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.

The Little Thinker has a couple of posts (1, 2) with an informed appreciation and excerpts translated by the blogger (which makes for an interesting comparison with Bayer’s version).


  1. My takeaway from this is that a Russian Orthodox monastery is much like a classical Zen temple, except with friendly wholesomeness instead of beatings and cruelty.

  2. From the Broken Koans page: “A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’ Joshu asked: ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’ The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’ Joshu said: ‘Then you had better wash your bowl,’ and the monk replied ‘Okay.'”

  3. The product description says: “At one convent, the book was burned at the stake”. I wonder whether there was actually a stake involved. The book-burnings I have seen in German TV documentaries about the Third Reich, and also Christian and Islamic outrage jamborees, are merely piles onto which books are thrown unceremoniously.
    “Burned at the stake” here may just be a fixed phrase in English with no pretention to accuracy. The German word for such a stake is Brandpfahl, but in the context of death by burning one encounters that word much less frequently than Scheiterhaufen (woodpile). “Burn at the stake” is a common translation of auf dem Scheiterhaufen verbrennen. Thus if the product description of Kucherskaya’s book were in German, no “stake” word would have been been present.
    In the WiPe article on death by burning, the burning of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion is said to have been “at the stake”, but the subsequent description says only that he was “placed on a pyre”. I suppose he was immobilized in some way, but there are other, simpler ways to do that than by chaining or tying to a stake:

    Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, one of the Jewish Ten Martyrs executed for defying Emperor Hadrian’s edicts against practice of the Jewish religion, is reported to have been burnt at the stake. As narrated in the Talmud, ben Teradion was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death.

    I see that Sati practices did not usually involve tying down, there being other ways to restrain the widow from flighty reconsideration at the last moment.
    I vaguely remember having read about certain books being immolated or hanged as if they were human. Does anybody know of such incidents ?

  4. “Burned at the stake” sounds grander than “burned on a woodpile”. Similarly, “in my father’s house there are many mansions” is grander and stranger than “in my father’s house there are many rooms to let”.

  5. I see your Broken Koans and raise you Lessons from the Temple.

  6. holy-molly, it’s so sweet.
    There is a huge oral and written tradition of lampooning the orthodoxy, compared to which these come as practically incongruous. The Vicar in Andy Capp has more bite.

  7. May I go off-topic to pick the brains of the polyglot readers here? Do any of you know of some forum where people learning Turkish could ask questions? Actually, I bet I could get an answer here, but I’d rather not bother you, instead going somewhere specific to the topic. (BTW I was glad to get the recommendation about the Turkish language reform book the other day, which I’ll certainly read once I know a bit more of the language.)

  8. Vasha: Here, specifically here, and more specifically here. 🙂
    It’s a pretty good website overall.

  9. Don’t know about books, but bells have had their tongues ripped out and exiled.
    Talk about shooting the messenger. Sheesh!

  10. Henry I, third son of William the conqueror, died from a surfeit of lampreys. He also wrote in a charter that the bishop of London was allowed to take porpoises from the Thames, ‘except for the tongue which I reserve for myself’. The Normans were horrible, horrible people.

  11. That would make a great advertising plug: “Banned in Boston, hanged in Vilna!”.

  12. Plus “tongue-tied on the Thames!”

  13. “clappered in Kozélsk”

  14. Kozélsk brings us back to Orthodox elders: “The much-venerated monastery, Optina Pustyn, is close by. In the 19th century, this hermitage gained wide renown for its ‘startsy’“.

  15. On March 4th, 1953, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation pie was made by the Royal Air Force using lampreys.[citation needed]
    ‘Another slice of coronation pie, dear?’
    ‘Lampreys, squadron leader! Yum!’

  16. It sounds disgusting, if it looks anything like lamprey rice. Here is a lamprey repellant being tested.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Patericon and paterikon are both in use in English. I guess I couldn’t say “common” use, but frequent use among the subset of Anglophones who routinely have occasion to use the word. (Also matericon or materikon, when the stories concern nuns or other saintly women rather than monks.) The general themes and tones of these tales (including in the greater number excerpted in the blog you linked) is except for technological change (power saws, ice cream sandwiches, etc.) pretty much indistinguishable from a common genre of stories you get about early monks in the Egyptian desert back to the 4th/5th centuries, and of course both actual modern Russian Orthodox monks and anyone who might make up edifying-but-non-historical tales about them will know that genre very well.

  18. Grumbly, that picture would look disgusting even if I didn’t know those things were lampreys. Indeed, just the beans look plenty disgusting — it’s all in the lighting and contrast.

