“Grief everywhere, Everywhere terror, and all shapes of death.”
Virgil, The Aeneid
War is a horror. And as there is consistently war somewhere, in our ‘connected’ world we learn to live under the cloud of war. Yet some wars are more proximate, engaging us more directly. It is but natural that we give these more attention. It is not that the suffering of those closer to us is more significant than other human suffering. There are simply expanding rings of connection, influence, and obligation in human life.
I am no student of world politics or the finer points of history. There is much that is beyond my ken and will remain there. As such, I know I must be very reticent in prognosticating about what is or is not happening right now, and even what should or should not happen. Yet I cannot simply check-out. This war makes demands on me.
A word of background: I do have special reason to feel this deeply. I am married to the daughter of Ukrainian refugees from World War II; to be more precise, refugees from the return of the Bolsheviks to Ukraine (and the extension of Soviet control further west) at the end of the war. For many years I have heard stories—from the lips of those who saw with their own eyes, nay more, who simply lived it, and were fortunate enough to escape.
The will of the Ukrainian people to fight has amazed the world—and apparently also the invaders themselves. I know I must avoid oversimplification, but I cannot but see this through my experience of those who emigrated in the mid 40’s. Knowing the Ukrainians I know, the intensity of Ukraine’s defense comes as no surprise. There is a time to escape, and a time to stay and fight. Already broken by resistance to the Nazis, Ukrainians (those I speak of were in the west of Ukrainian territory) had very little left with which to oppose the Bolsheviks. Some had the opportunity to leave, and took it, in hope of returning one day—a day that for most would never come. (My grandmother-in-law left behind many things her father had crafted for her out of wood; she took with her three precious kitchen tools.)
The history of Ukraine is particularly complex. Referring to his time in Soviet prison camps, the great Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: “But extensive experience of friendly contacts with Ukrainians in the camps has shown me how much of a painful grudge they hold. Our generation will not escape from paying for the mistakes of our fathers.” I find it significant that Solzhenitsyn recognized how crucial it would be that in the post-Soviet era Russia respect a Ukrainian desire for independence—while at the same time Ukrainians deal justly with the challenge of the intermingling of Russians among them.
The will of the people of Ukraine to remain an independent nation is being boldly manifested. The details of an appropriate response on the part of America is, again, beyond my prudence. It certainly calls for historical knowledge, a conception of the real common good, and a courageous adherence to moral principle.
Does this seem too much to hope for? Well, it seems to me that regardless of how America as a nation will respond to this war, it remains in my power to do three things.
First, I can engage in public discourse. Even if I am not in a position to make a significant contribution to it, I know what I would like to see and hear. So I will keep speaking, and listening, as best I can, and supporting the reasonable voices I find.
Second, I can seek concrete ways to support those who are suffering. For me this takes the form of financial contribution to the Church in Ukraine, which is well-positioned to provide fitting aid.
Third, I can pray and fast. Recourse to prayer as a replacement for other actions constitutes a failure. Nonetheless prayer is a powerful and appropriate human response. Sometimes, there is little else concrete that we can do. Always, it is among the most important things we can do. Prayer joined with fasting becomes something uniquely rich. Fasting prevents prayer from being an all-too-easy self-referential project. Fasting helps us put our heart into prayer; and heart and prayer always go together.
Such prayer has manifold fruits, not least of which is uniting those who pray and those prayed for. Indeed, for this reason I can pray for aggressors too, and for countless others involved on all sides who are victims of human selfishness. Such prayer and fasting can also help assure that fewer will be the victims of our own selfishness.
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