by Nicholas Denysenko
The events taking place in Ukraine since November 2013 have captured the attention of the world. Ukraine has had a global audience witnessing to the protests at Independence Square (now known as Euromaidan), the conflict between protesters and Berkut, the ousting of President Yanukovich, and the establishment of an interim government. A sober cloud hung over Ukraine as Russia’s parliament approved President Putin’s request to deploy troops to Crimea; they arrived on Monday, March 3, the first day of Lent for Orthodox Christians.
While we are right to be thankful that no shots have been exchanged on the ground, a full-scale war is well under way, a vicious, bloody informational war. Ukrainians have been branded as extreme right-wingers, fascists, and neo-Nazis, while President Putin and Russia have been compared to Hitler and the Third Reich. Across the world, brother has taken up arms against brother and nation has hurled insult against nation in waging this informational war. The desire to understand has taken a decidedly back seat to the attempt to rush to judgment and decide, “who is to blame?” and “what is to be done?” (Familiar questions to those familiar with Russian literature.) Earlier today, President Putin implied that Ukraine is to blame, since Russia did not start the crisis (according to media sources).
As we watch this watershed event continue to unfold, stakeholders will claim that name-calling is justified, since accountability in the present will be integral to resolving the crisis and bringing criminals to justice. Today, in this moment, I am not interested in arguing about who started the crisis. I marvel at the paradox of beginning a military incursion on the first day of Lent. Lent is a season of joy for Orthodox Christians—we sing Alleluia more often in Lent than we do during the rest of the liturgical year—and we celebrate the real purpose of Lent by intensifying prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The purpose of these practices is not to become a temporary vegetarian, but to practice Christianity with greater precision and authenticity, because each year, we hope that Christ will come again on Pascha, to greet an assembly of people who have prepared for eternity with him.
The strong possibility of death forces one to view an eschatological encounter with God as imminent. We all know that even an innocuous human word or deed can prove to be the domino that makes the whole foundation fall. If shots are fired in Crimea or Donetsk today, the threat of nuclear Armageddon is elevated to the next level. We must recognize that the world is on the threshold of what could be a costly war, impacting even those of us on the West coast of the United States.
During the weekdays of Lent, Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Christians offer a short prayer several times a day, with a full prostration following each verse of the prayer. My hope is that politicians, soldiers, and citizens of Russia, Ukraine, the EU and every country might say this prayer with the intention of permitting it to shape them into people of humility whose primary task is to take heed of one’s own soul and love one’s brother and sister. My friends tell me that I’m a dreamer, but I express hope that enfleshing and interiorizing this prayer might contribute toward the de-escalation of conflict, withdrawal from engaging in the information war, and building new bonds of unity in communities fractured by hurtful words and deeds.
The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and gossip;
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant;
Yes, O Lord and king, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, an Orthodox Christian, is Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute and Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He blogs at “Red River Orthodox: Eastern Christianities Engaging ‘the West’.“