  19. That’s why the RAF’s coronation pie was a so-much-better solution. Problems making dinner? Call the Royal Air Force!

  20. John, I think that what you see on that plate is not beans, but risotto, as the picture caption indicates – possibly with greyish beans added. The lighting seems adequate for the colors involved – some people like that kind of thing. In Barcelona I was once confronted at noonday with a squid paella of similarly sepulchral sliminess.

  21. If the blues and purples were zinged up with Photoshop, one could imagine limp lengths of Apfelstrudel drenched in a blackberry rice pudding.

  22. Google tells me that lamprey rice is supposed to look like that, apparently, the main ingredients of the sauce are red wine and the blood of the lamprey.

  23. There is a curious contrasting of “display” and “cruelty” in a passage from Seneca quoted here:

    Vedius Pollio was punished by Augustus for attempting to feed a clumsy slave to the lampreys in his fishpond.
    …one of his slaves had broken a crystal cup. Vedius ordered him to be seized and then put to death, but in an unusual way. He ordered him to be thrown to the huge lampreys which he had in his fish pond. Who would not think he did this for display? Yet it was out of cruelty. The boy slipped from the captor’s hands and fled to Caesar’s feet asking nothing else other than a different way to die — he did not want to be eaten. Caesar was moved by the novelty of the cruelty and ordered him to be released, all the crystal cups to be broken before his eyes, and the fish pond to be filled in… – Seneca, On Anger, III, 40

  24. “Caesar was moved by the novelty of the cruelty and ordered him to be released” is also peculiar – as if there were a fixed canon of conscionable cruelties. Clearly Hollywood would go out of business if the general public today rejected films because they showed novel cruelties. On the contrary, part of that public eagerly demands these.
    I wonder whether the translation does justice to the original passage.

  25. “Vedius Pollio was punished by Augustus for attempting to feed a clumsy slave to the lampreys in his fishpond.”
    “Moi qui sais des lais pour les reines
    Les complaintes de mes années
    Des hymnes d’esclave aux murènes
    La romance du mal-aimé
    Et des chansons pour les sirènes”

    (Guillaume Apollinaire “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé”)

  26. According to John Julius Norwich, Pope Martin IV died in March 1285 having “dined too well on milk-fed eels from Lake Bolsena.”
    So the latest score in Medieval potentates versus anguilliformes is 2-0 to the eels.

  27. Des hymnes d’esclave aux murènes
    That’s neat – instead of singing for his supper, he sang to the suppers.

  28. To fold the discussion back to the original subject, I thought it would be nice to cite an edifying and wholesome tale about Orthodox elders and lampreys. Unfortunately, I could find one only about a Nez Perce elder.

  29. That Nez Perce man is much more positive than everyone else is about lampreys.
    I think ‘ate a surfeit of lampreys’ and ‘dined too well on milk-fed eels’ are both pretty vague causes of death. What actually happened? You’d think there would be a Wikipedia entry for that by now. According to Henry’s biographer the late CW Hollister, in the Oxford DNB,

    Having journeyed to his lodge at Lyons-la-Forêt to indulge in his favourite pastime of hunting, he fell mortally ill on about 25 November [1135] after feasting on lampreys—a delicacy that his physician had forbidden him. The legend that Henry died of ‘a surfeit of lampreys’ has no basis in the historical record. It was not that he ate too many lampreys, but that his physician had advised him not to eat any at all.

    According to Ackroyd,

    He lay for some days in weakness and confusion […] His body was embalmed but the unfortunate and unskilful embalmer died from the infectious stench that rose from the cadaver; one chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, remarked that ‘he was the last of many whom King Henry had put to death’. The corpse, leaking what was described as black fluid, was eventually taken to Reading Abbey […] Its ruins can still be seen.

    As far as I know there was no food poisoning at the last coronation, but you still wouldn’t catch me eating lampreys. Perhaps they’re bad for the heart? There’s nothing about them on the Royal Air Force’s web pages.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, for an Orthodoxy/eel nexus, I can offer this troparion: “From amid the eel-island in the fens, thou didst raise thy hands aloft to the Creator, O Mother Audrey, and defeating the slippery serpent-enemy through the noble strength of thy prayers, thou didst protect all those that cry unto thee in faith.” This from a modern attempt by Orthodox resident in England to compose a properly Orthodox service in honor of St. Audrey/Etheldreda (who lived well before the unfortunate events of 1054 and is thus classifiable as perfectly Orthodox). The “eel-island” is of course the Isle of Ely. (The service elsewhere analogizes the East Anglian fens to the Egyptian desert, making them by analogy a perfect location for the monastic vocation.)

