Banquet Among Strangers
A story of hospitality and ancient traditions
in Northern Armenia
The air is cool and crisp as the sun sets.
I look out into the darkening horizon of expansive tablelands and steep canyons. Far below, the meandering Debed River carves a landscape holding many ancient secrets and living traditions. My glaze shifts nearby as shadows dance across moss covered stones, no doubt witnessing many tales. Intricately carved kakhars and hollowed stone halls start to form a bigger picture - one of a medieval monastery. It is a masterpiece of religious architecture and living traditions harkening to the height of the Kingdom of Lori that once ruled these canyons. We are awestruck by the simplicity and beauty of this 10th century Haghpat Monastery, standing alone yet proud in a seemingly remote corner of Armenia.
This is our last night in Armenia, as tomorrow we plan on continuing our journey to Georgia. The location, atmosphere and beauty in this moment are all ingredients to cap a perfect visit through the lands of Noah. And it truly has been. However, one “small” obstacle stands in the way.
We don’t have a place to stay the night.
Haghpat Monastery is situated in a tiny village of the same name high above the river, with little to none accommodations for travelers. All taxis drivers have already made the journey down to spend the evening with their families. As a final blow, only a few Armenian Drams remain in my pocket, in a corner of the country where US dollars will likely not be accepted (or visa). It is the simplest of dilemmas like these where we so often take for granted the guarantee of a nightly roof over our heads. With limited options, we walk a few steps outside the gate of the complex to find several local women packing their handicrafts away for the day.
“Do you know of any place we can stay the night, or even to set up our tent,” I asked in simple English, hoping one of the women can pick up at least a few words. She smiled and shrugged as if she had no idea what I meant. I tried once again, this time deploying the use of charades. Her smile grew larger, and immediately glanced at the monastery, pointing to the chapel, “Father Atom, Father Atom.” We thanked her then timidly walked back into the complex. “Does she actually want us to ask the Father of this church.” I thought. A monastery that stands as one of the pinnacles of the Armenian faith no doubt, in a sense the Vatican of the Armenian apostolic church. Mary quietly heads off to a nearby bench, allowing me to ask the awkward questions. As Mary sat alone on that bench, she was filled with utmost peace. “If You care for the sparrows and give them nests and food,” she prayed to the Lord, “then surely you will prepare a shelter for your children tonight.” In that quiet time, viewing the monastery once more before it is engulfed by night, she had confidence the Father is preparing something special.
Preparing something special.
I walked through a large and intricately carved door into the dimly lit chapel. It is ghostly empty save a simple lady wiping the benches towards the back. “Umm, excuse me” I muttered. She gave a quick glance. “Do you know where Father Atom is.” She used Armen-glish to convey he has retired for the day. Somewhat relieved from an awkward exchange with the priest, I began to make my way out of the chapel. However, she hurriedly ran to me and motioned me to wait. She pulled out her flip phone, dialed a number, and set the phone in my hand. “Father Atom,” she said with a smile.
It was a fiddly matter and a lesson in humility to pick up the phone and interrupt a strangers home business - and a priest of a church of this stature nonetheless.
“Hello, this Kevin and I’m with my wife and we are backpackers and we don’t have a place to stay the night and a lady said to call you and…” I fumbled.
“Stay where you are, I will be there in 5 minutes,” the father casually responded in crisp English. I quickly exited the grand door to locate Mary on her bench, beckoning her to come to the chapel. Could it be perhaps that our Father has sent a father to help us find shelter, a humorous reminder of His provision?
Father Atom arrived in the time as pronounced, adorned in simple black garments with a gentle calmness about him.
“You must be Kevin, yes,” he correctly guessed.
“Yes, Father Atom?,” I responded.
“Exactly. Please, follow me and I will see what I can do,” he graciously said, “and you must excuse me as I have received several guests into my home at the moment. But good timing as we are just about to eat supper. Please join us in the meantime!”
Please join us.
We expressed great gratitude and followed him further north into the village. We exited the back gate of the monastery complex onto cobbled streets meandering through simple stone houses amid gardens and trees. Within a few minutes we enter his simple abode, set up like monastic quarters with a garden-lined courtyard, a flank of dormitories on one end and a kitchen with a large dining table on the other. The dining table already appeared full save one seat empty at the head of the table. The father quickly made room by inserting two more chairs, surprisingly right next to his at the head of the table.
“My friends, we have some additional guests tonight! exclaimed Atom. We sheepishly said hello, feeling out of place as dirty backpackers. Atom then began by introductions - seven of them came from a church in Yerevan, the Capitol of Armenia, including a couple children no older than twelve. Seated on the right side of Atom were an older couple from Italy who were responsible for the restorations of the murals in the ancient monastery. In total it made twelve of us. I immediately noticed a large painting of the Last Supper hanging above the table, making that scene tangible in a way I haven’t felt before.
