In the last decade of his life, Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) turned to a paraphrasing a number of Biblical psalms in a work known in English by the title “Psalms of David”. Many of his paraphrases take these ancient songs and prayers and apply them to the griefs being experienced by his people under Czarist persecution. These words have a particular poignancy and immediacy today. While Shevchenko may have been too quick to equate his people with Israel and the Czars with their enemies, these prayers are powerful reminders that God sees all our tears and hears the agonies of our hearts – and that He is working in the world for justice, however it may seem now. In this season of Lent, moving towards the Cross while Ukraine is once again in pain, it might be time to rediscover Shevchenko, but also the extraordinary linocuts that artist Soroka Bohdan produced in 1989 to accompany the Psalms of David. The image for Psalm 12, today’s poem, is especially powerful, pointing all who cry out for mercy and justice to gather around the Cross where mercy is fulfilled and the justice of God wins out over sin and oppression. Although unrelated to the psalm, the hauntingly beautiful sounds of Ensemble Drevo, singing a Ukrainian folk song about Mary standing by the Cross, seemed to me to perfectly fit the heart of both the image and Shevchenko’s poem.
Image: Linocut by Soroka Bohdan, 1989 (archive-uu.com)
Text: Psalm 12 from “Psalms of David” by Taras Shevchenko, The Complete Kobzar: The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko, trans. Peter Fedynsky