This past summer I was introduced to the work of the Russian author, Maya Kucherskaya. She studied philology at MGU and then did graduate work at UCLA before returning to Moscow to write what is becoming a growing collection of absolutely hysterical fiction that plays heavily on Russian Orthodox culture and piety. In 2006, she published A Contemporary Paterikon (Sovremennyj Paterik).
A Contemporary Paterikon is structured like the paterika of yore–its full of short stories, aphorisms, and little dialogues one would imagine taking place within the walls of a monastery. Like the “real” paterika it is fashioned after, it has a curt, deadpan, but very witty way about it. I have only just begun reading it, but I found it so clever and funny I had to share. It may be just plain weird for those readers not used to the genre of monastic (folk) wisdom, but hopefully some of you guys out there will enjoy it. (NB: If you’re interested in checking out classic monastic writings, that have the same snarky and didactic qualities–effused with oral tradition–, I recommend checking out the writings of St. Pachomius or St. Anthony–early key figures in monasticism)
Here a few selections from the very beginning of the piece, dubbed “Cycle One: Readings on the Nativity Fast”
1. They were dining. All of a sudden Father Feoprepi climbed under the table. He wiggled his way under and sat there, a bit rudely, in the midst of the brothers’ feet. Their feet didn’t move. Then Feoprepi began to clamber about and tug at everyone’s cassocks. No monk, for the sake of his own humility, reproached him. Only one newly arrived monk asked in consternation, “Father! What am I to make of this?”
“I want to be like a child,” was the reply.
2. An elder, who was well known to be very wise, instructed his novice to fell a poplar that grew directly in the middle of the monastery. The novice, wanting to understanding the hidden meaning of this request, said, “Father, why then should I fell it?”
The elder replied, “I’m tormented by allergies, my son. From the poplar seed tufts.” He sneezed.
“God bless you,” replied the novice and he ran for the power saw.
For he had the gift of reasoning.
3. Father Stefan tugged on a brother’s beard.
“Oy oy oy!” shouted the brother.
“Hey now, you’ve taken a vow of silence,” Stefan said in amazement.
“So what,” said the brother. And he began to sob loudly.
4. A certain monk was excessively downcast. No remedies would restore him. Then the brothers gave him a little wind-up machine for his namesday. The machine could move about by itself, beep and blink its lights.
“Wow, what a great little machine!” exclaimed the monk.
To this day, he has never again been downcast in his life. Every day, before going to sleep, he sets a pebble into the basket of the little machine, winds its up and watches how it turns itself around, flashes its lights and softly beeps.
5. The brothers asked the elder: “Tell us, father, where would be best to build the shed for firewood? Closer to the fence or near the bathhouse? Or perhaps behind gates?”
“Wherever you’d like,” answered the elder.
6. Father Iegudil spilled pea soup on himself.
“Listen here, Vasya, wash my cassock, will you?” he said to one of the monastery’s most recently arrived novices.
“But I don’t know how to wash,” objected Vasya. And he started to laugh.
“Then you’d best learn how to,” replied Father Iegudil. And he began to laugh even louder.
7. Once the brothers went out to the forest for a walk. Just as they began their stroll, Father Yakov disappeared.
The brothers began to calling out to him, “Yasha, Yasha! Hello there!” But a hush had fallen over the forest. The only sound was a cuckoo cuckooing and mushrooms growing.
“Why isn’t he answering us?” the brothers wondered. “Maybe he’s left to be in solitude? Or he’s taken a vow of silence?”
But Father Yakov had climbed into a tall tree and was pretending to be a cuckoo. He watched them through the leaves as they searched for him. He laughed, and he cuckooed!
8. Father Gavryusha was very fat and grunted in his sleep. There was a certain brand new monk who wasn’t familiar with the ways things ran at the monastery. Having heard the grunts, he began to run around the monastery looking for a piglet. He bounded across the beds, poked a stick into all the dark corners, he even climbed up onto the roof and tossed a pebble down the gutter pipe. All that and he never found anything.
10. A certain brother gave up eating food.
“How come you aren’t eating anything?” his cellmate asked him.
“Well, I’m fasting,” the brother explained.
“Okay, but soon you’re going to die of starvation.”
“Really?” replied the monk, “I’ll die of starvation?”
And so, marveling at the good reasoning of this and having been edified, he began to eat.
11. A certain monk came to his elder to complain about one of the other monks,
“He’s so terrible!” the monk confided to the elder. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him commit grave sins with my very own eyes.”
The elder simply blindfolded the brother’s eyes with a dirty stinky washrag and said to him, “We’ll punish these two naughty children—just contemplate this and smell the state of your soul for the time being.”
“Is my own soul really like this filth?” the brother asked.
“Oh it’s much worse, I’m going easy on you!”
To this day, whenever the brother sees some transgression, he quickly pulls up to his face the putrid rag that he always carries on him, and so finds comfort.
12. Once a member of an ecumenical conference (Vsemirnaya konferentzia) stopped by the monastery and at mealtime he offered the brothers sausage imported from Finland.
The brothers quite purposely averted their eyes to the other side of the room so that they wouldn’t see it and thereby accidentally eat it. Yet one elder was terribly overjoyed.
“How’s that for a good turn for an old man, that’s really something, that’s exceedingly—,” he kept repeating with his mouth stuffed. And he ate everything himself; he ate, ate, ate. And he gobbled up the entire sausage from Finland.
The ecumenical conference was astonished.
13. There was an elder of a very holy hermitage who had guests from faraway lands. He wanted to show them the extent of obedience which his cell attendant had achieved, and so he beckoned to them to take note of the red mutt in the monastery’s yard, saying:
“Look at that, Brother John, see what is going on here? A wolf is wandering about on the loose in the monastery!”
“How in the world has he not killed the hens? Do you not carry a gun around?” John replied.
The guests from faraway lands burst out clapping their hands with admiration.
16. Father Dorimedont gorged himself on chocolate. The chocolate had been sent in a package from his mom and, as he walked home from the post office, Father Dorimedont stealthily ate it all by accident.
That evening he lay down, held his stomach, and couldn’t fall asleep.
The brothers, pitying him, made a ring around his bed and sang a monastic lullaby. But Father Dorimedont remained just as despondent as before.
“Look at how he holds his stomach,” noticed one of the monks. “He’s fallen ill from asceticism. Grab some chocolate from the refrigerator, that we might comfort him!”
“Anything but that,” groaned Father Dorimedont in horror. “Please, instead give me a sip of salted water.”
Hearing this the brothers, the brothers marveled at the example of his life and increased their fast.