Thursday, March 31, 2005

Retreat weekend

Last weekend Maria and I led a retreat for the people involved in our "We Want to See Jesus" discipleship/evangelization program that's been meeting Wednesday nights in preparation for mission trips this summer to Eastern Ukraine. We didn't really have to do very much for it because we had someone to be the main facilitator. It was an absolutely wonderful weekend.

We went to this Basilian convent (Sisters of St. Basil the Great) about a halfhour outside of Lviv. They have a brand new building and it's just gorgeous. All nice wood floors and lots of light and fresh water all the time. Honestly, I hadn't been in that modern and nicely done a place yet in Ukraine. It felt like a monastery or retreat center at home. And the weather was SO nice and there were fields and woods to go walking in (but everything was super muddy). It was so good to be out in the country for a few days! It was on a high area and you could see quite far across the landscape. The land really resembled southwestern Wisconsin there, rolling hills, farms, distant houses.

We had this fellow named Roman talk about the Jesus Prayer. He's Ukrainian, but he spent 7 years in a Trappist monastery in Norway after recovering from alcohol and drug addiction and now he is back in Ukraine doing rehab work with drug and alcohol addicts, including some prison work. He has a fascinating life. He struck me as definitely unique among the people I've met here. For one thing, he talked much more about western psychology than any other Ukrainian I've met. On the way to the monastery he and I talked a little. (He has pretty good English -- he told me that my English is very good since he can understand me :). After he had told me about his life a little, he asked me what I thought about my vocation. I had told him about my experience with the Trappistines in Iowa and how I liked the Cistercian spirituality. I said I had come here to grow and to learn who I really am and that I was still open to either marriage or consecrated life with a religious community. He said that I had another option. He said that since he had returned from Norway he had wanted to start a group of people (he didn't specify more than that) who would live monastic values and monastic spirituality but in the world. He said he'd been trying to do it for years now and it was so hard to do it alone. For awhile after this I kept thinking of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day and I was wondering if somehow he would end up being a Peter Maurin to me and somehow I would end up starting this community with him.
But that kind of freaked me out, so I let it be.

The Jesus Prayer is simply this: "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It's the fruit of the desert fathers - monks who chose to seek God in the caves and reaches of the desert in the early Church. They soon found that though they had left the world, sin, darkness, and temptation remained a struggle for them, stemming from thoughts and inclinations from within. I learned about this prayer a year ago and prayed it a lot for awhile then and it was very helpful to me, especially in dealing with anxiety. But then I kind of stopped it. It's supposed to be that you pray it so much that it sinks into your subconscious and you're really praying it all the time. (There's this book called The Way of the Pilgrim about this Russian guy who sets out to find someone to tell him how to "pray without ceasing," as St. Paul instructs us (Thessalonians?) and his answer is the Jesus Prayer.

Roman asked whether we thought we are stronger than evil. It was a really provocative discussion (especially b/c I guess a lot of the retreatants were accustomed to just listening and not having to talk on a retreat - it was also a little avant garde even that Roman wasn't a priest). Later that day he talked about how experiences we have as children (traumas, or lack of love, etc.) can lead to behaviors in us as adults, but that praying the Jesus Prayer can bring healing. And the basic thing was that, like when you're dealing with substance abuse, the first thing you have to do is realize that you are powerless against it, that we need Christ to help us, to save us, we can't accomplish it ourselves. The Prayer is first of all calling on the power of the Holy Name of Jesus. Secondly, it's a proclamation of the Gospel ("son of God..."), and last is the basic idea contained in all prayers: have mercy on me, a sinner. Christ never denied mercy to a humble heart. It's a hard thing to really say, with your whole heart, that you need God, that you need need need Him, that you can't do this yourself. It doesn't mean you're bad, it doesn't mean you should be ashamed. It's honesty. Humility is honesty. And it opens you to receive so much more of God.

I'd been praying that God would help me to give to him the parts of me that I kept in hiding, the parts that maybe weren't so holy or pretty, and I felt like this retreat was an answer to that prayer, that now I have a plan, something to do - pray the Jesus Prayer again - and it makes me feel hopeful. I've been praying it a lot since returning and I think I'm already noticing a difference. I'm really thankful for this prayer.

We're actually going to have another retreat in a few weeks, because so many people weren't' able to come on this one (but it was good, really, because 15 people was a good size). It will be cool to get to go out there again, and maybe talk to Roman again. It'll be the weekend of the 16th-17th of April, or whatever that weekend is. On Monday the 18th, Maria and I are supposed to travel to Prague in the Czech Republic, for a conference hosted by this group that is working on the re-evangelization of Europe. (see the conference website: We'll be gone for about a week. It should be really cool. I was in Prague briefly in high school, but I don't remember much about it. The conference will be in English, and it's primarily a Roman Catholic thing so hopefully I'll get to go to Mass in English again :).

Swan Lake

We went to see the ballet Swan Lake at the Opera House here in Lviv (this was actually a couple weeks ago). It was the first time I'd actually been inside the Opera House, though I'd walked past it a million times. It's very pretty and ornate inside, including a room with walls covered with mirrors. We had one of those semi-private side balcony things to sit in (like what President Lincoln was shot in), so that was cool. The show was nice - I don't know anything about ballet so I don't have anything to say about the dancing, really. We played parts of the score in orchestra in high school, so I was more interested in the music. Unfortunately there was no orchestra that night, they used canned music. We weren't quite sure why this was, Maria said something about the conductor being in failing health. My favorite part, though, was the set. They had really cool/beautiful drapey multi-colored cloth for the background, with distant castles and viney forests painted on it for context. And they had these cool sculptures as part of the castle interior - they were like some kind of wire wound around into spherical-like shapes, with other pieces of metal and cloth and things stuck in them. Some were stuck on spear-like things as castle decor, and others were hung from the ceiling as candelabras.

So before the last act we were looking at the program and discussing the story. I was telling a Ukrainian girl with us that the swan dies at the end, that it's this famous scene. She insisted the swan didn't die. Then we watched the show and the swan didn't die! She got to become human again and marry the prince! The other Americans and I were a little surprised. Someone suggested that perhaps this country had had enough suffering, so it was alright for them to change a tragedy into a happy ending.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Kievan Adventure - or, There and Back Again

Last weekend I went to Kiev with my friend Pavlo to see a Jethro Tull concert. Now you, too, can read the exciting details of our Kievan Adventure...

Two Weeks Before the Show:
Pavlo’s father went to Kiev on business and with the additional, much more important, mission of buying Jethro Tull tickets for Pavlo, me, and some other people who wanted to go to see them play. Unfortunately, he was only able to buy one ticket, which of course went to Pavlo. That left a bit of a sticky situation for the rest of us. (I’m not quite sure what happened to the others, come to think of it) Pavlo’s friend who lives in Kiev was sent on the mission to buy a ticket for me….

The Day Before the Day Before the Concert (Saturday, March 19th):
Pavlo and I went to buy our train tickets. Everything went smashingly. I had to show my passport to buy my ticket, and it was amusing watching the lady try to figure out my last name and Pavlo trying to explain to her that it’s a French name, even though, of course, it wasn’t a French passport.

The Day Before (Sunday, March 20th – which is actually really the day of, since we left at night)
Maria wanted to have a ‘Ukrainian Lunch’, which was lovely, it’s just that when you come home from church at 1:30 and still have verenicke (Ukrainian version of perogys, little dumpling things filled with potato or cheese or other things - small furry woodland creatures, for example), borscht, and these crepe things called nalisnicke to make from scratch, you’re not going to be sitting down to eat very soon. (We also had a visiting theology professor from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota – he’s actually Ukrainian, from Kiev, but has been at St. Thomas for a couple years now. Anders, his name is Pavlo Gavrilyuk, heard of him? He’s a pretty interesting guy, and he got us into some extended political and theological conversations.) Anyway, I finally dragged myself away from the table and threw my things together and ran out the door to meet Pavlo and catch the train….

