Armenian Christians have always treasured beautifully illuminated manuscripts. Many of the finest are preserved in the Matenadaran Library in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, which I revisited recently. Most of them have colophons: footnotes that give details of the scribe, the miniaturist, the donor and the history of the manuscript as it was taken from monastery to monastery.
Perhaps the most remarkable of these treasures is also the largest: a huge collection of illustrated homilies. It was once the prized possession of a monastery at Mush in Turkish Armenia. In 1915 almost all the Christian inhabitants of the town were massacred and their monastery destroyed. Among the few survivors were two courageous Armenian women, who decided to save the precious manuscript.
It was too heavy for one person to carry, so they divided it in half, each wrapping a portion around her body. One of the women, starving and ill, managed to reach the safety of Holy Etchmiadzin, the centre of Armenian Christianity. There she handed her part of the manuscript to the priest. The other woman died on the journey, but not before she had carefully buried her section of the ancient book. It was recovered at the end of the First World War, and the two halves were reunited.
The manuscript has become a powerful symbol of those things that the two women were determined should not be destroyed: their faith, their culture and their history.
Heavenly Father, we live in a society which often seems to value only the trivial and the ephemeral. Give us grace to discern those things that have true and lasting importance, and the courage to preserve them and pass them on to future generations. Amen.
Monday, 28 July 2008
Twenty years ago the Armenian city of Gyumri (then called Leninakan) was devastated by an earthquake. The scars remain. In May, as I sat in a restaurant there, the television in the corner of the room showed scenes of the devastation in China. They must have echoed the traumatic past experienced by some of those around me.
The Church of the Mother of God and the Seven Wounds stands on the main square. The elderly priest greeted me warmly, and led me to a room beside the sanctuary to show me his greatest treasure. "This picture is two thousand years old," he stated confidently. "It was painted by Saint Luke." It showed Christ's body, newly taken down from the Cross. As his mother watched over him and wept, rays of light shone from Christ's seven wounds.
Had we been on the Antiques Roadshow, I might have suggested that the artist had copied a sixteenth century engraving, distributed by Roman Catholic missionaries - though I would have had to concede that Mary bore a resemblance to the earliest known Armenian depiction of Christ's mother.
But I quickly realised that what really mattered wasn't the picture's actual provenance - but rather its message to the ravaged community to which it meant so much. Christ had shared their suffering (as Mary shared the anguish of the bereaved mothers of Gyumri), and because of that sharing there was hope despite their pain.
Lord Jesus, we pray for all those who face another day of agony or emptiness. Make them aware of your presence with them in your suffering: that their wounds are your wounds also. Comfort them and surround them with your self-giving love. Amen.
Tuesday, 29 July 2008
During my recent visit to Armenia, a spine-jarring, potholed road brought my guide and I to the ancient monastery of Harichavank. It was once a thriving religious centre in the north of the country. It had a seminary for training priests and was also the summer residence of the head of the Armenian Church. The Communists closed it down, and for many decades now there hasn't been a priest there.
Instead there was a wonderful old layman, with something of the early Christian Desert Fathers about him. He had dedicated his life to caring for this sacred place, and every stone had a special value and meaning for him. His eyes shone as he explained the significance of the symbols carved on the outside of the monastic church. As for the interior, he remarked: "It is full of doves - signs of the Holy Spirit."
The old man invited us to a small room in the abandoned seminary.. There he lit candles in front of a medieval carving of a dove, and invited his visitors to say a prayer. "Jesus said 'Blessed are the simple,'" he told us, with an encouraging smile.
An early Armenian Christian text describes the souls of the faithful departed winging like doves to heaven. The old man's faithful vigil wasn't only a quiet continuation of the centuries of prayer that had sanctified the monastery. It was also a confident waiting on the Holy Spirit, still at work, giving a purpose and future to the church he loved so well.
Holy Spirit, we give you thanks for all those whose faithfulness continues to inspire us. Give us the staying power that we need in times of difficulty, and the patience to wait in hopeful confidence for your guidance, entrusting the future to your loving purpose. Amen.
