The Zohrab Center is hosting a dual language summer reading group around Tenny Arlen’s newly published volume of poetry To Say With Passion: Why Am I Here? (Կիրքով ըսելու՝ ինչո՞ւ հոս եմ, Yerevan: ARI Literature Foundation, 2021), which will meet by Zoom on the five Thursday evenings between June 23–July 21 at 7:00pm ET. Each session will be led by a different facilitator, around a cluster of poems from the volume. Readings and discussion will take place in both Armenian and English. The schedule and reading list is below.
With no prior knowledge of Armenian, Tenny began taking Western Armenian classes in 2011 at UCLA with Prof. Hagop Kouloujian. Over the next two years, she began to compose her own poetry in the classes, and with Prof. Kouloujian’s assistance was preparing a book of verse, before her untimely death in a car accident in 2015 at age 24, just before beginning her doctoral program in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.
Session 1: Thursday, June 23 with Prof. Hagop Kouloujian(Professor of Western Armenian Language and Literature, UCLA) Reading List: Յետգրութիւն այս գիրքի մասին (էջ 107–118) | Afterword about this book (p. 54–61) Գիշեր (էջ 7) | Night (p. 1) Բանաստեղծութիւն (էջ 8–9) | Poetry (p. 2) Պատումը (էջ 10–11) | The Narration (p. 3)
Session 2: Thursday, June 30 with Dr. Jesse S. Arlen(Director, Zohrab Information Center; Postdoctoral Fellow, Fordham University) Reading List: Բառեր (էջ 12–13) | Words (p. 4–5) Արծաթէ սանդուխը (էջ 14–15) | The Silver Staircase (p. 6) Զարթնում (էջ 20–21) | Awaking (p. 9) Մեծ քաղաքը (էջ 32–33) | The Big City (p. 15) Մշուշ (էջ 36–37) | Mist (p. 17) Երազ (էջ 56–57) | Dream (p. 28) Պատուհան (էջ 62–63) | Window (p. 31)
Session 3: Thursday, July 7 with Dr. Christopher Sheklian(Postdoctoral Fellow, Radboud University) Reading List: Հայ լեզուի խնդիրը (էջ 19) | The Problem of the Armenian Language (p. 8) Տեղատուութիւն եւ մակընթացութիւն (էջ 22–23) | Ebb and Flow (p. 10) Մտմտալով (էջ 38–39) | Musing (p. 18) Հին ու նոր (էջ 48–49) | Old and New (p. 24) Լոյս (էջ 58–59) | Light (p. 29) Յուշագրութիւններ (էջ 71–79) | Memoirs (p. 36–40) Մեռելածին (էջ 82–88) | Stillborn (p. 43–46)
Session 4: Thursday, July 14 with Dn. Yervant Kutchukian (PhD Candidate, Oxford University) Reading List: Անվերջ սկիզբ (էջ 18) | Endless Beginning (p. 8) Գիշեր (էջ 24–25) | Night (p. 11) Գնացք (էջ 26–27) | Journey (p. 12) Լուսանկարներ (էջ 30–31) | Photographs (p. 14) Ըսել (էջ 40–42) | To say (p. 19) Հիւանդանոց (էջ 43) | Hospital (p. 20) Մինչեւ (էջ 44) | Until (p. 21) Լուսանցք (էջ 64–65) | Margin (p. 32) Աստ անդ (էջ 68–70) | Here there (p. 34–35)
Session 5: Thursday, July 21 with Alexia Hatun(PhD Student, UCLA) Reading List: Միտքս (էջ 16–17) | My Mind (p. 7) Ես ու ես (էջ 28–29) I and I (p. 13) Մենք (էջ 34) We (p. 16) Անաւարտ (էջ 45) | Unfinished (p. 22) Եղար (էջ 46–47) | You were (p. 23) Կարապներ (էջ 50–53) | Swans (p. 25–26) Ծաղիկ (էջ 54–55) | Flower (p. 27) Երկուք (էջ 66–67) | Two (p. 33) Գեղեցկութիւն (էջ 80–81) | Beauty (p. 41–42)
Sonia Tashjian (née Ekizian) was born in Jounieh, Lebanon in 1929 to parents Hampartzoum and Haigouhi (née Karagosian) Ekizian who hailed from Chomachlou and Yozgat, Turkey, respectively. Her father had emigrated to New York prior to World War I to earn money for his family. Her mother survived the Armenian Genocide by walking in constant peril through the Syrian desert before reaching a refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria, where Hampartzoum had rescued his two surviving children, Garabed and Turvandah. He married Haigouhi and together they had four children, Margaret, Youghaper, Sonia, and Hagop.
