And about the eleventh hour [the landowner] went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ —Matthew 20:6-7
Two years ago I returned to the Armenian Church, where I was baptized as a child by affusion, after living most of my adult life in the grip of sexual sin. On Holy Saturday of this year, May 1, I was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York (ROCOR historically receives converts by baptism). My godfather is a monk and my patron saint is St. Darius of Nicaea, an early Church martyr. I selected ROCOR over other Orthodox Churches because of its purity and fullness of faith, tradition of monasticism, and proven experience dealing with the sort of revolutionaries and communists that are currently subverting the United States. The Orthodox Church will be my final spiritual home before I am judged by Lord Jesus Christ upon my death.
The two groups that are known as” Orthodox,” the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox, split in the 5th century because of a Christological dispute. The Orientals, which include the Armenians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians (Copts), did not accept the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon regarding the two natures of Christ. This resulted in them breaking communion from the Eastern Orthodox, meaning that up to my baptism in ROCOR, I could not commune in other Eastern Orthodox Churches, which includes the Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, and Antiochians. When I returned back to the Armenian Church in 2019, I did not understand the Christological disagreement that caused them to be labeled as “monophysite” schismatics or heretics, and wrote it off as a misunderstanding concerning semantics, but as my faith and knowledge of theology grew, I came to suspect that this was more than a misunderstanding because I saw firsthand that the Armenian Church has lost aspects of the faith still possessed by the Eastern Orthodox, which from this point I will simply refer to as Orthodox. I eventually concluded that damage to the Armenian Church occurred because they made a mistake in their theology which resulted in a decrease of grace, and that the Orthodox Church contains the pure teachings of Jesus Christ.
The first deterioration to the Armenian Church is confession, which used to be private. They no longer have private confession like in the Orthodox Church. Instead, the faithful read a prepared script aloud from the pews before receiving communion. I can attest that you can read this statement and receive communion without having to think of your sins or feel remorseful. You have the option to privately talk to your priest to confess your sins, but it is done informally and not something actively promoted by the Church (I don’t know any Armenian who does it). As a result, there are a lot of secrets in an Armenian parish where severe sins are occurring among the faithful that the priest knows nothing about. This leads to profuse award-winning acting where a parishioner acts pious in front of the priest but then immediately changes demeanor in his absence, an issue I have not noticed in Orthodox parishes.
Second, the Armenians have not been able to canonize individual saints for several centuries. While the victims of the Armenian genocide were recently canonized as a group, the last individual Armenian saint I learned to be canonized was St. Gregory of Tatev in the early 15th century, meaning there is no one in modern times who the Church has recognized as someone we must learn from and emulate in order to be saved. When I expressed this concern to a Church authority, I was told that the Church has lost the ability to canonize individuals due to governing and organizational obstacles. This answer did not satisfy me, because how could God’s Church lose the ability to glorify His most faithful servants before the end times? I believe that guidance from recent saints is essential to navigating a modern world that is far more evil and complex than several centuries ago, but I did not have that guidance in the Armenian Church and so began to look upon Orthodox saints.
Third, the Armenians seem to be in the process of losing monasticism. Most ancient monasteries in Armenia are medieval tourist destinations that do not perform the liturgical cycle of daily services or receive pilgrims like the innumerable Orthodox monasteries. If you visit an Armenian monastery, you would be lucky to encounter an Armenian priest from whom to receive a blessing. In the United States, there are no Armenian monasteries or sketes. Armenians will reasonably claim that the genocide and period of communism have devastated their monasteries (and Church in general), and that parish life is where priority should be given, but Russia was able to get their monasteries back open relatively quickly, and they are flourishing within Russia and the United States.
The last problem is icons: Armenians never developed iconography like the Orthodox or the tradition of venerating icons. They have icon-like paintings in their churches, but no framed icons that can be venerated. Being able to venerate an icon may seem like a minor detail, but there are endless examples of Orthodox icons performing miracles for the faithful. The Armenian Church has a beautiful cross design, but as far as I know, miracles do not come forth from them in modern times, unlike the numerous miracle-working and myrrh-streaming icons in the Orthodox Church that are currently active. I like to venerate icons because it is a way for me to show more humility before God and therefore add power to my prayers. While I was in the Armenian Church, I constructed my prayer corner in the Orthodox style with icons that I venerate.
In spite of these four points, theology was not enough for me to leave. I rationalized that the Armenian theology was “close enough,” for which Church was closer? The Catholics seemed further away on dogma thanks to modern innovations and the Protestants even further. Besides, just about all the sermons I listened to and books I read came from an Orthodox source. I believed that I covered my bases, so to speak, but inevitably a new problem arose: I began to feel divided. I received the sacraments on Sunday from one Church and then for the remaining six days of the week I poured over the works of another Church. It was like courting two women at the same time. Of course you will develop a favorite, and my favorite was Orthodoxy. The Orthodox faith spoke to me more powerfully and was giving me the tools to follow God’s commandments and resist temptations at this late stage of human history. The Armenian Church was not able to support my zeal with enough materials and resources that made me confident my soul would be guided into Paradise. This year I arrived at the point where I was so convinced that Orthodoxy was the truth that even if the Armenian Church did start publishing books and sermons in English, I would not have consumed them.
