Praying For Alexei: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Praying For Alexei
I don’t know what to write.
As I watch the videos of the shelling of cities in Ukraine, I find myself in a state of mind that traverses between anger, sorrow and disbelief. As someone trained in theology, I should be writing about Augustine and Aquinas and their formulations for what constitutes a “just war”. What I see on my screen, however, are images of buildings being destroyed and the haunted faces of fleeing refugees.
My mind goes back to the Orthodox cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine. It was a joyous occasion, the ordination to the priesthood of Alexei, a bright 22 year-old. I had met him just the day before at the seminary at which time he was confident and excited. On the day, however, he was nervous. I had gone outside to have a puff on my pipe and found Alexei at the side of the church smoking one last cigarette to calm his nerves before the service began. I could not speak Ukrainian or Russian, but Alexei knew enough English for us to have at least the semblance of a conversation. He told me that he was learning English because someday he hoped to visit America. He especially wanted to see New York because of all the American movies he had seen. When I asked if he thought that he would be able to travel freely, he replied “Yes, once we have our own country back, anything will be possible.”
This was 1990. While the USSR was still a reality, it was beginning to falter. Ukraine had already had massive protests calling for separation. The following year, 1991, over 90% of Ukrainians would vote for their independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of that year, an independent Ukraine was declared and recognized.
Now, after thirty years, that independence is being threatened. The cathedral in which I stood behind the iconostasis and watched Alexei ordained to the priesthood is surrounded by sandbags as Odesa awaits the onslaught of a Russian attack that appears to be only days or hours away. As I contemplate the similarities of this most recent aggression with that which took place in Europe in the 1930s, there is the feeling of history repeating itself. Reading Augustine and Aquinas, I can easily settle in my own mind that Ukraine’s defense of its independence and territorial integrity certainly falls under the category of a just war. Yet, that definition only provides the comfort of an abstract theory. It does not bring aid to the thousands of Russians who have been arrested protesting the actions of their government. It does little to bring solace to the dead and the dying on both sides of this conflict. It gives precious little comfort to those on both sides who will mourn the dead. In the end, it brings little consolation to either the living or the dead.
Even as I support the people of Ukraine in their heroic struggle against a brutal outside aggressor, I also have to admit that war, with all of its horrors, is one of the ultimate failures of fallen humanity.
This last week, I have often thought about Alexei. As books in English were in short supply at the time, I gave him my Book of Common Prayer as an ordination gift. He joked and said it would help him to get ready to visit my church in America. I wonder if he ever made the journey? I wonder if, now in his fifties, he is still in Ukraine awaiting the next round of shelling or the appearance of Russian tanks on the streets?
Praying for a whole country can, at least for me, be an abstraction. I can, however, pray for Alexei… I can also pray that once he has his own country back, anything will be possible, once again.