I don’t remember a time in my life when God was not an important part of my life. Even as a young boy, as early as I can remember, I prayed to God all the time and trusted that he was listening to me and taking care of me.
I was born in Fort Worth, Texas long before there was an Armenian Church there, so I had virtually no contact with the Armenian Church until I was a pre-teen, after my parents and I had moved to the suburbs of New York City. My dad used to drag me–practically kicking and screaming–to Badarak at St. Thomas Armenian Church in Tenafly, New Jersey two or three times per year. I remember feeling bored, and awkward during the services, which were so foreign to me.
When I was fourteen my father accepted a job in the small, cold, upstate New York town of Binghamton. Somehow, by the time we moved upstate in 1975, word had already spread through the small community that a new Armenian family was moving into the area. When your entire community numbers only 30 families, every new family counts.
Dragged to Armenian School
The first Saturday morning after we moved into our new house, my father woke me up early and announced that he was taking me to Armenian school at St. Gregory Armenian Church. With memories of those bizarre church services still fresh in my mind, I had no interest in going to Armenian school. I tried every excuse a teenager can conjure, but I lost, and before I knew it, my father’s Mercury Comet left me standing in a cloud of blue exhaust on the curb in front of St. Gregory’s on Corbett Avenue in Binghamton.
Somehow everyone was expecting me when I walked into the church hall. Professor Hrayr Dekmejian was teaching the alphabet to a dozen kids my age. I went cross-eyed trying to make sense of the strange characters on the sheet that Professor handed me. Suddenly the kid next to me took the page from me, turned it right side up, and handed it back to me. I was so embarrassed that I swore I would learn those letters before next Saturday’s class. And I did.
Strangely Drawn to the Liturgy
A couple of weeks later, on Armenian Christmas Eve, my father announced that he and I would be going to Badarak. My heart sank at the prospect of sitting (and standing) through hours of unintelligible chanting once again. But when Dad and I entered the little church that evening, something in me had changed since those services at St. Thomas. I found myself humming along to some of the hymns that somehow seemed familiar to me. I found myself drawn into that holy setting and I followed every movement at the altar, every ritual, every blessing with great interest. I didn’t understand a word, but somehow–now I know it was the Holy Spirit–the service was attracting me like a magnet.
It didn’t take long before Fr. George (Der Kevork) Arakelian, the American-born, energetic young priest came to our house for a visit. (Years later I would learn that he was the first graduate of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary to be ordained a priest). He was the first Armenian priest I ever met in my life, and I was blown away by him. First of all, I was amazed that he spoke English! I almost fell over when he told me that before he became a priest he worked in his father’s hamburger stand in Pasadena and he wanted to become a pro-baseball player. This was not what I expected from that man on the altar intoning exotic mantras, and gesticulating in a cloud of incense! He laughed. He told jokes. He talked about his wife. He talked about Jesus. He had a drink. He blessed the house. He looked at my baby pictures. He asked for Tabasco for his steak. When the evening was over, Fr. George made me feel that he had known me all my life. He made it easy for me to go to church, to Armenian school, to Sunday School, to youth activities, and to meet all the young people. Fr. George would become the first and most significant person to influence me in my decision to serve the church as a priest.
A couple of months later Fr. George came to our front door with a stack of books in his hand. “Michael,” he said, placing the books in my hands, “Here are the church music books. Start learning the hymns. Our organist is moving out of town. You are going to have to become our next church organist because no one else in the community plays piano or organ.” My jaw dropped. “But,” I gasped.
“No buts,” he said. “You can do it. We need you to do this.” This very direct approach would become Fr. George’s standard operating procedure.
And so, at the tender age of 14 I became the church organist at St. Gregory’s. I learned and came to love our church music. Two years later the position of choir director would be added to my responsibilities when our choir director, Paul Ketchoyian, also moved out of the area.
My new responsibilities led me to church every Sunday, without fail. For reasons that I can only attribute to God, I was increasingly captivated by church. I wanted to understand the services, the prayers. I listened to Fr. George’s sermons carefully to help me understand the Bible and the church’s teachings. I asked Fr. George questions about Armenian Church customs, services, symbols and traditions.
The Seed is Planted
One day when I was still 14, Fr. George and I were running some errands on the south side of Binghamton. While driving, and seemingly out of the blue, Fr. George asked, “Have you ever thought about being a priest?”
“No,” I replied, startled.
