It wasn’t long ago that if someone in an Armenian Church hall in America whispered a phrase like “drug addiction,” “mental illness,” “teenage pregnancy,” or “suicide,” it was met with stunned disbelief, followed by a grateful sigh. “Thank God,” we used to assure ourselves, “such things don’t happen to us Armenians.” With our strong family bonds, old-world values, and dogged insistence on education and achievement, we relegated such personal tragedies to the category of “contemporary societal issues” and lamented them at arm’s length.
Times have certainly changed. At a recent gathering of clergy from Armenian Church parishes across our Diocese, every single priest spoke like a battle-scarred veteran about such traumas that are afflicting their church communities. Grey-haired Der Hayrs approaching retirement cried out alongside the rookies who are still on their priestly honeymoons, pleading for guidance and training in how to help good Armenian people in their parishes who find themselves floundering in the fires of living hell—young and old; men and women; high school dropouts and university professors, recent immigrants, fourth-generation Americans and others in whose veins not a drop of Armenian blood flows; native speakers of English, Armenian, Russian, Turkish, Spanish and other languages. “They didn’t teach us this in Seminary,” more than one priest lamented.
To be sure, our church’s leadership has begun to give added attention to these and other “contemporary issues” both in seminary curricula and in occasional seminars and gatherings like the one just mentioned, even if a well-conceived, ongoing, mandatory program of continuing professional education for every priest of our diocese remains as yet unrealized. We have much to do.
And yet no matter how many training sessions we organize on opioid addiction, or how many courses we add to the seminary curriculum on the societal causes of teenage angst and apathy, it would be naïve and foolhardy of us to think that the church alone will resolve these problems, least of all our tiny Armenian Church and our precious few clergy. The “contemporary issues” are many. They are diverse and each one has complex root causes. As a church, our goal cannot be to turn our pastors into psychologists, social workers and addiction counselors. But neither may we wring our hands and stand by impatiently while we wait for the experts to respond.
Today many professionals advocate a collaborative, holistic approach to treating addiction, depression, and other maladies. So the Armenian Church, like all churches, needs to take its place alongside medical professionals, mental health therapists, social workers and others. While our clergy learn how to recognize when someone in crisis requires more specialized attention, referring them to the various professionals that can more effectively help them, we in the church need to provide the care that should spring from our uniquely Christian convictions. In these times of addiction, active shooters and anxiety, what the Armenian Church needs to do above all is to be the Church. St. Paul encourages the Christians of Ephesus “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…for building up the Body of Christ” [Ephesians 4:1-3, 12].
The Body of Christ
As long as we consider our Armenian Church to be a church, we are obliged to act on the “calling to which we have been called.” That means that first and foremost we must aspire truly to be the Body of Christ. We need to become that unique community of “humility and gentleness,” of “patience” and “love” that God has called us to be. At every level, from Holy Etchmiadzin to the Diocese in New York, and most importantly in our individual church parishes, we have a divine mandate to make of ourselves guilds of blind compassion, unconditional love, and selfless service to all. That is what our Lord did and what he has privileged his church to do. It is what God has entrusted to us. And those are the divine qualities that inspired a burly, hard-headed Armenian king named Drtad to dedicate himself and his subjects to Jesus Christ more than 1700 years ago.
One of the alarming outcomes of the recent clergy gathering was the unanimous observation by our priests that the people in their communities who are suffering with addiction, emotional crises, family upheavals, legal predicaments and other ordeals don’t seek out the church but stay away from it. Many are overcome with shame for mistakes they have made, or because they just don’t look good. Others steer clear of Sunday worship and other parish activities because they fear being judged or becoming the object of coffee-hour banter, habits that are all too common among us Armenians. Still other Armenian families are stunned in disbelief that their Ivy League son has been arrested for drug possession; or that their teenage daughter is pregnant; or that a spouse has suffered a nervous breakdown; or that they have had to file for bankruptcy, or that their child has come out. And as a result they shun the Armenian Church out of a sense of self-preservation, to protect whatever dignity they have left.
The upshot is tragic on both sides. Our church parishes suffer from even further attrition than they are already experiencing. Rather than attracting new members like a magnet and growing, our parishes find themselves effectively repelling people. The very wounded souls who would most benefit from genuine companionship, prayer, and a shoulder to cry on instead become further isolated and detached. It is surely no coincidence that the vast majority of men who have shot up schools, churches, shopping centers and movie theaters in recent years were described as “loners” and “outcasts.” Psychologists tell us that many mental illnesses manifest themselves in anti-social tendencies. The resulting isolation not only detaches them from healthy human relationships, it often further fuels the root causes of their illness, compounding their misery.
I am hardly qualified to peer into the brains of the men who have gunned down hundreds of American children, students, concert-goers, shoppers and worshippers in recent years, and it is surely unwise to speculate about the sociopathic disorders that drove each one to commit such unthinkable horrors. Still, I cannot help but wonder if there was ever a moment in the perilous path that led any of these loners to violence, at which point some human intervention might have derailed his steady descent toward mass murder?
For one man who almost became a mass shooter there was. Aaron Stark was the victim of a rough childhood bristling with domestic violence, poverty, and relentless bullying at school. Alone, depressed and suicidal, he started collecting guns and planning a spectacular suicide in which he intended to kill many people. “I was extremely suicidal one evening, and a friend of mine, without having any idea what was going on and what state I was in, invited me over for a party,” Stark said tearfully in a recent television interview. “She had baked me a blueberry-peach pie, and I got there, and everybody had the pie, and it was all for me.” A simple act of compassion defused a ticking time bomb. “That literally saved my life that night,” he said. “I wasn’t going to survive that night if that hadn’t happened.”
