Letter From Ukraine, May 18, 2023
Dear sisters, dear brothers,
May nights in Kyiv are unusually restless this year. Especially the one between Monday and Tuesday. The noise made by the defenders of the Ukrainian sky as they shot at Russian rockets and drones was accompanied by car alarms. While the earth was shaking and the sky was pulsating with repeated explosions, they were going on and off maddeningly. It would be hard to find anyone in Kyiv who wasn’t up around 3am that morning. Mrs. Katia who cooks in our priory joined her neighbors in the staircase, searching for a safe place. In the building where she lives, the people were scared because during the first months of the war rockets had fallen there multiple times, and their windows had lost their glass panes. Now every shelling of the city causes them even more worry.
Last night, too, the battle was raging in the skies of Kyiv; but the vicinity of the priory was quiet, and most of us learned about the battle only through the morning news. At breakfast I asked Mrs. Katia how she slept last night. “Father, for the first time in a long time I couldn’t hear the sirens. But unfortunately my cousin called me to ask if I was okay. What bad luck. I couldn’t fall asleep until the morning.”
I mention Kyiv, but obviously it is not the only city under attack. Each day many Ukrainian towns are shelled. Quite recently huge explosions shook Khmelnytskyi. They were so intense that even though it all happened a long distance from our priory, the brothers found plaster that had fallen from the ceiling.
Today we are celebrating the Day of Vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian shirt embroidered with different patterns that depend on the region of origin. Shirts, t-shirts, elegant dresses, and even albs and liturgical vestments are ornamented, often with great skill. Apparently the idea of celebrating the national clothing of Ukraine and promoting it as a real trademark was proposed in 2007 by the students from the university in Chernivtsi. Today no one is ashamed of wearing vyshyvanka in Ukraine, and one has to pay a lot of money for the truly elegant shirts and blouses made by the respected companies. As I was returning from my morning shopping, I met many people wearing vyshyvankas. It seemed that they were more numerous than in previous years.
During the first days of May, we were visited by the Master of the Order. It was his first trip to Ukraine, and for us a great joy to meet our highest superior and the 88th General Master since Saint Dominic. Father Gerard Timoner III — accompanied by his socius Father Alain Arnould for whom this was his third visit to Ukraine since the war started — visited Fastiv, Kyiv, Khmelnytskyi, Chortkiv, and Lviv. They traveled many kilometers by train and by car to meet the Dominican family that is the sisters, brothers, and lay members of the Order wherever Dominican priories can be found. I still remember many of the words of Father Gerard, who in my opinion, in his ministry as superior combines authentic love and compassion with truly Dominican wisdom.
At the request of the Polish provincial, the Master granted a particular distinction to the volunteers, men and women, from the House of Saint Martin de Porres in Fastiv. The “Benemerenti” medal has been awarded for over fifty years to people who do not belong to the Order but whose witness of living by the Gospel merits particular distinction. This was the first time the distinction was given to more than one person, which as Father Alain emphasized is particularly inspiring to the Dominicans who across the world try to live and preach Christ as a community. “I thank you for being, with us, the builders of peace!” he added.
I am grateful to Father Łukasz Wiśniewski, and also to the Master, for not only recognizing the volunteers and their work, but also personally coming to grant the award. There was a lot of emotion and tears on the faces of the recipients. I couldn’t hide my own either as I looked with pride at them and at the tiny statue of Saint Martin de Porres — one of two made for us by our French brother Marie-Bernard and received by Katya. Father Alain also surprised us with another gift. Anya, one of the volunteers, is an English teacher but can also speak Finnish.
As a special gift from Father Alain and the Dominican brothers from Helsinki, she received three books, obviously in Finnish!
