Earlier this week marked exactly one year since I arrived in Ukraine from the United States. It certainly does not feel like a year has passed. Or perhaps as I get older a year is a less and less significant chunk of time. In any case, a year has passed, and it feels as if I only just arrived, and am finally beginning to get my feet wet.
Yet at the same time, a year is quite a long period of time and a lot has happened since I left the States: I’ve seen many new things and been in many new places; my Ukrainian has vastly improved; I’ve made friends and acquaintances; I’ve learned a few things in the classroom. Yet all these things happen gradually, and are often difficult to notice and appreciate. For example, while I am told that my ability to speak Ukrainian is significantly better than a year ago, from one week to the next I feel no difference.
The changes that I feel the most are those that I don’t perceive gradually. This mostly concerns all those things back home that are changing without me there to watch them. It sometimes feels like watching a train go by — that the world back home, my world, has gone on without me. As I live here my nieces and nephews get bigger and bigger. My brother and his wife have a four-month-old baby I’ve never met. My goddaughter has recently learned to walk. I have missed a good number of my friends’ weddings, baptisms, and ordinations.
My time in Ukraine has led me to, or rather forced me, to practice detachment from those things that aren’t in the here-and-now. Detachment doesn’t mean I don’t love and miss my friends and family back home, for I very much do. This means that I can’t live with my head in the clouds, and can’t pretend that I have any control over, or any real participation or influence in, the world across the ocean. I am not there, and it is not here — to think otherwise would be delusional. Thus, despite my wanting to be there, detachment means letting things happen without me and not mourning my absence from those events and changes.
Yet, the most drastic change we encounter via the swift passage of time is death. In the last year, four people who had notable positive influence in my life died unexpectedly: a scoutmaster from my youth who taught me many things; a protodeacon who always had a kind and encouraging word and a twinkle in his eye; an old Irishman who gave the finest example of priestly servitude, but never let anyone pass by without a good-hearted tease; the incredibly generous and gentle-hearted carpenter with whom I worked very closely for the last several months I was home. Naturally, I would have liked more time with each of these people to learn from them, to appreciate their gifts, skills, and insights, and to prepare to say goodbye. Yet their deaths were, at least to me, unexpected, and I was not given opportunity for such preparation.
Death, being a somber theme that people avoid, is nearly always met with unpreparedness, despite the fact that it is one of the few certainties in this life (according to the old adage, the other being taxes). Yet, in the Christian worldview, this earthly life must be continual and constant preparation for death–after all, the 70 years of a normal life-span, “or eighty if they are strong” (psalm 89:10), is but the blink of an eye when compared with eternity. For this reason, the saints teach that the Christian faithful should think of death often, and be always prepared for death. Because of Christ’s crucifixion, in which he “trampled down death by death,” Christians have no need to fear death. That is, the Christian who lives a holy life and is not enslaved to sin and evil has no need to fear the death of the body, for Christ has already given life to his immortal soul. So, leading a righteous and sinless life is one aspect of being prepared for death.
A second aspect of being prepared for death is detachment. This is often captured in the phrase “death to the world,” which emphasizes that we must live in such a way that we are not bound to the cares of this world. Though this overlaps with the previous aspect specifically in terms of living free from sinful passions, I have a broader view in mind. A Christian should not be enslaved by anything, even by good things. Or, if the word “enslaved” is too strong: A Christian should not forget what is important, and what is not. It is very easy to become quite attached to our favorite routines, physical possessions, and comfort foods while forgetting that, at the end of the day, those things are simply not important. We cannot take them with us when we go. My time here in Ukraine has in many ways been an exercise in this regard. Not only have I been forced to be detached from those events going on back home, but living in a foreign country and travelling in general requires one to leave behind his customary zone of comfort and expectations of normal. Nothing teaches detachment from physical possessions like trying to get your luggage on a budget airline.
Another aspect is the instruction that Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians, “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (4:26-27); that is, to always be at peace with those around us. There is the need to live in the here and now, to say what needs to be said when we have the opportunity to say it, and not presume that another opportunity will reveal itself. This is especially emphasized for clergy who serve the Divine services. The priest’s service book, echoing Christ’s words in Matthew 5:24 instructs: “The priest who intends to celebrate the Divine Liturgy should, above all, be reconciled with everyone; hold nothing against anyone; and, in as much as he can, harbor no evil in his heart.” One goal of the Christian life is to always live in this state of being reconciled with all and not harboring evil, and thus peacefully pass into eternity. Yet, being prepared for death does not always mean being prepared for one’s own death, but also for the death of those around him. I want to refer back to those unexpected deaths I mentioned earlier. If one lives his life always ready to encounter death, he will never find himself regretting that his last words to so-and-so were unkind, or that some offense passed without an apology. I am thankful that I was at peace with my friends that died, and, though I don’t remember them exactly, I am sure that our last words were pleasant.
With that, dear reader, I ask you to offer a small prayer for the repose of the soul of the servant-of-God Bohdan, who died earlier this week, and for Maria, his daughter and my friend who was not expecting his death.
To end this article on a slightly happier note, it’s finally summer! Though the official first day of summer was June 1st, for me it began upon the successful completion of my last exam earlier this week. Tomorrow my parents fly in for a couple weeks of sightseeing with a free private translator and tour guide. I am looking forward to introducing them to my friends and showing them what my life has been like for the last year. About half my summer is already planned with various trip and visits. Don’t worry, I’m sure there will be plenty of pictures! A word about the weather for those of you unfamiliar with this region: in stark contrast to the popular image of the Eastern-European winter, a Ukrainian summer is hot and extremely humid, with frequent thunder and lightening storms. Did I mention that Ukrainians generally don’t have air conditioning or drink things with ice? The Californian in me has still not figured out how to cope in this environment.
Until next time.
Pray for me.
With the saints, O Lord, grant rest and eternal memory.
~Philip, a subdeacon