This morning, I lit candles in the Church of St. Etchmiatsin—the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The oldest cathedral (according to Wikipedia) in the world.
The sanctuary was under construction. The whole place smelled of sawdust and paint, and men climbed on high ladders, banging around in the ancient rafters of this old place of worship. At the altar, a large tapestry hung heavy with the scene of Gregory the Illuminator receiving a vision: Christ descending from the clouds with a golden hammer, telling him where to build the church.
Other than those tiny white tapers we get every year at the Christmas Eve service that spill wax down your fingers while you sing “Silent Night,” I have never lit a candle in church before. It’s not something we practiced in my tradition of guitar-studded worship songs and inspirational topical sermons. But today I stood in the silence of that dark, ancient annex, and I lit candles for two of my dear friends.
I stood there for a long time, thinking about my friends, remembering their suffering, watching the candles crowded together, burning down to wax in the sand and water. At the other end of the altar, an Armenian priest worked slowly, raking the burnt-out candle nubs gently out of the water with his fingers.
Outside the church, seminary men in black cassocks talked on flip-phones. Old men sat on benches in black newsboy caps, watching us as we walked—awkward and foreign and snapping picture after picture with our iPhones. But inside, my two small candles burned alongside dozens of others—the light flickering on long after we have left the courtyard, passed the beggar woman with the dried pomegranates, and boarded the bus.
This afternoon, I laid flowers next to the Armenian Genocide Memorial.
It is a simple, breathtaking concrete structure at the top of a hill overlooking Yerevan. Inside, there is an eternal flame surrounded by pillars where people come to pay their respects, and we lay our cut flowers alongside them in a ring around the fire. From somewhere above, an Armenian lullaby rolled on an endless loop.
This April, the Armenian people will commemorate the 100-year anniversary of that genocide, and most of the memorial’s museum is closed now to prepare for that event. Still, a young woman with tall black boots and sad eyes walked us around a small room of display cases and told us about the day the men were sent away, the day the Intellectuals were executed, the day the women and children were marched off to die in the desert.
Under the glass, there were photographs of emaciated children and portraits of famous strangers. Newspaper clippings in the looping unfamiliar Armenian alphabet. The covers of several old memoirs—stories of survivors.
At the end of her presentation, the girl tells us that 22 countries recognize the Armenian genocide—and while 43 individual states also recognize the atrocities as a genocide, the United States as a nation does not. She says it, and then she looks at us for a long moment. She lets it rest upon us as we stand there, surrounded by the black-and-white horrors of history, clutching our backpack straps and purses.
Outside the Memorial, a tall concrete pillar stabs the underbelly of the gray sky, and there are rows and rows of pine trees. Each one, our guide tells us, is planted by a dignitary from another country when he or she visits. A small act of solidarity. A remembrance.
I notice that there is one from the state of California not far from the pine tree planted by Italy. Rows and row of sharp green memory lining the edge of that eternal flame.
At the end of my first day, my mind is churning, overfull of mixed-up facts about Armenian history and culture and food and language. Try as I might, I can’t seem to remember the world for Hello, so I just keep smiling dumbly at strangers.
But what stands out as clear and haunting as the St. Etchmiatsin bells is the importance of actively recognizing and remembering each other’s sorrows.
This is what the candles I lit in that old church were about. It’s what the cut flowers and the pine trees and the memorials and the photos are about.
It’s saying: This happened. It is real. It matters.
Tonight, I started to read through the stories of the families we will meet this week in the poorest communities of Armenia. I got halfway through the second one before I was hastily pawing at my tears at the end of the dinner table, trying to get it under control. What can I do in the face of so much suffering?
But then, it’s simple isn’t it? As simple as a flickering candle. As simple as a small, growing pine.
Recognize the pain. Look it straight in the eye. Honor it, but also, recognize that it’s only part of the story—that there is beauty and strength and hope and love.
Remember. Do not stop remembering.
Plant a tree. Light a candle. Take the hand of one small child.
* * *
I don’t know what this week in Gyumri will hold, but I know that on the bus ride here, I could see Mount Ararat. It was only the faintest shadow at the edge of fields of snow and rubble. For the Armenian people, is a symbol of hope and pride. History and pain and loss.
And really, what is there to do in the face of something so breathtakingly insurmountable except crane your neck out the window and stare at it? Bear witness.
Watch the mountain disappear in and out of sight as the road bends and curves. Imprint it on your mind as best you can. Watch it fade softer and softer in the white sky until finally, you’ve arrived at your next destination.
* * *
See what the other members of our blogging team are writing about Armenia:
Amy Bellgardt: "Why I Am Traveling To Armenia"
Anna Whiston-Donaldson: "We're Here"
Benjamin L. Corey: "5 Reasons Why You Need to Get Out and Travel"
Matthew Paul Turner: "Looking for rainbows amid suffering, genocide, and other mysteries of God"
Jarrid Wilson: "Stop Complaining About What You Don't Have"
Juli Wilson: "From Death To Life"
Give a child in Armenia a second chance! Sponsor today.