The determining factor that could have prolonged my stay in the Armenian Church was ethnic identity. I am 50% Armenian by blood through my mother (my father is Iranian). This Church was made for me and “my people,” was it not? The problem is that I was not raised with an Armenian identity. My mother was born in Istanbul and is much closer to Turkish culture than Armenian. Her relatives and friends all prefer to speak Turkish. While she stayed in the Church, and decided for me to be baptized as a child, she taught me nothing culturally or spiritually Armenian, so it wasn’t until I was 39 years old that I heard the Armenian language for the first time at length. I tried to learn Classical Armenian to understand the Liturgy without a service book but gave up quickly, even though I had learned several other languages in the past with far more determination, perhaps because I subconsciously knew I would not remain in the Church.
I also do not identify with the Armenian historical struggle or pain from their genocide. When last year the war in Artsakh was raging, to me it was a war like any other, and I felt no more sadness than if the war had been in Mongolia. Other than learning how to make tasty Armenian food dishes, I never felt “Armenian” even though I did see that some of my personality traits, particularly when it comes to my passions, were shared by other Armenians. The Armenians in my church repeatedly asked me when I would visit Armenia for the first time and the instinctual response in my mind that I dared not speak aloud was “never.” Maybe I am too burned out from travel, but I am simply not interested in visiting what I’m sure is a beautiful country even though it is supposed to be my ancestral home.
On Easter Sunday of this year in my Armenian parish (April 4), I looked upon the crowd of Armenians and couldn’t help but see myself as a tourist who was enjoying a very pleasant service with an exotic people who vaguely looked like me. It didn’t feel like my Church and the Armenians present didn’t feel like my people. I was born and raised in America as an American, for better or worse, and while I can value my ancestral past through food and shared personality traits, I didn’t desire to be enveloped in a foreign culture that I would never have picked out of personal interest or a Church I would not have chosen based on its theological merits. The Armenian Church is an ethnic and nationalistic Church for Armenians, of which I never identified as one, and even if I did, I’m certain its theological problem would gnaw on me enough to only postpone my inevitable conversion to Orthodoxy by a couple of years.
In the past half-year, as God’s hand worked more firmly to guide me to the Orthodox Church, I even began to wonder if the Armenian sacraments were wholly valid. If their sacrament of confession was damaged compared to its past, was their Eucharist really the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? I pushed that thought out of my mind when it would appear, telling myself that perhaps in the future when I moved to a rural area, and an Armenian Church was not nearby, I could finally make the jump to Orthodoxy. It would be too difficult to do it before, to tell those in my church that I left not because I was moving far away, but because I didn’t love the Armenian identity and had doubts about its theology. Then I received a call from Father Spyridon Bailey, a ROCOR priest.
On March 20, I conducted a call-in live stream. One of the callers was Father Spyridon, who has a popular YouTube channel. I knew of him and was exceedingly glad that he called. You can watch our conversation here:
After the call, in which I shared my concerns about being divided between two churches, I was on fire. I no longer wanted to be passive and let the meandering flow of the river determine which Church I should be in. If I am in the right Church then there is no problem, but if not, then I must make a decision and follow through on it, regardless of the social or familial consequences. After speaking with Father Spyridon, I prayed: “Lord, please give me the strength to make the right decision of which Church I should be in.” Forty-two days later, I was baptized in ROCOR’s Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. I received a brief but intense catechism that filled in the holes of my Orthodox knowledge from a monk who is now my godfather.
Maybe one day I will share the series of providential steps that occurred in those forty-two days, but in summary, all the strength was given to me to leave the Armenian Church without losing a minute of night’s sleep, and all the doors to the Orthodox Church opened in a way that I would deem miraculous. Besides some bearable temptations from the demons the week before I was baptized, I felt that God was holding my hand into Jordanville’s baptistry to be immersed three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is now so obvious to me that God was guiding me into His Church that I wonder if I tested Him by taking so long to make the decision. I may have arrived at the eleventh hour, but with joy I can tell you today that I am an Orthodox Christian.
Why did I pick ROCOR? It’s more that ROCOR picked me. Most of the spiritual value and edification I received in the past two years happened to come from the Russian Church. From reading their books, listening to their sermons, visiting their churches and monasteries, talking to their priests and monks, and viewing the actions of their bishops, I came to believe that ROCOR is the most traditional Orthodox Church existing in the world today which has best preserved the Christian faith. It fully grasps spiritual warfare, does not dabble in new ideas, has clergy that understands the Jewish revolutionary spirit, and has been most resistant to succumbing to coronavirus mandates, not only by its hierarchy but also its parishioners (though some ROCOR parishes in the cities are unfortunately strong on masks). There are many other Churches within Orthodoxy, but by getting baptized into ROCOR, I have made my bet that if there is only one Church left standing during the tribulations of the end times, which there must be since Christ did state that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church, it will be the Russians.
I also like ROCOR because of its strong sense of community that spans across state lines, the piety of the flock, and its catholic nature of drawing in converts from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are just like me in that they came to the truth later in life after a period of seeking. There is certainly an ethnic component to ROCOR, but unlike with the Armenian Church, it does not wholly dominate or make me feel that the ethnicity is put on par or even above God. In ROCOR you receive the fullness of God based on what the Russian people have dutifully preserved over the centuries, and the parish services are not so foreign to disturb your worship if you happen to be an American who does not have a Russian background.
For much of my adult life, I’ve been seeking the truth, and while you may have seen me take many wrong turns, I never wholly strayed from that mission. Returning back to God two years ago gave me the humility to finalize this journey with my baptism in ROCOR. Now that I’ve experienced a taste of the Kingdom and the glory that awaits Christians who love our Lord Jesus Christ, I hope to co-work with God to share His truth to all who happen to come across my words. I do not deserve the grace I’m receiving from being in His Church based on the evil works I have done in my life, so Glory goes to God for the love and forgiveness He has for His most sinful servants.
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