For some people travelling is fun. For others it’s stressful. For me it’s both, and because of that, it’s an adventure. I often think of travelling as throwing yourself at the feet of Divine Providence because you never know what you’re going to encounter. By nature I am a planner, and being a good graduate of the Boy Scouts I want to be prepared for every possible future scenario. I also like to think that I can control the path ahead of me, or at least pilot myself though whatever oncoming rapids there may be. Living in Ukraine has made me realize and more-or-less accept the fact that both of these expectations are unreasonable, if not impossible. One reason for this: it seems that Ukrainians never plan anything ahead of time, much to the consternation of my German blood. This means a lot of last-minute announcements, changes, invitations, and such, and for me this means a mild chaos that is omnipresent, and perpetual obliviousness. (Okay, honestly of this could be due to that certain percentage of language barrier..)
This is, for sure, a huge cultural difference. But having been in Ukraine for a while now, I’ve warmed up to this, and actually kind of enjoy it. Like I said earlier: it’s an adventure. Because of the lack of plans and of that contrived trajectory that we Americans like to assert over our future, in Ukraine things seem to just organically happen. In this environment you have to be open to any and everything. My friends laugh at me because when someone suggests something or invites me somewhere I usually say, “why not?”. I say, “why not?” because if I don’t have any plans to the contrary, I don’t really have a good reason to say “no”.
Sometimes I say that I see and feel God’s presence most strongly in people. After all, each of us is made in His image and likeness, and the Holy Spirit prompts each and every one of us towards holiness and for the working out of God’s plans. So, when people give an invitation, I see it as an invitation from God in disguise. I try to always remember that God gives everything, and so each invitation or happenstance could be an opportunity to learn or experience something new and profitable. Besides, if no one else has plans, I’d rather not ruin His
Lots of great things come of this approach to life. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, seen beautiful things, and met and spent time with unexpected people, all because of a lack of plans and a simple, “why not?”. Even what one would normally label as a “mishap” or “misfortune” can turn into an adventure. For example, when I came to Ukraine last summer I had zero plans for visiting England. I had hoped to visit it someday, but had no plans to do so. Well, due to a miscommunication regarding my residence permit, I recently spent three weeks in London. Ten days prior to my budget flight to the UK (a one-way ticket, I might add to emphasize the lack of planning involved) embarking on such a trip at that time would have been unthinkable. But, God threw it in my lap, so I went. Yeah, I missed three weeks of class. But while I waited for a new Ukrainian visa I saw some great things, got to see an old friend, made some new friends, had some valuable experiences, and took advantage of an unexpected opportunity. I mean, why not?
Since I started on the subject, I’ll share a bit more. My Ukrainian visa was about to expire so I needed to leave the country and re-enter with a new visa. I found a $24 flight to a country where I speak the language (Poland is closer, but the language remains alphabet soup), and was offered a place to stay at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. So, finding myself in London and the only task on my agenda being “wait for visa”, I went sightseeing. The UK is admittedly more expensive that I would have liked, so I tried not to pay for anything other than food and public transport.
There are of course, the typical London sights that are free: Big Ben (was covered with scaffolding…), the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace (the day I went it was extremely rainy and the ceremony was canceled. What kind of guards are these?), the royal museums (really cool, a little overwhelming). There are also lots of churches in London. Since coming to Europe I’ve sort-of developed the hobby of photographing churches; and since churches are usually free, I did a lot of photography in them.
My time in London left me with two major cultural impressions, the first of which was had while I was at Evensong at Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. But first, a little background. My ancestors came from about ten different countries around the world, but I don’t have any ties to any of them. America is mostly a country of immigrants and thus, it seems to me, doesn’t really have a prevailing culture of its own. Because of these things, I’ve never considered myself as having any particular culture with which to identify or to cling to as “mine.” I’ve thought that to do so, to call myself “Irish” or “Portuguese”, for example, would be a laughable statement, if not offensive, to the people that live in those places or emigrated from them.
