A melody for Ukraine

I can’t remember everything we hummed for each other that day. I am certain, though, that one melody would have have been Beethoven’s Nineth Symphony, set to poet Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

On that day, my new friend and I needed more than words. We needed a form of communication that spanned countries, ethnicity and language.

Sunflowers in full bloom, the symbol of a free and beautiful Ukraine.

So we used music to wile a way an hour. My new friend did not speak English or French and I did not speak Ukrainian or Russian, the languages of our respective countries. Sitting on a concrete curb near a building on the outskirts of Kyiv, we began singing to each other, humming a few bars of music as a way of connecting. Each time one of us began a familiar melody, our eyes brightened, we laughed, clapping our hands in delight, and then sang a verse or two in our own language. We didn’t need to understand each other’s words. We had music.

It was the mid-nineties, just a few years after Ukraine gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. I had travelled to Kyiv with two Canadian colleagues to spend a week with a group of Ukrainians who were slowly establishing a Christian student movement called CCX.

That was some 30 years ago. Not suprisingly, in these dark and utterly tragic days, as Ukrainians couragously fight the Russian invasion, I think often of that week.

I remember buying a small etching of St. Sophia Cathedral from a street vendor in a market near the church which was closed for renovations. Many churches were closed in those years as Ukrainians slowly but surely reversed the damage done by years of Soviet occupation.

I remember the rows of leafy green hostas lining the pathways of the rural building where we stayed for a few days, sharing space with children from the Cherynobyl region who had come to escape radiation from the damaged nuclear reactor.

I remember touring an historic Ukrainian village and a monastery where we walked the underground tunnels, slim beeswax candles casting shadows on the bodies of ancient saints in glass-topped caskets.

I remember singing with my Ukrainian friend as we sat side by side in the sunlight.

Dying sunflowers drop seeds of regeneration.

These days, my prayers for Ukraine are often wordless pleas for peace. But sometimes, I find myself praying very specifically. I pray for a repeat of the age-old Jewish story of a donkey being used to thwart an evil ruler. I pray angel armies will descend on every inch of Ukraine, protecting and healing people and all living creatures, including hostas.

And today, as I listen to the Ode to Joy, I pray that Russian soldiers will be tortured by the hymn of peace — may they hear it in the streets, in their tanks, in their heads — and put down their weapons of war once and for all.