The First Night Train:
I’d never been on a night train. Actually, this was only the fourth time I’d ever been on a train in my life, period (above ground, that is - well, excluding the L, that is). Us Americans, you know, at least Midwesterners, we don’t ride trains very much! I think my family rode this tourist train in Wisconsin once when I was little, I think I saw a picture of myself on it once, but I don’t remember riding it. (Do you have memories like that, too? Where you’re not sure whether it’s an actual memory or you’ve just been shown the photo so many times it’s turned itself into a memory in your head?) Anyway, trains to me scream, ‘Europe!’ (I have to keep telling them that it’s not my name and, anyway, why do they have to keep screaming it?) This particular train reminded me of scenes from Harry Potter. There were these rooms with four beds in them (a coupé), two up, two down, and the lower two had storage space under them. There was a window, and a little table.

Our train left at 9:30pm Sunday night. I was happy to find that our roommates were two sweet older ladies (not whatever ruffians I’d half-imagined to find riding the rails at such hours!) They give you a mattress that you roll out and a pillow and you pay a couple dollars for a nice little set of sheets, a towel, and a Kleenex packet. We had the upper two bunks. I actually slept pretty well, the ‘rhythm of the rails is all I need,’ as Woody Guthrie put it in the ultimate train song, ‘City of New Orleans’ (or was it Arlo? I always forget). It was actually the stops during the night that woke me up the most – around 4:30 we stopped for quite awhile and I lay awake a little bit, lazily wondering if perhaps we were about to get robbed and our bodies buried deep in a pine forest to be found years later. But then the train started again and I went back to sleep.

The Next 12 Hours:

Who out there remembers the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Okay, hands down. I know I read it as a child, but all I remember now is the series of ‘Fortunately…’ and ‘Unfortunately…’ sentences describing Alexander’s roller coaster of a day. (If some of you remember more of it, particularly the ending or any actual events of the day, do share!) At any rate, that book kept coming to mind while we were in Kiev….

Unfortunately, Pavlo hadn’t been able to get a hold of his friend who was supposed to buy me a ticket to the concert, which didn’t mean he hadn’t gotten one, but I was taking the chance that even if he hadn’t been able to get one, I’d be able to buy one from scalpers before the show, if necessary. Fortunately, Pavlo and I both had cell phones with us, as well as access to email at the train station in Kiev, so we had many ways of trying to get in touch with his friend once we were there to see if he had a ticket for me. Unfortunately, Pavlo had forgotten to charge his phone that day, so it would only stay on for a few seconds before dying. Fortunately, I had the guy’s cell number in my phone already since we had been trying to call him the day before. Unfortunately, (is this getting annoying yet? :) this number never seemed to work, as it would always either yield a busy signal or a ‘this number is not available at this time’ message, which here you get if their phone isn’t on since there isn’t voice mail here. But FORTUNATELY, Pavlo’s phone decided to turn on long enough for him to read a text message from his friend saying that he had a ticket for me! Then the task was just going to be to find the guy and get the ticket. And for that we had a good ten hours to go yet.