Sonia emigrated to New York in 1937 at the age of eight with her parents and siblings. She graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, NY. She married Martin Sonny Tashjian, in 1951, shortly before Sonny was deployed to Korea. They had four sons: Douglas, Glenn, Craig, and Roger. Sonny died in 1981 from Leukemia. With her well known strong will and determination, Sonia re-entered the workforce and still managed to send her two youngest sons to Lehigh University.
Sonny and Sonia were among the founding families of St. Thomas Armenian Church in Tenafly, NJ. She later became an active member of St. Leon Armenian Church in Fair Lawn, NJ, where she was a member of the women’s guild for 30 years. Sonia’s faith in God and never-give-up spirit got her through several illnesses, including her final battle with COVID-19 and its aftermath. She died peacefully on the morning of July 29th, 2020.
Sonia was an exceptional bibliophile, as evidenced by her collection of over a hundred Armenian-related books that were donated by her son Douglas to the Zohrab Information Center in 2021. Several titles were original contributions to the Center’s library, e.g., The Adventures of Wesley Jackson by William Saroyan, and Source Records of the Great War, Volume III (an anthology of official documents for the year 1915, with a chapter dedicated to the Armenian Genocide).
Many other titles were in better condition than the Center’s copies, such as George M. Mardikian’s autobiography, Song of America, which also included the original 1956 dust jacket.
Others were earlier editions than books in the Center’s collection, such as the two-volume travelogue Armenia: Travels and Studies by H. F. B. Lynch. Sonia had the first edition from 1901, while the Center had previously only held later editions.
One of the most intriguing dimensions of Sonia’s collection was the compilation of book-related ephemera: book catalogues of bygone decades, correspondence, and order receipts with Armenian book dealers spanning from 1961-1982, notably seller Mark Armen Kalustian in Arlington, Massachusetts, with whom Sonia exchanged extensive correspondence and was a loyal customer of many years.
Sonia’s collection, both the books and the ephemera, are a magnificent testament not only to the strength of life pulsating through the 20th century Armenian-American community, but also to the love and care of one extraordinary woman toward that community and its literary heritage. Her personal library of Armenian books, collected over a lifetime, has now found a permanent home in the Zohrab Information Center’s research library.
We are delighted to note that the Armenian Diaspora Survey (ADS), a public opinion study project, has been launched throughout the United States and in the province of Ontario, Canada.
If you consider yourself to be a member of the Armenian Diaspora, we invite you to share your thoughts and views about identity, culture, and community and help us gain a better understanding of the Armenian diaspora.
The survey will be available across the Unites States and Ontario, Canada until July 29, 2022. Your answers will remain anonymous and the results will be made public early next year through the ADS website.
We also kindly ask for your help in spreading the word by forwarding this information to your friends and family currently living in the United States and Ontario, Canada.
On Friday, May 20, 2022 at 6:00 PM (PST), the release of Tenny Arlen’s book of Armenian verse entitled Կիրքով ըսելու՝ ինչո՞ւ հոս եմ (To Say with Passion: Why Am I Here?) will take place in Bunche Hall 10383 of the University of California, Los Angeles. As the first full-length volume of creative literature composed in Armenian by a US-born author after over a century of Armenian-American community development, this is a landmark achievement. It is also one of the first public outcomes of the emphasis that UCLA Narekatsi Chair’s Armenian program places on the concept of Armenian as a living and creative language in diaspora. [This is a hybrid event. Those unable to attend in person may register by Zoom.]
