Faith & Humor – Notes from Muscovy (1 of 6)

There was once a priest who hated all people …

An excerpt from Faith & Humor:

He didn’t get to be that way all at once. At first he loved everyone. Then he stopped loving people and began to feel disdain for them. He who has lived and reasoned, will in his heart hold humans in disdain, to quote Pushkin. He hated them because there were so many people, more and more each year. First, those overheated faceless crowds kept breathing. Second, they pushed and shoved and tried to get ahead, clinking empty jars they had brought with them to fill with holy water, and they stuck palm leaves into his face to make sure he sprinkled holy water over them properly. Third, they asked stupid questions and at confessions bored him with tales of husbands and mothers-in-law and demanded advice which they never acted upon, anyway. Fourth, they believed in the evil eye. Fifth, they brought their loudly screaming grandchildren to take communion, on the advice of some old hag doing sorcery on the side. At high holidays, the priest even tried to lead services with his eyes closed. He feared that if he opened them, his hatred would turn them all to ash. Nevertheless, he was a good man and in the company of his friends and family he was actually sweet and kind. He was a little irritable, that’s all. But an excellent man for all that. In Sunday School, he made kites for the kids (pp. 59-60).

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.

Faith & Humor caused a sensation when it was published in Russia. As Kucherskaya writes in her introduction, “At one convent, the book was burned at the stake. Meanwhile, at a Seminary in another small town, it was added to the curriculum that helps future priests understand problems within the Church.”

Author Maya Kucherskaya artfully mixes fact and fiction, myth and history to offer a compelling, loving picture of a world of faith that is often impenetrable to outsiders. Yet Faith & Humor is not simply a book about the Orthodox Church, or about Russia rediscovering its faith after 70 years of state-sponsored atheism. Certainly there are elements of that here, and certainly Faith & Humor is an enlightening window into the “mysterious Russian soul.” But at its core, Kucherskaya’s book is a light, funny, insightful work of fiction about people who ardently believe something and who carry this belief out into the real world.

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