12 years ago I was an active youth leader in my parish. With our Salesian priests, we would provide The vacation with God, or daily church camps, not just for the children of our parish (Ukrainian equivalent of mostly urban and suburban kids) but for different parishes across the country, especially for the small rural communities in parts of the country where Catholics were a minority.
A two-week camp in a small Central Ukrainian village was especially unforgettable. I am confident God gave me that experience as a sign of His love, so I could look back upon it in times of desperation. It was a small yet hardworking village which mostly revolved around agriculture. The kids were nothing like the ones we were used to. They were always outside, always covered in mud. Loved but not pampered, immersed in play yet also exposed to physical work from an early age, they would swarm around us, wait for hours while we practiced or prepared our materials, or just rested. They were a gift to a catechist, too: they took in our teaching as dry ground takes in summer shower. Even though they didn’t have to attend the Mass, held for volunteers at noon every day, most of them still would come, attracted by our presence but keen on understanding the beautiful yet fairly long and complex text of Eastern Catholic Liturgy.
We were with them during the day, their families hosted us and provided us lunch. We took part in a bonfire party on one of the last days with whole village attending. In response to such avid reception we tried our best in preparing games and plays. Most importantly, we felt the presence and the graces of God in everything - the children, their parents, the sun, the grass, the plains, the beautiful blessing of Daily Mass, and each other.
With the Team
But everything comes to an end, and good things come to an end way too fast. Two weeks passed like a day, and we had to say good-bye. Now, adults are more wary of opening their hearts. They know what is temporary and mostly know not to get attached. Not so are the kids. They let their hearts burn. So last day saw a lot of tears. One preteen girl was especially sad. She cried inconsolably for 3 hours. Nothing would bring her peace. I tried everything - distraction, promises to write, promises to come next year, but nothing would work for her. And then I told her - just to say something, to keep her listening and not crying at least - I told her things about Communion that I had just learned myself. I told her that Communion is Body of Christ, but also body of the Church. And that as the priest blesses the bread, some of it commemorates Mary and the saints, as well as the dead and the living (more about Communion in Byzantine Catholic tradition here). Therefore, when she goes to church and (after having confessed) takes the Communion, she is not only united to Christ, but also to everyone in the Church, including us. I don’t remember precise words that I used, all I remember is that against my expectations she listened, understood and calmed down.
During the Bonfire
That sweet half forgotten story came to my mind when I was reading Living Bread by Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton was a trappist monk, who chose a life of silence, prayer and solitude. Yet the most impressive part of his book to me was when he discussed the communal aspect of the Eucharist: “In the mystery of the Liturgy, - he writes, - Church unites herself with Christ and offers her members to God.” He reminds us about the necessity of unity and charity when we are participating in the Divine Body and Blood. Today’s Christians tend to forget that Christianity is in fact not a private religion. It is not between you and God. We are saved as parts of the Body of Christ - parts of the Body of Church. And in these lonely times I find consolation in this idea. Social distancing does not have to be the end of community. As millions of catholics now all over the world are locked in their homes and praying for the grace of Spiritual Communion, as priests are consecrating the Sacred Host in the empty churches - we can still be united. Praying, reading and longing for God, we can participate in each other’s sufferings spiritually. In our practical age I think it is good to be reminded of more mystical aspects of our faith. This trial teaches us that just like Thomas Merton, just like St. Therese of Lisieux, like many saints, we can be in union even when alone. We are called to the life of intense prayer!
So today, or this Sunday, as I will pray to God for the grace of Spiritual Communion, I won’t be alone. I believe I will be united with my distant family and my friends, teachers and leaders, now grown-up children in small villages on another continent and those I am yet to meet and love. I will be consoled by profound unity with the whole Church - in prayers, in joys, in sufferings and most importantly - in Christ.