It may seem strange that a group of women opposed to my calling as a priest would be an inspiration to me, but picturing those Armenian nuns, especially when I celebrate the Eucharist, motivates me to be the best priest I can be.
I was raised in the Armenian Church – the most ancient of Christian traditions. Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity, in 301 C.E. Armenians have been proud followers of Christ ever since, and the Armenian Church has survived over 1700 years relatively intact and unchanged despite centuries of war, displacement, outside occupation, and most recently, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 followed by nearly 70 years of Soviet rule, which did its best to erase much of the Christianity and Armenian culture from Armenia. Suffice it to say that Armenians have a deeply embedded impulse to cling to tradition and prioritize the preservation of the Armenian faith and culture.
While my family attended church almost every Sunday and were very active in our local Armenian church, my most profound learning about faith was absorbed at the Armenian Sisters Academy, a private day school run by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an Armenian Catholic order of nuns. I would notice that the sisters had great joy, and that their joy came from something other than the work they were doing. It came from their daily discipline of prayer and connection to the God who called them to this life. I knew that the nuns prayed a lot. They prayed with the assembled student body at the beginning and end of each school day, and they prayed as a community both in the morning and at nighttime. I also could tell that the prayers we learned in school were not only important for me to know as an Armenian, but deeply personal and meaningful to the nuns who prayed them daily. It was clear to me that their vocation – not just to run a school, but to commit themselves to the discipline of daily prayer and ever-deepening love of God – was something that brought them a deep joy that I’d never seen in anyone else. Furthermore, I could see that the structure and tradition of the church, with its prayers and liturgies and hymns that had been passed down from generation to generation, gave them a profound connection to God. The witness of these nuns, and they way their faith clearly fueled their very existence, gave me the first sense of my own vocation. Whatever I did with my life, I wanted it to be with the vigor and the joy that they possessed.
The nuns remained an important part of my spiritual journey long after I left the Armenian Sisters Academy. In college, I learned about churches other than my own, including churches that ordained women. This was new and exciting information for me, and I immediately took it to the nuns to try and make sense of it. I had so many questions about one basic quandary: Why couldn’t the Armenian Church ordain women? Many years of intense conversation and discernment followed. It took twelve years from the time I first felt called to the priesthood to formally join the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t easy to leave my church of origin behind, and it cost me many friendships. Most of those broken relationships were ones I had to accept would never be mended; to many people, I was a bad Armenian, a traitor, a heretic. But my relationships with these nuns, whose faith nurtured me from the time I was a child, were ones I cherished so much that the thought of losing them was heartbreaking. And so, after my ordination to the priesthood, I reached out and met Sister Emma, who had been my Kindergarten teacher, for coffee on a cold winter afternoon.
She was the same old Sister Emma. Warm, kind, with a hint of strictness you wouldn’t want to mess with. I reminded her of the time she punished me for refusing to put on a coat to go outside for recess, and she reminded me of the time I noticed she had gotten braces and seemed to be in pain. We talked for hours, and yes, it was uncomfortable at times when our theological differences were apparent. Mostly, though, it was like coming home to an old friend. We sat there and talked about our own spiritual journeys – the challenges of maintaining a life of prayer, dry times when God feels far away, the joys of our respective vocations. We talked about all the similarities between the Episcopal Church and the Armenian Church. We also acknowledged our many differences. She will never understand why I left the Armenian people behind to serve in an American church, or why I feel called to the priesthood, or how I can be a Christian and support LGBTQ equality, or how I can be married but not want children. But – and I still am brought to tears every time I think about this – she intentionally searched for what we had in common, rather than allowing our differences to divide us. This woman of ardent, abiding faith, whose very life inspired me to want to give my own life to God, was still a witness to me about the power of God’s enormous love: love that reaches beyond boundaries and differences, and that connects human beings, heart to heart.
A few months ago, I was celebrating Eucharist and found my mind wandering, getting lost in the same words I say week after week. It’s one of the dangers of a highly liturgical tradition, that prayer can easily become rote. Suddenly, I thought, what if Sister Emma or Sister Arousiag or Sister Louisa were sitting in those pews? The thought of these nuns in the pews in front of me, women of deep devotion and piety, reminded me of my responsibility to say every word of this prayer with all of my heart and with utter dedication to God. Immediately, I focused on the Eucharistic prayer in a way I never had before. I dedicated the Eucharist to all the Armenian Sisters in my heart that day. Maybe none of them will ever be able to sit in the pews of my church, but in a world that seems to thrive on polarizing differences, these women continue to witness to me the victory of the God of love, the power of faith to break down boundaries, and the joy that comes with a life dedicated to God’s service.