On the way from Fastiv to Kyiv, we visited areas that were liberated a year ago from Russian occupation. They are still destroyed for the most part. We stopped in Andriivka, a town I frequently mentioned in the letters from the beginning of the war. Father Misha and his volunteers again brought a couple thousand little chicks which they, Father Gerard, and Alain distributed to the inhabitants of the village. The older people in particular rejoiced greatly over the gift, saying that not one of the “church” chicks that they received last year had died. I don’tm know how much of that is true and how much is tender gratitude to Father Misha for being with them since the beginning of the tragedy. I stood to the side talking to an older gentleman who survived the occupation of Andriivka: “For the first time in my life I was grateful that I was old. When the Russians started arresting, exiling, and killing men younger than me, they let me go free, saying that I was old, and nobody needed me.” “My old age saved my life,” he added.
In Irpin we stopped for a moment at the destroyed bridge. It is a symbolic place and was a gate to the free world for people running away from the territories occupied by Russia at the beginning of war. People had waded through ice-cold waters under constant shelling, and the heroic efforts of Ukrainian soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and volunteers were preserved through the pictures that the whole world saw in February and March of 2022. When Father Gerard shared his experience visiting Ukraine on the Vatican Radio, he mentioned this place: “Next to the destroyed bridge, a new one is under construction, maybe even stronger than the old one. It is an important image for me. The symbols of destruction remain, like the wounds of Christ that remained even after the resurrection. But on the other side one can see the bridge that is under construction even while the conflict still rages. I would like to believe that it is also the mission of the Church, the mission of all people of good will, to build bridges. When Thomas the Apostle touched the wounds of Christ,he exclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God!’ We pray, and we keep hope that even when we are surrounded by the destruction and the wounds of the Ukrainian nation, we can still touch the wounds of Christ and exclaim ‘My Lord and my God!’ because we believe in the resurrection. The symbols of death can become symbols of new life. New life that only God can give.”
On the International Day of Nurses and Midwives, I brought from Krakow to Kyiv and gave to the Dominican chaplain of one of the hospitals the relics of a nurse, Blessed Hanna Chrzanowska (1902-1973). It was the idea of Sylvia, a lay nurse working in a Krakow ambulance and involved in Ukraine since the Revolution of Maidan in 2014. I deeply believe that the intercessory prayer of Blessed Hanna and the example of her holy life will offer great support for the doctors and medical personnel, as well as for all the sick to whom Father Oleksandr serves a a chaplain.
A couple days ago I visited a cemetery in Lviv where the Ukrainian soldiers are buried. Every day their number increases. At one of them, an older man was arranging flowers. “Praise to Jesus Christ! Is it your son?” I asked. The man asked me to repeat the question, as if his thoughts were somewhere else. “Yes. Only son. He was. Not any more. He died in the Kherson region.” At another tomb of a young soldier, an older man dressed in a combat uniform was praying the rosary. I asked him the same question. “No. It’s my brother in arms. I didn’t know him. But he died just next to me.” “Where was it?” “Avdiivka,” he answered. Then he pointed to his heart, adding, “Now the heaviest war is here.”
A moment earlier during Holy Mass I had ead the words from the Gospel according to Saint John: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am.” (John 17:24) I am convinced that today Christ asked the Father this for the Dominican brothers. He is in the Kherson region, in Avdiivka, at the Lviv symmetry with the relatives crying for their dead. He invites us to accompany Him.
Marzena, a volunteer from Poland who accompanied Father Misha and the Fastiv group last week in the area around Izyum, shared a similar image: “In the Zawody village we met a man who will be hard to forget. He was no more than fifty years old and clearly was drinking. But it was also clear that it is a new drinking: that before the war alcohol was not a part of his life. He came to the meeting concerning the restoration of houses that could still be saved. He came just to be with people for a moment. ‘They killed my son in broad daylight during the occupation of the village. Just like that, he was walking through the village, they looked at him, and they shot him. I became completely alone. I don’t want to restore anything. I want the alcohol to take me away.’ What could be done? What could be said? Nothing. Simply nothing. You look at the man whose life was extinguished within him, and at the same time you see in his eyes, you feel in him, some enormous goodness. Simply to be, simply to be with someone for a moment.”
With greetings, with gratitude for your
support, and with request for prayer,
Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, May 18, 2023
Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality
708 North Harvey Avenue
Oak Park, IL 60302
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