“Well, you should think about it because you have what it takes.”
With that short exchange, Fr. George had planted the seed. Until that moment, the notion of being a priest had never entered my head. From that moment on, there was hardly a day when the idea didn’t surface somehow in my thoughts, dreams, and imagination. The seed of God’s call had sprouted deep within me. At times during the next 10 years I would try to ignore it, cover it up with other occupations, run away from it, daydream about it, even fight with it. But the call was there and God would not take it away.
A couple of months later, Fr. George once again appeared on our doorstep one afternoon. He had barely stepped into the entryway when he announced, “On June 24 you will be going to the St. Nersess Deacons’ Training Program in New Rochelle. It lasts ten days. You’ll meet lots of kids your age who sing in the choir and serve at the altar. I’ve spoken with the director, Fr. Karekin Kasparian. The church is paying for your tuition and your bus ticket, and I have already filled out the application form and sent it in. You’re going to have a great time and learn a lot. OK?”
Once again, Fr. George had given me my marching orders. He was right. I had the time of my life. I met other priests, men like Fr. George, who had chosen this unique profession. I met seminarians like Deacon Michael (now Fr. Mardiros) Chevian, Fr. Karekin Kasparian, Dn. Onnig (now Fr. Aved) Terzian and Elise Antreasian, who shared my fascination with the church, and answered my questions about God. I made friends with guys who, unbeknownst to any of us, would one day become my seminary classmates and my brothers in Christ’s vineyard: Norman (Fr. Simeon) Odabashian and Michael (Fr. Sahak) Kaishian. I wept in the seminary chapel as the words of our prayers became awesomely real to me. After ten days, I left a piece of my soul behind at St. Nersess Seminary.
Healer of the Body? Healer of the Soul?
But church was not the only passion in my life. At about that time I began to take a great interest in emergency medicine. I took a CPR course, followed by a beginner’s first aid course at the town ambulance headquarters. A new chapter in my life opened when, at age 16, I joined the Vestal Volunteer Emergency Squad. Disregarding my initial fear of blood, I became engrossed by my first aid courses. The emotional rush of riding on the ambulance and helping people at the most critical moment, literally saving lives, put me over the top. As soon as I turned 18 I became a New York State Emergency Medical Technician. Gradually I proved myself to be a first-rate medic, “cool as a cucumber,” my buddies used to tell me. I continued taking evening courses and became certified as a Paramedic. Throughout college, I worked almost full-time on a paid ambulance service in addition to my volunteer service on the Emergency Squad. By the time I was 20 I was a New York State instructor of emergency medicine, teaching paramedics and working long hours on the ambulance and in hospital emergency roomsand loving every minute of it.
Conflict of Interests
These, then were the primary ingredients of Michael Findikyan’s life as a college student: the Armenian Church and emergency medicine. My two life passions gradually came to compete as I contemplated my future and more immediately, my college major. Fully convinced that I would easily be admitted to medical school and make an excellent doctor, I declared an appropriate major for a pre-med: chemistry.
Meanwhile, the seed planted by Fr. George was growing by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the support of my St. Nersess family. More and more I imagined what it would be like to be a priest. What it would feel like to celebrate the Badarak, to wear the sacred vestments, to baptize a baby, to pray with someone who was sick. In church I would catch myself visualizing how, as a priest, I would perform a certain ritual differently than Fr. George did. Coming to my senses, I would try to shake the thought out of my mind. I was going to be a doctor, not a priest, I would remind myself.
No matter how hard I tried to shake the idea of priesthood out of my head, it endured. Months passed by; my parents told me to get serious; graduation grew closer. My indecision became desperation. In my junior hear I added a second major, music, and decided to stay in college for a fifth year in order to finish the double major. This, of course, was nothing more than a poorly-disguised delay tactic.
Medicine or Priesthood? Satisfy the expectations of family and friends or do what your heart is telling you? Go for the money or go for the spirit?
“If God wants you to be a priest, you will hear the call,” they told me.
“Lord, if you want me to be a priest,” I would pray, often tearfully, “Just send me a sign and I will follow you. Just show me the way.”
“You don’t need to be a priest to serve God,” they said. “You can serve the church as a deacon.”
But a deacon is not a priest.
“God needs successful and affluent doctors too.”
“It’s just a phase,” they said. “Go to medical school. Become a successful surgeon. Later on you can do whatever your want for the church.”
Are sloppy seconds good enough for God?