Tenny Arlen grew up in San Luis Obispo, CA far removed from any Armenian community. She began her undergraduate studies at UCLA in 2011 with no prior knowledge of Armenian. She took courses in Western Armenian language and literature for two years with Dr. Hagop Kouloujian, and, already a talented writer, soon began to write poetry in Armenian. In 2013, she graduated from UCLA with highest honors, earning a B.A. in Comparative Literature. In 2015, she was admitted into the University of Michigan’s doctoral program in Comparative Literature with a plan to study French and Armenian symbolist poetry, but she passed away in a car accident in the summer of 2015 before beginning the program.
She wrote the first drafts of most of the poems collected in this book about 15–20 months after beginning Armenian language studies. Her posthumous book of poetry, published by the ARI Literature Foundation (Yerevan, 2021) with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, is entitled To Say with Passion: Why Am I Here? (Կիրքով ըսելու՝ինչո՞ւ հոս եմ), a line taken from one of her poems, in which the Armenian language speaks about its own existence in the twenty-first century Diaspora. The book was edited by Dr. Kouloujian, who also wrote its afterword, in which he tells of Tenny’s creative journey in Armenian and highlights the book’s significance as the first full-length volume of creative literature written and published in Armenian by a US-born author.
Zohrab Center director, Dr. Jesse Arlen, will be one of the readers and speakers at the event, celebrating his sister’s posthumous book.
On May 26th, 2022, at 7:00pm a photography exhibit entitled “Artsakh: Angel of Peace” will debut at Guild Hall of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church, organized by the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, with a wine and cheese reception. Featuring photographs taken before and after the war and highlighting Armenian cultural heritage now under Azerbaijani control, Dr. Mchitarian’s photographs nevertheless offer an inspiring message of hope.
Dr. Marina Mchitarian is an independent researcher and the founding president of “Action for Peace,” an Armenian NGO. After completing her Ph.D. at the crossroad of mathematics and mathematical modeling, she pursued postdoctoral studies in archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece) and conducted research in archaeometallurgy at Ghent University (Belgium).
Fluent in four languages (Armenian, Greek, Russian, and English), she worked for fifteen years for the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. By curating a personal documentary of photographs from three Genocides (Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian), she was drawn into the work of safeguarding cultural heritage. She worked for three years for the Dutch NGO ‘’Walk of Truth’’ (The Hague, The Netherlands), whose mission is to protect cultural legacy in zones of conflict.
Her documentary photography project “Peace and Photography” featured Artsakh and Turkish-occupied Cyprus, which had exhibit-presentations in New York, London, Thessaloniki, Yerevan, and Shushi (Artsakh).
Since February 2020, she has worked as an independent researcher investigating religious freedom, religious diplomacy, ecumenism, peace and reconciliation, and the endangered Christians of the Middle East. In August 2020, she registered the NGO ‘’Action for Peace’’ (Human Rights, Humanitarian Aid and Peace-building) in Armenia. Through her NGO, she has conducted documentary photography and oral history projects in Artsakh: “Women of Artsakh: War, Identity and Peace” in September 2020 and “Nostos: The Aftermath of the War” in January 2021. She also collaborates with NYC-based Save Armenian Monuments, which operates under the auspices of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America.
Some of Dr. Mchitarian’s previous work may be viewed here:
On April 27th, the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America hosted the book release of Zarmine Boghosian’s From Azaz to America (Yerevan: “VMV-PRINT”, 2021). To read about the program, click here. For photos, click here.
The over four-hundred page book gathers into one place the educator-principal-author’s articles, essays, memoirs, recollections, and poetry written from the 1960s until recent years.
