Letter From Ukraine, October 31, 2022

Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers,

Evenings are now dark on the streets of Ukrainian cities. Due to the need to save electricity, most of the lights are off. Recently, when I was leaving the store, I saw a beautiful German Shepherd, which looked at me with curiosity. The dog then started speaking with a woman’s voice. I was astonished! After a few seconds, however, I realized his owner was sitting next to the dog. Disguised by darkness and invisible to the world, she was speaking loudly on the phone.

A difficulty much greater than animals speaking with human voices is, for both drivers and pedestrians, the fact that traffic lights are off. This is happening more and more often. On Friday when I was leaving for Khmelnytskyi, I immediately noticed a fender-bender on the intersection. The streets were clogged with traffic and difficult to navigate for someone who doesn’t know the city well. I was relieved when I finally arrived at the priory. Many people in Ukraine wear dark clothing (myself included!), so when the lights are dimmed or off, the pedestrians aren’t clearly visible. For that reason, when I visited the cathedral in Kyiv recently, I bought reflective wristbands in the Paulist bookstore — an ideal gift not only for children during the time of [as the Poles say] “Egyptian darkness”, although here it should be called “Russian darkness”. Even more so since the bands have the clear declaration: “I love Jesus.”

In Fastiv, there is no electricity for most of the day. Fortunately, Fr. Misha thought about this in advance and got a few generators that allow the priory and the House of Saint Martin to function properly. Everyone is slowly getting used to the sound of the engines that produce energy. Although Father Pavel is a little worried about the money for fuel, which when used for power disappears very quickly.

Recently the repeated shelling of the power infrastructure made the lives of millions of Ukranians much harder. My impression, however, is that they have not succeeded in breaking the spirit and hope of the nation. Br. Mark, superior of the lay Dominicans in Kyiv, described it the most accurately when he said: “Kyiv cannot be turned off, and it cannot be drowned in darkness, because the source of light in Ukraine are the people.” And then he added a quote from the Gospel of Saint John (1:5,9): “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” Profound and accurate. 

Despite the fact that in Kyiv as well as in most Ukrainian cities the power is frequently turned off, Ukrainians don’t lose their sense of humor. Recently someone said: “For the first time in eight years, my neighbor finally stopped drilling in the walls at the most amazing times of day and night. Thank you, energy companies, for a new life.” Mrs. Katya, a cook in our priory, told me that in her building, as in a majority of similar buildings in Kyiv, everything is powered by electricity; so when the electricity is off in the morning, there is not a way to even boil water. Everyone is managing somehow, but I can imagine how much harder it is for parents with small children or people who are sick to start the day. The inhabitants of tall buildings have learned that if they want to get somewhere on time, they should choose the stairs over the elevator. Apparently in some tall apartment buildings, people leave in the elevators some food, drinks, a chair to sit on, as well as some sedatives in case someone gets stuck in the elevator for a long period of time. Yesterday on the radio, someone was arguing that it isn’t always necessary to have elegantly pressed shirts and skirts. Irons consume a lot of power, so maybe it would be good to start some new trends in war fashion. For practical reasons, I actually like it, although concerning the Dominican habit, I definitely prefer it to be ironed.

I am now visiting our priories in Ukraine. As I was preparing for this new trip, I remembered and kept in mind the words of the biblical Book of Amos (5:14) “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live.” Beginning my conversations with the brothers, I usually ask them to tell me about something good, something that happened recently in their life. They shared their experience of the past months, emphasizing how much closer the war brought them to the people to whom they serve, next to whom they live, and for whom they pray daily. I understand this perfectly. If someone asked me a similar question, I would have answered the same way. Ukraine has become particularly close and important to us. For this reason, when I’m in Poland and someone tells me with concern that I must be very happy that I’m in my homeland where there is no war, I respond that it’s not entirely true, because my home and my heart are now in the country on the Dnieper. For me, this good that has come out of the time of war is also the amazing solidarity of the Dominican family, experienced since the very beginning of Russian aggression. I can’t count all the conversations, meetings, emails, and letters arriving to us not only from my friends and relatives but also from many different brothers, sisters, and lay Dominicans across the world. I’m very grateful to all of you.

A week ago we began the first classes of the new liturgical music studies of our Institute of Saint Thomas in Kyiv. Its founder is Fr. Thomas, who is not only a dogmatic theologian but also a musician. Fifteen people signed up, which is exactly the number of seats we had available. The students are from Kyiv, Lviv, Uchhorod, and Dnipro; and some lectures are also audited by professors and students from the Kyiv music conservatory who want to study the history of choral music and theological thought of western Christiany. I’m very happy that Fr. Thomas along with a team of his coworkers from Ukraine and Poland had the courage to accept the challenge of creating a new proposition for studies, despite such an uncertain time as during war.

Fr. Misha and the volunteers from the House of Saint Martin are getting ready for another trip to eastern Ukraine with humanitarian help. I hope that this time they will manage to reach the territories recently liberated from Russian occupation in the Kharkiv Oblast. This will already be their third trip. It’s no surprise that the citizens of the village of Vilkhuvatka, which is located only 10 km from the border with Russia, remember very well the previous visit of their guests from Fastiv. “It’s you! Look, I still have the bag in which you gave us food.” Apart from food, they will deliver warm comforters and things to help survive the coming winter. The volunteers also took aid for Odessa. Close to ten tons of food has already reached the city that gave shelter to many refugees from the south of the county. Our supplies also went to the newly liberated villages around Kherson and Mykolaiv, mostly through the intercession of local volunteers. Fr. Misha tells me that he and his coworkers are trying to help with a very difficult evacuation of a pregnant woman and her three small children. I hope it will be successful and they can find shelter in the House of Saint Martin in Fastiv.

From the chapel in the priory in Khmelnytskyi, one can see a large residential neighborhood. During morning prayer, as I saw the city waking up to life, I couldn’t help thinking about the future. What will happen to Ukraine over the next couple months? How will the Ukrainian cities look in the coming years? We are asking these questions very often in our conversations, and they usually end with the statement that the war will not end very soon. Yesterday during the prayers, we read a fragment of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes” of the Second Vatican Council about the fact that peace is not simply a lack of war but a fruit of justice and also that “peace is never established finally and for ever; the building up of peace has to go on all the time.” I have the impression that the fathers of the Council who in the great majority remembered the horrible times of the Second World War understood better than many of us what peace is, how difficult it is, and how much it costs. Fr. Thomas from Lviv recently shared this reflection: “It’s been eight months of war in Ukraine. And it still hasn’t changed: let us pray for peace. Let us remember that the USSR had been fighting for ‘peace’ during its whole existence. Russia continues. It’s time to pray for the victory of Ukraine, or at least for a victorious peace.” I understand Thomas’ commitment to reminding us about peace, which is a fruit of justice. Let us pray, then, for victory!

With great thanksgiving for all help offered to Ukraine, and with greetings and request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Khmelnytskyi, Monday, October 31, 8:10am 

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