You’ve heard me say it, the Liturgical seasons are a gift from the Church. I always find a new season comes right when I need it the most! This can be a gift and a challenge at the same time. For example, Lent!
Lent, can be an overwhelming time. A challenge for me is to approach It authentically and with my heart open to truly encountering God. With an open heart we allow God to journey with us, turning away from all that makes us spiritually sick and keeps us from Him and the fullness of life and love. If we don’t have this openness, it’s easy to get pulled into every book study, email challenge, and retreat opportunity. With good intention, we fill our time In the desert with holy noise. It’s as if we get tricked into thinking that if we fill our 40-days to the brim, we will somehow come out of Lent victorious!
For years, I was like that. What changed? I learned that Lent, and our overall faith journeys, are all about relationships. They are not about doing the most, or taking on today’s most popular Lenten challenge.
Lent invites us to open our hearts and to put everything into the right order. That, my friends, will lead us into communion. That is, relationship with God and right relationship with ourselves and our neighbor.
The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are intended to heal relationships and bring about a greater depth in them. They are to draw us to God. In doing so we look deeply into ourselves. We see more clearly who God has designed us to be and to what He is calling us.
The Men and Women of Ukraine
As we watch the news, “neighbors” have been very present in our hearts, have they not? The men and women of Ukraine are on our hearts, in our prayers, and have our complete attention. The war on Ukraine is colliding with the Lenten season. They are part of this liturgical season. They need our increased love, attention, spiritual and financial gifts, communication, and a sincerity of heart when it comes to loving God and taking our worship seriously. They have shown us how important this all is. The Ukrainians have shown us what it means to be in relationship… they have shown us what it means to be human!
I am seeking after how to authentically be in communion with God, myself, and neighbor this Lent and I want to invite you to this as well. That’s why I interviewed Olenka Laschuk – Ukrainian Canadian, wife of Ukrainian Catholic priest Father Alexander Laschuk, and mother of two.
Olenka’s background is in philosophy, specifically Thomistic metaphysics, and she is currently writing her thesis on the theology of woman in Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Olenka speaks from her heart as she shares her own history, vocation, the beauty of Ukraine and her people, and even the Lenten practices of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (which you may decide to take on yourself this Lent as an act of solidarity with the Ukrainian people), and how we can be in greater communion with Ukraine. Lent is all about communion. That’s what Olenka invites us into in her deep sharing. Let’s dive in.
Q: Tell me about yourself (family of origin, faith tradition, your vocation, etc.)
A: I grew up as the oldest daughter in a Ukrainian Catholic priest’s family of six. My parents were born in Canada, my grandparents, born in Ukraine, came to Canada as displaced persons after the second world war. My father’s grandfather was a priest, and before him, we come from a long line of priests.
I had many common priest-kid experiences growing up. Notably cantoring for my dad from a very early age, stumbling through the readings, messing up the tones. I grew up in a kind of fishbowl, so parishioners or even people in the wider Ukrainian community, would judge how I behaved, what I wore, with whom I socialized, and how.
This was a life that I knew well, and unlike other priests’ kids I knew, I actually really liked it. I always knew I wanted to be married to a priest. I am not a sacramental theologian, and there has not been enough serious scholarship on the subject, but having grown up in a priest’s family, and living in one now, I really do think that when a man becomes ordained, this ontological transformation does affect his wife, as being one body with her, in some real way.
In fact, in Greek, the title for a priest wife is the feminized version of the word “priest,” in Russian her proper address is “mother” (in the same way her husband is addressed as “father”) suggesting that in cultures where priest wives are the norm, this presbyteral affect is culturally and even linguistically acknowledged (in Ukrainian the term for a priest’s wife has changed over the past decades, although the terms also point to this phenomenon). What exactly her role is, her vocation, her distinction, that is one of those questions many people try to answer, although none seem to be able to quite capture it.
I would argue that this is not surprising. Besides dispensing sacraments, what would be a universal description of a priestly vocation? The answers will be dissatisfying for the simple reason that there are many ways to be a priest, in the same way that there are many different kinds of marriages, many different kinds of theologies, many different devotions, kinds of saints, methods to pray, etc… This is not to say that there is nothing universal, notably canonical rights and obligations, but that in cases where the universal seems more elusive, it is perhaps more helpful to speak about particulars.
My husband and I had anticipated being in full-time pastoral ministry, but as providence would have it, we find ourselves in full-time curial and canonical ministry.