Last month, I was approached with a request to translate a letter written in Kars in 1917, from one Sarkis P. Jigarjian to his daughter Araksi (Arax), after a fire had erupted on the family property, causing the loss of several buildings (though not the family home or anyone’s life). The letter is written in the Kars dialect and contains several words of foreign origin (particularly Russian and Turkish). That the letter was written in haste after a sleepless night is evidenced not just by the numerous spelling errors and grammatical irregularities, but by Sarkis’ own words in the final lines where he describes his state as like that of a drunken man and apologizes for his bad handwriting. Despite this statement, the handwriting is rather beautiful and mostly legible.
Descendants of the Jigarjian family who produced the letter also provided the following background information: “This is believed to be the last letter Sarkis wrote to his youngest and favorite child, Arax. We suspect that the fire he reported was a result of arson. At some point within the following year or two, Sarkis was murdered. His murderers were identified as Turks by his wife who then fled Kars and lived her remaining days with her daughter, Arax, and her family.”
World War I and its immediate aftermath was a time of upheaval and instability in Kars, when the city was a heavily contested site between the Ottoman and Russian Empires and then the young Republics of Armenia and Turkey. In February 1917, when this letter was written, Kars was part of the Russian Empire, then considered to be an important strategic outpost and fortress for the empire in the Caucasus. In the wake of the instability caused by the Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917, the Turks looked to expand their position eastwards and shortly after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918) occupied Kars on April 25, 1918. This may have been when the letter’s author, Sarkis Jigarjian, met his bitter end. A year later, with British assistance, Kars became part of the First Republic of Armenia on April 28, 1919. But on October 30, 1920 it fell with little resistance to the Turkish Republic, within whose borders the city remains to this day.
Below is a digitized scan of the two-page letter, written on Sarkis Jigarjian’s business letterhead, followed by a transcription and translation, which should be of interest both to scholars as well as the general public. Any corrections to the translation or transcription may be made in the comments below or by private email to email@example.com.
— Dr. Jesse S. Arlen
 In fact, there is no punctuation in the letter, which reads as one very long sentence.
 I would like to thank Vartan Matiossian, Nareg Seferian, and Sonya Martirosyan for their many helpful suggestions and especially for their assistance with the Russian words in the letter.
 For a historical survey of Kars in this period, see Richard G. Hovannisian, “The Contest for Kars, 1914–1921,” in Armenian Kars and Ani, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2011), 273–317.
11ըն փետրվարի 1917.
ՍԱՐԳԻՍ Փ. ՋԻԳԱՐՋԵԱՆՑ
— ԿԱՐՍՈՒՄ —
Սիրելի որդեակ իմ Արագսի,
Ամսուն 10ին երեկօեան ժամը 7ին ժամանակը խօրէնը շատ զարպանձ զըվանօքը տըվեց բէրդա գընաց դուռը բացէց իսկուն ներս եկաւ եւ ասաւ որ մեր հաեադին մէջ պաժառ կա իսկուն հէվէտդուրս վազեցինք որ մեր փետանօձի վրաի պալկօնը բօլօրօվ կըպերէ եւ սուր կերպօվ վառւումէ խօրէնը սկսեց այդ կրակի մէջ պալկօնը քանդել յետօ տեսանք որ չաբազանձ շատացաւ վառելը խօրէնը արմէնը ըսկըսեցին մէր փօքր հայեադի դուռը եւ քօվի նուժնիկը բօլօրօվին քար ու քանտ էրին եւ հէտօ մեր կուխնիի դըռան քօվի յօտին տախտակէ պուտկէն բօլօրօվին քանտեցին տեսանք որ շատ յուժէղացաւ պաժա[ռը] արմէնակը կամանտիրին քօվէր գընացէր եւ կամանդիրը իսկուն յիրան պառքի սալտատնէրուն հրամաեր էր եկան բօլօր վէշջիքը տարան կամանտիրի տունը ի հարկէ թան ո փօխինդ էղաւ բօլօր վէշջիքը վէրչապէս այսօր առա[ւօտ] նօրից պառքի Սալտատնէրը վէշջիքը բերին տուն դեռ եւս մէզ յայտնի չէ թէ ինչ բան չիկա միեայ[ն] թէ այս քան յիմացիր որ մէնք լավ պրծանք եւ վեշջիքը արթէն մեր կուխնիին եւ փատանօձին վրաի եղած շինութիւները բօլօրը վառվեցան քարուքանտ էրին հիմա մէր տունը բօլօրօվին սելեմեդէ ոչ ինչ կըրակ չի դիպաւ [page 2] միեայն թէ շատ չարչարվեցանք ժամը 12ին գընացինք հաճօնձը այն տեղ 2 կամ 3 ժամ իբրեւ թէ քընէցանք սիրելի Արաքսի ճան այս պաժառը շատ կը բարձրանար միեայն թէ ինչպէս բարի բաղդութիւն ունեցեր էինք որ քաղաքիս կամէնտանտը եկեր էր եւ տեսաւ որ պաժառը շատ պիտի բարձրանա իսկուն տէլէֆօնօվ ձօրի պաժառնի կամանտիրին բերել տըվեց որ պաժառը մարեցին իսկ եթէ քաղաքին պաժառի կամանտին մընայինք այս մէր սրան բօլօրն ալ կը վառէին ես քեզի տեղօվը գրեցի որ չի լինի թէ յուրիշից յիմանաս թէ ինչէ եղեր կամ ինչ չէ եղեր ավելի լավէ որ բօլօր բանը մանրամասը այս նամակօվս յայտնեցի ես այսպէս յարմար գըտա որ ինչպէս կատարվէլ եւ բօլօրը մի առ մի ձեզի տեղեկացնեմ սիրելի Արաքսի ճան դու հանգիստ եղիր այսօր էկան բօլօր վեշզիքը յիրանձ տեղերը կը տեղաւորցընենք վերչապէս Աստված բաները աջօղէ պառքի կամանտիրին եւ պարքի սալտատնէրուն եւ մէկ այլ քաղաքիս մեծապատիւ կամենտանտին վերչապէս Աստված հեռու պահէ այս տեսակ գալստական փօրձանքներէ եւ յուրիշ այլ եւ այլ գալստական փորձանքներէ Աստված պահէ. սիրելի Արաքսի ճան այս նամակս գրեցի քեզի ի միամըտութեան համ[ար] միեայն թէ գիտես թէ հարբածի պէս եմ գըլօխս դըմդըմպումէ սրա համար գիրս գէս դուրս կեաւ օտարական չէս խօմ մնամ քեզ միշտ օրհնօղ քո ծընօղ հայր։
Սարգիս. փ. Ջիգարջեանց
February 11, 1917
Sarkis P. Jigarjian and sons, Kars.
My dear child Araksi,
On the tenth of the month at 7:00 in the evening Khoren rang the bell very frantically, Berta went and opened the door and he rushed inside and said that there is a fire in our courtyard. We immediately ran outside and saw that the entire balcony of our woodshed had caught fire and was fiercely burning. Khoren began to demolish the balcony in the middle of the fire but when we saw that the burning had increased too much, Khoren and Armen then began to utterly reduce to rubble the small gate of our courtyard and the outhouse beside it and then they also completely tore down the flock’s wooden pen next to our kitchen. But when we saw that the fire had grown even stronger, Armenak went for the komandir, and the komandir immediately gave an order to his park soldiers, who came and took all our belongings to the komandir’s house, and of course all our belongings got mixed up. Finally this morning the park soldiers brought our belongings back home. It’s still not clear to us what all was lost but know this much: we escaped safely along with our belongings. All the structures that were in our kitchen and woodshed were burnt and destroyed, but for now our house is entirely unharmed and the fire didn’t touch any of it. It’s just that we were very distressed. At midnight we went to the hajontsand there we tried to sleep for two or three hours. My dear Araksi, this fire was rising so high, that was our only good fortune that the city kamendand had come and seen that the fire was going to grow even more and so immediately called on the phone and had the valley fire chief brought over and they put out the fire. And if we had been left to the city’s fire crew, everything would have burned. I wrote to you on the spot so that you wouldn’t learn from someone else what had happened. It’s better that I reveal to you in this letter the whole affair in detail, I thought it was more appropriate for me to inform you of how everything happened in order. My dear Araksi, don’t be worried. All our belongings came today, we’ll finally put everything back in its place. May God grant success to these things and may God keep the park commander and the park soldiers and our city’s highly honorable kamendand safe from such apocalyptic tribulations and may God protect [us] from all other kinds of apocalyptic tribulations. My dear Araksi, I wrote you this letter to reassure you. But know that I feel like a drunk man, my head is throbbing and for that reason my handwriting came out so bad, you are so dear to me and I shall ever remain your devoted father,
Sarkis P. Jigarjian
 i.e., February 10th (the day before he wrote this letter).
