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What it Means to be a Ukrainian Catholic Woman
or: Does Kyivan Christian Spirituality Have a Living Chance?

Written by Roma M. Hayda

Key to Living the Eastern Christian Tradition

There are three icons that are essential to understanding ourselves who worship in the Kyivan tradition and are members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (and the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches). Let’s focus on the icons of the Annunciation, Mary of the Sign, and the Oranta, the “Nerushyma Stina,” as it appears in the apse of the St. Sophia cathedral in Kyiv.

The Annunciation icon is found on top of the Royal Doors on our churchs' Iconostasi.

The Annunciation icon is found on top of the Royal Doors on our churches’ Iconostasi.

For a start, let’s note the positioning of the Annunciation in the iconography of the church interior and the liturgical calendar. The image of the Annunciation is the focal point on the Royal Door. Whether it’s found on top or at the center of the Royal (also known as the Heavenly) Door, it contains a very important message. The real significance of the unusual encounter is the Mother of God’s evaluation of what she is asked to do and her awareness of the awesome responsibility of her decision. It was a thoughtful and courageous act. It was a challenge to her humanity which she met with maturity. Intelligent and personal commitment is what was expected of the Mother of God and is also expected of each one of us. Our entire relation¬ship to God has to come out of the precept that an intelligent being makes thoughtful decisions on all major aspects of human existence. Anything less than that does not befit our Creator and His Holy Wisdom.

Western Christian tradition has a tendency to overplay the Mother of God’s virginity and in doing so distorts the essence of humanity in general and womanhood in particular.

At the ecumenical Marian conference of Orientale Lumen III last year, Fr. Robert F. Taft, S.J., the theologian and major author on Eastern Christian worship, decried the reductionist approach to Mary, the Mother of God. He thinks it is endemic to Mediterranean Catholic culture resulting in “machismo” only to be followed by more distortions and even abuse. Defining the Mother of God and her womanhood in the sexual context by glorifying female chastity ignores her intelligence. It is as if her “…glorious titles ‘Immaculata/Neporochna’ signify only abstention from sex, rather than expressing the sublime doctrine of the divine origin of the [Only-begotten] Son and the Word of God, and the saving action of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s absolutely divine Incarnation” to which the Mother of God agreed with great personal discernment.

The East deals with the whole person. To make that point, our Church observes the Feast of Annunciation even when it coincides with Good Friday Making an exception to the solemnity of Christ’s burial, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy By doing this, the Church liturgically stresses the importance of our personal thought process and commitment. Through the liturgy we should understand the Mother of God as THE type par excellence of human fulfillment in Christ, regardless of gender. The Annunciation as an icon and a holy day is pivotal in understanding the Eastern Christian approach to holiness in general and Kyivan spirituality in particular.

The second image I would like to bring before you is that of Mary of the Sign. Here is the Mother of God with a medallion positioned over her chest. Inside the medallion is an image of a very mature for His years Christ Child with His right hand raised in the gesture of blessing. It summarizes the Mother of God’s life from the moment of the Annunciation to eternity. She was not just the Mother of Jesus. The Mother of God needed salvation as any one of us. Her life was Christ centered and Christ filled. Mary was and is the Mother of God because she internalized Christ’s message throughout her entire life. The icon of the Sign is a constant reminder that the source of all holiness is Christ, the Son of God and our Savior.

The Oranta Icon in Kyiv's St. Sophia Cathedral

The Oranta Icon in Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral

The third icon is the Oranta. With hands raised in prayer the Mother of God reminds us to Whom worship is due. It is the symbol of each Christian and also of the Church. It is the many forms of litourgia— the Divine Liturgy, akathysts, matins and vespers, prayers with a community of believers and personal prayers, and the whole fabric of human existence at rest and at play, in daily tasks, in suffering and in celebration. All of these can become part of our prayer life if we so choose. As the Mother of God stands there in eternal prayer, she gives us Christian confidence of closeness to Our Father, Who hears us and is merciful.

I have purposely spent more time on the meaning of the Annunciation in our Kyivan tradition, because it will help us make the necessary connections between liturgy and faith that was very obvious to the countless saints of the Kyivan Church, Orthodox and Catholic alike. Mary of the Sign focuses on Christ, the Messiah and Savior, and Oranta, the Nerushyma Stina, reminds us of the centrality of worship to our Christian living.

From Images to Experience

The implications of the way Eastern theology sees the Annunciation are many First of all it is liberating, because it recognizes all faculties of the human being — physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual. And secondly, it places the invitation to holiness directly at the doorstep of personal discernment every time we confront life’s varied paths. Because thinking is a creative process, it is the real means to internalize Christ and His teachings in which liturgy through its prayer form is a soft spoken teacher. The saints show us how it is done.

The historical development of the Ukrainian Catholic Church from the Kyivan Church and before that from Byzantium can offer invaluable insight. Although it is a subject too large to be discussed here, suffice it to say, that the Kyivan aspect of our spirituality is a gold mine of spiritual wealth.

