My Recent Visit to New York City
This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit New York City. The purpose of the visit was to visit a clergy brother of mine, the newly ordained priest Fr. Vahan Kouyoumdjian, who was ordained as a priest on February 8 & 9 at his home parish of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church in Ridgefield, New Jersey. As many of you know, I attended the ordination ceremony with my family and I personally participated in the service that saw my close friend and brother-in-Christ join the ranks of the priesthood and become a co-worker in the vineyard of our Lord.
I wanted to reflect briefly on why the ordination of Der Vahan was so significant for me and why I was particularly moved by my trip to visit him this past weekend in New York.
I first met Der Vahan as a young adolescent, during the years I attended the Prelacy's annual Saint Gregory of Datev Institute as a student every summer. I was around 13 or 14 years old and had already been attending for several years. This one particular year, we were joined by a young, articulate, faithful and friendly man, a medical resident in psychiatry and ordained deacon of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Dr. Vahan Kouyoumdjian. Dr. Vahan was originally from Beirut, Lebanon and completed studies in Armenia and France. He had an opportunity to emigrate to the United States and continue on his path toward becoming an M.D. He took it and never looked back. Dr. Vahan was a welcome addition to our "Datev" group, and a young romance was already in bloom between him and another young "Datevatsi," Miss Maggie Tekeyan (now Yn. Maggie) from New Jersey.
The following year, they arrived at Datev as "Dr. & Mrs. Kouyoumdjian." The year after that, they arrived with their little bundle of joy in tow. After that, because of the rigors of family life, they no longer attended.
Fast forward about eight years, in the fall of 2003, as I entered the Master of Divinity program at St. Nersess Armenian Theological Seminary in New Rochelle, NY, I was assigned by then Prelate, Archbishop Oshagan, to serve as the Pastoral Assistant at Sts. Vartanantz Church, concurrent with my studies. During that time (2003-2006), I was re-acquainted with Der Vahan and Yn. Maggie and their three small children Aram, Anoosh and Nishan.
During those years, I spent a lot of time with them and their extended family. They welcomed me into their family at a time when I was far away from my own. We spent many great times in worship at church and spiritual conversations at home. After I graduated and moved back home to Watertown, I kept in touch with the Kouyoumdjians and we would see each other from time to time.
In the ensuing years, their children reached the eligible age to attend the Datev Institute, so we were once again reacquainted on a yearly basis every summer in Pennsylvania.
Several years ago, our Prelate, Archbishop Anoushavan (who was Vicar General and Director of the Datev Institute at the time), called me into his suite at the St. Mary of Providence Center, the site of the Datev Institute. There sitting on the couch was my good friend Dr. Vahan. Srpazan Hayr invited me to sit down.
"Der Stephan," he said, "I have some good news: Dr. Vahan is going to prepare to be ordained as a priest in the Armenian Church."
"That's wonderful news!" I responded.
"The plan is that he will continue in his medical profession and at the same time serve the Prelacy as an outreach priest on weekends, visiting those small communities who do not have a full time pastor. Archbishop Oshagan has decided to assign you to work with Dr. Vahan on the liturgical aspect of his training."
It was indeed joyous news, and I was honored to be given the opportunity. I guess the word has gotten out that I am the "go to" priest when it comes to learning the liturgy, sacraments and hymns of our Church.
Whatever the case, I was thankful for the opportunity to put my talents to work for the glory of God and to be able to help my brother in his preparation for the priesthood.
And so began a few years of "tele-training," working over Skype and FaceTime on mostly a weekly basis (with some breaks in between) and teaching the daily cycle of services, the Divine Liturgy, the proper hymns and prayers of seasonal services, etc. On one occasion, I even traveled to New York to St. Illuminator's Cathedral in order to work with him in person on how to perform the Sacramental services like baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
So you can imagine, that when this all culminated with his ordination to the priesthood a few weeks ago, I was more than proud to be a participant. While Srpazan Hayr had announced to the clergy that attendance was optional, I soon learned that this would not be the case for me.
