My gut wrenched when I saw the first images out of Kyiv. A sadness and deep gloom. Then a surge of energy. And then remembrance. The faint, almost dreamlike memories of the land, the chilling haunt of byzantine chant, the sound of a language I understand but can’t decipher, the longing for home. People seem surprised when I tell them that I am Ukrainian. As much as I thought it rather obvious, Tatarnic (Tatarniuk) is not an Anglo-Saxon name.
Our family, as much as we remember, comes from a farming community in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine. What I do know is that many members of our family died as a result of the systematic genocide of the 1930s: the Holodomor. Some escaped to Canada.
I know very little about family life in the Ukraine. After the fall of the iron curtain, there were literally sixty years of deafening silence. Even today, little remains of historic documentation; we can’t trace our roots. But, then again, that’s the pain of genocide, the intentional severing of roots. Stalin proved to be a competent eraser of history. We don’t have documentation, but we have remembrance. I seem to have, deep down inside me, the roots of remembrance. I can re-member my roots.
A few months ago, I was eating lunch with the regional Mitred Arch-priest of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Toronto. We talked about this interior remembrance: “You just feel it inside you,” he said. I was explaining how the Byzantine liturgy and the works of the church fathers were speaking to me in the midst of the isolation of COVID-19. Something was stirring inside of me; I was using COVID-19 as an excuse to delve deeper into remembering.
He replied with a wisdom so characteristic of the Christian East: “You don’t have to understand the liturgy, it’s a part of you. You can feel its truth deep down in your heart. Even if you don’t understand it with your mind, it’s there, inside you.”
It made me think: “I wonder if there are other people out there, people like me, people who are longing to remember?”
In his prophetic book The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance (Bloomsbury, 2018), Erik Varden addresses loneliness from an approachable, but theologically refreshing, stance. Reading the book, one might be tempted to think that Varden, a member of the Order of Cistercian monks, and now Bishop of the Diocese of Trodheim, was tuned into a prophetic movement in his prayer, authoring a book that feels oddly relevant to a pandemic world—almost too relevant to have been published in 2018/2019.
Varden’s thesis is that the mission of the church is that of “inspirer of remembrance”. For those of us looking for a pastoral answer to the psychological and spiritual after-effects of the global pandemic, Varden offers a vision of the Church, and more specifically the Church as a communion which transcends space, time, and circumstance: help people remember, and you will save the world.
Using an analogy, one that speaks to me even more as bombs drop on Kyiv, and as a new tyrant attempts to erase history, Varden alludes to Julia de Beausobre. In 1933 Julia was a political prisoner in northern Russia under Stalin. Julia befriended a nun who was also a captive.
This is what Varden writes: “The old nun assured her that she must one day leave Russia and convey a message to ‘our brethren beyond the borderʼ … that they should keep burning on the altars of their hearts the flame that is tortured out of ours. If only some of them keep it burning, we will find it in our prayers, in our sleep and in our flight away from our tormented bodies. It will shine to us as a glowing beacon of light in the numbing darkness, and we shall be comforted and Christ will rejoice.”
So, you want to save the church? Become an inspirer of remembrance, and you won’t just save the church—you will save the world.