- Mar 18, 2002This has been posted for the last dozen years or so - a Tradition.
(now available at http://www.roca.org/OA/47/47g.htm)
"A Child's Lent Remembered"
An excerpt from Ivan Shmelyov's "Anno Domini", a wistful recollection of
life in his pious,
old-fashioned, well-to-do home in pre-Revolutionary Moscow. translated from
by Maria Belaeff and published in "Orthodox America", v5, #7, February
1985. Posted with
permission of the editors.
I waken from harsh light in my room: a bare kind of light, cold
dismal. Yes, it's Great Lent today. The pink curtains, with their
hunters and their ducks, have already been taken down while
I slept, and that's why it's so bare and dismal in the room. It's
Clean Monday today for us, and everything in our house is being
Greyish weather, the thaw. The dripping beyond the window is
like weeping. Our old carpenter - Gorkin, "the panel man" - said
yesterday that when Lady Shrovetide leaves, she'll weep. And so
she is - drip...drip...drip... There she goes!
I look at the paper flowers reduced to shreds, at the gold- glazed
"Shrovetide" sweetcake - a toy, brought back from the baths
yesterday; gone are the little bears, gone are the little hills -
vanished, the joy. And a joyous something begins to fuss in my
heart; now everything is new, different. Now it'll be "the soul
beginning" - Gorkin told me all about it yesterday. "It's time to
ready the soul." To prepare for Communion, to keep the fast,
to make ready for the Bright Day.
"Send One-eye in to see me!" I hear Father's angry shouting.
Father has not gone out on business; it's a special day today,
very strict. Father rarely shouts. Something important has
happened. But after all, he forgave the man for drinking; he
cancelled all his sins; yesterday was the day of Forgiveness.
And Vasil-Vasillich forgave us all too, that's exactly what he
said in the dining room, kneeling: "I forgive you all!" So why is
father shouting then?
The door opens, Gorkin comes in with a gleaming copper basin.
Oh, yes, to smoke out Lady Shrovetide! There's a hot brick in
the basin, and mint, and they pour vinegar over them. My old
nurse, Domnushka, follows Gorkin around and does the pouring;
it hisses in the basin and a tart steam rises - a sacred steam.
I can smell it even now, across the distance of the years.
Sacred... that's what Gorkin calls it. He goes to all the corners
and gently swirls the basin. And then he swirls it over me.
"Get up dearie, don't pamper yourself," he speaks lovingly to me,
sliding the basin under the skirt of the bed. "Where's she hid
herself in your room, fat old Lady Shrovetide... We'll drive her out!
Lent has arrived... We'll be going to the Lenten market, the choir
from St. Basil's will be singing 'My soul, my soul arise;' you won't
be able to tear yourself away."
That unforgettable, that sacred smell. The smell of Great Lent. And
Gorkin himself, completely special - as if he were kind of sacred too.
Way before light, he had already gone to the bath, steamed himself
thouroughly, put on everything clean. Clean Monday today! Only the
kazakin is old; today only the most workaday clothes may be worn,
that's "the law."
And it's a sin to laugh, and you have to rub a bit of oil on your head,
like Gorkin. He'll be eating without oil now, but you have to oil the
head, it's the law, "for the prayer's sake." There's a glow about him,
from his little grey beard, all silver really, from the neatly combed head.
I know for a fact that he's a saint. They're like that, God's people, that
please Him. And his face is pink, like a cherubim's, from the cleanness.
I know that he's dried himself bits of black braed with salt, and all Lent
long he'll take them with his tea, "instead of sugar."
But why is Daddy angry... with Vasil-Vasillich, like that?
"Oh, sinfulness..." says Gorkin with a sigh. "It's hard to break habits,
and now everything is strict, Lent. And, well, they get angry. But you
hold fast now, think about your soul. It's the season, all the same as if
the latter days were come... that's the law! You just recite, "O Lord and
Master of my life..." and be cheerful." And I begin silently reciting the
recently memorized Lenten prayer.
The rooms are quiet and deserted, full of that sacred smell. In the front
room, before the reddish icon of the Crucifixion, a very old one, from our
sainted great-grandmother who was an Old Believer; a "lenten" lampada
of clear glass has been lit, and now it will burn unextinguished until Pascha.
