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We and Our Churches

Posted By Bryon Bradley On November 14, 2011 @ 8:58 am In Arts & Culture | 19 Comments

We Armenians are rightfully proud of the architectural heritage of our churches and monasteries throughout all of the Armenian highlands. We marvel at their variety and, at the same time, their faithful allegiance to the distinctly Armenian ecclesiastical architecture. We promote them as our country’s most visible gem and we are incensed when Armenian churches in other countries become easy targets for misguided development, chauvinism, or appropriation by other churches. It would be difficult to find an Armenian who is indifferent to Armenian churches, their skyward direction, and their austere beauty.

And yet, there is something else. Something that we might unconsciously feel, something for which we have a strange longing stirred by a visit to a monastery or a church in a remote corner of what is left of historical Armenia, but something that, by and large, we can’t quite substantiate or describe. What is it? Is it the fact that these sacred buildings are in such communion with the landscape around them and the skies above them? Is it because, made of stone, they have withstood the ravages of time, foreign invasions and our own neglect? Is it because their ruins remind us of what once was but is no longer? What moved our ancestors who designed and built them by hand, one stone at a time, often at times when these hands and stones could have been put towards other, more down-to-earth uses?

Other nations throughout the two thousand years of Christian history have also built beautiful churches that express their own national Christian character. Many of them have been lavishly decorated by world-renowned artists, and some of them are still visited by many from around the world. Why then are we so attached to our churches, aside from the simple reason that they are ours? The answer to this question, as frequently happens, raises many new ones. The answer is that they are signs — enduring signs of stone, signs that many wanted to erase but largely failed, physical signs that still point to something despite the centuries of power games, lost battles, redrawing of maps, creation and abolition of made-up countries.

The signs point to faith. The signs point to belief that moved the hands of the architects and the builders. The belief that made people — poor and rich, high and low — donate funds and resources towards the construction of these churches. The belief that made men renounce worldly opportunities and dedicate their lives in the knowledge that they might well be deprived of their lives as a consequence of their calling when the next horde of marauding invaders arrived. In our day and age it is difficult to comprehend why one would risk natural and man-made dangers, spend astronomic (for their times) amounts of money and engage in decades of work, building a church or a monastery high in the mountains away from the crossroads. The answer yet again is faith. The faith they had, the faith that compelled them to build the tangible and create the intangible riches that we have inherited to actualize the outward signs of what they fervently believed. The sacred buildings we see today are shells — beautiful shells of something that inhabited them and brought them to life for centuries, but shells nevertheless, unless that something dwells in them and gives them life; unless that something is put back in these shells so that they can come back to the life that was intended for them.

But somewhere along the tortuous path of history we, their descendants, their flesh and blood, seem to have lost that something. Like most of the Western world, we marvel at the creation of their hands but ignore the passion of their hearts, the reason of their minds. We complain when others don’t respect us, yet we don’t respect ourselves. Incensed by the world’s apparent indifference to our plight and our culture, we are the ones who frequently know next to nothing about the faith that created our culture and made our people survive, and not just survive but live, and not just live but create too. To marvel at the shell while ignoring what created it and sustained life within it is, at best, short-sighted. Yet many of us are comfortable aggrandizing ourselves with statements like “we are the first Christian state,” without asking whether we ourselves believe in anything, and, if we do, what exactly is it that we believe in?

The interior of the St. Gayane Church in Etchmiadzin, Armenia (image via flickr.com/sjdunphy)

That is a hard question that we cannot evade. The tumultuous events of the last century seem to have dimmed our nation’s guiding light, not unlike most of the Western world. To the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, militant atheism, ravaging consumerism and other-isms we have only our absence of faith to offer. The myth of progress has veiled the fact that the human species and their good and bad, worries and aspirations, haven’t changed at all. We are the same as what we were two thousand years ago. Today we are distracted by the superficial and the superfluous and misled by scientism, whose claims are easily rebuked by many prominent scientists of our day who see no conflict between faith and the progress of science correctly understood in its proper context. We all believe in something, even if vaguely defined, and the question is, what do we believe in?

Unfortunately, answering the question is more difficult than asking it. What we know better is what we don’t believe. Depending on where we come from and when we were born, variously we don’t believe in communism or capitalism, globalism or nationalism, materialism or consumerism, this or that, one or another. We are more comfortable, perhaps in a now- discredited post-modernist style, to be defined by what we don’t believe rather than by what we do believe. We think we know who we are not but not who we are. Empty rhetoric of pseudo-patriotism won’t do, self-referential definitions won’t suffice. We need to discover what we believed in the past to stand a chance of knowing who, where and why we are today. Not everyone will agree; not everyone has to agree.

The Western world, especially in the last few centuries, has produced many prominent secular or atheist thinkers who advanced the natural sciences. These thinkers, while unquestionably great in their own domains of thought, have also contributed to the various movements and tendencies that brought the world to where we are now. One cannot but recall the words of the Book of Job: “He catches the wise in their craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are swept away.” How indeed the schemes of the wily are swept away we all have seen over and over again.

What about the Armenians then, you ask? Who are our great atheist giants of thought from the earlier centuries, the stalwarts of reason that “had no need for the hypothesis” of God, like Pierre-Simon Laplace, the great French mathematician? Why not wheel them out for national admiration and celebration? The reason is that there aren’t any. Our nation that gave birth to great philosophers, writers, composers, artists, theologians, leaders, architects, builders — the list can go on and on –  hasn’t brought forth a single great atheist comparable to the likes of Laplace. This little fact should perhaps give us a reason to pause and think.

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At the end of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, consecrated bread, known as mas (portion), is distributed to the faithful, who respond by saying “God is my portion forever.” Perhaps it is our destiny that we stand with our faith or fall without it. Perhaps it is time we started admiring our churches not as beautiful shells, but as houses of faith, signs pointing to God, calling us to listen and to come back to where we belong.

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