It’s hard to know how to describe Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy, by Maya Kucherskaya (profile), translated by Alexei Bayer (of which the publisher, Russian Life, was kind enough to send me an advance copy in uncorrected proofs). The Russian title, which translates as A Contemporary Paterikon, is more descriptive, or at least more specific, but since “Paterikon” means nothing to the vast majority of English speakers, I decided “Faith & Humor” was as good an English title as any. The book is sort of a “Lives of the Fathers” crossed with Daniil Kharms; it consists of (often acerbic) little anecdotes that add up to a surprisingly warm and effective collective portrait of modern Orthodoxy in its Russian context. I guess the only thing I can do is quote a few bits so you can see what it’s like and decide whether you want to read more; as far as I’m concerned, they’re like peanuts, and I can’t get enough of them.
1. They were all supping around the refectory table. Suddenly, Father Theoprepus got down under the table. He sat there among the monks’ roughly shod feet. The feet remained still. Then Father Theoprepus began to move around and to tug at the monks’ cassocks from under the table. The monks were humble and no one dared to reproach him. Only one novice asked him in astonishment, “Father, how would you have us interpret this?”
“I want to be like a child,” came the answer.
2. An abbot known for his gift of clairvoyance commanded a novice to cut down a poplar tree growing in the middle of the monastery. The novice, wishing to understand the hidden meaning of this order, inquired, “Father, why should the tree be cut down?”
“I’ve been laid low with allergies, Sonnie, from the poplar down,” the abbot replied, sneezing.
“God bless you,” said the novice and ran to fetch an electric saw.
For he had a gift of understanding.
6. Father Yehudiel spilled pea soup all over himself.
“Vasya, why don’t you go and wash my cassock,” he said to a novice who had recently joined the monastery.
“But I have no idea how to wash clothes,” Vasya protested, laughing loudly.
“And so you shall learn,” Father Yehudiel replied, laughing louder than ever.