Like so many, I was appalled at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. A people who, on one day were going about their daily lives with their usual routines, were, twenty-four hours later, bombarded with the wail of air raid sirens and forced to shelter in basements and bunkers as their world was being destroyed around them. As a small act of solidarity, I began my morning prayers by listening to the beautiful chanting of a traditional Orthodox prayer from the heart of a Ukrainian monastery. Translated, the words are ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.’ I continue to listen to it each morning. [Click here to listen]. The images of death, destruction and inhumanity which spill out of our screens and newspapers, give shape, form and context to the prayer. The Ukrainian prayer becomes my prayer for the people of Ukraine. As I listen to this heart-felt appeal to God, families cowering in the dark, a mother who had to bury her own son shrouded in a carpet, elderly people looking at the ruins of their family home, all appear before me. It’s as though I am there. In fact, I am there.
In the early weeks of the Ukrainian conflict, I was visiting and ministering to Joan, a woman in pain and close to death. On one of my visits, I got out my phone and played the Ukrainian prayer telling her how helpful I had found it. She was as moved as I was. I never saw her again as I found myself in hospital a few days later.
It was in the early morning that I was taken to a ward following my emergency hospital admission. After the trauma and pain of the previous hours when, among other things, I was told I needed to prepare for spinal surgery, I decided to settle myself by listening to the Ukrainian chant. I was immediately transported to Mariupol in Ukraine where, some hours before, a hospital had been bombed with a large loss of life. Through the gloom, I looked up at the ceiling and imagined patients who had survived in the wards of the bombed Mariupol hospital looking up and seeing, not a ceiling, but the cold night sky. I found myself praying. I was moved and disturbed. My imagination also took me to the bedside of Joan to whom I had recently given the recording of the Ukrainian chant. I was desperately sad for the people of Mariupol; I was aware of the struggles of my dying friend; I was fearful about my own future; I was extremely grateful for the support of my family and the health-care workers of the NHS whose caring was life-giving.
I also discovered something quite remarkable in these quiet moments when I was passing through dark times myself. As much as through the prayer I had been with the people of Ukraine feebly trying to support them in their trauma, in some inexplicably mysterious way, I derived support and encouragement from them. They came over to me. There is, indeed, a solidarity in suffering.
While in hospital, I read about twentieth-century Russian saint Mother Maria Skobtsova . Mother Maria highlights, in her life and writings, that through our flesh we have an unchosen solidarity with our suffering fellow human beings. She comes to this insight through her personal experience of the death of her daughter Nastia and providing a house of hospitality to those in desperate need in Paris. She was also deeply moved through her reflecting on the suffering of the Blessed Virgin Mary who helplessly watched her son Jesus Christ dying on the cross at Calvary. Like many mothers watching their children suffer, she would have been powerless and desperate as she witnessed her own flesh and blood die in agony. Mother Maria had personal experience of this. While working and living with those in need which involved fearlessly supporting Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris, Mother Maria was arrested and taken to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. She was executed on Good Friday 1945 as the gunfire of approaching liberation forces was drawing closer. Some say that she took the place of another prisoner.
Mother Maria continues to inspire and challenge. It is our humanity that brings us into solidarity with suffering human beings. At the same time, in the person of Jesus Christ, faith points to what it means to be fully human.
Prayer, too, is an act of solidarity. Prayer places those who pray in solidarity with God and with God’s creation of which the human family is a part. In deepening our relationship with God and creation, prayer can deepen our humanity, opening our eyes to our instinctive solidarity with the suffering, whoever and wherever they are.
I end with a well-known passage by poet and clergyman John Donne. He wrote over four hundred years ago about human solidarity. I suspect Mother Maria and John Donne would have much to talk about – and would agree about much.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.(The Works of John Donne Meditation 17, Vol.3)