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!
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)1Some bibliographical details of this holy elder may be found in Russian here; Fr Seraphim also features prominently in Olesia Nikolaeva’s new book 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.2The Komsomol was the Communist youth organization. Komsomol gingerbread is analogous to girl scout cookies. 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!”3The priest is referring to Matt. 23:24
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.” 4This is said by the priest, during the prayer behind the ambo, at the end of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
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.