What is proper to Ukrainian Catholic theology, spirituality, liturgical practice, etc., has been more seriously considered since the second Vatican Council. Our sacramental theology, liturgy (including a separate liturgical calendar), spirituality (including style of worship, religious art, etc.), among other points are distinct from Roman Catholic tradition. While my family would often go to confession to Roman Catholic Churches, because we cannot go to confession to our father or husband, I never felt at home at Mass, always a guest.
We were raised as Ukrainians living in Canada. Actively engaged in Canadian civic life, but our identity is unmistakably Ukrainian. I remember the first time I visited Ukraine, it was the first time I truly felt at home, I didn’t have to seek out my Ukrainian community or Church, everywhere I went, I was finally not a foreigner.
Q: Dive into the beauty of the people, faith, land of Ukraine. What do you want readers to know?
A: While it is not possible for words to encapsulate the beauty of all things Ukrainian, I will make an inadequate attempt. Ukraine is a European culture, and so it is different in its sensibilities from North American culture. There is a very strong culture of hospitality. The importance of bread cannot be overstated. A traditional Ukrainian greeting is a presentation and sharing of bread and salt. Ukrainians host very generously by North American standards. Likewise, visitors will never come empty-handed.
The history of Ukraine is tragic, and so the culture in many ways is shaped by a history of suffering, resistance, and national awareness and pride. For much of Ukrainian history it was an act of defiance to even identify as Ukrainian throughout various occupations. It is not surprising that Ukrainian music is almost always in the minor key, and much of Ukrainian folk music is about war, lost love, or love for and the beauty of Ukraine.
There are several instruments that are specifically Ukrainian: the bandura (a kind of small harp held in the lap seated), tsymbaly (a board with strings across it that are hit with little hammers, almost like the inside of a piano), just to name two. Ukrainians also have a style of singing which translates to “white voice,” and is characterized by a kind of voice shaking that is used, for example, not only by folk singers but modern bands like Dakha Brakha (ethno-chaos), and Go_A (electro-folk).
Widely known Ukrainian folk art is the pysanka (Easter eggs), and vyshyvka (embroidery) both of which have regional patterns and symbolism. Universally, they are both central to Ukrainian culture. Lesser known are a style of painting called petrikivka of central Ukraine (popular on objects as well as white-washed houses), the ‘bleeding’ technique of ceramic painting of Carpathian regions, among so many other traditional and folk art forms. These traditional forms of music and art are often intermixed with the modern creating a kind of continuity and preservation of the folk culture not as history, but currently relevant and living culture.
Besides music and art, there is also dance, dress, food, etc., but Ukrainian culture is also rich in traditions for which there are not easy comparisons. And much of what is general cultural tradition is rooted or intertwined with religion. The Ukrainian Church (both Orthodox and Catholic, theologically divided by hierarchy rather than foundational precepts of the faith, and culturally and liturgically all but indistinguishable) has influenced Ukrainian culture, and likewise Ukrainian folk culture has influenced the expression of the Ukrainian Church, especially iconography, liturgical singing, and architecture.
Notably also, this cultural-religious interplay is evident immediately in the lived everyday culture. A common Ukrainian greeting is the greeting appropriate for the liturgical calendar: “Glory be to Jesus Christ” with the reply “Glory Forever” in normal time, “Christ is Born!” with the response “Glorify Him!” in Christmas time, and “Christ is Risen!” with the response “Truly He is Risen” in Paschal time.
Ukrainian cultural celebrations of liturgical feasts are fundamental to Ukrainian culture. For example the blessing of fruits on the feast of the Transfiguration, the blessing of water on Theophany (feast of the Jordan), the exchange of and playing with pysanky on Pascha (Easter), the water fight on Easter Monday, etc.
Christmas is perhaps the best example of this, the traditional vegan (not including fish) 12-course meal on Christmas Eve is heavily ritualized, there are so many Ukrainian carols, and caroling traditions, even a traditionally traveling dramatized crèche.
Fasting restrictions, even, are inseparable from Ukrainian culture. There are books on only the cultural traditions associated with Christmas, and many many others on the various other aspects of Ukrainian culture. This is the dominant culture, although Ukraine is a pluralistic society, where Jewish, Muslim, and even ancient pagan traditions have their own Ukrainian expression. Notably the Muslim Crimean Turks have a distinct culture which has been targeted, and the people brutalized since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The land itself is bigger, richer, and more beautiful and diverse than people realize. See this video put out by The Ministry of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine. The Churches in Ukraine date back to 11th century and are reportedly now a target in an attempt to terrorize and demoralize Ukrainians.