So we went to the Internet café in the train station and emailed him (Plan A). Then we had breakfast at this Ukrainian fast food place where I had the equivalent of McNugget Tater Tots, only they seemed to be made of much more substantial potatoes than your average school lunch tater tots. So that was nice and then we continued on our quest to get a hold of Dmytro and get the ticket. First we tried to call him from a pay phone instead of from my cell phone (Plan B). But it wasn’t working and we weren’t sure we were doing it right, so we ran around the train station to find someone who knew the fine art of calling a cell phone from a pay phone (Plan C). (I should note that this train station was larger than some small towns in Wisconsin, so there was a fair amount of learning our way around that was necessary, as well as all kinds of services available. By the end of the day I felt sure I could survive there quite happily for several days.) This method failing to yield results, we went to Plan 4, which involved trying to get his cell phone charged so that we could discover Dmytro’s other phone number hiding in his addressbook. Luckily the ubiquitous mobile phone kiosk was in the business of charging people’s phones for a small fee (is this a great country, or what!) and, when Pavlo’s charger ended up being broken, the kiosk lady even had one that worked with his phone! So we left his phone to charge and decided to attempt to accomplish our other mission for the day, to visit Petrivka market and buy cheap cd’s and dvd’s, particularly for a friend whose birthday was the next day (Plan Є).
This installment of the journey required riding the infamous Kievan Metro, deepest subway in the world (well, at least in Ukraine, which is all that matters :). Having accurately navigated transferring lines and avoiding getting sucked into the end of the speedy escalators, we emerged, blinking, into daylight only to find that the entire Petrivka market is closed on Mondays. *Sigh*
Plan ה (there sure are a lot of alphabets in this ‘special characters’ thing!): Try calling Pavlo’s dad to find out where another cool audio/video store is in town. He didn’t answer. Plan ك (I think that’s Arabic): Go back to the train station (home!) and check email again and see if Dmytro had written back. Back down into the subterranean depths of Kiev (which is actually where most of the life in the city takes place, we discovered), back past the accordian player who was making the most of the subway tunnel acoustics. Back to the mobile phone kiosk lady to see if the phone was charged enuf to get the other number off it. It was done charging so we tried calling his other number and, thank God, he answered! We arranged to meet him at his work place in a couple hours, which meant that we could then move on to Plan #42, which was LUNCH. We had a lovely little picnic in one of the waiting areas and chilled a little before making the trek to the TV station where Dmytro worked.
Plan #6,351: Taxi to TV station, go past the fancy gate and guard, take out the phone to ring Dmytro and, guess what, he’s calling us! So he came down, we did the ticket handoff, exchanged a few pleasantries, found out where else we could buy cd’s, and trekked back off to the nearest Metro station.

Metrograd: The Mall of America – underground
The place Dmytro sent us to by cd’s was in this underground mall. They sold everything you’d think to find in a mall, from clothes, to furniture, books, cosmetics, electronics, staircase railings, light fixtures – only there weren’t a lot of walls to get in the way, delineating stores. It was kind of like IKEA, only everything was closer together, and probably less cheaply made (and did I mention it was underground?). I was excited to find a lovely little English bookstore, but I talked myself out of buying anything I thought I could get cheaper at home. The cd/dvd store didn’t have a very large selection, and it was pretty pricey, but we managed to pick up a birthday present (the cartoon Asterix in Britain). We grabbed a bite to eat before heading out to brave the windy streets of the planet’s surface again.

Kritika, Home of the Ukrainian Intelligentsia:

When Pavlo was in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, he frequently visited the Kritika offices. Kritika is the Ukrainian equivalent of the New York Review of Books. His dad often writes for their publication and Pavlo does some occasional translating for them. It was another small miracle that we found the place, since we asked at least seven people who had no idea where the street was that the office was on (my favorite was the street vendor lady who said, You know people keep asking me where that street is and I have no idea!). It was really cool to go there. I felt like I was in 1920’s New York hob-nobbing with…you know, people it would have been cool to hob-nob with in 1920’s New York! The bonus was that Pavlo got paid for a translation so he suddenly had a lot of money to spend on, say, outrageously expensive fruit juice at the concert.

THE CONCERT (Drum roll, please!)

After getting through a minor Ukrainian bottleneck in the Metro, we popped out at the pleasantly not-crowded theatre. It was quite a snazzy place, complete with multiple chandeliers and multiple wine and cognac bars in the lobby. Pavlo hit the merchandise table and picked up a Tull scarf before we headed in for the show. It was quite a nice performance space, for a second I thought I was in the old Oscar Meyer Theater (*tear*).

