by Olesia Nikolaeva

trans­lat­ed by Alexan­dra Weber

Ole­sia Niko­lae­va is an award-win­ning and pro­lif­ic Russ­ian poet, essay­ist, and author. She was award­ed the Patri­ar­chal Lit­er­ary Prize in 2012 and has been called “a trail­blaz­er in Russ­ian Ortho­dox prose” by Bish­op Tikhon (Shevkunov), author of the 2011 best­seller Every­day Saints and Oth­er Sto­ries. Niko­lae­va also hap­pens to be the wife of an Ortho­dox priest. Her col­lec­tion of tales from life as a believ­er in Sovi­et and post-Sovi­et Rus­sia, titled Ordi­nary Won­ders: Sto­ries of Unex­pect­ed Grace (Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions: Jor­danville, NY), is avail­able now. The below anec­dote is excerpt­ed from this trans­la­tion.

Ear­li­er in the book, we become acquaint­ed with Father Leonid, a tru­ly hum­ble monk who has suf­fered much from the strug­gles of life. Among oth­er things, the author attrib­ut­es to his prayers the suc­cess­ful birth of her third child in extreme­ly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Here, though, his child­like sim­plic­i­ty leads to temp­ta­tion.

Monk Leonid was a man of great fast­ing and prayer. He loved to say the fol­low­ing words from the Gospel: “He who is faith­ful in what is least is faith­ful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Lk 16:10). And in order to be trust­ed not only with very lit­tle, but with the very least, he recruit­ed my help in obtain­ing some text­books full of charts that are used by stu­dents in the Culi­nary Insti­tute: these he would peruse and work out the ingre­di­ents of prod­ucts which had pre­vi­ous­ly been con­sid­ered Lenten. The study of these recipes drew from him many a sor­row­ful sigh, for it came to light that not all breads that we usu­al­ly ate with­out a sec­ond thought dur­ing the fasts were free of dairy addi­tives. The same dis­cov­ery applied to cer­tain noo­dles and pas­tas, to say noth­ing of waf­fle cook­ies! 


Portrait of Olesia Nikolaeva

Ole­sia Niko­lae­va, author of Ordi­nary Won­ders: Sto­ries of Unex­pect­ed Grace

The range of tru­ly Lenten foods was cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly shrink­ing. All that was left of the car­bo­hy­drates was gin­ger­bread and grains.


At that time we received a dear guest from Tula—Mitrofan Dmitrievich, a for­mer colonel who had fought at the front, a ser­vant of God much beloved by Fr Seraphim (Tiapoc­hkin)1 for his puri­ty of heart. Well, what would he bring us from Tula, espe­cial­ly dur­ing Great Lent, but the famous Tula gin­ger­bread, of course—round, glazed, wrapped in a fes­tive box. So Mitro­fan Dmitrievich brought us three of these box­es at once.


As soon as he arrived, I received a call from my friend Andriusha—a for­mer class­mate and my godson—who said:


“I’m here not far from your house. Can I stop by?”


He didn’t want to come emp­ty-hand­ed, so he stepped into a bak­ery at a hotel near the sub­way sta­tion, then rang our door­bell and hand­ed me a dec­o­ra­tive box with Tula gin­ger­bread through the door­way, all nice­ly glazed and in a fes­tive box. 


My hus­band, hear­ing that we had guests, also stopped at the same bak­ery on his way home from work and arrived just in time for tea with the same gin­ger­bread print­ed with the word “Tula” in his hands. So there we sat, sur­round­ed on all sides by this gin­ger­bread, which had by now grown in quan­ti­ty to five box­es, and drank our tea, pleas­ant­ly keep­ing the fast, enjoy­ing good con­ver­sa­tion on var­i­ous spir­i­tu­al themes. And such con­ver­sa­tion!


Mitro­fan Dmitrievich had at one time been the cell atten­dant for Elder Seraphim him­self, and knew many won­der­ful sto­ries, while Andriusha, a neo­phyte, lis­tened to him with bat­ed breath, mouth agape… And sud­den­ly we got a phone call from Monk Leonid:


“I just fin­ished study­ing the list of ingre­di­ents for gin­ger­bread. It turns out that it’s all not Lenten! Yes! There’s egg pow­der in it. There is only one kind of gin­ger­bread that is Lenten, the so-called Kom­so­mol gin­ger­bread.2 The dark­ish kind. That, you can go ahead and eat with­out con­cern dur­ing all of Lent.” 


After this announce­ment, he hung up. We had already devoured quite a few of the sus­pi­cious Tula gin­ger­bread. We had noth­ing else to offer! Well, I said noth­ing so as not to dis­may my guests.


Then I met a priest acquain­tance in church:


“Why are you so sad? You’re not depressed, are you?”


“And how! I fast­ed and fast­ed, and then ate some­thing not Lenten after all! Broke the fast,” I sor­row­ful­ly uttered.


He tried to cheer me up.


“Well, maybe you were trav­el­ing? Or you were eat­ing din­ner in the house of a pagan?”


“No,” I replied firm­ly, “I was at home.”


“Well, maybe you were ill?”


“No, I wasn’t ill,” I said deject­ed­ly. “I was in good health.”


“Well, then, what hap­pened? Did you crave some cheese? Some cot­tage cheese? Or… some meat?” he asked sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly.


“I ate some gin­ger­bread.”


“Gin­ger­bread? But that’s Lenten!” the priest joy­ful­ly cried out. “It’s allowed, that’s not a sin!” 


“Only the Kom­so­mol kind. You can eat the Kom­so­mol kind,” I said know­ing­ly. “But I ate the non-Kom­so­mol gin­ger­bread, that’s the prob­lem!”


The priest looked at me in amaze­ment.


“Wh-what did you say? The non-Kom­so­mol gin­ger­bread?”


“Well yes, the non-Kom­so­mol gin­ger­bread. The not-Lenten kind. It has egg pow­der in it!”


I even felt my eyes fill up with tears of con­tri­tion.


The priest sighed heav­i­ly. 


“So that’s what it is… egg pow­der, eh?”


“Egg pow­der,” I repeat­ed in a sub­dued tone.


“Oh, the dev­il!” the priest cried out. “How he manip­u­lates peo­ple! So we’re strain­ing out gnats, are we? And what about camels? The camel of hypocrisy, it turns out we swal­low it! The camel of despon­den­cy we swal­low!”3

I came home just in time to receive a phone call from Monk Leonid.


“I just read about zefir and marsh­mal­lows…
”

“Fr Leonid,” I said in a steely tone of voice. “I am oblig­ed to take back those text­books with the recipes. The own­er needs them back imme­di­ate­ly.”


“But I haven’t stud­ied every­thing yet… It turns out that mar­malade…”


“He said imme­di­ate­ly! I will come and pick them up right now.”


I came and took them away. And as a gift I brought him the three remain­ing box­es of our gift­ed Tula gin­ger­bread. I knew that he was always grate­ful for any offer­ing, repeat­ing the words “every… gift is from above.” 4

This time also he cocked his head and said, tak­ing the box­es from me: “May the Lord save you!”


But then again, this was exact­ly how a hum­ble monk was sup­posed to act.

 

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