Very quickly after the announcement, I received a communication from him stating, "February 8-9, you are to be in New Jersey for the ordination." (Evidently Srpazan Hayr wanted me to be there to lead the singing of those rarely sung hymns!)
"Of course! I wouldn't miss it for anything." was my reply.
The ordination service came and went gloriously. It was an inspiring event for all who attended, both from the New Jersey community and from all around the East Coast. By the way, remember the optional clergy attendance? There were seventeen in attendance.
At the banquet following the ordination, I approached Anoushavan Srpazan about a separate matter, which I probably shouldn't get into here, but I guess I have to now, since I already mentioned it!
A few weeks ago, when he visited North Andover for Saint Gregory Church's anniversary, Yeretsgin, the boys and I welcomed Srpazan to our home the night before for a hearty winter dinner of stuffed kuftes in madzoon soup, a hot favorite on a cold night like that one.
On the table was a large bowl of our pride and joy: homemade tourshi packed and brined every November by the Baljian family and enjoyed throughout the winter. He went in for a taste test. The verdict? Delicious!
"I'll send a jar home with you, Srpazan Hayr," I offered.
Without blinking an eye, "That would be great," was his answer.
Well, the anniversary came and went, and with the commotion of the day I forgot to bring the jar with me. Monday morning, I received the obligatory "de-briefing" phone call. "Everything went well; the drive back was no problem; make sure you send the photos to the Prelacy for the Crossroads Newsletter" and things of the like.
"Okay, thank you very much again for your visit, Srpazan Hayr," I said hanging up the phone.
A few minutes later, the phone rings again.
"Der Stephan, among all the things that went well this weekend, what's the one thing you forgot???"
"I'm sorry, Srpazan Hayr, I forgot to send the tourshi home with you," I said. Then, thinking quickly, I added, "I'll bring some when I come for Dr. Vahan's ordination in two weeks. In fact, I'll bring some for the new priest as well... it will be perfect for him," referring to the fact that during the 40 days of seclusion
(karasoonk) that follow the ordination, the new priest has to keep a strictly vegan diet.
"You'll also bring some for the Prelacy workers as well, yes?" he replied.
"Uh... yes, absolutely," was my reply.
You can imagine my horror when I realized that in the hullabaloo of getting my family of four packed and ready to travel to New Jersey, I had once again forgotten the tourshi, which this time was packed up and ready to go sitting quietly in the refrigerator.
Which brings me back to my story: Now I was approaching the head table to "take my lumps" over having forgotten the one thing I had promised to bring. Gulp.
"Srpazan Hayr, it was all ready to go, but in the hustle and bustle of trying to get on the road," I tried to explain, "I accidentally left it in the refrigerator at home... b-but I can come and visit... at the Prelacy. I can come visit (now) Der Vahan during his seclusion period and bring all the tourshi in the world," I added nervously. Okay, in all honesty, I didn't actually say that last part, but I sure was thinking it!
"Well, don't come just for that," he replied, visibly annoyed, "but if your schedule allows, I would like you to come down and work with him on some liturgical practice, especially for Lent and Holy Week as those will be coming up soon after he begins his parish assignment."
"Amenayn sirov, It would be my pleasure," was my reply.
Now fast forward to the following Sunday, I hopped in my car with an overnight bag, liturgical books and tourshi carefully packed in the backseat. Also, I had remembered it was Der Vahan's birthday that day. I remembered that because I knew I also shared an important milestone with him on that day, February 17, which this year marked eleven years to the day since my own ordination to the priesthood. Ironically, Der Vahan and Yn. Maggie had been planning to come to my ordination, but had fallen ill and were not able to come.
What's a birthday without a cake, I thought? So, I quickly stopped at Whole Foods in Andover and walked out with one entirely vegan chocolate cake and a regular one for the Prelacy workers (I figured since I was to be offering them sour pickled vegetables, I might as well offer them something sweet as well).
Arriving in New York at night, I was greeted at the door of the Prelacy building by my good friend and now clergy brother. We spent the evening drinking tea and talking about many different things pertaining to ministry and spiritual life -- practical advice from me, life experience from him. Overall, it was an edifying conversation.
