A Child’s Lent Remembered

 

Fr. Mark posted this a few years back [and every year], and I really liked how it gives a

little more perspective on taking Lent seriously.

-Rebekah Moser

 

“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 the Russian by Maria Belaeff and published in “Orthodox America”, v5, #7,  February 1985. Posted with permission of the editors.

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Clean Monday

 

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

scrubbed.

 

 

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 joy-to-tears 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 little prayer!  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 back!…”

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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