The Silky Way Adventure
Slices of Armenia
Chapter 4 – The Priest
Previous chapter : Armenian coffee
Arytom’s “idea” (as a traveller, you are very cautious about using the word “plan”) for us that day comprised visiting no less than four monasteries. Quite ambitious, if you know how hazardous a hitch-hiking adventure can be. We arrived at the second monastery around twelve, and it was even more spectacular than the first one. At the gate, we were greeted by Father Asbed. “The name Asbed indicates that he is from the diaspora” Artyom later explained to me, “in Western-Armenian (the language spoken by the diaspora), voiced consonants become unvoiced*. His name in Eastern-Armenian would have been Aspet.” And Father Asbed himself gave me the translation of his name into French: “Père Chevalier (Father Knight). We explained briefly why we were there, and started exploring the monastery. Only a few minutes later, we crossed paths with Father Asbed again, and he invited us to come over for a cup of coffee. Since it was only the second one that day, we gladly accepted.
The Presbytery’s garden was stunning in its beauty. A big jumble of flowers, already faded but still colourful, heavenly-scented roses, bees quietly buzzing, and a little green kiosk with a table and some benches. A peaceful picture softly caressed by the autumn sun. “Do you prefer having it inside or outside ?” the Priest asked us from the kitchen. The answer was self-evident.
Father Asbed is an Armenian priest, which means that he is working for the Armenian church. It is neither a catholic nor orthodox church, it stands on its own as the apostolic Armenian church – one of the oriental churches. According to Artyom’s slightly romanced version, in 451 and 533 A.D, as the country had to defend himself against various invaders, the Armenian religious leaders were busy supporting the moral of the national troops. Having more power and influence than the king, their presence was capital. For that reason, they couldn’t attend two important councils during which some majors changes were decided for the Christian world. As no one informed them of those changes, they kept on with their version of the cult*. The Armenian church is thus a very old one. Their rituals – but not their beliefs – bear strong similarities with the ones performed by the Copts of Egypt. Both are thought to be closer to the ways of the first Christians. One striking difference is that they adore the cross itself, more than the Christ. Beautifully adorned stone crosses (khachkar) are to be found everywhere in Armenia. They often have tree elements to them, the tree being notably a pagan symbol of life. Because of the Turkish genocide on the Armenians, at the beginning of the 20th century, there is now an Armenian diaspora scattered all around the world, and, the Armenian church being so distinctive, those Armenian communities need their own priests. Father Asbed is one of them.
Himself Armenian from the diaspora, Father Asbed was born in Lebanon and studied in Jerusalem. He has worked for more than twenty years in the United-States, mostly around Los Angeles, and then spent four years in Las Vegas. He wasn’t sad to leave that place because “everything is tentation there, it is not the easiest place to live for a priest observing celibacy!”. His first service in Las Vegas was attended by twelve people – the five choir-members and the organist included. That is how diligent the believers were in Sin City. As a priest devoted to his mission, Father Asbed started to actively recruit new members, visiting shops owned by Armenians, and family’s homes, constantly reminding everyone of the importance of faith and religion.
After a while, there were on average sixty-five believers attending each service. And for the bigger ceremonies like Christmas (which takes place on the 6th of January in the Armenian cult), the number went from 150 attendees the first year to more than 700 hundreds the last one. The same happened in all the cities Father Asbed worked in around Los Angeles. Sometimes, he returns to visit his former parishes and see how is his replacement is doing: every time, there are a lot less believers attending the services. Once, his ex-parishioners complained that the new priest had a temper, and was winding himself up during the sermons. He went to talk to the priest, who defended himself with a simple “but it’s my character!”. Father Asbed of course made a point of reminding him of his duty, explaining that it was his responsibility to work on his temper, in order to become a better example for his community and thus to have a chance of bringing the stray sheep back to the fold.
Father Asbed’s sparkling eyes also showed a touch of deep sadness as he was narrating his American experiences. He knew very well that if the number of attendees was going up everywhere he was assigned, it was because of the character he embodies, rather than because of his God. He was sad, too, to see what kind of life his fellow Armenian nationals were living across the Atlantic: the young generation of the diaspora, the third one, has no faith; they are exactly as spoiled as a lot of the other Americans; have seen and heard everything, and do not consider that they can learn anything from older folks such as himself. Father Asbed also didn’t obey to the local oligarchies, but their existence did not make him happy. He was and is only trying, under all circumstances, to help as many of his Armenian compatriots as possible to find the right track again.
“Here, eat” he was telling me now and then, handing over peeled quarters of apple. “Those are good ones, brought to me by pilgrims from Yerevan. Not spoiled by hail, like those I get from the people here.” “Here, apples for you, Father Asbed”, they say. Sure!…” He told us how his neighbours, who, as soon as he leaves the presbytery, come to his side of the fence to pick up the fallen walnuts. And then, if by any chance they end up having too many, they offer him the damaged ones with a big smile. He explained how the villagers invite him to their feast table, and start eating before he could even bless the table, how he always has to remind them of their religious duties. How, when they introduce him to someone, they say “This is Father Asbed, a good mate, he drinks and eats well with us!”. “That’s all they have to say about me?” he took offense. “Nothing else? Nothing about my sermons? If all I wanted was to drink, I wouldn’t need to go to their home and share their table, I have plenty of wine bottles at home! I have been told how the ceremonies here used to be performed before me: ten minutes for a baby to be baptised, fifteen for a wedding. That’s not correct! I, for sure, take the time required for it to be significant, to mean something”. One could tell that the direction people’s hearts are taking in this world made him profoundly sad.
We walked back with him to the monastery to at last have a look at the extraordinary khachkar and at the buildings. He opened the bell tower for us, let us climb to the top on the very high stone steps. There was no parapet. I expressed my concerns and he shouted at me, laughing “Don’t be scared, just be careful. Don’t worry… be happy!” he added. This priest was indeed full of surprises. He proved extremely agile and fit, running down the giant steps. He climbs up and down at least once a day, to ring the bell announcing the evening service, at five o’clock. I asked if he had a lot of believers these days. “No! Most of the time, no one comes. Only a few tourists or pilgrims, in summertime.” Does he say the mass even if no one is there? “Of course I do! If only for myself. And to keep the rhythm!”
After visiting the monastery, absolutely beautiful in its breath-taking soft green and golden setting, on a plateau, high up in the mountains, we walked down to the valley and the main road, Father Asbed’s words echoing in our heads. In many ways, he reminded me of my great-uncle Jean, a catholic priest who also has many a story to tell, and an incredible insight about everything pertaining to man’s heart…
Next chapter : Abandoned
Artyom depicts his version of this episode here.
* a voiced consonant requires the use of the vocal chords strings (b], [d], [g] or [z] are of that kind), unlike the unvoiced consonants (for example, [p], [t], [k] or [s]).
** the one council that the Armenian clergy could not attend was the one of Ephesus; for the rest, the heart of the problem and origin of the schisms with the Georgian orthodox church comes from a misunderstanding around the notion of miaphysitism versus monophysitism, discussed at the council of Chalcedon (451) and at the second council of Dvin (553); I like Artyom’s story better, and I will let you look into those barbarian terms yourself if you are interested!