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On the COVID-19 cluster at the Monastery of the Kyiv Caves: a reflection on the Kyivan Church

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Ukraine's National Guard blocks the gates to the Caves Monastery in Kyiv after 90 Russian Orthodox monks tested positive for COVID-19.

I have always said that I know I'm part of a church when I can feel something about it. I can get mad. I can get sad. I can even say it's bad.

I've been sitting with how I feel about the Kyiv Caves Monastery being the new big cluster for COVID-19 in Kyiv. My reflection in this short period is that I do have feelings about it. I want to offer some of my tentative thoughts about it, in the hopes of inviting some feedback and pushback on these very early musings from a layperson who has no business saying anything ecclesiological except for the words, 'I am in this church.'

I recognize that, technically, the omophor beneath which my prayers rise within the constellations of the Church of Kyiv does not have jurisdiction over the Kyiv Caves. I am Greek Catholic, and the caves are under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the only hierarchy that has defied the social distancing measures rolled out in Ukraine. But are we not, I ask, all children of the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Volodymyr and Olha? Have we not been longing for at least a century, if not for much longer, for our geopolitical divisions to come to an end so that we can call each other 'sisters and brothers' in the resurrection? Was not the UOC-MP itself one of the first to call for autocephaly for the Church of Kyiv when so many of our people across our schisms came out of the catacombs? Indeed, the UOC-MP is supposed to be like the Hong Kong government, in a 'one patriarchate, two systems' framework with Moscow.

Over the last five years since the Maidan, the UOC-MP has taken an increasingly hard line against autocephaly and ecumenism. This is, as a number of observers have noted, because of a change-up in their hierarchy. But is it not the case that even as we Ukrainian Greek Catholics and those in the autocephalous churches that came together to receive the Tomos together as the Orthodox Church in Ukraine made our criticisms at this fundamentalist and anti-ecumenist shift, we could feel the grief in the words of our hierarchs? It was as if a sister had been estranged from us, for the Church of Kyiv is one family, one church, one people made from one common baptism in the waters of the Dnipro, as if in the Jordan itself so that it became the stream by which we came into catholic communion with all the people of God.

The author's home icons corner, with an icon of St. Sophia from her namesake cathedral in Kyiv, and the Dormition, the patron of the main cathedral at Kyiv's Caves Monastery.

And thus if even I, an Asian American layperson with incurably evangelical tendencies and no personal connection to Ukrainian politics other than that I always sense in the words of my Patriarch the 'embrace' of my 'Mother Church in Kyiv,' can feel something about the Kyiv Caves -- sadness, anger, recrimination about the senselessness of its leadership -- does it not signal that we truly are one local church in global form? The Kyiv Caves are arguably the birthplace of our Kyivan spirituality, a part of what our patriarch called in a pastoral letter last year our 'sophianic culture.' In the caves, we are as if hidden in the womb of the Most Holy Theotokos; she who bore God in her flesh is the mother of all who are being divinized by the uncreated light of her Son. But here, in the intimate parts of the Ark of the Covenant, the virus reveals once again that that which is supernatural is not magical, and that though the sons of Eli may carry her forth into battle, the Lord's glory will also depart his tabernacle. For in the womb of the caves, Holy Wisdom herself has been defied, as the Lord who gave us eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds to comprehend 'scientia' -- knowledge itself -- has not been feared but put to the test.

This is a reflection of grief. It would be all too easy for me to gloat over the Moscow Patriarchate, which has colonized our church for all these years. But the UOC-MP is not a 'them' to relate to as a scapegoated other; we are us as the Kyivan Church -- all of us estranged children of Ss Volodymyr and Olha -- and these very acts of schism, anti-ecumenism, and fundamentalist provocation have been, our hierarchs have been suggesting for years now, a form of overcompensation. These members of our family do not want to be called brothers for the sheer fact that we are actually of one common baptism, and taken now to this extreme, the virus has broken out against all of our people, and from us from whom the world should have received blessing -- indeed, a mission for ecological justice for all people of good will emerging from the ruins of Chornobyl -- a curse has instead emerged as excrement from the bowels of an overwrought politics of identity.

That is all I can say without, as the psalmist says, lifting my head too high to things too lofty for me. I am, as one whose spiritual home is found in these caves of the Dormition, like a weaned child on my mother's breast, 'like a weaned babe I am with myself.' With this people upon whose praises the Lord is enthroned I too will wait for him, and perhaps I will have more thoughts as the days go on. But for now, I will say no more, and perhaps someone wiser than me will offer correction that I will rejoice to heed. Christ is risen.

Originally posted on my Facebook, but my sisters and brothers at St Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship convinced me to let them share it.



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