  31. The legend that Henry died of ‘a surfeit of lampreys’ has no basis in the historical record. It was not that he ate too many lampreys, but that his physician had advised him not to eat any at all.
    I disagree; if his physician advised him not to eat any lampreys at all, then even one would be a surfeit.

  32. Everybody knows that sirloin steak is so called because King Henry knighted a loin of beef one day. It’s much the same with sirfeet.

  33. Here’s a possible cause of Henry’s death:

    Eel blood is toxic to humans and other mammals, but both cooking and the digestive process destroy the toxic protein. The toxin derived from eel blood serum was used by Charles Richet in his Nobel winning research which discovered anaphylaxis (by injecting it into dogs and observing the effect).

    Eels have a high fat content. Perhaps contemporary physicians knew that certain types of discomfort/illness (the symptoms of gallbladder or liver dysfunction) occur in certain persons after they eat greasy foods. Or they associated obesity with fatty foods, so to reduce the obesity you reduce the fat uptake. I am not well-read in the history of medicine.
    The quoted sentence – “It was not that he ate too many lampreys, but that his physician had advised him not to eat any at all” – seems to be saying that the cause of Henry’s death was not too many lampreys, but instead the advice of his physician not to eat any at all. In other words, he succumbed to a fit of pique.

  34. The respective lairds of Real, Upp, Cull and Rhosis were also knighted.

  35. I am not well-read in the history of medicine.
    For once, I blush to have exaggerated. I am completely infrared in the subject.

  36. The corpse, leaking what was described as black fluid
    That would be supperation, caused by overeating.

  37. Grumbly: Well then, strive to disinfrare yourself!
    I bet that St. Tawdry said her creed “and from the Son”, though, since she was born in the 630s, about the time that the Byzantines first complained about this characteristically Latin habit, then about a hundred years old.
    Two curious facts about the famous filioque: the Catholic Church does not use it when saying the creed in Greek, either exceptionally in the Latin rite, or normally (and perhaps in translation) as a part of other rites. And at least part of the Orthodox Church (it is definitely not a monolithic organization) does not say that the clause is heterodox, but simply that part of the universal church could not by itself make changes to the agreed-upon creed: their objection is procedural rather than substantive.

  38. their objection is procedural rather than substantive
    Izzat so !? I sped to the WiPe to refrare myself on the filioque business, where I was stopped in my tracks by the frisson of a new word:

    There are two separate issues in the filioque controversy: the orthodoxy of the doctrine itself and the liceity of the interpolation of the phrase into the Nicene Creed

    Ok, ok, it clearly should mean something like “licitness”. What struck me was my urge to pronoune “liceity” as if it were German – it would be the kind of Fremdwort the Germans go for. Is there a Lizeität on offer ? Sure nuff.
    The CatholicCulture website says this about that:

    The legitimacy of a human action and its consequences, e.g., administration of a sacrament or a contract. It is commonly distinguished from validity, since an action may be valid but not licit, as a layman conferring baptism without urgent necessity. (Etym. Latin licentia, license, freedom to act.)

  39. I guess the English pronunciation would have to be “lie-SEE-ih-ty”.

  40. J.W. Brewer says

    Yes, it’s not like the Latin-speaking church in the Western parts of Europe was perfectly Orthodox on 12/31/1053 and then suddenly went off the rails (and in England some Orthodox like to overstate the purity of the Anglo-Saxon church and improbably claim that it would have adhered to Constantinople rather than Rome but for the wicked Normans), but there’s a mostly generous impulse to recognize the sanctity of people who were not formally in schism from the One True Church and who were not themselves active partisans on the wrong side of the divisive issues as they were developing.
    Some will even have a good word for post-schism figures from the wrong side who were obviously holy and not personally culpable for living when and where they did (at a time when it’s not like you could convert individually to the One True Church without leaving your home country) – e.g. I have seen icons of Francis of Assisi in Orthodox churches (although that place in San Francisco with icons of John Coltrane is well outside even the fuzzy boundaries of legitimate Orthodoxy . . .). But that’s a more controversial position, and might be associated with other dubious practices like out of politeness leading a Western interlocutor to think there’s more wiggle room on the filioque than there probably really is.

  41. wiggle room
    A room with a view, or rather with views – the “different theologoumena or theological perspectives”, as the WiPe article quotes one writer as having put it. I see theologians doing the Twist there, pausing occasionally to glance out through whichever window is closest.

  42. wiggle room also takes us back to lampreys. Or eels in a Nicene creel?