I know that an ancestor of mine came to America from England in the mid 1600’s, but this was never significant to me or really personal in any way. My family knows almost nothing about him. Yet while I was at Evensong at the Anglican cathedral, I read that “people have been worshiping in a church on this spot for 1,400 years,” and had the sudden thought that perhaps my great-great-great-(?)- grandfather from England prayed in this same spot where I’m sitting. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I don’t even know what part of England he was from or if he was Protestant or Catholic or something else. But for the first time in my life, I had the feeling of cultural connection, that I was somehow personally related to a place and people. If it wasn’t for the ground and the people on this island, my family and I wouldn’t exist. Pretty neat.
Since I was living at the cathedral I helped sing the services there, and even cantored the Divine Liturgy (in Ukrainian by myself!) a number of times. An American friend of mine is the reader at the Belorussian Greek-Catholic parish in London, so I spent a fair bit of time there. It was my first time at a Belorussian church, and my first time in months hearing our services in English!
The second impression I had was more linguistic in nature. Having been outside of the English-speaking world for several months, while in London I realized the luxury and ease of speaking one’s native language. Yet, I was exposed not just to the English language, but to a culture conveyed through and built by the English language. I frequently hear English spoken in Ukraine, but most of the time it is, like my Ukrainian, rudimentary and spoken to directly convey a simple message. What I found in England was eloquence–the ability to convey something with subtlety and elegance. I heard and gained a new appreciation for the traditional Christmas carols and the sublimity therein. I gained a new appreciation for just how many different facets and layers of language and culture are brought together in a single word or phrase to successfully make a joke and convey cleverness and wit. My Ukrainian is far below this level of fluency and thus, this experience gave me lofty goals. I have serious doubts of ever achieving them, but hey, why not?
The Power of Words
A further linguistic observation I had recently, though unrelated to my time in England, is the power of words. In the Byzantine tradition words are taken very seriously. In the liturgy we use them with great reverence, embroidering verbal tapestries to praise God. We sing everything in our services, but we don’t sing music with words in it, we sing words, because the words themselves are what have meaning. We also literally embroider words into vestments and altar linens, and paint them in icons, indicating the identity and nature of the saints and God Himself, consecrating these objects to their honor. Most significantly we have the written Scriptures. Not only are the Scriptures written words that tell us the love story of God’s salvatory plan, but John the Theologian and Evangelist tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and dwelt among us.” In Constantinople the Gospel Book was given a seat at councils, so that Christ would be present there among the members. In our churches the books of the Gospels, which we bind in precious metals and decorate most beautifully, is enthroned on the Holy Table, representing God’s heavenly throne above where the Word sits at the right hand of the Father. Words are very important and powerful things for us.
Yet I think that in the largely mono-linguistic world of America we take words for granted. After all, nearly everyone is literate, and we are positively inundated with the spoken and printed word in every form of media. Sadly, much of this is nonsense and people bandy about words purposelessly as if they have no value. Living in Ukraine has made me realize the importance and power that each individual word has. The comprehension of an entire sentence, paragraph, or even an entire conversation can depend on the proper understanding of a single word. I often find that I understand most of what someone is saying, but am not sure what they are talking about because I missed a word or two.
The truth is that words are tools. Growing up on a farm, I learned early in life that to get a job done properly, you need to use the right tools. If you use the wrong tool you might get the job done, but the end product isn’t going to be very pretty, because using the wrong tools will scratch, scrape, bend, and break the thing you’re working on. On the other hand, using the right tools coupled with a little skill results in fine craft that is functional and pleasant to look at. (If you don’t believe me, it’s true. I remember when I was about seven seeing my brother fasten the end a wire fence to a post and remarking how nice it looked. He was using a really good pair of pliers.) With a couple of the right tools you can get a job done simply and elegantly. With a larger variety of more sophisticated tools you can get a job done in a more complex and intricate way while still achieving functionality. In this instance I am thinking of carpentry: you can make a simple box with wood, a saw, and some glue, but if you have a set of chisels you can carve it very beautifully.
