Like many other Catholics, I subscribe to a monthly prayer book that contains the Order of Mass, the daily scriptural readings, and other prayers and meditations. The one that I subscribe to, Magnificat, has a full-color reproduction of a work of religious art on the cover of each issue. Often it is a painting; sometimes it is a sculpture or a wood-carving; some of the artworks are classics, some are contemporary. They usually illustrate an event from the life of Jesus or Mary, or a saint or biblical event. I find them beautiful, heart-lifting and inspiring.
The illustration for July is a painting, “Little Girl Praying,” by Roberto Ferruzzi, an Italian painter of the 19th and 20th centuries. (He painted the famous “Madonna of the Streets.”) “Little Girl Praying” depicts a beautiful, dark-haired child with face uplifted and hands folded, fingers pointing upward. She is gazing, rapt and serious, at something that is mostly outside the booklet’s border, likely an image in a frame.
The painting captures the purity, earnestness and love for God of a devout child. But it did not strike me strongly until I saw the line that identifies the painting’s location: “Museum of Fine Arts, Sevastopol, Ukraine.”
My heart sank, and the peacefulness of the image seemed suddenly to be clouded by sorrow and fear. I thought: Ukraine, where Russia’s war of aggression continues its evil course. Does the painting still exist? Or has the museum where it was displayed been bombed to bits?
I discovered that the museum—a majestic, historic building—is still standing. Museum staff are scrambling to move paintings into safekeeping.
Here is an example, as if more were needed, of the physical and spiritual destruction caused by war: A fine painting of a child gazing at a sacred image, praying with folded hands to the God who made her—but it must be hastily hidden from the eyes of those whose hearts and minds it would touch. An image of earthly beauty and spiritual transcendence must be removed in the hope that it will escape destruction and survive for later generations.
The physical horror of war is obvious: the soldiers who died in agony and who will never return to their homes and loved ones; the injured and maimed who will never fully recover; the refugees, forced to flee their homes; those who cannot flee, and who live with hunger, privation, illness, the threat of injury or sudden death. Mass media convey images and facts, but it is more difficult to convey the lasting anguish of war’s victims.
Like any civilized person, I hate war, but I do not believe that all wars are wrong or unjust. I am grateful to every soldier who fought for my own country’s freedom, from the Revolutionary War to the present. Sometimes I think of them as I walk outdoors, and reflect that it is because of their sacrifices that I walk in freedom and do the things I want to do, including going to church and practicing my faith. I pray for them, mindful that I owe them a debt I can never repay.
Ukraine is fighting a war against an aggressor; it is fighting for its freedom and sovereignty, its national heritage, its very survival as an independent nation. I hope and pray that Ukraine is victorious. But all war, even just war, causes great suffering. Part of that suffering is the destruction of places and objects that define a nation’s character and ideals, including its artifacts and its sacred symbols.
All of this filled my mind as I looked at the painting on my prayer book cover, the image of the little girl gazing upward, her hands folded, her face so earnest and serious. I have thought since of the words of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations on Oct. 4, 1965: “No more war! War never again!”
May it be so. May war itself be conquered. May “Little Girl Praying” survive. May Ukraine survive. And may we do what the girl is doing: Pray. Pray daily, for peace, with justice.