It was 1936, and his mother was making supper, and Ernest Krikor Emurian was just sitting at the kitchen table like the hungry young man he was.

"Then it hit-hit like a tornado," Emurian recalls, his eyes widening."I was like a woman having a baby. I said, 'Mom, just a minute,' and I walked over to the piano, and. . ."

And he gave birth to his first hymn.

Just sat right down and picked it out with his right index finger. Didn't worry about the sharps and flats, or whether it "scanned." didn't fret about whether anyone would want to publish it or sing it. Just plink-plunk, and it was history.

"It was God's gift coming through me," Emurian says today. "When that spark gets in you and starts fermentingg, it won't let you go until it's been resolved."

Miced though his metaphors may be, Ernest Emurian's musical flame seems in little danger of flickering.

In the last 43 years, serving all the while as a Methodist minister, he has written 80 hymns, 50 folk ballads and the official song of Arlington County, Virginia, among many other musical efforts.

And never fear, brothers and sisters: Even though he is now 67 ("as old as Old Rugged Cross"), Emurian promises that his songs will continue to arrive by the truckload.

At Cherrydale Methodist Church in Arlington, where he is pastor, Emurian is often spotted wandering down the hall toward a piano, humming six or eight bars to himself. And at home, he keeps a pad and pencil by his bed just in case a lyric might drift into his skull.

"They just come to me," says Emurian. "I don't know how else to say it."

In all his music, Emurian says it with a tilt toward pomp and circumstance. He admires catchy beats and "French pastry" arrangements, but he can't seem to fuse them into his own work.

"I wish I could write 'He's Got The Whole World In His Hands,'" Emurian says. "But most of mine go vertically, majestically."

"You know," he said one recent morning over pound cake and coffee in hi study, "everyone thinks hymns came over on the Mayflower or they came down from heaven with Charlton Heston's help.

"But there are plenty of hymns being written today. Yes, it's easy to write a sorry hymn. Just because it's in the praise of Godd, people think it has to be corny.

"But the true hymn is the one that expressess the basic things, the old values. Hymns deal with basic experiences. That's what I try to do."

Emurian is so used to that approach that, even when he tries to write other kinds of songs, he usually ends up writing hymns.

For example, his "Bless Thou the Astronauts," written after an early moon-shot, is slow and stately, and thanks the Lord for Apollo. His songs honoring places (Arlington, Washington, Virginia, Portsmouth and Lynchburg, at last count) are classics of 4/4 form.

Even his dearly beloved Watergate spoof ("When They Play That Great Tape in the Sky") suggests that final reckoning comes in the hereafter, not in the Gallup Poll.

But while at least one Emurian composition is sung every Sunday morning at Cherrydale, it is his Arlington song that may be the best known.

An anthem in the key of E-flat, "Arlington" pays homage to the "Northern Virginia hillside/Where Potomac's waters flow/And where heroes lived, other heroes lie/'Neath the crosses row on row."

After the County Board officially adopted Emurian's song in 1970, the county chamber of commerce published 10,000 copies of it, and plumped it as "a model for the country." Someone arrannged for 23 schoolgirls dressed in colonial costume to sing it for the board-as television cameras whirred. Requests for a copy of the sheets music arrive regularly.

Emurian is a little bemused by all this. "Let's face it," he says, "Arlington is a tough place to love, because it's so many different places. You might as well write one song about Rosslyn, another about Ballston, another about the cemetery.

"But I always said, if a place is worth living in, it's worth writing a song about."

Emurian has never made money from his songs."That's the last reason to write hymns," he says. In fact, although Cherrydale collections pay for the printing of most of his songs, Emurian has sometimes had to pony up the money himself.

Nor have his songs achieved a great deal of notoriety. He takes pride in the fact that four of his hymns appear in the latest edition of the Book of Worship for the U.S. armed forces. But when he turns on his car radio, Emurian listens to "beautiful music." He has yet to hear himself, and he does not expect to.

"And that's perfectly okay," says Emurian, a third-generation minister and third-generation musician who has served at Cherrydale for 17 years. "I'm just honored that they want it on Sunday mornings. The greatest honor is having other people sing them. What else can you want?" CAPTION: Picture, Ernest Krikor Emurian. . . singing out God's gift. By Craig Herndon--The Washington Post