Let’s get back to words. If you have normal linguistic skills and a decent vocabulary you can adequately communicate in a direct fashion with no problem. If you have more skill and a greater vocabulary you can write poetry, powerful speeches, and beautiful works of prose. If you are still learning the language or are otherwise limited in the “tool” department, you might be able to get your point across and ultimately communicate, but it’s not elegant or eloquent and the final product comes out a little bit mangled. I will leave it to you to assume into which category my Ukrainian falls.
More Travels, etc.
I’ve rambled enough about things you probably aren’t interested in. If you’ve made it this far I’m impressed. (Was it the pictures?) In order to bring this article to a much-needed conclusion, I will briefly summarize what I’ve been up to in the month or so since I came back from England.
When I returned to Ukraine I had one last week of classes and then final exams. Given my prolonged absence and my linguistic handicap, it was only through grace of God and the mercy of my professors that I passed my exams. Also, I never imagined that I would give oral exams in a second language, but anyway.
When the semester finished on December 30th we had a week left of the fast before celebrating Nativity. So I took the opportunity to visit Univ Lavra for several days in preparation for Christmas. Univ is a wonderful place: a monastery with real monks and good liturgy situated in a very peaceful slice of countryside. It snowed when I was there, making it especially beautiful. (For more about Univ see my previous post.)
Christmas was spent with good friends, and I was especially grateful for their presence and hospitality.
After the feast I was invited to the home of a fellow seminarian, which is a several hours’ drive from L’viv. I spent a few days there visiting, exploring the city, and eating good home-cooked food (think pierogies, borshch, pelmeni,and the like).
For the feast of Theophany I went to central/eastern Ukraine on a seminary-organized mission. For the feasts of Nativity, Theophany, and Pascha seminarians volunteer to go out in twos and threes to help priests in the more ecclesially remote regions of the country. Western Ukraine is very densely Greek-Catholic, but other regions are much more Orthodox, if not also less religious on the whole.
I went with one other seminarian to the city of Kremenchuk, which is located a five-hour train ride down the Dnipro river from Kyiv. Kremenchuk is a relatively large city with a decent number of churches, but the only Greek-Catholic church is a little chapel, recently built in the yard of the priest’s house, where he lives with his wife and four children. On Sundays they have a congregation of about 25 people, and on the Nativity and Pascha up to 100. We helped by singing the services for the feast. My favorite part was the Theophany house blessings. We walked and bussed all over the city visiting parishioners and greeting them with holy water, the troparion of the feast, and the traditional carols of the season. We were often greeted with the standard Ukrainian hospitality of “tea or coffee,” which in America we would call a full meal.
Our train back from Kremenchuk stopped in Kyiv, so we took the opportunity to see some of the city. Kyiv is, of course, an ancient city and the birthplace of Slavic Christianity. It was here that Saint Prince Vladimir accepted the faith and his people were baptized in the river. Kyivan-Rus’ was centered around this city.
Hoping to see the Tomos of autocephaly recently granted to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine by Constantinople, we went to Saint Sophia Cathedral where it had been on display. St Sophia is a gorgeous and very important church. It was built in the 11th century, and served as the cathedral for the Kyivan Metropolitanate when it was under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is named after The Great Church (Hagia Sophia), since baptized Kyivan Rus’ modeled itself on the Eastern Roman Empire. Unfortunately the Tomos was not there–the lady at the desk informed me, “Metropolitan Epiphanios took it with him somewhere. We’re not really sure where.” I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime.
We also went briefly to the monastery of the Kyiv Caves (Pecherska Lavra), where saints Anthony and Theodosius lived out the monastic rule they brought from Constantinople.
Also notable is the central square of the city, known as Independence Square. It was here in 2014 that the Revolution of Dignity took place, and Ukrainians firmly asserted their desire to be an independent European nation rather than under Russia’s thumb. Since that time there has been ongoing war with Russia in the easternmost regions of Ukraine.
Upon my return to L’viv the new semester started and the excitement died down considerably. That’s good for you, because I’ve written far too much already. I’ll write more soon, after something interesting happens.
Pray for me.
Saints Anthony and Theodosius of the Kyiv caves, pray for us! Holy Great-Prince Vladimir, pray for us!
~Philip, a subdeacon