Both Hitler and Stalin, like previous invaders, wanted Ukraine because of its wheat production, among other rich natural resources. Although, perhaps its most valuable resource has always been its people. Historically, Ukrainians have been used for their labor and skills, and even today, it is easy to understand why Putin would want to claim Ukrainian human resources for Russia. The airplane Mriya-225 has been bombed, “mriya” translated from Ukrainian means “dream.” Although, as the war is going on it has become clear that Putin is interested in the Ukrainian population, targeting and terrorizing civilians as a deliberate strategy, even to the point of intentionally endangering the security of a nuclear power plant.
What I think a lot of Ukrainians are very happy to see now, is that the world is seeing Ukraine for Ukraine. For too long Ukraine has been seen as some post-Soviet state, still somewhat in Russia’s so-called ‘sphere of influence.’ The truth is that Ukraine is not Russia, and never has been. Ukraine or portions of Ukrainian territories throughout history have been occupied by Russia and other countries and empires. However, the current confusion of what Ukraine is, and who Ukrainians are, has been a calculated effort on the part of the Kremlin to maintain whatever power possible over territories and people who they conquered and subjugated in the Soviet period. Much of Ukrainian culture and politics have likewise been tainted by the collective trauma inflicted by the Soviet regime, and it is steadily rediscovering itself and rejecting these toxic remnants.
Q: As a Canadian-Ukrainian Catholic woman (and a wife and mother), what are you experiencing right now?
A: As all of my Ukrainian friends outside of Ukraine, we are horrified, and mobilized, in a near constant state of alarm. We are trying to stay on top of the news, fighting disinformation, which is a big part of this war, coordinating relief, demonstrating, lobbying our governments to do more, looking into how to sponsor those fleeing, finding ways to help, often feeling a deep sense of anxiety and guilt over not being there where our friends, families, and fellow Ukrainians are resisting and fighting so valiantly in the face of brutal war crimes.
Many of us outside of Ukraine have taken time off work to help. Feeling at once exhausted, and unable to sleep, but also that all our vigilance and efforts are wildly insufficient. As irrational as it is, I have two young children, and I have no reason to think I would be useful on the front, I must continually remind myself that what I am doing here, taking care of my children, raising them to be proud Ukrainians in a loving home that is not being bombed is worthwhile, and that enlisting is not a real option.
I know I am not alone. Many of my friends have similar pangs. The pull to go and help is palpable. The grief, and feeling of helplessness can become overwhelming. Many also have gone to join the Ukrainian army. Many of our friends in Ukraine do not want to leave because they do not want to abandon their fathers and brothers, the war effort, Ukraine.
Q: How are you approaching the topic of this crisis with your children?
A: Children, as all people, are different. While there are some sensitive children, as there are sensitive adults, I believe most children can appreciate more than what we usually expect of them. For example, I do not understand why it is common for North American parents not to bring their children to funerals. Of course, each parent knows their child best, but my own daughter is nearly 8 years old.
Besides graphic photos of bodies, there is little about the war that we shield from her. She knows that children are bunkering in bomb shelters, she knows that Russian soldiers are hiding bombs in toys and leaving them on the street for children as a form of terrorism (the government warned parents to not pick up anything found in the streets), she knows they are bombing residential building, children’s hospitals, and ambulances. She needs to know. Human suffering is a part of life.
We live in the Toronto downtown core. She sees people with no place to live and nothing to eat almost daily. She also knows that she is extremely privileged, and that privilege comes with responsibility. She knows that on judgment day she will be asked to account how she used her privilege. How will she answer if she is ignorant of or indifferent to the suffering of those to whom she has a responsibility? We pray for Ukraine, and I know she tells her friends about the war and asks them to pray as well. I have, however, told her to not share about drones dropping bombs on Russian tanks with her school friends.
Q: How can non-Ukrainians understand the current crises better?
A: Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum are great historians, they are also writing about what is happening and have been writing about Ukraine and warning about Putin for a while. Much of the world incorrectly assumed for a long time that Putin was not a good man, but that he was reasonable enough of a leader with whom to conduct business. Both Timothy Snyder’s and Anne Applebaum’s twitter feeds are helpful to follow. In addition, here are two articles that explain these important points well:
- Lithuania’s prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, says Russia’s invasion was predictable
- The Impossible Suddenly Became Possible
I would also warn to be wary of Russian disinformation or any discussion of especially “complicated” history. Russian propaganda does not seek to convince you of the Kremlin position, it seeks to confuse you so that you do nothing, or even compromise mobilization against Russia’s war.
Q: How can your Catholic sisters reading this be in solidarity with you? Are there any Ukrainian-Catholic Lenten traditions that we can join you in?
