Courage, je pense a vous. A fellow Chevetogne oblate messaged us the morning of February 24th 2022. He knew that my husband is originally from Ukraine and that our family and friends were still there. This was the first of many acts of love from our monastic and oblate friends. During the past horrifying months we have been firmly held by their support scaffold (as the August contributor so aptly called it).
It held us during the anxious days and nights of waiting for my mother-in-law Anna to flee Kyiv. She lived near the front line. Her block of flats was frequently rocked by bombing. Recovering from a hysterectomy and covid, she was too weak even to go down to the bomb shelter, let alone try to flee. After an agonising few weeks she felt strong enough to leave.
Prayers for her journey began.
Anna’s niece drove her to Kyiv Central station. The crowded building was freezing and in virtual blackout as night fell. When the refugee train pulled in there was a massive surge towards the doors. Anna feared she would be crushed. But God has blessed her with a magnificent voice. She cried out “I’ve just had an operation. I am going to die here!”
“You are not going to die,” said a voice behind her. She turned around and saw a young woman with a camera who was filming the exodus. “Let me help you.” The journalist took Anna’s bag and pushed her from behind as she scaled the train steps on her hands and knees. Then the young woman went to the carriage attendant (in former Soviet countries they are all-powerful) who ushered Anna, two other elderly ladies, the journalist and a cat into a separate compartment. Anna was able to lie down for the 23 hour journey, almost unheard of on refugee trains.
When she reached Chernivtsi near the Romanian border, Anna took a taxi to go and rest at a friend’s house before trying to reach us. She told the driver she wanted to join her sons in the UK but felt scared of travelling by herself to Bucharest to catch a flight.
“My friend is driving to London in his humanitarian aid van on Wednesday week,” said the driver. “He’ll take you.”
But Anna did not have a UK visa. I had been desperately calling the government helpline but the clearly untrained staff gave conflicting information or simply admitted they didn’t know what I had to provide. I kept calling in the hope of getting through to a competent person. Finally God spoke through a kind Scotsman who spent half an hour explaining exactly what the Home Office needed. “It’s a privilege to help. Take good care of your mother-in-law.”
The visa arrived on the Tuesday. Anna called the taxi driver. The van collected her the following day and in the early hours of Friday morning she arrived in London.
God heard the prayers of our fellow oblates of Chevetogne and the nuns and oblates of Minster Abbey who were praying for Anna throughout her flight.
Again our friends joined us in prayer when Sergey, my husband’s best friend from childhood, was killed in the Donbas.
Besides opening their doors to refugees, monasteries have welcomed my husband and me during these months, offering us respite. On the night of Easter Saturday I was staying at Minster Abbey, sleepless, tormented by the horror of the war. I struggled to pray, parroting words while grief and terror ravaged my head and heart. I got up to read some psalms. On lying down again I suddenly fell into a black and depthless ocean. Deep calling unto deep. The gift of peace that certainly didn’t arrive through my own efforts. My anxiety demons were left flailing about on the surface of the ocean, very small and distant.
God was in the kindness of a Minster sister who, shortly after the war began, showed us how to bottle-feed two orphaned new-born lambs. For a few minutes, that simple act enabled us to transcend the horror that had been haunting us.
The Feast of St Domneva, founder of Minster Abbey, falls on November 19th After the murder of her two brothers this saint practised forgiveness and reconciliation. At this time, it is all we can pray for.
Oblate of Chevetogne Monastery, Belgium