A private collection relying entirely on donations to develop its holdings since its inception in 1987, the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center library has over the years become one of the premier collections of Armenian material in the Western Hemisphere.
Open to the public, patrons may search the collection via its online catalog and come in person to use the collection.
This week, during library appreciation week, we invite you to help us expand our holdings of recent books published in Armenian studies by buying a book (or two or three!) to add to our library.
Ship to: Jesse Arlen Zohrab Information Center 630 2nd Ave New York, NY 10016
Let us know how you would like your donation to be noted on the book and in our catalog:
option 1: “Donated by NAME” option 2: “Donated by NAME in memory of NAME”
Note: After you purchase the book it will automatically be removed from the list, so as to avoid duplicate purchases from multiple donors.
If you would like to purchase a book from an Armenian bookseller, such as NAASR bookstore or Abril Bookstore, then please email us to let us know what book you purchased and we will remove it from the wish list.
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Related to a recent book he has published, Dr. Vartan Matiossian, historian, literary scholar, and Executive Director of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Church, will give a presentation entitled, “Naming the Armenian Genocide: Language, Politics, and Medz Yeghern” at the Guild Hall of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America: 630 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10016.
Reception and book signing to follow the presentation.
The presentation will make reference to the etymology and history of the word yeghern, its use parallel to “genocide” after 1945, and its political and historical implications, drawing from a vast array of instances of its use and misuse by politicians, journalists and others, particularly Pope John Paul II, the 2008 apology campaign by a group of Turkish intellectuals, and the last four presidents of the United States.
Dr. Vartan Matiossian, a historian and literary scholar, has been Executive Director of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Church (New York) since 2019. He obtained his Ph.D. in History from the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 2006. He lives in New Jersey. He has published extensively in Armenian, Spanish, and English, including the translation of almost two dozen books and the editing of twenty-five volumes, as well as five books of his authorship in Armenian, one in Spanish, and two in English: Armenian Language Matters (New York, 2019) and The Politics of Naming the Armenian Genocide: Language, History, and “Medz Yeghern” (London, 2021). His next book in English, An Armenian Woman of the World: Armen Ohanian, the “Dancer of Shamakha,” co-authored with Artsvi Bakhchinyan, is coming out in a few weeks from the Press at California State University, Fresno.
“The Warrior Saint Within: A Symbolic Interpretation of Vartanants” by Dr. Jesse S. Arlen
This talk was given in the Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium at the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in New York City on the Feast of Sts. Vartanants and name day celebration of St. Vartan Cathedral on February 24, 2022. I’m grateful to Diocesan Primate Bp. Daniel Findikyan and Cathedral Vicar Fr. Davit Karamyan for the invitation to speak on this occasion.
For many of you the number of times is past counting that you have come to St. Vartan Cathedral on this feast day. For others, you can remember a handful of times. For me, it is only the first time, but no less meaningful for that. Here we are on the Feast of Sts. Vartanants, underneath the mother cathedral dedicated to that warrior saint whose protection and guidance our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers sought, when their fortune saw them flung to the eastern shore of this country after they had endured a calamity even greater than that faced by St. Vartan and his companions. What was it they saw in a defeated and slain warrior from a millennium and a half ago that so inspired them?