Monday morning, however, it was time to hit the ground running. I had heard of our beloved Prelate's untiring work ethic, his penchant for showing up early to work (5 A.M. to beat the New York morning rush hour traffic!) and his insistence on making the most of work time during the day.
"He'll be here between six and six-thirty a.m., seven at the latest, "said Der Hayr, "and once he's here, he won't stop working until he leaves at four."
I thought, "I'd better not chance it," remembering my youthful days at the St. Gregory of Datev Institute in Pennsylvania, where a young Hayr Anoushavan demonstrated a world-class talent for charismatically hands-on wake up calls and overall early morning exuberance. I had set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., and when I arose, I came out of my room on the fourth floor suite, and peeked into his office on the other end of the floor. The light was on and somebody was home.
"Asdvadz oknagan, Srpazan Hayr," I said groggily to my spiritual father and boss, as I stood there in my pajamas. "Welcome, Der Stephan," he replied cheerfully, not looking up from his computer screen, upon which I could make out through my bleary eyes several pictures of digitized manuscripts of Classical Armenian writings... all in a days work for a noted PhD scholar and spiritual leader of our vast Eastern United States Armenian community.
Fascinating, I thought.
A quick shower and a cup of coffee brought me up to speed with my more alert, more industrious cohorts. At seven on the dot, Srpazan came out of his office to the common room, suggesting we perform the Sunrise (Arevakal) service as the day's morning worship.
"I would like you to go with Der Hayr to the cathedral and work on the services for the Holy Week," Srpazan said to me once the service was over and we had a little breakfast (although he had not joined us -- straight back into his office once the service was over!). "Be back by one o'clock," he said, adding an implied 'wink, wink.'
I had told him about the cakes and he was planning on gathering together all the Prelacy staff to take a break and enjoy -- although not with Der Vahan himself present, since he is supposed to have little to no contact with the outside world. I wondered how we would pull that off but I decided not to pry and left it up to my capable boss.
We went over a few things while still at the Prelacy, then we set out on the fourteen block walk to Saint Illuminator's Cathedral for our practice session. Once there, we went to work- These are the books you'll need, make sure you know the different sharagans for each Sunday in Lent, the deacon stands here, the choir stands there; that sort of thing.
Then we moved on to the special services of Holy Week: stand here, kneel there, make sure to have this ready before that happens, do this thing while your saying that, etc. The practical stuff. We made sure to wrap everything up and we were headed back to the Prelacy a little before one o'clock.
When we arrived, Srpazan was waiting and he herded us into the main office in the back of the first floor. Turns out, Der Vahan was given a little furlough from his karasoonk and at least a few minutes to enjoy his birthday! We all sang "Happy Birthday" and began cutting into the cakes, vegan one for Der Vahan, and regular for everyone else.
Interestingly enough, curiosity got the best of most of us and we all ended up trying the vegan cake as well. It was... flavorful.
After that brief interlude, Der Vahan was hurried away, back to his seclusion once again, where we ate some lunch and continued our session with going over the changes in daily prayer services (morning, evening, etc.) during Great Lent.
Now came the fun part: leaving Midtown Manhattan at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. I didn't relish the thought, but it was the time frame I chose for travelling home, seeking to maximize my time with Der Hayr. To my surprise, when I left the Prelacy and began to trek the two blocks to where my car was parked I saw that the city was virtually a ghost town. Barely anybody out on the sidewalks, few taxicabs anywhere, no traffic jams, no honking -- thank you, Presidents' Day!
A few lights and turns and I entered the highway, smoothly sailing. Ever drive 55 M.P.H. down the FDR drive during weekday rush hour? If I were to say that the last time I came to a full stop before I was in my driveway back in North Andover was at a stoplight right outside the U.N. Headquarters, I would not be exaggerating. I made it home in under four hours too... an enjoyable ride and a great way to end an all-around wonderful trip!
I enjoyed it as much as I'm sure all those people in New York are enjoying my tourshi.