Wednesday, 30 July 2008
Right on the edge of what was once called 'Christendom' is the medieval monastery of Makaravank. It stands high in the hills on the border of Christian Armenia looking across towards Muslim Azerbaijan, and I decided to go there during a recent visit to the country.
The road to the monastery would have challenged the doughtiest rally driver. But it presented no problem to the proud owner of a local taxi. As he miraculously manoeuvred his little car along the impossible track, the sun glinted on the roofs of an Azeri village across the border.
Amazingly we reached Makaravank unscathed. I went into the church to admire its fascinating carvings and then emerged again into the sunlight.
The normally chatty young driver was standing in sad silence in front of a modern khatchkar - a traditional Armenian cross-stone. He quietly explained that it had been put there as a memorial to the farmers of the area, killed defending their land in border clashes. Some of them were people he had known.
The monument had droplets carved on it: the tears of the bereaved or the drops of blood of those who had been killed. To me they also seemed to be the blood and tears of Christ himself. Christ's blood was shed to break down the barriers between us and our neighbours and humankind and God. Perhaps his tears were for the way in which religion can so easily becomes an ethnic and tribal badge that strengthens barriers and inflicts wounds, rather than being a source of healing, unifying love.
May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of us all, help us work in love to break down prejudice, fear and misunderstanding, and to heal the wounds inflicted by ethnic, cultural and religious divisions. Amen.
Thursday, 31 July 2008
One of my first tasks when I began a seventeen year stint in the Carmarthenshire hill parish of Brechfa, was to learn the right way to dig a vegetable garden. Jac Maes-y-Bwlch, a retired farmer, patiently tried to teach me how to form neat furrows and ridges with a long-handled shovel. It was a technique perfectly suited to the soil, landscape and weather of the area. Jac made it seem quite effortless, but for me it was a struggle
On a recent visit to Vernashen, in the Armenian hills, I spent the night in a farmhouse. Glancing at the garden, my eye was caught by neat, straight furrows and ridges that might have shaped by Jac himself. I wandered over to the outhouse. There, leaning against the wall, was a long-handled shovel identical to the ones we use in West Wales.
Suddenly I felt at homeâ€¦so much so, that when I tried to converse with Haik the farmer in my limited phrase-book Armenian, the words that came out were mostly Welsh. He gave me one of those gently amused looks that people the world over reserve for dim and inarticulate foreigners
The experience made me deeply aware of the way in which we can each become attached to our own particular place, and yet at the same time share a common humanity. And that seemed to encapsulate the meaning of the Incarnation for me as I reflected on my experience there: God in Christ being born in a particular place at a particular time, so that he could become a person for all people in every place and at every time.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that in your Son you have shown us the value both of our individuality and our shared humanity. Help us to appreciate the things that make us different and the things we have in common. Amen.
Friday, 1 August 2008
The Republic of Mountainous Karabagh is one of several small states that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union and have yet to achieve international recognition. At the heart of this fiercely independent country is the village of Gandzasar. When I went there in May I discovered a strangely surreal place.
Although it's a long way from the sea, the tiny village is dominated by a large hotel in the shape of a colourful ocean liner. It also has a well-appointed school, a swimming-pool, an internet café, a zoo of local animals, and a gleaming public convenience with a full time attendant.
I was told that someone from Gandzasar had made a fortune in Russia, and had used some of the proceeds to transform his childhood home. He had also paid for repairs to the monastery on the hill above the village. One of the finest examples of Armenian Christian architecture, it had been the focal point of one of the fiercest battles of the Karabagh War. Its walls are still pitted with the marks of bullets and shrapnel from the fighting.
Although its priest once had to protect it with a sub-machine gun, today the monastery is a place of beauty and serenity - though the status of the land around it remains one of the thornier unsolved problems of international diplomacy.
Some might think the monastery of Gandzasar to be as much a symbol of escapism as the village's mock ocean-liner hotel. For me, however, it represented a profound and lasting hope, rooted in the reality of a loving God who came among us as one of us to share the vulnerability of our fragile human existence.
Holy Spirit, strengthen us to face life's uncertainties and agonizing realities with trust and confidence, Amen.