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If you doubt the power of prayer, consider this insight from Ukraine

Taking shelter from bombs in Ukraine


John Burger - published on 02/28/24

How a religious leader dealing with fear, loss, and suffering in Ukraine provides a timely example for our own "spiritual warfare." Part 1 of a series.

The season of Lent is a challenge to Christians trying to grow closer to God. As ashes fade from the forehead, so too the initial burst of enthusiasm. Resolutions often are forgotten – even by the second week of the penitential season.

But some people in the world have little choice but to fast and pray, whether they be Sudanese mothers desperate to find a morsel of food to feed their children or Gazan families paralyzed by fear as bombs fall on their neighborhoods.

If our Lenten resolve to practice self-denial and spend more time in prayer needs a revival, looking to the experience of those in extreme situations might be helpful.

Take the people of Ukraine, for example. For more than 10 years, the Eastern European country has been defending itself from foreign aggression, including a major escalation of attacks beginning in February 2022. The war has affected everyone, due to high numbers of military and civilian casualties, widespread destruction, and frequent attacks on civil infrastructure. As politicians and others from outside Ukraine suggest that Kyiv give up some of its land in exchange for peace, the Catholic Church in occupied territories is beginning to be banned. 

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has been outspoken since 2014, when Russia first annexed Crimea. He has relied on a deep spirituality to offer moral support for his flock. Based on an interview His Beatitude gave to Aleteia this month, we will be focusing on a spiritual response to war that he has offered. It is a spirituality that might just help the ordinary Christian engaged in his or her own “spiritual warfare,” particularly during Lent.

What prayer is

Prayer is not a mere recitation of words, nor is it a ritual, His Beatitude Sviatoslav says. Prayer is a “power” that comes from one’s communion with God.

One could be forgiven for regarding those as empty words, something along the lines of “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” But for those who are, in His Beatitude’s words, “living in the midst of adversities, pain, tragedy, and constant danger of death,” they are not empty at all. 

He explained how the Church in Ukraine, responding to the effects of war, is engaged in a “pastoral service in the midst of grief and sorrow, pastoral care of people who are suffering.” Often, those who minister to the bereaved, such as a young wife who just learned of her husband’s death at the front line, find that they have no meaningful words to offer.

“You can only be present, crywith those people and share their pain,” the patriarch says.

But by sharing in a person’s pain, a minister trying to bring comfort brings that pain into his own heart.

“You have to be careful what you will do with this overwhelming pain in your heart,” Sviatoslav says.

And the only answer, he says, is that the person comforting another must pray.

“This is how we are rediscovering – in the midst of the pastoral way to accompany the sorrow – the importance of prayer, because prayer is not a symbol, a ritual, a simple ceremony. A prayer is a power which goes through your heart. Prayer is communion with God. Prayer is something which transforms you and the reality around you.”

Prayer can literally save you

Just as fasting and self-denial can be a little easier if you remember that some people in the world are starving, one’s prayer life can get a boost from knowing that there are good reasons to pray.

Kyiv was the prime target of Russia’s invasion of February 24, 2022. It was Moscow’s intention to “decapitate” Ukraine’s government and install a puppet regime. As missiles landed in and around the capital, a column of tanks started moving from Russia-friendly Belarus to Kyiv. Residents of the capital headed to basements and deep subway stations. The Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ turned its basement into a bomb shelter.

News emerged in subsequent weeks that Russian agents had also infiltrated Kyiv and were planning to neutralize political and civic leaders who would certainly not cooperate with Russia’s plans for Ukraine. On that hit list was the name of Sviatoslv Shevchuk

Based on experiences like that and ministering to a frightened population for more than two years, His Beatitude testifies that those who responded to the threats in a spirit of prayer had a better chance of persevering through the experience.

“Many people would say, ‘Okay, it is normal that during the shelling of Russian missiles, people will be hiding in the bunkers, in the underground shelters, and they will be afraid.’ But in the midst of this fear, it depends on what the people are doing. If they are simply trembling, that fear can destroy them, worse than even the Russian missile, because a missile can go away and hit another city. But your fear can destroy you,” he says. “But if in the midst of this fear, you are singing, especially if you are praying, you will be able to transform your fear into a special energy which will give you a possibility to survive.”

That, he says, is a “spiritual treasure” that people are discovering now.

Our own challenges might be far less significant than living under enemy attack. But we all have some fears. What if — uniting our Lenten prayers with those around the world who face truly life-threatening situations — we face those fears and take them to our “communion with God?”

Watch the whole Aleteia interview with His Beatitude Sviatoslav here.

Next: Contemplating the Word

FaithPrayerRussiaSpiritual LifeUkraine
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