I imagine that some people that are driven to violence are the victims of sudden, overpowering impulses or heinous psychotic conditions for which there is no probable prevention or intervention. And yet if even one of the murderous loners of recent years was susceptible to a simple act of human kindness by someone like Aaron Stark’s pie-baking friend, precious lives could have been spared. With mass shootings now a weekly occurrence throughout the cities and towns of the U.S., it is chilling to contemplate how many deserted, tormented men are currently marching on that perilous path toward eventual death and destruction.
But even if they are not at risk for mass violence, countless men, women and children in our communities are carrying massive psychological, emotional, and other burdens. Agonizing in seclusion and pain, they too are becoming loners and outcasts, starving for a compassionate ear, a smile, maybe a loaf of choreg, and meaningful, loving relationships.
Agents of Christ’s Healing
We in the Armenian Church are obliged to be the Church, to be the Body of Christ for these people. Of course, we pray for those who are suffering and we must always pray more and better. But God does not answer prayers by sprinkling invisible blessings on us like magic dust falling down from heaven. God’s help comes always in the person of Christ, the Son of God, and in the Body of Christ. We, the Armenian Church are that Body. God has given us the privilege to be the agents of God’s healing in this brutally damaged, ferocious world. Each of us who dares enter the Armenian Church must be ready to reach out to “the poor…the captives…the blind…and the oppressed” [Luke 4:18]. If we children of the Armenian Church are going to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called,” we must be committed to extricate ourselves from our routines, break away from our cliques, wrest ourselves from our busy-ness, unchain ourselves from our petty prejudices, chip away at our egos, break out of our pride, and stifle our pointless quarrels and quibbles.
None of this happens naturally or easily. To be church requires the relentless attention, courage and unqualified love of every church member. When the eyes and hearts of our parishes drift away from the precious face of Jesus Christ, we quickly and inevitably begin the slippery-slope slide from church to a social club, country club, prayer hall, 501.3.c. organization, patriotic union, or ethnic museum. Each of these is noble in its own right, but none is the Body of Christ. None can be the Body of Christ. None is charged by the Creator with bringing the love and soothing hope of our Lord Jesus Christ to God’s people. If the Armenian Church relinquishes the sacred mission that has been exclusively entrusted to her, no one else is going to take up the slack—neither our political parties, nor our compatriotic unions, nor the government of Armenia, nor its embassies, nor our benevolent organizations, nor our lobbyists in Washington, nor our dance groups, museums, intellectuals, or journalists. They all have their work to do.
And we have ours. In our age of anxiety, there is much to do, and that work is at the pulsing heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church among the People of Armenia. It is good work, blessed work, and it is the privilege not only of the clergy, but of each one of us, clergy, men, women, and especially the youth, who must bring to the church’s mission and daily life their singular vitality and creativity. Our mission is to make our parishes “safe zones” where our people (and all people) are preemptively embraced in love, like the Father who ran and kissed his Prodigal Son before the boy even had a chance to apologize for his debauchery. We are to create communities where we recognize human frailty and suffering as tragic and inevitable features of life in a fallen world; where, from that vantage point, we support one another, we hold each other up when needed, not criticizing or judging, but rather forgiving one another and compensating for our mutual faults and failings. Our Lord invites us to push back against the natural inclination to let our church communities deteriorate into inward-looking, narrow-minded, xenophobic clubs, elevating them instead into heavenly embassies, where God’s love radiates in tangible, visible actions.
Can we achieve such a lofty goal? Is it even possible? Our saintly ancestors who compiled and transmitted our holy Badarak to us certainly thought so. From beginning to end, its prayers and hymns challenge us to “commit ourselves and one another to the almighty Lord God” in union with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “has been revealed among us” and indeed “is seated right here.” If we attend to it thoughtfully and honestly, the Badarak dares us to receive and to channel “the divine, sanctifying power of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” in Holy Communion with God and with one another, “for the salvation of the world and life for ourselves.”
Even the most miniscule but sincere gesture of love generates massive power when it is offered in the powerful name of Jesus Christ. “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade,” the Lord assures us [Mark 4:31-32].
This means that “the salvation of the world” begins at coffee hour. This Sunday, make the effort to break out of your routine. Scan the crowd and identify the stranger, the loner, the outcast, the disheveled one, the hypocrite, the loudmouth. Walk up to the woman you usually try to avoid and offer a few kind words. Dare to dip beneath the surface of polite, coffee-hour chit-chat. Underneath everyone’s cursory “I’m fine,” hides a murky realm of fear, pain, loneliness, and sometimes denial. If you press gently, some people will let you in to their inner darkness, hoping that you might reflect a beam of light and hope. Yes, you possess within yourself a vast store of love and healing power in spite of—or perhaps, as a result of your own wounds and doubts. That life-giving energy was planted in you by God’s Holy Spirit, whether or not you perceive it or even believe it. God’s miraculous healing works both ways. When we summon the courage to bring ourselves to the service of others, the Spirit of Christ, who “blows where he chooses” [John 3:8], breathes life into them and into us. And so the Armenian Church strengthens and swells as church. May our precious Armenian Church parishes generate gale-force winds of the Holy Spirit, drawing into their loving embrace all those that are battered by the storms of this world.
V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan
Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center
St. Nersess Armenian Seminary
The Twentieth Day of Great Lent, 2018
The Feast of Saints John of Jerusalem, John of Odzun, John of Orotn, and Gregory of Datev