I am writing this in the air above Ukraine, as I fly from Kyiv back to London. My reasons for the trip were manifold, but included meeting with people at the Ukrainian Catholic University (a hugely impressive institution in Lviv, representing the first and only Catholic University on the soil of the former USSR, and an inspiring model for the contemporary revival of classical education with an ad fontes approach to ideas), and of course picking up some of the Eastern Church supplies that are almost impossible to come by in the UK. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few observations in response. Here are two:
1. In the few days I was back in Lviv, I did nothing but wear my cassock for the first time since my ordination to the priesthood. Indeed, as I walked around the streets of the city with my Roman Catholic brother priest (also dressed in cassock, but who, I hasten to add, was in a pleasingly distinct minority in relation to us Greek Catholics! Ah, how the tide turned as soon as the plane landed!), it was quite a thing to experience the reactions of the generally-devout people. I cannot count, for example, the number of times we were greeted with the traditional ‘Slava Isusu Christu’ (Glory to Jesus Christ) by young and old alike. The number of blessings given on the street, meanwhile, while perhaps not uncountable, were many.
The significance of this experience operates on at least two levels. First, it is a reminder to me that the power of the symbols has not waned. Second, it is a reminder to me of my own role as priest, when daily work means it can often be obscured.
2. Ukraine may have its share of challenges, both economic and political, but there are so many aspects of its life that Western countries could look to and learn from. Above all, there is a vein of tradition in Ukraine that runs through the land like a precious deposit for mining. I pray it can withstand the assault of modern Europe, but while it does, it serves as a reminder of many good things: from the integration of the religious with the technological worldview, to the benefits of subscribing to a common aesthetic instinct. Indeed, Ukraine is entirely modern and fully engaged with the developments that drive the rest of the world, yet many patterns of behaviour and cultural features are reflective of an ancient, less urban sensibility. At the same time, at least in a place like Lviv, beauty asserts itself in everything from the look of the streets to a common dress code. And this is not unimportant. If Dostoyevsky’s faith in the power of beauty to save the world (as expressed in ‘The Idiot’) is not misplaced, then I hope Ukrainians never let go of their own expression of it with its hint of traditional costume mixed with personal extravagance, and little concession to the generic and bland.
Ultimately, Ukraine is worthy of attention well beyond what it receives in the Western media, and even from its own chroniclers. I think that, now the country has emerged in a coherent form after centuries under the yoke of Poland, Austria, and latterly Russia, her people, her land, her poets, her food, and her drink, all deserve to be celebrated as the hearty and wonderful things they are – positively and joyfully. I look forward to returning to Ukraine very soon, but I also look forward to exporting what I can of her gifts through my work in Britain now.