  43. I may have vaguely known that the Isle of Ely was named for its eels, but I certainly did not know that it was pronounced Eel-y, which would have made the etymology obvious. I’ve been saying it Eli (but with rhythmical stress shift) for my whole life.
    As for liceity, even the OED does not believe in it, neither as a definiens nor as part of any quotation. I suspect it of being one of those weird bits of Latin translationese common in anglophone Catholic discourse, like Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. I’ll stick with licitness myself.

  44. Yeah, my internet search for Lizeität came up with exactly one hit, the one I linked. I too would leave things at licitness, although it’s a Sunday-go-to-meetin’ word that I would not serve, but only knock back across the net.

  45. “Des hymnes d’esclave aux murènes”
    But “murène” is a moray eel, not a lamprey. (That would be “une lamproie”.) A much more ferocious thing to be thrown to. Lampreys, lacking jaws, can’t actually eat people.
    The original Latin has “murenis obici iubebatur, quas ingentis in piscina continebat”. “Murena” is a moray eel. (“Anguillis” is the smaller common eel.)

  46. Lampreys, lacking jaws, can’t actually eat people.
    No, they just try and suck them to death.
    Apparently Anguilla is so-called because it’s eel-shaped (presumably in plan). I don’t think it looks much like an eel.

  47. No, they just try and suck them to death.
    Only by mistake for fish. Lamprey won’t mount a sustained attack on a human. Throwing a slave to the lampreys would be about as dramatic and lethal as dropping him into a tank full of piranhas or a pen full of hunger-crazed sheep (ie not at all).

  48. We throw our slaves to the goats. And sometimes we throw our goats to the slaves.

  49. I don’t know how Eel Pie Island got its name. It’s nowhere near the Isle of Ely.
    I have eaten jellied eels (in Brighton). I didn’t think they’d be worth trying again.

  50. Lizeität
    I believe that liceitas / validitas (licéité / validité, etc.) are standardly Erlaubtheit / Gültigkeit.

  51. Yes, but have you eaten anguilles au vert?

  52. There was joy among the eels
    When Death laid him by the heels,
    For he’d skinned ’em and he’d sorted ’em
    As though Death had county-courted ’em.
         —epitaph for Pope Martin IV (1281-85), tr. Dorothy Sayers

  53. “Murena” is a moray eel.
    According to Lewis and Short, it ain’t necessarily so. “Murena” is merely “a fish of which the ancients were very fond.” Excessive fondness appears to be a theme running through these examples. Here we have Henry I dining “on a favorite meal of lampreys which always disagreed with him but of which he had an excessive fondness.” So I reckon food poisoning is a misdiagnosis and the victims really died of unrequited love. In the words of Neil Young, “Only eels can break your heart.”

  54. My diagnosis was pique. Unrequited love is just mopey pique. Melville wrote a novel about it.

  55. No. That looks well worth trying.
    The original flemish name for the dish is Paling op t groen

  56. According to Lewis and Short, it ain’t necessarily so.
    L&S has been thoroughly obsoleted. According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, a murena is “a kind of eel, the moray (but prob. vaguely confused with the lamprey).”

  57. Obsolete it is, but it’s all we non-Oxonians can afford, Hat. The best available price for the full OLD on Amazon is $174.76. When the second edition comes out on April Fool, hopefully the price of the first edition will drop, but one never knows: people feel funny giving away a book whose list price is $450.

  58. I got it at a library sale for twenty bucks, suckers!

  59. a murena is “a kind of eel, the moray (but prob. vaguely confused with the lamprey).”
    You’d have to be pretty vague to confuse a moray with a lamprey. A lamprey’s generally about the size of a hot dog. A moray eel is six feet long.

  60. You’d have to be pretty vague to confuse a moray with a lamprey.
    Probably the entry contributor that Hat quotes was just trying to say things in a polite way. If the contributor had dared to give rein to his tongue, he might have written “confuse the words out of total ignorance of the one and the other kind of marine wriggliness”.

  61. My favorite such anecdote was told to me by the late Fr. Augustine Whitfield, sometime abbot of Mount Royal, a Benedictine monastery within the American Russian Orthodox church. He was once lamenting to his superior, Archbishop Nikhon, about how few people had shown up for services — to which the sweet-tempered old man replied brightly, “But Fazzer! Sink of all ze howly ANCHELS zat was zere!”

  62. Stu, I think you may be right there.

  63. He must be right there, as he certainly isn’t anywhere else (unless indeed he was a bird).

  64. You’d have to be pretty vague to confuse a moray with a lamprey.
    In fact, lampreys are no more related to eels than they are to us, which makes Stu’s suggestion as to the King’s cause of death quite unlikely.

  65. David Marjanović says

    Murena? So the genus name Muraena is a hypercorrectivism?

  66. Murena, muraena, murena, muraena / Let’s call the whole thing eel.

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