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.
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.
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.