Varsenik, were sent on a death march—one of many caravan-like journeys the Turks led hundreds of Armenians on through the heat of the desert. The Armenians were starved, harassed, beaten, raped. Somehow, the two of them survived and made it to Aleppo, where they were rescued by a group of Evangelical Christians. A lot of children like my great grandmother ended up in orphanages.

She lived with the Evangelicals until she was 18 and Pa came back to rescue her. She stayed Evangelical even though Pa’s mother—who lived with them—disapproved. “She was a very religious woman,” my grandmother, Barbara, tells me, “She had Jesus, and that was all she needed.”

I don’t know whether Pa was a very religious man. His family was Protestant, but he and his mother and sister escaped the Genocide by pretending to be Muslim. He lived with them in Syria for seven years under the name Vahan Suleiman.

I imagine that surviving genocide changes the way you think about God.

In the Armenian Church, it’s customary to light a candle and say a prayer for lost loved ones—or for anyone in need of God’s attention. When I visited Armenia, we went to church after church, lighting candles everywhere we went. At 14, I still hadn’t had a lot of experience with death. I lit one for Auntie Pauline’s mother. She had passed a few years earlier, and she was the first person in my life to die whom I’d really known. I lit one for Pa, but even though I knew him I’d been too young to take much notice of his passing. I lit one for Grandma Shami, too. Even though I never knew her, I felt that having the same name connected us in some way, giving me license to light the candle.

My friend Robin told me her Armenian grandmother hated the practice of lighting candles for the dead.

“Do you believe your father is at peace? Do you believe his early suffering is over?” she would ask her children. When they would say “yes,” she’d reply, “then he doesn’t need your prayers.” Robin’s grandmother was Apostolic, too. She didn’t see the purpose of the candles.

Every time you light a candle, you are supposed to make a small donation to the church. Maybe my liberal arts education has made me doubtful, but I can’t help but wonder about that particular tradition: exchanging prayers for money. About how manipulative it seems to ingrain the congregation with this belief that lighting a candle keeps you in contact with the dead and, in that way, ensuring a steady stream of dollars into the church coffers. Maybe Robin’s grandmother’s instinct is right.

Last February, my grandfather (Pa’s son) had a stroke in the middle of the night, and by the time we got the call he was in the hospital in a coma. My dad and I left early in the morning to be with him and our family in Auburn, New York. We made three stops on the way: the Sunoco station for gas and coffee, the cleaners for my dad’s shirts, and Sts. Vartanantz to light a candle.

It was 6:30 in the morning when we walked into the church, through the backdoor and past all the Sunday school rooms. Even though the sun had started to rise, inside the building was dark, but neither of us turned on any lights.

Dad paused at the table outside the sanctuary. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, fumbling through the bills inside.

“Do you have a 10?” he asked. “In the car maybe—” “No, don’t worry.” He slid a $20 bill into the envelope in the top drawer of the desk, and pulled a candle out of the drawer beneath it. “Dad—20 bucks?” I found myself saying. He didn’t respond but gestured, after you, toward the sanctuary with the candle in his hand.

The sanctuary had fewer windows than the rest of the building and was darker.

A warm glow came from the back corner, where there is a small altar for these prayer candles. A wire rack holds the little tea candles, which are a dollar each. The big candle my dad was holding costs $10 and would burn for seven days on the altar.

My dad didn’t break stride through the entire process, knowing exactly where to find the matches and where to extinguish them once the candle was lit. I realized how often he must light candles for the people in his life—or people who have passed. I think again of the incredible capacity for love that Grandma Shami passed down to him.

He stepped back once the candle was lit, clasped his hands, and bowed his head. He looked more thoughtful than in prayer, but to me that seemed more sincere.

I folded my hands to match his, but I was too distracted to close my eyes. Instead, my gaze darted from the flickering candle to my boots on the red carpet, then to the painting of a saint on the wall above the altar.

I put a hand on my dad’s shoulder—it was an instinct, somehow, to let him know I was still here, to let him know I was supporting him. Something like that. After a few moments, my dad opened his eyes, looked at me, and returned the gesture.

“Let’s go,” he said.

I didn’t think the candle would save my grandfather. But I do remember—as we left the church, got in the car, and started driving—feeling that, without a doubt, it was the right thing to do.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: The Armenian Church: Questions and Candles