Today I had the great pleasure of receiving a “holy welcome” into the choir of my local Armenian Apostolic Church in Ijevan. For two hours I sang with the choir as a second alto in a group of seven women and men. This has come about as a result of my wanting to enhance my spiritual experience in Armenia through listening to the songs, chants and sermons delivered in the local church despite my complete lack of understanding of anything being said or sung. For me, it was adequate to just listen, meditating alone in the small, intimate and incense-scented church.
Listening to the choir over the weeks I had the thought and desire to join them in song, having previously sung in choirs in Saratoga, New York for over 13 years. Timidly, I finally approached the church priest, Simon, “Der Hyer” (Father), to ask if it would be possible for me to join the choir without being a church member. His response, in English, was to say: “If you sing in our choir, you are a member of our church.” In my fractured Armenian, I then introduced myself to the choir members, again asking permission to join their group. They were delighted at my request and warmly brought me into their fold.
After being given the music and studying on my own over the Christmas holiday, I rehearsed with the lead soprano, Mary, who I learned is the wife of the priest, earning her own title of “Yeretzgin.” We rehearsed in their home, Mary playing the piano and each of us singing our parts. Her three children, all sick with the chicken pox, listened nearby. All went smoothly and we celebrated afterwards with Mary’s wonderful offering of cakes, chocolate, nuts, fresh and dried fruit and Armenian coffee.
Mary speaks English well and she and I talked about the church in Armenia and shared many of our social and political views. As the daughter of a Presbyterian minister myself, I could easily understand her joys and challenges as the priest’s wife as well as the mother of three young children, as was my own mother. Trained as a psychologist, Mary looks forward to working again when her children are more grown. Initially, she’ll soon begin coordinating Sunday schools for all of the Apostolic churches in our region of Tavush. I congratulated her on her interim years working as a “child psychologist” having raised children now ages 5, 9 and 11. Demurely, she laughed. I admired her gentle patience with her brood as they swirled about us, ever active as Mary and I sat together, Mary offering hugs, medicine, words of caution and instruction, not missing a measure of our own conversation. A woman full of grace indeed.
And today we sang. (click for video) Being given a blue robe and lavender head covering, I blended in easily. Fortunately, my voice blended in as well. The songs are in old Armenian, words mostly unfamiliar to me even with my child-level use of their language. Having sung in many languages, though mostly Latin, with my previous choir groups, Armenian is no more of a challenge. Putting the words to the music will, however, take me a couple of weeks and some independent practice.
In between songs and chants I also looked around the church from this new perspective, having always sat in the pews before. The paintings of disciples and saints were closer now, their bright colors contrasting well with the grey stone walls, me leaning against one of them to rest myself during the nearly two hours of standing. I love to watch Simon, the priest, gracefully milling about the altar in his glorious gold and red threaded vestments. By the end of the service he puts on his wonderful silver cross topped hat for the communion offering. His lovely voice is as deep as his wife Mary’s is high and clear. I imagine them singing together and hope to hear that one day.
After the service I was invited for coffee and sweet treats in the small room where the candle-selling lady stays. Today she made us coffee and we choristers all sat together speaking both in English and Armenian. Simon and a few others joined us, the room then full to crowded. Mary asked me to introduce them to some church music in English that I knew. I said I’d mostly sung classical mass music by Bach, Haydn and such, but would bring them a few hymns to sing. She asked me to join her in singing “Silent Night,” me taking the soprano part, her the alto. Nervously I began, but became quickly comfortable with her accompaniment, our duo soon enhanced by others who began to sing. I noticed that snow was now falling heavily outside the window. It was delightful.
I cannot easily express my intense pleasure of this experience today. I feel oddly at a loss for my usual wry humor and wordy insights. Instead, I feel blessed. Blending my voice with others in song in the incense-filled air and catching the occasional smile and appreciative nod from those in the congregation who know me brought me to the state of grace I’d sought over the weeks. I feel I’ve received a “holy welcome” from a power higher than the reach of this small church. While I’ve not lost contact with this higher power, today broadened the channel of my faith and love, and for that I have deep gratitude.