We didn’t have seats together, but we each thought the seat we had was the best. I was on an aisle in the left-hand section, so I could see everything without any heads in the way. The three-piece-suited usher/guards did their best to keep people from doing anything crazy (including take photos with their cell phones – it was amusing to watch them chasing down the little glowing screens), but during the last few songs people came up to the front and filled the aisles and it was cool. (It made me miss the Terrace L) It was a really good show, with a mix of older and newer songs, including some pieces from solo albums.

Our last miracle of the night happened after the show when we went back to see if any of the band members were going to come out and sign autographs or anything. Unfortunately, no band members came out (one of the guards gave the lame excuse that he had to get home to his family, therefore Ian Anderson couldn’t come out), but there were these big white balloons with the Tull silhouette symbol on them that they had thrown out for the audience to bounce around at the end of the show and when we were walking dejectedly back out of the theater we saw a guy standing with one of the balloons and I was like, let’s take a picture, so Pavlo walks over toward the guy with the balloon. Suddenly, the balloon pops, so we nonchalantly grabbed the remains and walked away!

We rounded the night out with a little midnight verenicke (my first with cherry filling – mmm!) at the other fast food place in the train station before, very sleepily, boarding the train for home and crawling into our bunks, with visions of Ian Anderson dancing in our heads.

What a fantastic, wonderful, very good, not-bad-at-all day!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Ministry Update; Prayer Requests

This Wednesday Maria and I will host the first of a series of training sessions for the summer evangelization/mission trip program. (This isn’t just for UCU, but for young adults in and around Lviv.) The theme is ‘We want to see Jesus’ and we’re basically going through the three E’s, starting with the question of interior conversion (Do you want to see Jesus? Why?) and going through questions like, How can we see Jesus? What keeps us from seeing Jesus? And leading to, How do we help others to see Jesus? We’re basing it a lot on the story of Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10), which I think is an absolutely fabulous conversion story type – think about it, Zaccheus WANTS to see who Jesus is (a desire which is already placed in his heart by the Holy Spirit), but ‘he could not see him b/c of the crowd, for he was short in stature’ – what is keeping him from seeing Jesus? His sinful lifestyle as a dishonest tax collector? The opinion of ‘the crowds’ whose condemning stares keep him cowering in guilt? Jesus wasn’t planning on stopping in this town, but Zaccheus makes the EFFORT to climb a tree so he can see Jesus, and Jesus responds by INVITING Zaccheus down from the tree, inviting himself into his home. And I love the next part: ‘And he came down quickly and received him with joy’! What an awesome response! But then look at the crowd’s reaction: “They began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner!’” (How can the reactions of our peers/family/society affect our desire to see Jesus and to respond to his invitation?) “But Zaccheus stood there (he stands his ground!) and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything form anyone I shall repay it four times over.’” (Repentance) “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.’” (WHO can see Jesus? Gentiles? Tax collectors? EVERYBODY can be a descendant of Abraham) So WHO is Jesus? “’For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’”

So please pray for participants, for speakers, small group leaders, etc., for each night, and for more people for the leadership team.

Also, we are thinking of offering small groups at UCU for Lent (we still have a couple weeks here before Lent starts). This was something that the Lay Leadership Center had suggested I do at the very beginning, but when I winnowed my job description down to a more manageable size, it got cut. Maria had never been too interested in it, as her baby is this Evangelization program to eastern Ukraine, but the other day she brought up the small groups for Lent idea again, and I had to laugh at the Holy Spirit’s timing. It would be cool for me to actually be able to lead a small group in English. (This trying to do everything in broken Ukrainian-English bit is only amusing for so long.) I was thinking of using the ‘Reflections on the 7 last words of Christ’ study (Someone is leading that at St. Paul’s this Lent?) But we’ll see. Again, prayers, please.

