Icons on ammo boxes

Throughout the 20th century — the greatest period of martyrdom in history — persecuted Christians used the dross of this world to make religious artifacts.

Rosaries were constructed from bits and pieces of this-and-that. Crucifixes and Mass vessels were forged from scrap metal. Bibles and missals were handwritten on scraps of paper from memory. The Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan wore his pectoral cross suspended from a chain he made from the barbed wire of the Vietnamese communist concentration camp in which he was confined for years. Many such relics are displayed at the shrine of the New Martyrs in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Rome’s Tiber Island — a place where the usual bustle and buzz of Roman churches is replaced by a hushed reverence, as if even the least well-catechized visitors realize that they’re in the supernatural presence of great witnesses.

This deeply Catholic instinct for transforming what is dead or death-dealing into something life-affirming and life-giving continues today in Ukraine, through a remarkable project known as “The Icons on Ammo Boxes.” I discovered it in Philadelphia in early June, while speaking at the celebrations marking the enthronement of my old friend Borys Gudziak as Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic archeparchy of Philadelphia. During my remarks (which can be found in full here, I spoke of Eastern Catholicism’s “gift of iconography” to the universal Church. Whatever impact my words may have had, however, it was likely less than the thoughts and emotions stirred in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception by an extraordinary display around the cathedral’s perimeter: icons written (painted) on the wooden lids of ammunition boxes by a husband-and wife team of two young Ukrainian artists, Sofia Atlantova and Oleksandr Klymenko.

Icons written on wood using various types of paint are nothing new, of course; many of the greatest icons in the history of Christian art were written that way. Oleksandr Klymenko’s brilliant idea was to use a different kind of wood: not a polished and treated panel, but the rough-hewn tops or bottoms of the boxes in bullets, grenades, and artillery shells were once stored. The icons he and Sofia Atlantova wrote, and which were displayed in Philadelphia, included wood from ammo boxes dating back to Soviet times. But they also included newer wood panels recycled from the battlefront of eastern Ukraine, where a Russian-led and Russian-financed war has been underway since 2014, taking over 10,000 lives, ruining the local economy, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

The icons turn trash, redolent of death, into life-affirming art in several ways. First, by their very existence: for they transform materials that stored munitions intended to kill and maim into celebrations of faith and life. Icons are not “representative” art in the western sense; an icon does not say, “This is what Christ looked like” the way Rembrandt’s famous self-portrait says, “This is what I, Rembrandt, looked like.” Rather, icons are one of those permeable borders or membranes between this world and the supernatural world; icons are intended to “make present” that which they depict. Icons are thus an invitation to leave the death-dealing world and enter the world of resurrected life, the world of divine life — and to do so through the medium of an ammunition box drives the point home in an especially powerful way.

Second, through the sale of Sofia Atlantova’s and Oleksandr Klymenko’s work, the “Icons in Ammo Boxes” project supports the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, which brings medical professionals into the warzone of eastern Ukraine to treat wounded soldiers and civilians. Since its inception, the mobile hospital has served some 50,000 patients, saving or repairing many lives broken by Russian aggression.

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has described the “Icons in Ammo Boxes” project as a kind of transfiguration: “The icons…demonstrate how violence and pain can be transfigured to peace and relief, and actually contribute to this transformation through the work of doctors.” That image strikes me as exactly right. As the transfigured glory of Jesus on Mt. Tabor opens up a vision of human transformation in the Kingdom of God, where “death shall be no more…” (Revelation 21:4), so these icons suggest the transformation of the lethal into the life-giving, even as they support healing here and now.

More about this remarkable mission, and the icons that support it, can be found at http://www.medbat.org.ua/en/buy-icon-save-a-life.

COMING UP: The summer reading list

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Fifty years ago, prior to my freshman year at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School, the late Father W. Vincent Bechtel introduced me to The Summer Reading List, upper-case. Father Bechtel didn’t fool around: he tossed his teenage charges into the deep end of the English and American literature pool and told us, in effect, “Start swimming.” And while I first thought of him as a holy terror, I now remember him as one of the best teachers I ever had – a guide to and through books that have remained my literary friends for life.

His judgment wasn’t infallible; assigning us The History of Henry Esmond resulted in my lifelong distaste for Thackeray. But Father Bechtel hit the mark far more often than not and to honor this golden anniversary of his introducing me to The Summer Reading List, let me offer a few suggestions that will take you beyond “beach reading” in these vacation months.

Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church, by Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press): Joseph Ratzinger was an exceptional teacher, and his talent for distilling a lifetime of learning into material accessible to a less-learned audience was never on better display than in the Wednesday general audiences of his papacy. From March 15, 2006 through February 14, 2007, Pope Benedict gave a marvelously insightful catechesis on the nature of the Church through a series of weekly meditations on the most prominent personalities of New Testament Christianity. Read one entry a day for some summer spiritual muscle-building.

Seeds of the Word, by Robert Barron (Word on Fire): A highly placed U.S. churchman once described Father Bob Barron as “the American Ambrose;” the complimentary analogy to the great catechist of Milan, who brought St. Augustine to the faith, was not misplaced. As his Catholicism series made clear, there is no one, anywhere, who does a better job of making the Church’s proposal make sense than Father Barron. Now, in a collection of his short catechetical pieces, he picks out of our often-confused culture the bits and pieces of a lost Christian heritage, and makes these fragments the entry-points for advancing the New Evangelization by presenting Christian faith in surprising, charming, and disarming ways.

Ministers at War, by Jonathan Schneer (Basic Books); Winston’s War, Never Surrender, Churchill’s Hour, and Churchill’s Triumph, by Michael Dobbs (Sourcebooks Landmark); I began 2015 thinking it was impossible to mine the Churchill legacy for anything new, interesting, or insightful; historian Schneer and novelist Dobbs proved me wrong. Ministers at War tells the gripping story of how the man who certainly saved Britain and arguably saved western civilization managed his cabinet “team of rivals,” a coalition of men who had spent most of their interrelated, pre-war political lives at daggers drawn. Dobbs’ quartet of novels is lighter, but nonetheless compelling, fare. My two favorites were the first volume in the series, Winston’s War, which chillingly captures the appeasement mentality that has, alas, resurrected itself these days, and Churchill’s Triumph, which is in fact about Yalta and Churchill’s desperate attempts to play a weak hand in deciding the future of Europe with an aggressive Stalin and an incapacitated Franklin Roosevelt.

Dvorak in Love by Josef Skvorecky (Norton): I never met the distinguished Czech-Canadian novelist Skvorecky, who died three years ago, but we had an interesting correspondence and I greatly admired his work (as Father Bechtel would have, had he lived long enough to read it). Skvorecky certainly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature more than many of its recent recipients, but his unrepentant anti-communism likely didn’t sit well with the politically-correct Swedish Nobel Committee. In any event, Dvorak in Love is a beautifully crafted, fictional re-creation of the great Czech composer’s three years in the United States, when he was introduced him to ragtime (which he admired) and produced the splendid New World Symphony and the luminous Cello Concerto, the latter inspired by a lost, unrequited love. Elegiac, tender, bawdy, and sharp-witted, Dvorak in Love is also a brilliant evocation of the Gilded Age: raucously in New York, and more gently in Spillville, Iowa.