Her name was Mayrig, that’s all I knew about the woman. She was leaning up against the back of the Mother Cathedral in Etchmiadzin one bright September day in Armenia’s Holy Land.
People were coming and going. Seminarians were meandering about with a priest or two in their midst. A trio of costumed children was off to one side by a bench, practicing a dance. They couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, oblivious to the laggard woman.
Judging by the way she was dressed, she appeared no mercenary. The woman wore a long blue coat, slippers instead of shoes, and a kerchief. She appeared forlorn with her head pointed to the ground when I stumbled upon her presence.
Perhaps I was overstepping my bounds a little when I pointed a camera at her. She twitched a little when she noticed the intrusion but remained poised for a photograph. I was working on a piece about poverty in Armenia and figured it would fit.
She had a look about her that was hard to resist. A couple frames later, I approached her with some coins, thinking she could use some assistance. On the contrary, she refused my generosity.
“I don’t want your money,” she said, without lifting her head. “If you wish to help me, take the money and light a candle for me. Perhaps God will hear your prayer and make me well. I am ill and come to Etchmiadzin so I may be healed. I remain in God’s care.”
I asked her name and she replied with homage, “I am Mayrig (Mother). You can call me Mayrig.”
I took her calloused hand and patted it. They were the hands of time, though I couldn’t be sure of her age. Women in Armenia tend to look older than their actual years.
These hands showed a lifeline with the woman. No doubt, they had changed diapers, washed clothes, prepared food, and even drove a nail into a baseboard when necessary. They were the hands of love, not money.
I honored her request. A prayer inside the sanctuary with a plethora of lighted candles would be my pleasure. One other time, I answered a similar request at Alaverdi. A street comber had asked for money and I posed a question.
“What do you plan to do with this money?” I asked, thinking it would catch him off guard.
Instead, his answer threw me for a loop.
“I want to buy a candle and pray for my wife,” he uttered. “She died last month.”
He had that look of veracity on his face. I handed him a dollar and off he went. Ten minutes later, our paths crossed inside a nearby church as he hovered over a sandbox filled with burning candles, his hands folded in prayer.
It turned out to be the best dollar I ever spent in Armenia. Panhandling can become a ritual in the Motherland, especially if you’re a soft touch. Others more experienced had other impressions.
“Don’t pay any attention to beggars, especially children,” they would tell me. “Let them learn to suffice on their own and become responsible for their actions. By feeding them money, you’re taking away their integrity.”
I understood the inference. This woman at Etchmiadzin had integrity, if nothing else. The sanctuary at Etchmiadzin was laden with tourists and insiders this particular day. The Mother Cathedral was resplendent with history as 1,700 years of Christianity might attest.
To honor it with a candle and a prayer would take a matter of minutes.
I lit one candle for the wellbeing of my 95-year-old mother, a genocide survivor; another for my wife and children; a third for the welfare of Armenia; and the last one for the woman outside this very cathedral who went by the name Mayrig.
The candles were burning brightly that day. It was as close to heaven on earth as you could get. Just being there gave you the feeling of piety.
I went back outside to look for the woman and she had disappeared. My eyes followed a path in every direction with no Mayrig. No woman in a blue coat slouched over. No woman who had her shoulders to Etchmiadzin as if she were carrying the weight of an entire cathedral on her back.
Was she an apparition? Did God place her there to test my own sanctity? My photograph was all the testament I would need at this sacred moment.
In the days and weeks that followed, my visit to Armenia took on special meaning. Beside observing the buildings and the sites, the glamour, I enjoyed meeting the people—especially those you never expect to meet.
I had endeared myself to a modern-day “Mayr Haiastan” and became all the more enamored by it.