Spread before us was an assortment of Armenian specialties: barbecued pork and chicken, freshly baked lavash bread… a bowl of freshly picked fruits, and a collection of aged wine. It was a lovely conversation despite it being in Armenian; however, Father Atom went above and beyond to translate most of the discussion to us. It was a surreal experience being in a banquet as strangers, especially considering just a glint of time ago we were “homeless.” The meal was delicious and lifted our spirits and the conversation was full of laughs and smiles.
At the conclusion of the long meal, Father Atom walked us over to the living quarters. “I am very sorry my fiends, but the only private room is occupied by the Italian couple. You may stay in the dormitories however, but you must be separated into the men’s and women’s.”
“No need to be sorry at all,” I sincerely said, “The dormitories will suit us just fine. Thank you so much for your kindness to us.”
“That’s settled then,” said Father Atom, “Let us return to the others. The night has only just begun!” And so ensued a lively night of endless eating and drinking. The joy and fellowship in the moment was contagious.
As darkness was engulfing the tablelands and all have labored plenty of eating and drinking, Father Atom made a proposition: “Let us venture outside and chant hymns in the darkness.” We all moseyed down the cobbled streets, flashlights in hand, until we reached the dark chambers of the monastery. Lights highlighted the ancient stones and carved halls inside. The acoustics were amplified and engineered all those years ago to hear the faintest mumble. All gathered around in a circle below the center of the apexed roof.
The lights extinguished. The voices hushed.
Out from Father Atom first came a soft, chanting whisper followed by a deepened and amplified melody. The chamber was filled with his music. The echos lifted his voice to all crevaces and crannies, bouncing gracefully back to our ears. We stood as still as the stones around us, enchanted and filled with ancient wonder. Father Atom ended his chant with a long and bewitching melody. A still silence then filled the hall. An overwhelming sensation of the simplicity in this moment filled my mind. I felt like a child standing there in the pitch darkness, as if witnessing for the first time the beauty of life. Father Atom broke my trance when he invited the youngest one of our circle to sing. At maybe 10 years old, a young and energetic girl, not in the least shy, began a calm and peaceful song, filling the chamber again with an atmosphere of immense beauty. Everyone stood still as could be, and upon her final note, a round of applause was presented to her God-given talent. At this, we made our way back into Father Atom’s humble quarters and prepared for a nights rest. Yet one more unexpected, and I might say undeserving, surprise awaited.
“My dear Kevin and Mary,” said Father Atom, “The sweet Italian couple has made it known to me that they wish to give the private room to you two for the night. Do not mind them, they will be fine in the dormitories. I wish you two a very good night. Tomorrow is a long day for me as it is Sunday and I may not have the chance to say goodbye.”
At that, Father Atom retired for the night. We stood still for a moment, utterly dumbfounded at the sacrifice not only Father Atom has bestowed on us, but now also the Italian couple. We felt wholly undeserving of this kindness and, quite truthfully, humbled. We came as dirty and homeless backpackers, with nothing to give, yet treated as family.
We woke up the next morning to roosters alerting of a rising sun.
The morning air was chill as we climbed out of bed, eventually making our way to the garden outside full of bright flowers and fruitful trees. It was a still and quiet moment, reflecting on the experiences the night before and recognizing the the challenges of today. All of our new friends appear sound asleep, so we head out the doors into the village bathed in morning light. We feel magnetized to visit the monastery grounds once more, this time experiencing the complex alone. We sit down on Mary’s bench from the day before and reflect on the pockets of unspeakable and unexpected joy and kindness we experienced from Father Atom. We felt as though children through the whole ordeal - a simple dilemma of no shelter, complete lack of wherewithal, and the simple trust in Father Atom. Perhaps, we ponder, this is how we should always live, as though children, trusting completely in our Father.
The morning unfolded peacefully thereafter. The guests awoke and we shared a simple breakfast together, engaging in short conversations to the best of their English. And upon leaving, they loaded us up with bags of fresh fruits for our journey. But in the back of my mind, I wondered where Father Atom was all morning - until it dawned on me. Today is Sunday.
In our last minutes in Armenia, we walk to the monastery a final time and enter the sanctuary. The rows of benches are filled with locals engaged in worship. Candles are lit around the stone walls, revealing even more detailed carving. A golden cross lies in the front of the hall, held preciously by a man in fully black and hooded attire, chanting solemnly and full of heart. Father Atom. He is in deep meditation and worship as we stand in the back corner. We can’t help but get emotional. Here is a man who is living out what he is saying. I utter a final whisper:
Thank you for welcoming two strangers from far lands. You gave me a glimpse of what love really looks like.
Goodbye Father Atom.