Fr. Jeffrey brings to the forefront our spiritual heritage as Ukrainian Catholics in the writings of Lesia Ukrainka, most recently highlighted in a book co authored by Patriarch Sviatoslav on the renowned writer and her work. In these times when our own society is notably ‘post-Christian’ and offers us little support for a life of faith, there is much richness to be found in our heritage of faith that has been able to withstand the anti-Christian communist repression of the last Century and maintain its vibrancy. We have much to learn, thank you for this excellent review. DPL
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Patriarch Sviatoslav has co-authored a newly released book with the Ukrainian novelist, Oksana Zabuzhko, about Lesia Ukrainka. We have a statue of her on grounds of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Their book is entitled «Апокриф» Лесі Українки «Чотири розмови про Лесю Українку», The Apocryphal of Lesia Ukrainka: Four Conversations About Lesia Ukrainka.
There is a poem about Simon of Cyrene in the collection, which is referred to by Patriarch Sviatoslav as “a summary of all our conversations with my co-author about Lesia Ukrainka.” Patriarch Sviatoslav calls their work an example of engaging a culture in the New Evangelization. For her part, Oksana Zabuzhko calls it an example of Socratic dialogue in search of truth, where the two are joined by a third, the writer’s texts.
In an interview for zhyve.tv, the poem is explained in this manner: “Lesia Ukrainka has taken the gospel narrative, and has transformed it into her letter, her manifesto. Through the poem she shows us (in our contemporary circumstances) how to find meaning, and how to find that which is holy: it is found through love… respect for other human beings and their pain.” Simon, the carpenter, “labours in order to obtain food for himself and his family. When he loses his sense of meaning in life, he also loses the strength to work… His encounter with Christ renews all that.”
The poet takes license with Simon’s occupation, turning him into a carpenter, when the historical man was a farmer. Patriarch Sviatoslav explains this change as a message to the socialists and communists rising to political and cultural power in Ukrainka’s time, those Ukrainians who had Taras Shevchenko’s book, Kobzar, in one pocket, and Karl Marx’s communist manifesto in the other. The true internationalist worker, by contrast, the proletariat, seeks the universal in God’s love for humanity, God’s love for each individual.
“To take one’s cross, within the meaning of the gospel, means to become a Christian, not a by-stander, but a disciple. God’s love for me renews my sense of meaning for myself, for my life, for my work. (Simon) experiences the universal love of God: God who is on the way to die for me renews his strength, physical as well as moral… And in answer to the question, where does he get this new strength, Lesia Ukrainka answers this way: from the strength of love,” His Beatitude explains.
He continues by saying that the cross, “in the Christian understanding, is the symbol of love. In fact, the cross is the symbol of God’s love to mankind… In that incident, when the carpenter sees the condemned man being led to his crucifixion, (Simon) renews his sense of meaning, saying: that cross is so heavy for him because I made it and didn’t do a good job. Through his gesture of taking the cross, he relieves the stress that was the cause of such great pain; of which he himself was the cause. Imagine the implication: the year is 1903, when the entire Russian empire is heading for revolution. Lesia Ukrainka is saying that the true worker does not take upon his back the hammer and sickle, but rather the cross, and it is the cross that is the source of one’s strength.”
Lesia Ukrainka is the literary pseudonym of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka. In her personal life, she suffered for many decades with chronic pain. The question can easily be asked of her as well, “What was her source of strength?” In a book of essay-memoirs by my former Ukrainian history professor, Dr. Paul Magocsi, I was introduced to a contemporary Ukrainian translator and poet, Nadia Kushko. She was born in Ukraine in 1972 and died in Canada in 2015. Dr. Magocsi wrote in a book of her poems that he sponsored, Hope and the Demon of Loneliness, that Nadia had once shown him around the city of Lutsk, Ukraine. It is the city of composer Ihor Stravinsky prior to World War One, and where Lesia Ukrainka once lived.
Nadia “took me to a two-storey building, where, at the end of the 19th century, Lesia Ukrainka lived over the course of several years.” Nearby there was a pharmacy, which is still in business, “where Lesia Ukrainka, who was often sick, went for the medications that would relieve her physical pain.” He goes on to compare Nadia Kushko and Lesia Ukrainka, both of whom found refuge from physical and psychological pain in literature and writing, especially poetry. “For Nadia, Lesia Ukrainka was not only the most famous poetess of Ukraine, she was also a kindred spirit, sensitive, creative, to various degrees afflicted by troubles, and in all manners not entirely of this world.”
I think I found an example of what he means. In the poem about Simon of Cyrene, Lesia Ukrainka has a line about Simon’s determination to carry the cross of Christ that I have translated as “a vigorous fire / Of a deep and profound grief.” Nadia Kushko uses the same word, “смуток” in a poem she wrote. She dreams of a cat, with such a profound depth to its voice, that it was like “the voice of fate. / It was filled with incomparable grief. / I’ve never stopped hearing that voice.”
From Rachel’s Vineyard retreats, I have learned to ask, “What are you grieving?” The loss of health, finances, relationship, the loss of particular individuals, young or old. Even certain anger issues are a stage of grieving. As Patriarch Sviatoslav explains, Lesia Ukrainka brings this struggle of the loss of hope not only to the foot of the cross, but to the carrying of the cross.
“From Where Will Come Our Strength?”
By Lesia Ukrainka
“You, there! Get up already!”
Yell the Praetorian guards
“Did you fall asleep?”
Their whips unfurl through the air like serpents
Red streaks begin to stain his clothes
“I’m not able…
The cross is too heavy for me…
I have no more strength”
The unfortunate man only manages a belaboured reply
Then collapses face first into the dusty road
The Praetorian guard raises his whip-
But halts mid-swing when
Someone unexpectedly grabs his arm
“And who are you? How dare you?” screams the soldier
“I am a carpenter
It’s because of me this cross is so heavy
That’s why I must carry it now
Give it to me
I won’t charge any money for this work.”
No one stops him
He reaches for the cross
The hunch in his carpenter’s back
Now distinctly straightens
His taut and leathered hands engage the task
His eyes ignite once more
With a gaze that had only recently grown dim
The worker directs the cross
With the vigorous fire of a deep
And profound grief
Step by step
Everything he has ever known
Pales in comparison