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March 18, 2013

A Russian Child's Clean Monday Remembered

Ivan Shmelyov or Shmelev (1873-1950) was a Russian émigré writer best known for his full-blooded idyllic recreations of the pre-revolutionary past spent in the merchant district of Moscow. His first published story appeared in 1895; in the same year he visited Valaam Monastery, a trip that had a deep spiritual influence on him and resulted in his first book, Na skalakh Valaama ['On the Cliffs of Valaam'] (1897).

In his beloved book Anno Domini ['The Year of the Lord'], Shmelyov reminisces about the vanished traditional Russia of his childhood. In the excerpt below is the author's child's eye view of Clean Monday and the beginning of Great Lent in pre-revolutionary Moscow.

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 Vasii Vasillich forgave us all, too, that's exactly what Ire said in the dining room, kneeling: "I forgive you all!" So why is Father shouting then?

The door opens, and 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 thoroughly, 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, I'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 flow about him, from his little gray 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 bread 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 holy Resurrection, we glorify!”

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 Vigils.

--"Because they can sense that their end is coming near, that Christ will rise! And that's why we're 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 windows, and it'll be that way, poor-looking, clear until Pascha. In the drawing-room, there are gray slipcovers 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. He 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 house folk 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, there will be such lenten fare! And why is everyone so dull-looking? Why, everything is 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," and the Great Mushroom 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 a sense that herein lies the great mystery itself--GOD.

Source: Translated by Maria Belaeff.