Classes have begun at St. Nersess Seminary. But don't look for traditional classes here. Students do not sit in neat rows of desks in square-walled classrooms. Lectures, per se, are practially non-existant. The tall, wooden podium is only rarely wheeled out. There are no faculty office hours. In a Seminary where professors and students study, teach, sleep, pray and eat under the same roof, they are always around to answer a question or to offer assistance on an assignment or tricky reading.
The current New Rochelle campus--for better or worse--does not even have a formal classroom. Classes take place either around a seminar table in a corner of the library or over a cup of green tea in the dining room.
"Running a small school like St. Nersess carries with it many challenges," said Fr. Daniel Findikyan, the dean. "But one advantage St. Nersess has over other seminaries is the unparalleled teacher-student ratio," he said.
"In effect, all of our classes are seminars," said Dr. Abraham Terian, Academic Dean. "We like to sit around the table with the students and talk with them, not to them. This creates a very relaxed learning environment, where every student can ask questions freely and fully integrate the material that is being covered"
After discussing what liturgy is, and what its place is in the church, in subsequent sessions, Fr. Findikyan will survey the fundamentals of the Armenian liturgical tradition, including the use of Armenian liturgical books; feasts and seasons of the church year; the historical development of Armenia's worship services and their connections to other ancient churches' liturgical rites.
Many of the texts that Terian assigns his students are his own translations, which have never before appeared in English. Some are texts which Terian has culled from his own study of the medieval manuscripts. When reading texts such as these, Terian's students have privileged access to writings that have never appeared in a book or other publication.
This semester Terian is also teaching an advanced seminar entitled, Distinctive Doctrines of the Armenian Church. Terian holds up theological nuances in the Armenian Church's understanding of the person of Christ, the mystery of the Holy Trinity and especially of the Holy Spirit. He also covers the Armenian Church's understanding of Mary the Mother of God, the saints, and Armenian traditions of Scripture interpretation. Terian teaches this upper-level class entirely in Armenian.
"No one sleeps in Dr. Ervine's classes," one seminarian said.
Ervine is also teaching an unprecedented course in Armenian interpretation of the often-overlooked Old Testament book, Song of Songs. Though little-known today, for centuries the Song of Songs captivated the imagination of the great teachers and theologians of the Armenian Church. In their commentaries, they set out to find the significance behind the rich and sometimes startlingly erotic imagery of the Songs.
Ervine's Tuesday evening class has been opened up to the community and draws dozens of interested auditors to the Seminary each week.
"The repertory of hymns and chants that an Armenian deacon or priest needs to master in order to conduct the services competently is enormous," said Fr. Findikyan. "For students with little or no previous experience in music or in the Armenian language, learning the music can be a challenge. We use state-of-the-art software applications to notate Armenian hymns for which printed music does not exist." "We also produce mp3 recordings of virtually every hymn or chant we teach," the dean said. "I burn CDs and hand them out to the students so that they can listen and practice the music in their free time. Some of the guys have even uploaded these mp3 files into their iPods," he said.