Prayer in Kilkenny and Ukraine

Lent for me this year has been enriched beyond measure by two L’Arche prayer services: one in Kilkenny; the other, via Zoom, in Ukraine.

I was pleased to hear at the start of Lent that ‘The Golden Girls’ would be having a daily prayer at 11 a.m. Every day, that is, except for Tuesday which is their outing day! The Golden Girls is a sort of retirement group in L’Arche Kilkenny (just for women!), but we don’t use words like retirement any more, do we! It’s delightful to be with them at any time of the year and the Lenten prayer times have been extra special. There’s a set format. Maggie welcomes everyone, Peggy plays a bit of music on her phone, Mary speaks about a picture she’s holding, Maggie does the gospel reading for the day, Helen and Catherine and Nora and others pray for anyone in need of prayer. And then I’m invited to read an extract from a book. The first time I joined for the prayer I was incredibly touched to see that the book being used by them throughout Lent is one of my own, ‘The Universe Provides.’ I’ve happily been reading the pieces allocated to me by Peggy! Now and again we just start laughing about something or other, which is lovely. We finish with another piece of music.

That’s the formal structure, at any rate. In L’Arche, things often don’t go completely according to plan. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about L’Arche. There’s a spontaneity and a joy about the prayer time which is so refreshing. I feel totally welcomed and relaxed. I feel loved for who I am. And what more important message could we take from our Lenten journey: to hear God say to us, “You are my beloved son,” “You are my beloved daughter.” I was once on a L’Arche retreat and the speaker, a most inspiring woman, said to us, “Imagine how it would be to live each day in the knowledge that I am the beloved.”

And, as an aside, I realise that I am writing this on International Women’s Day and that the amazing people I’ve written about so far in this piece, who have enriched my prayer life and my life in general, are all women.

The prayer service from Ukraine that I had the privilege to attend was also, as it happened, led by a woman. She’s a member of one of the two L’Arche communities in Ukraine. Both are in the West of the country and so relatively safe, at least in comparison to other parts of the country. However, it’s all relative. My friend Peter, who has been attending the twice-weekly prayer since it started at the outset of the war, tells me that there have been times when bombing has occurred during the service.

Like Peter, I’d been invited to provide some music and I gladly accepted. I clicked on the zoom link and found myself on the computer screen with about forty others from all around the world, including some very familiar faces. There was Marion, Jim and Hazel, who I’ve known since my early days in L’Arche in the late 80s. And there was another face that I recognised. The name on the screen was ‘Denise-Canada.’ We had been together at a fantastic L’Arche event in the States in 1995 and had barely met since. We exchanged friendly messages via the Chat. She told me that we’d danced together in Assisi (in 2005)! I have no memory of that whatever! It was another reminder to me that we need to be so careful about what we do or say because we just never know what will be remembered by another person years later! I hope that dance was a happy memory for Denise!

The prayer service, like the time with The Golden Girls, was emotional, joyful, wonderful. It commences with a mass greeting, in several languages. There are various exclamations of ‘Oh, it’s so and so! Hello!’ One of those present was in Moscow and she received one of the warmest greetings of the evening. Members of L’Arche Ukraine then sing and pray in their language and that included some Taizé chants. I provided ‘Ubi Caritas.’ There are readings in Ukrainian and English, a time of intercessory prayer. There are also some set prayers and one of them doesn’t mince its words: ‘Just punishment for war criminals!’ After we’d said the ‘Our Father,’ each in our own language (it was a true Pentecost) I was invited to do my second song. I’d chosen one that’s special to me, ‘Lord you have come to the lakeside.’ I sing it each year on a L’Arche retreat in the French Alps that I help on. I often end up in tears when I sing it. Judging by the messages that were coming into the Zoom Chat, it seemed to strike a chord with those gathered, especially when it got to the chorus:

With love you have looked in my eyes Lord
Smiling gently, you called me by name 
and I left my boat by the lakeside
Now with you, I will seek other shores 

The service ended with people waving to one another on the zoom screen. Nobody wanted to leave. I almost can’t wait for the next Ukraine prayer, and I reckon I’m not the only one. And as I look forward equally to the next time of prayer with The Golden Girls I think to myself that, for once, I don’t want Lent to end!

Eddie Gilmore