Wachet Auf! Reflections on the Nature of Monotony

So I’m sick again. That makes me 1:1 so far (one cold per month) – I haven’t had that good a record since my sleep-deprived college days. Not that throwing oneself completely into a foreign world wouldn’t cause a tad bit extra stress on the ole’ system, however. But, as Jeffrey reminded me last month, Saint Ignatius of Loyola said that we should strive not to prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty, happiness to sadness, since sometimes (often, I’d say) God chooses to do more work in us through the sickness, poverty, and sadness times than what would appear to be their positive counterparts. Most definitely when I get sick it usually means that not only my body needs to stop and be still, but my mind, my spirit, my soul as well. I’ve been wanting to go to Confession here, and it’s somewhat more complicated than at home, seeing as that very few of the UCU priests actually speak good enough English to do a proper confession. The typical thing, I guess, is to go during liturgy (like old school Roman rite – or, Roman rite here, actually) but the couple guys I know that I might consider going to tend to not hear confessions during liturgy, and one of them is kind of my boss, so I’d kind of rather not go to him, and the one that I’d like to go to maybe I only met once and never see him around to set up an appt with him. So basically I’m just being wimpy about it, but, you know J.

Back to sleep-deprivedness. Actually I was just journaling about whether I’ve actually fallen asleep a bit here, drugged into this happy little coma where I go about each day with a great deal of my thoughts taken up with the same petty things I thought about at home, clothes, boys, food, and having fun – punctuated, of course, with the periodic questions of major political restructuring, human rights and the dignity of the individual, and evangelization and the spiritual warzone you enter by undertaking such work. You know, all in a day’s work! So maybe it just means that no matter where you go or what you are doing the two sides are always with you.

Every so often it amazes me that I take all this for granted already, that I assume that I will see my new friends frequently, that I walk through these historic streets, that I go to work at this university I spent last semester being so enamored with…. Maybe it’s because you just can’t keep up the fever pitch of newness, of doing something earth-shattering (to your world), of each day knowing you stand on the brink of a chasm and you might fly or fall. Maybe that’s just being human – we learn patterns and adapt so quickly that monotony sets in, but it’s not really monotony because, well, what makes for monotony? Is it perhaps more a state of mind than a state of being? We may work on an assembly line, installing the same part to identical looking machinery every day of our lives for fifty years, or, we may be news reporters who hop around the world, investigating fascinating stories and meeting new people every day. But you could even get bored doing that, couldn’t you?

Aren’t we called to be awake? We’ve been hearing a lot of eschatological readings at liturgy here lately -- Keep awake! You know not the day nor the hour! If the Master of the house knew that the thief was coming, wouldn’t he have stayed awake and not let him break in?? Of course. So the question then is how do we stay awake? How do we prevent the siren-song of daily life from lulling us into the sleep that leads to death?

American Woman

Maria’s birthday was last Wednesday and we pulled out all the stops for a nice Ukrainian-style dinner in our new place. It’s so cool to move into a furnished apartment that even comes with a complete set of ‘good dishes’ and glasses for more types of alcohol than I could probably name. So the table was set, dinner was almost ready, and what was left but to open the wine. Well, trying to be as useful as possible (and having recently been pleasantly surprised by my skill with the minimalist corkscrews here) I picked up the wine and started to open it. Soon I was met with a flurry of protestors, indicating I had just entered a gender role minefield. ‘Really, Mary, you should let a man do that.’ ‘That’s usually done by a man, Mary, really, here let someone else do it…’ I rolled my eyes with a rather frustrated grimace, and, offering the bottle to one of the two gentlemen present, Pavlo, I said, not without a hint of sarcasm, ‘Pavlo, would YOU like to open the wine?’ I don’t know what I thought he would say, but I found it both satisfying and hilarious that he replied simply, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I laughed and returned to the work of opening the bottle, until the other male in the room, who happened to also be a priest, practically grabbed the bottle out of my hands, saying, ‘Really, Mary, here, let me do it, it’s my job’ (by which I didn’t know if he meant b/c he was a man or b/c he was a priest!), so I bowed and gave him the bottle, shaking my head and smiling. (If he hadn’t been a priest, I might have fought a little more ;-).