A: The power of prayer cannot be overstated. Please pray for Ukraine! Please also pray for Russians, that they may stand up to their government, that soldiers refuse to target civilians and even surrender when they realize that there are no Nazis in Ukraine as they have been told.
Ukrainians, as mentioned earlier, have a different liturgical calendar, and so our Lent overlaps this year, but does not line up. Also, Byzantine Lenten and fasting tradition is different from the Latin. Generally, the traditional Lenten observance, as traditional for all fasting periods, is abstinence from animal products (not including fish, although this is specific to Slavic Byzantine Christians), alcohol (not including beer), oil, and no dancing to music.
Another difference in Lenten observance is that in the West the emphasis is more on the canonically minimum requirement, and then people often adopt personal additional observances. In the East there are minimum canonical requirements, but the emphasis is placed more on the maximum observance and encouraging people to observe what they can in line with these traditional Lenten observances, not encouraging personal or unique Lenten observances.
Perhaps, if you are so inclined, you might consider abstaining from meat for Lent, perhaps even dairy for those who already abstain from meat for the duration of Lent. This is also a way in which to eat more simply, not only for your own spiritual needs but in order to save that money otherwise spent on more extravagant foods on the poor, or perhaps this year, on the humanitarian crisis the war has caused in Ukraine. CNEWA is a Catholic organization that has been working in Ukraine for years and is well equipped and connected to help people fleeing or displaced from the war which is especially important now as Russia is blocking humanitarian relief efforts (by the Red Cross for example) from establishing themselves in Ukraine. To help the Ukrainian people, click on the drop-down menu and select “Ukraine.”
As much as it is not a traditional corporal work of mercy to inform the ignorant, perhaps it might be considered a new addition. For anyone interested in helping educate Russians who are being fed by their state propaganda that there is no war, that the violence is perpetrated by Ukrainians on Ukrainians, that Russian presence is merely in a peacekeeping capacity, you can go to google maps, find restaurants in Russia, and write reviews telling Russians what is really happening and that their government is lying to them. Five star reviews garner more attention, one star reviews also if you are reviewing a state-owned establishment.
A sample review could read: Еда бьіла отличной! К сожалениию, Путин испортил наши аппетиты, вторгшись в Украину. Противостаньте своему диктатору, прекпатите убивать невинных людей! Ваше правительство лжет вам. Вставай!
(The food was great! Unfortunately Putin’s invasion of Ukraine spoiled our appetites. Stand up to your dictator, stop the killing of innocent people! Your government is lying to you! Stand up! [as in resist])
Q: What should readers know about being a Ukrainian Catholic?
A: There is a lot to know about Ukrainian Catholics. We have a fairly interesting history, as most Ukrainian history. But most importantly I would say that our theological and spiritual heritage is from Constantinople, rather than Rome.
We are Byzantines, and our theology, sacraments, canon law, traditions, liturgy, spirituality, sacramentals, monastic tradition, ecclesiology, etc., are distinct. We have more in common with Orthodox Christians in these respects.
We have an understanding of ecclesial hierarchy that is compatible with Roman ecclesiology, unlike the Orthodox, and we have an understanding of marriage as indissoluble, like Roman Catholics. Perhaps most importantly, we are just as Catholic as Roman Catholics. Despite our numbers, our Church history and identity are ancient.
Q: Are there specific songs or prayers we can participate in to be close to the Ukrainian people?
A: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Facebook page is currently posting live videos of prayer for Ukraine which for my family have been a great consolation at this time. A favorite of mine is the Jesus Prayer, which is the prayer used for meditative prayer. In English it is “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me/us a sinner/sinners.”
This is the prayer I would always pray as a child whenever I was scared, and it continues to be the prayer I pray whenever I am anxious, or in need of any consolation. The meditative prayer is an important part of Eastern Christian spirituality and has its own theology, as the rosary is in Roman Catholic spirituality.
If you are interested in Ukrainian pop music, Mad Heads is my daughter’s favorite band, they are a kind of ska-style rock band.
If ska isn’t your thing, Okean Elzy SKAI, and Kozak System are rock bands, ONUKA is electro-folk, TNMK is hiphop, Alyona Alyona is popular rapper, Tarabarova is a pop singer.
Pursuing Communion This Lent
What can we learn this Lent? God made you and me for communion. In fact, we don’t make sense outside of relationship. Mother Teresa once said: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
A relationship with God begins with an invitation from Him. He is constantly inviting you to be in communion with Him. All He can do is invite. We must respond to His generous invitation and allow Him to draw us to Himself.
The same is true for relationships with others. We have an invitation to be in relationship, in communion with the Ukrainian people. They are teaching the world that we belong to each other. It is up to each one of us to respond to this invitation.