Mt. Tabor Ukrainian Catholic Monastery

Mt. Tabor Ukrainian Catholic Monastery

In the summer of 1999, the Sheptytsky Institute at the Mt. Tabor monastery in California concentrated on the homilies of the Kyivan Church. The participants were moved by the extent of the loving and merciful God permeating the homilies. At the same time they noted the absence of the fire-and-brimstone approach. And yet, the Church of Kyiv shows the tremendous commitment of her believers guided by their thought processes and discernment. It should be thought provoking for us today that so many of the ruling elite elected monastic life. Many women founded scriptoria for copying and disseminating books, herbaria for the healing arts, schools and so on. Besides St. Olha of the women saints of Ukraine, what do we know of Saints Irena, the wife of the Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, or Evfrozynia, the Princess of Polotsk, or of Paraskeviya, the sister of Prince Volodymyr Monomakh, or Anna also affectionately known as Yanka, daughter of the Kyivan Prince Vsevolod?

When I was doing research on the topic of “Spiritual Formation of Laity” for the second session of the Patriarchal Council of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1998, I was moved by “Pouchenie Ditiam I Instruction to [My] Children” written by the Kyivan Grand Prince Volodymyr Monomakh of the 11th-12th century His impressive exhortation on Christian living draws from his personal commitment and experience. Although Volodymyr Monomakh was not proclaimed a saint, his writing can inspire us today. (The respect he had among his contemporaries was such, that at the age of 60 he became the Grand Prince of Kyiv by popular acclaim).

As we recognize the difficult history of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, we also have to be bold enough to recognize her holiness and courageous enough to recognize her saints. One cannot be without the other.

Growing up in the Ukrainian Church in America.

Growing up in the Ukrainian Church in America.

As a teenager growing up in the United States, I distinctly remember my disbelief that the officially recognized saints of the Ukrainian Catholic Church can be counted on one or two hands alone. Undoubtedly many present here had a similar observation. It simply contradicts the very idea of the Church’s holiness. When the Kyivan Church entered into communion with Rome her spiritual heritage and her saints entered the communion with her. We can take pride and learn so very much from our Church’s past and also her experience in the catacombs of modern times. I’m sure as you must be of the countless saints of this most recent history.

Let me share with you a fragment from the life of a Ukrainian Catholic woman, whose name I do not know. During the Stalinist terror, her entire family was separated and taken to different concentration and labor camps of Siberia. Through the prisoners’ grapevine she learned of the tortured deaths of her adult daughter and later of her own husband. Obviously, neither victim of persecution could have had a Christian burial. The ill-fated grieving woman memorialized their deaths by embroidering a picture of the parable of the Good Shepherd with threads pulled from her prison garb and a fish bone for a needle. This burial prayer tapestry was presented to the Pope of Rome in 1987 by the Patriarchal Society as a reminder of the prayer life and witnessing of the Ukrainian Catholic Church during the Soviet regime.

Where is the Challenge

We have to start to understand that the Ukrainian Catholic Church is of the Kyivan and Byzantine tradition and is essentially orthodox. Claims that our Eastern theology and worship is out of place and out of date in the American environment is a convenient cover for personal shortcomings based on insecurity or ignorance or thoughtlessness of habit.

May it please you to know that the fastest growing church community in America is the Orthodox Christians with 3,000 converts a year. Two thirds of these join the Orthodox Church of Antioch. One such convert, Frederica Mathewes-Green writes eloquently of modern life in ancient Christian orthodoxy in her book “At the Corner of East And Now”. I was struck by the enormous effort of these converts to learn a great variety of liturgical services, to mount and dismount their portable church at least twice a week, to willfully acclimate to Eastern Christian worship that in itself is a full body event with acapella singing, numerous making of the cross, bows, prostrations, fasts, feasts, and so on. If we could reflect for a brief moment on what these converts do, we would have to look at ourselves and in all honesty ask our¬selves what can we do to get beyond the superficiality of the familiar. And therein lies the challenge.

Blessed Josaphata Hordashewska

Blessed Josaphata Hordashewska

Not unlike the Mother of God, we too encounter Christ Our God in our Church of the Kyivan tradition. We also have to make an intelligent response with full knowledge of the commitment it takes. We can learn from the Antiochian Orthodox and from Catholic Melkites, but we also must get to know our own Kyivan heritage. We should get to know holy people from our own Church to see what they can teach us and even pray to not as yet proclaimed saints men and women, such as Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky or the venerable Josaphata Hordashewska, or the Ukrainian martyrs of the 20th century such as the Ukrainian Catholic bishops Pavlo Goydych, Theodore Romzha and others. Another response can be fuller participation in the many liturgical services. Here present is Maria Harasymowycz Olynec, music teacher and choir director in her own parish, where she does so many things to bring life into church services. I’m sure that her experience can show us how it can be done together with the pastor and in harmony with our liturgical and spiritual tradition. It can be an invaluable learning experience and by sharing it with others, the knowledge and confidence we gain can make us more tolerant of differences in our midst and less fearful of our future. If we do this, we will never stereotype our Ukrainian Catholic Church or her rich heritage. Remember, we are not the sole teacher; there are the icons, liturgies and our liturgically inspired spiritual traditions. That is what it means to be a Ukrainian Catholic woman, who proceeds to lead her life in the Kyivan Christian tradition and helps others to do the same.

Let us look again at the icons of the Annunciation, Mary of the Sign, and the Nerushyma Stina. Have them speak to us and let’s respond as intelligent beings that we are equal to the challenge that is before us.