For an event like the one we’re dealing with here to be worthy of remembrance, for it to turn into what skeptics might call ‘legend’ or ‘myth,’ but what we might better name ‘sacred history,’ it must be symbolically meaningful; that is, it must embody timeless, spiritual meaning. It is at that symbolic level that I’d like to focus my brief remarks this evening.
To do so, let me call your attention to a less celebrated passage in Ghazar Parbetsi’s History— but one that I think is key to uncovering the deeper meaning found in this event. Before the Battle of Avarayr, Vartan and the other Armenian, Georgian, and Caucasian Albanian Christian noble lords are called to the Sasanian Shah Yazkert’s court who presents them with the following choice: either abandon your Christian faith and accept Zoroastrianism or see yourselves, your wives, children, and nation annihilated. What do we expect these heroes and Christian saints will do? Surely, they will spit in the shah’s face and say they’ll never yield to such threats. But that is not what happened.
Ghazar tells us that Vartan deliberated in agony for a while, while remembering that saying of Christ, “Whoever loves his wife and children more than me, is not worthy of me.” But his companions quoted other Scriptures, not unlike how Satan once tempted Jesus in the wilderness. They reminded Vartan of what St. Paul had said, “I would make myself cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of saving my brothers and relatives” and urged him to do just that along with them, in order to save their wives and children and kinsmen: i.e., they asked him to renounce Christ (if only under pretense) in order to save the lives of those they loved. What do you think Vartan did? Surely, he refused them and that is why we remember him today as a Christian martyr, right? Wrong. On that occasion, he silenced the voice of truth within him, and along with his companions chose the way of deception, feigning abandonment of Christ and accepting Zoroastrianism, and thus lying his way out of the difficult situation.
It was a hard dilemma. If you’re brave enough to try such an experiment, look inside yourself at a quiet, solitary moment and ask yourself what you would do if given the same choice?
Well, Ghazar tells us that the nobles then returned to their land and when their wives and children along with priests chanting Psalms came out to greet them, they instantly began to weep and wail because they found that their husbands looked dark and half-dead, and the light that usually shone from their faces no longer did so. This refers, of course, to the beaming charisma that seems to glow from the faces and eyes of those who live truthfully and uprightly at all times, who always seek the highest good. It is the golden halo that iconographers paint behind the faces of saints. It shone no more from the faces of those men who were living no longer in the light of truth.
Vartan soon discovers that as a result of his deception, all goodness, beauty, and joy has been stripped away from his life. Neither his wives nor children, not even his servants can bear to be in his presence or sit with him at table. He himself cannot even endure being in his own realm any longer, and looking for a way to run from himself and his problems, he decides to flee to the Roman empire, where he can be safe and secure.
His fellow Christian nobles come to him again, this time urging him to stay and fight with them in the wars with Iran that are sure to come, once their deception has been found out. Once again, Vartan is faced with a hard dilemma. Should he run to another realm where he can practice Christianity safely, protect his family, and so escape death? Or, should he accept his own mortality, and honestly and courageously face the difficult lot he has been dealt? It is this inner battle that was the most difficult one that Vartan fought, the war he waged within himself. And after the initial defeat at the Persian court, it is from this inner battle that he emerged victorious, when he decided that no matter the cost or outcome he would follow the way that he knew deep down within him to be right, which meant accepting his own mortality, facing death in battle.
For the last couple weeks, I’ve meditated on the sculptural relief of Vartan that stands on the south-facing wall above the entrance of our cathedral. One might have expected Vartan to be depicted standing tall and proud in full armor, sword in hand, ready to wage war. But that is not at all what the inspired artist, Bogdan Grom, depicted. Call the image to mind if you can.