When Father lights it - on Saturdays he lights all the lampadas himself -
he always sings softly, in a pleasant-sad way: "Before Thy Cross, we
bow down, O Master," and I would sing softly after him, that wonderful
refrain: "And Thy ho-ly.. Re-sur-re-e-ec-tion, we glo-ri-fy!" A
beats inside my soul, shining from these words. And I behold it, behind the
long file of lenten days - the Holy Resurrection, in lights. A joyful
It casts a kindly beam of light upon these sad days of Lent.
I begin to imagine that now the old life is coming to an end, and it's time
to prepare for that other life, which will be... where? Somewhere, in the
heavens. You have to cleanse the soul of all sinfulness, and that's why
everything around you is different. And something special is at our side,
invisible and fearful. Gorkin told me that now, "it's like when the soul is
parting from the body." THEY keep watch, to snatch away the soul, and
all the while the soul trembles and wails: "Woe is me, I am cursed!"
They read about it in church now, at the Standings.
"Because they can sense that their end is coming near, that Christ will rise!
And that's why we're a-given Lent for, to keep close to church, to live to see
the Bright Day. And not to reflect, you understand. About earthly things, do
not reflect! And they'll be ringing everywhere: 'Think back!... Think
He made the words boom inside him nicely.
Throughout the house the window vents are open, and you can hear the
mournful cry and summons of the bells, ringing before the services:
think-back.. think-back. That's the piteous bell, crying for the soul. It's
called the Lenten peal. They've taken the shutters down from the widows,
and it'll be that way, poor-looking, clear until Pascha. In the drawing-room
there are grey slip-covers on the furniture; the lamps are bundled up into
cocoons, and even the one painting, "The Beauty at the Feast," is draped
over with a sheet. That was the suggestion of His Eminence. Shook his
head sadly and said: "A sinful and tempting picture!" But Father likes it
a lot - such class! Also draped is the engraving which Father for some
reason calls "the sweetcake one", it shows a little old man dancing, and
an old woman hitting him with a broom. That one His Eminence liked a
great deal, even laughed.
All the housefolk are very serious, in workday clothes with patches, and
I was told also to put on the jacket with the worn- through elbows. The
rugs have been taken out; it's such a lark now to skate across the parquet.
Only it's scary to try - Great Lent: skate hard and you'll break a leg.
Not a crumb left over from Shrovetide, mustn't be so much as a trace of
it in the air. Even the sturgeon in aspic was passed down to the kitchen
yesterday. Only the very plainest dishes are left in the sideboard, the ones
with the dun spots and the cracks... for Great Lent.
In the front room there are bowls of yellow pickles, little umbrellas of dill
sticking out of them, and chopped cabbage, tart and thickly dusted with
anise - a delight. I grab pinches of it - how it crunches! And I vow to myself
to eat only lenten foods for the duration of the fast. Why send my soul to
perdition, since everything tastes so good anyway! There'll be stewed fruit,
potato pancakes with prunes, "crosses" on the Week of the Cross... frozen
cranberries with sugar, candied nuts... And what about roast buckwheat
kasha with onions, washed down with kvass! And then lenten pasties with
milk-mushrooms, and then buckwheat pancakes with onions on Saturdays...
and the boiled wheat with marmalade on the first Saturday... and almond
milk with white kissel, and the cranberry one with vanilla, and the grand
kuliebiak on Annunciation... Can it be that THERE, where everyone goes
to from this life, ther will be such lenten fare!
And why is everyone so dull-looking? Why, everything is so... so different,
and there is much, so much that is joyous. Today they'll bring the first
ice and begin to line the cellars - the whole yard will be stacked with it.
We'll go to the "Lenten Market," where I've never been... I begin jumping
up and down with joy, but they stop me: "It's Lent, don't dare! Just wait
and see, you'll break your leg!"
Fear comes over me. I look at the Crucifixion. He suffers, the Son of God!
But how is it that God... How did He allow it?... I have the sense that
herein lies the great mystery itself - GOD.
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