Faith and Humor: Notes from Muscovy by Maya Kucherskaya, translated by Alexei Bayer
I’ll admit I was nervous to review this book. Deeply concerned, really. The information sheet included by Russian Life Books mentioned “heated controversy,” “a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows,” and “burned in effigy by ardent believers.” In fact, before I opened it, I asked for a blessing from my priest and thoughts from my mother.
My priest just smiled and told me he thought it would be fine. He understood my concern, but he didn’t have a problem with the book. My reserved and dignified mother was laughing so hard she had tears streaming down her face, and she didn’t want to give it back to me.
The Russian name for this book is A Modern Paterikon, ie a collection of moral tales about church fathers. The fathers in this tale are not always precisely moral (one is a cannibal), and it’s on the irreverent side. But there’s something sweet about the way it teases priests. As Sergey Chuprynin wrote in the introduction, “The most important thing is that hers is a labor of love. It brims with the tenderness and compassion that we reserve for family members, for close friends and loved ones—even if they may be sinners and at times do awkward things.”
Father Dorymedontus ate too much chocolate. It had been sent him by his mother, and, on his way back from the post office, Father Dorymedontus secretly ate it all, by accident. At night, he couldn’t sleep and lay in bed, holding his stomach. The whole brotherhood, feeling sorry for him, formed a circle around his bed, danced and sang the monastery’s traditional lullaby. But Father Dorymedontus continued to suffer.
“Look, he is holding his stomach,” one monk said. “He’s probably ill from too much fasting. Let’s get him some chocolate from the refrigerator. It’ll give him some comfort.”
“No, please, not that” Father Dorymedontus groaned in horror. “Better to give me some salted water.”
When they hear that, the monks were awed by how strictly he kept his fast and made their own fasts even more severe.
When women complained to him about their father-in-law or mother-in-law, or perhaps a neighbor, the priest gave them all the same advice. “Go ahead and kill him. Or her.”
“What do you mean, kill him?” the women shrieked in horror.
“Smother him with a pillow or perhaps put arsenic in his tea.” Sometimes he would also add, “Or else send him to a meat packing plant and let them make sausage out of him.” After this, they stopped complaining to him about their family or friends.
A novice once asked Father Plato, “What is the best path to salvation?”
To which he replied, “Go call your mother already.”
I have to admit that I am terribly fond of this book. I was howling with laughter as I read it.
I can see why it was burned at the stake at a convent; it is certainly scandalous. I can also see why one seminary uses it as instruction for their future priests. I think it’s charming, and I’d highly recommend it. I wouldn’t give it to new converts or people outside the faith; however, it’s a lovely gift for a friend or even—perhaps—a priest.
This report filed by terce reporter Brigid Strait. Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved.