We walk around the Haghpat monastery, our minds busy with proper photography composition settings, and we do not notice father Aspet approaching us. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asks and smiles a gentle smile. We accept the invitation with no hesitation. “Then follow me, please,” says the priest and walks through the monastery complex to the small iron gate at the back. We pass by the local houses, and the few villagers we meet on the way look very surprised upon seeing three of us together – the priest, me and Emée. “There’s a spring up there, go drink some holy water,” says the father and laughs. As we reach the living quarters, he disappears behind a blue door. We walk up to the spring, and as we return, we find father Aspet collecting his clothes hung to dry. “It’s a good day for doing the laundry. You go sit there, I’ll bring the coffee,” says he.
We soon find ourselves sitting in a gazebo, surrounded by blooming flowers and engaged in a beautiful conversation over a cup of Armenian coffee. We learn that father Aspet, in fact, is the head of the monastery, and the only one priest serving here. “I was born in Lebanon, studied in seminary in Israel and served for the Armenian Apostolic Church in the USA for 21 long years, trying to form our flock there. About 5 years ago His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II (the current head of the Armenian Apostolic Church) invited me over to Haghpat to serve here, and here I am,” says the priest.
While we drink our coffee, father Aspet reflects on his life in the United States. The young generation is stepping back from their traditions, although older people, too, are not willing to go to church, says the priest who spent years preaching among the Armenian population of California. Only 12 people attended his first service, including five members of the choir and the organist. But he wouldn’t give up, and little by little the number increased, reaching an average of 65 people attending each of his services.
“Then for the special events like Christmas there were more than hundred coming,” says the priest, adding that if the first Christmas service he held was attended by about 150 people, more than 700 people came for the last one. Father Aspet confesses that the hardest time for him was the years he spent in Las Vegas.
Every now and then he stops the narration of his story, takes a deep breath, or peels an apple for us. And although he smiles and laughs an infectious laughter, we can see profound sadness in his eyes.
“It’s hard,” he answers when I ask him about his life in Haghpat. “The times are hard, people are more interested in material things, while the spiritual aspect of their lives is fading away. Look at these grannies in front of the monastery. Whenever there are tourists around, they don’t miss the chance to brag loudly about Armenians being the first Christian nation in the world. But the stones they sit on are parts of the monastery walls. The locals rarely help. And everywhere is like this. Nobody cares about God.”
His stories of how sometimes visitors behave in the monastery make me feel sad, too. “Every day I hold a mass, and most of the time, I’m the only one attending it. Nevertheless, I do it. For me, not for others,” says father Aspet when we climb up the bell tower. He opens it for us and let us walk up to observe the Haghpat monastery from above. More than two hours with father Aspet pass by as a single second. We part as good ol’ friends. I feel there’s so much I need to tell him, there’s so much to talk about, maybe not this time. Before leaving the monastery, I promise myself to come back to Haghpat to visit father Aspet again. One day…