Notice his posture. He is there on bended knee, helmet off beside him, face resolute, holding the cross in his left hand at his chest, and pointing upwards with his right hand. What does all this mean? To take off your protective armor and grip the cross at the center of yourself is to honestly accept your own mortality, the inescapable death sentence that is placed on every one of us that comes into this world. To fall on one knee and point upwards is to submit yourself to Reality as it is, to the lot that you have been dealt, and despite that to work for the highest good you can conceive given the limitations of your self and the circumstances of your life, leaving the outcome of your efforts entirely in God’s hands. You cannot choose the circumstances you will face in life, and there are many forces working against you that will always remain outside of your control. All you can control is your own self and how you will respond to them. Vartan overcame the deceptive, inner desires that urged him toward self-preservation and self-protection, that urged him to seek his own advantage at the expense of the highest good. And because of that decision, that inner victory that Vartan won, the halo glows again behind his head. It is there on the sculpture on the cathedral wall.
Meanwhile, Vasak, prince of Siwnik, took advantage of the unfortunate circumstances in Armenia to advance his own interests, caring little that it required treachery and betrayal to do so. He colluded with the Iranian shah and worked behind the scenes to betray Vartan and the other Christian nobles. Vasak sought upward mobility and personal reward at the cost of honesty and loyalty. He compromised his highest ideal and betrayed his companions. This is corruption at its very worst— taking advantage of a bad situation for personal benefit to the detriment of those dependent on you. Vasak tried to trick reality through deceit, lies, and treachery. However, soon after the Battle of Avarayr, the tables were turned on him, and falling out of favor with the shah, he was imprisoned and died in ignominy.
And so, this story presents us with two paths that we may pursue in life. We can choose to shun lies and deception and follow the voice within us that speaks the truth, or we can try to twist reality to our own ends through lies, deception, and deceit. In this life, one thing is certain: we will face difficulty, calamity, crisis, unfavorable external circumstances that lie entirely outside of our control, which we did not ask for and do not want. When that happens, a voice within us will bring up every excuse and reason why we should give up or lie or cheat our way out of the difficult circumstance, perhaps even using Scripture as justification. But there is another voice always inside you: it is much quieter but it always tells you what is right and speaks the hard truth you need to hear. We can call it our conscience or the “spirit of truth.” If you follow that first voice, you take the path of Vasak, trying to twist reality to your own end. But reality has a way of snapping back into shape and crushing the one who tried to bend it. If you have the courage to listen to that second, quieter voice and follow it no matter the cost, leaving the outcome entirely to God, you choose the way of Vartan, and God only knows what unforeseen good may come of it, still having its impact a millennium and a half from now.
We fight this inner battle every day, with each hurdle and challenge we face, no matter how large or small. Every time we listen to the first voice and take the easy path, like Vasak, we corrupt ourselves and the world, making bad things worse. But when we listen to the second voice, we strengthen ourselves and if we act thus consistently, we soon find that we become capable of facing any difficulty, any peril, even death with courage. And by so doing, we hold open the possibility that by our honest actions and self-sacrifice, we can help to repair a broken world. This is what it means to pick up your cross and follow after Christ.
Our forebears who survived the Genocide to come to this country had every reason in the world to abandon their faith and curse the God who, judging by all external appearances, had forsaken them. Many, in fact, did just that. But some fell on their knees, held the cross to their chest, and looked upwards, building this cathedral as a testament to their faith, in the name of the warrior saint who stays true despite all external calamities. They won the inner battle, clinging to their faith against despair and against all odds built a beautiful life in a strange, new world that soon became home to their children and grandchildren. Their chapter is now written and finished, but ours is still open. We stand here now the beneficiaries of their sacrifice, under the protection of that warrior saint, who wins the inner battle against the self. So, on this Feast of Sts. Vartanants, let us ponder what our lives could be like if each one of us always chose the way that Vartan chose, obeying that small voice within us that speaks the truth. What might we become if we did so? What might our nation become? What might the world become?
May the blessings of this Feast Day be on us all and may each one of us become the warrior saint who wins the inner battle.
 The episode I reflect on here and in the following paragraphs is found in the second part of Ghazar’s History. In the standard English edition, The History of Łazar Pʿarpecʿi, trans. by Robert W. Thomson (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991), see pp. 75–157, especially pp. 86–106.