I do not have time to go to the church’s rosary for peace in Ukraine, but I go anyway. I have to do something, even though I feel like my small gesture will amount to nothing. So I drive our minivan to the Ukrainian Catholic Church a few towns over. The building is made of yellow brick with a scalloped roof; blue and yellow tulle bunting, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, hang along the handrails ascending the stairs.
Just inside the door, a woman in a fleece vest embroidered with the church’s name stands arranging donation envelopes and blue and yellow ribbons of remembrance on a table that also holds a sign advertising a St. Patrick’s Day corned beef dinner.
The church is small but slowly becomes full; the eldest members arrive first, then families with small children, then teenagers loping in last, shoulders slouched. The inside of the church is mostly painted gold, but in a way that feels organic, not ostentatious. We are surrounded by statues and saints, icons written onto the walls, angels with striking blue wings cradling church buildings in their arms. A dove looks down on us all.
I do not have time to go to the church’s rosary for peace in Ukraine, but I go anyway. I have to do something, even though I feel like my small gesture will amount to nothing.
A priest in a black cassock speaks in heavily accented English of receiving news from his parents and his many relatives who still live in Ukraine. “Putin does not care about his country,” he tells us. “He does not care about the world. Hopefully the world can stop him.”
In this tiny town, we begin to pray for the whole world.
The priest and scattered members of the congregation sing a song in (I assume) Ukrainian and (I assume) dedicated to Mary. They are singing loudly and passionately with strong, beautiful voices, but not necessarily well, and I like everyone even more because of this.
We pray the sorrowful mysteries. Each person is ready for their assigned decade, announcing their mystery with boldness. The agony in the garden. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” Together we pray the strange, small prayer between decades that often feels old-fashioned but today feels terrifyingly topical, as stories of residential apartment buildings hit by Russian missiles fill the news: Save us from the fires of Hell.
Perhaps in a moment of confusion about language, or poor acoustics, when the priest prays his decade of Hail Marys, I hear him say “blessed are those among women,” ten times over. The woman in front of me glides her fingers along her green glass rosary beads. The woman in the next pew snuggles her toddler, their faces close. In Ukraine, videos show dozens of pregnant women, and those who have just given birth, huddled together in bomb shelters turned maternity wards. Earlier in the day I cried watching a fleeing Ukrainian mother cry as she said goodbye to her adult son, who was staying in the country to fight.
We pray for perseverance. We pray for all those crucified on the cross of ego, of politics, of greed.
The final prayer washes over us: Hail, Holy Queen…. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
We are there on the first day of the Great Fast—Lent in the Byzantine rite church—and so the congregation is invited to conduct prostrations. This is a penitential ritual that has elderly members of the faithful falling to their knees over and over, touching their heads to the floor and singing in their native tongue a song I later would learn translates to a request to avoid “a spirit of slothfulness, of negligence, of lust of power, of vain babbling.” Instead they ask to secure “the spirit of continence, of meekness, of patience and of love.” And, as tanks slowly crawled across their ancestral homeland, they pray, “Yea, Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my transgressions and judge not my brother, for You are blessed forever and ever.”
When the singing is over, the woman with the parish-branded fleece vest stands and thanks everyone for coming and asks if anyone has anything they want to share, which is always a dicey question in church.
At the front of the church, near where an American flag, a Vatican flag and a Ukrainian flag stand in a row, a woman with long, dark curly hair and a black puffy winter coat rises to her feet and smiles. “As you can tell, we are Muslim,” she says while gesturing to about a dozen family members—serious looking men, women in headscarves, children in masks—seated beside her. Under the cobalt domed ceiling, the angels with long trumpets, she says she came to America from Turkey three years ago to flee the fighting there. She says the experience of sharing this rosary has left her emotional, that Mary is so special to the Muslim faith, too. She tells us how her family wanted to be here in solidarity with the suffering of people in Ukraine, and she invites everyone to events at their faith community.
The woman in the vest has tears in her eyes. There is a beat, and then people begin to call out their appreciation for her gesture. And we all start to rise as the priest and the woman in the vest remind us of the envelopes and the websites where we can donate money. They promise that the money will not go to support war but will support people suffering because of it. They urge us to contact politicians to advocate for no-fly zones. People line up to speak with the Muslim woman, to shake her hand, smile at the children, nod to the men.
“As you can tell, we are Muslim,” she says, and that the experience of sharing this rosary has left her emotional, that Mary is so special to the Muslim faith, too.
When I get home, I learn that a 40-mile-long convoy of tanks is headed to Kyiv. I draw a sharp breath as my stomach drops. Everything feels worse than it was before I left. And so it goes, those moments of exquisite grace and excruciating pain, inextricably bound on the world stage. Had I really expected our prayers to make an instant difference?
Save us from the fires of Hell.
I close my eyes and see the church again, a tiny building in a small town where nothing happens, except maybe tonight something does, even if it’s not what we thought we asked for. I see the infant napping in her stroller and the elderly kneeling, the prayers shouted to the heavens, a man in a Red Sox jacket and a priest in a cassock. I see it all conclude with the Ukrainian Catholics, Roman Catholics and Muslims embracing. At the front of the church the shimmering icon of the Theotokos shelters us all under her veil.
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