BY MARGARET BOYLAN AND JOHN GALLAGHER
Alexander R. Sich, Fulbright Scholar and Franciscan University professor of physics, returned to the United States with his family in July, after an 11-month stay in the Ukraine.
Sich, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spent nearly a year living in L’viv, Ukraine on a Fulbright Teaching and Research Fellowship at the Ukrainian Catholic University.
Two days after arriving back in the United States, Sich purchased a car, an example he provided to demonstrate the relative safety and freedom in America, as compared to that of Ukraine. However, the hardships actually bolstered Sich’s experience abroad.
“The daily struggles make life more real, more tangible,” he said.
He continued, “There’s reverse culture shock. It wasn’t as much going over there, it was coming back. And I’m still not over it.”
Sich made it a point to acknowledge the relative ease of life in the West.
“People…generally don’t know how blessed, how rich they are,” said Sich. “And, probably the least, unfortunately, used term here is ‘gratitude.’”
Sich shared a little about the civil unrest that currently characterizes much of the Ukrainian way of life.
“Ukraine is struggling to extricate itself and recover from the tremendous damage done, in particular at the psychological level, to an entire society,” said Sich.
“Ukrainians do have a historic identity that’s much older than, let’s say, the United States,” said Sich. “But, because of their history, the invaders, the wars, they’ve never really been a political entity in the modern sense for very long. In other words, there hasn’t been enough time for a national political, as opposed to ethnic-cultural, identity to crystallize. ‘Who are we as a state?’ is their question.”
One of the ways by which Ukrainians seek to answer that question is their faith. Sich explained how the unique Eastern concept of time affects their liturgical celebrations.
“There, it’s not the chronos… vision of time,” he said.
Sich explained the Ukrainian understanding of the kairos vision of faith, an emphasis on living in the moment, with no anxiety for what comes before or after.
“You’re right here, you’re standing in the presence of Christ; literally, now is the time of salvation,” said Sich.
Sich went on to comment about the nature of the Ukrainian church.
“The expression of their faith there is… organic,” he said. “People aren’t afraid to express their faith physically, like kissing icons, or kissing crucifixes, or crawling on their knees, or touching icons or statues. It’s more organic.”
While in the Ukraine, Sich taught at the Ukrainian Catholic University, an institution responsible for much of his intellectual stimulation while abroad. He expressed fondness for the debates that happened between him and local physicists.
He said, “There, it’s as if you’re entering into the soul of the other person. … You may be arguing, an argument where they’ve exposed their souls to you, and you’re expected to expose your soul to them. You get the sense they’re testing you to see whether you really believe what you’re arguing, and you’re expected to test them the same way.”
Sich also co-authored an article in Crisis Magazine with the Rev. Bohdan Prach. This article discusses the current condition of the Ukrainian Catholic University in its continued attempts to balance faith with academic pursuit.