“You are free to pursue whatever career you want, son, just do it well,” they said.
Sure, but if I decide to go to seminary you will be devastated.
“Yes, the church needs priests, but not my son!”
“God, show me a sign. If you want me to be a priest, just tell me!”
Flip a Coin
One day, practically despondent, I went to visit my mom, who was working in the Biochemistry department at school. “Why don’t you go and talk with Professor Starzak in the Chemistry Department. He’s a devout Roman Catholic. Maybe he can give you some guidance.”
Willing to try anything, I made an appointment with the professor and walked into his lab the next day. “Have a seat,” he said, as he pushed a stack of journals from the a wooden chair near his desk. “What can I do to help you?”
“I feel like I’m at a road-block,” I began, as I candidly unloaded my vocational dilemma onto his desk amongst the blue exam booklets and chalky beakers. “I have always wanted to be a doctor, and I know I would make a great doctor, and everyone expects me to become a doctor, but I have a feeling that maybe I should be a priest. I think I would make a good priest. I love God and I love the church”
I spoke for fifteen minutes without interruption, pouring my soul out before this kind-faced stranger, hoping against hope that he would have the answer. When I was finished there was silence.
The professor looked at me and a broad smile spread across his face.
“Flip a coin.”
What?! “You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought to myself. “I poured my soul out before you and you dismiss me with a wisecrack?”
“Flip a coin,” he repeated. “I’m serious. You’re 22 years old. You’re smart, and you need to make a decision. Flip a coin. If it comes up heads you go to seminary. If you love it, you’ll know that God has led you there. If you hate it – nightmare scenario it will be a good sign that God was leading you elsewhere. Finish the year and apply to medical school the following year. Having studied for a year in seminary, you’ll be a cut above the rest of the med school applicants. Of course if it comes up tails, you do the opposite.”
As he spoke, I felt the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders.
That nightand I remember this as if it were yesterdayI sat at the edge of my bed with a quarter in my right palm. I looked at the quarter, ready to flip it, and burst out laughing. “I don’t need to let the flip of a coin decide my future,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to seminary.” Instantly the most comforting sense of serenity and peace overtook me, such as I had not felt in years.
As I put the quarter back down on my desk I realized that the “call” had been there all along. The seed Fr. George had planted in me years earlier had germinated and grown within me. Watered weekly by the holy Badarak, nurtured by my St. Nersess family, the idea of becoming a priest would have died out long ago if it were not sustained by the Holy Spirit; if it were not from God. Instead it endured. Even when, in my impetuousness, I tried to run it over with dreams of being a doctor, it would not disappear. The seedling kept peaking out from the dark desperation of my soul, tapping my shoulder, reminding me of its sacred presence.
This was my call. God let me brew in uncertainty, even suffer, because he wanted me to take the first step. As soon as I took that step, as soon as I put down the quarter, I was confirmed in my decision by the burden of despair that was lifted from me.
I Never Looked Back
I started seminary in September, 1985, right after graduating from college (with a B.S. degree in Chemistry and a double-major in Music). Fr. Mardiros Chevian, then the seminary dean and later the sponsor of my priestly ordination, encouraged me to come to St. Nersess for one year to “test the waters.” He promised that if, after one year, I felt that this was not the right path for me, I would be free to leave. Today this remains the seminary’s policy for all incoming students.
I never looked back. I love being a priest. As much as life itself. Nothing, NOTHING can compare to the awesome privilege of serving as God’s hands and mouth in this world; of bringing people to God and God to the people. Of bringing a ray of hope to one who is in pain or grief. Of baptizing a baby and dedicating it to God. Of touching, even converting a person’s heart by preaching the powerful word of God. Of unwrapping for our people the rich and sacred Christian experience of the Armenian people and helping them to apply it in our troubled world.
What if I had flipped the coin and it had come up tails? I’m quite sure I would have ended up at Seminary eventually. But had I pursued medicine, I’d probably be a cardiologist somewhere today. I remain convinced that I would have made a damn good doctor. I am sure I would have been successful, and made a contribution to humanity. I’d likely have many of the material perks that physicians in the United States enjoy. Maybe I would be serving as a deacon in an Armenian parish on Sundays when I was not on call. Maybe I would have been in a position to contribute financially to the church. But I am quite certain that nary a day would go by that I was not confronted, not tormented by the agonizing question, “Have I done all that God has asked of me?”