Priests are people, too

© RIA Novosti. Iliya Pitalev

Marc Bennetts

Russia’s Orthodox Church has been at the center of a storm of controversy of late – from Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s largest cathedral to the comical “now you see it, now you don’t” saga of Patriarch Kirill’s luxury watch.

Things have gotten so heated that the church felt it necessary to hold a nationwide “defense of the faith” prayer on Sunday, to counter what its Supreme Council called attacks from “anti-Russian forces.”

“The Orthodox Church isn’t the synod or the patriarch – it’s the people within it,” church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said last week while fending off another question about religion and politics (this time from me).

While I’m not 100 percent sure that answer will be sufficient to answer many of the criticisms the church’s opponents have over its ties with the authorities, it does lead me nicely into the real purpose of this week’s column – to bring to your attention a pretty cool book on the Russian Orthodox Church and, yes, the ordinary people “within it.”

“Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy” by Maya Kucherskaya became an unlikely bestseller when it was published in Russia in 2008. Its English-language release late last year failed to make anything like the same impact in the West, which is understandable – if a shame.

The book utilizes a series of anecdotes, stories, and sketches to introduce the reader to some of the oddest collection of priests you are ever likely to find in print. It’s hard to pick favorites, but among the most memorable are the ex-meth addict priest who describes to a junkie his previous drug-induced vision of hell. His description shocks the addict out of his passion for getting high – he had had the same diabolical vision just days previously.

Or the story of the priest who almost gives in to the temptations of the flesh and visits a high-class prostitute – only to begin to pray before her. Intrigued, the girl seeks the priest out and gives up her previous life, but is murdered, presumably by her enraged pimp, some time later. Or the one about the priest who gets bored of nuns’ dull confessions – “Oh, Father, I ate a sardine on a Wednesday” – and confesses to a fellow priest, “Oh, how I wish a nun would turn out to be a murderer.”

The book doesn’t make you feel particular warmth towards the Orthodox Church, but it does make you think about the unknown priests going about their daily prayers and services across Russia. Although the book is mainly about priests, priesthood is not the defining characteristic of the heroes and anti-heroes. The priests are, well, just people.

No wonder, then, that this book was, as the author recalls in her preface, “burned at the stake” at one convent. But such is its appeal that it is also little surprise that “at a Seminary in another small town, it was added to the curriculum that helps future priests understand problems within the Church.”
The stories, Kucherskaya says, were written over a period of 15 years. The book was called Modern Paterik in Russian, taking its name from the ancient form of “moral tales about Christian fathers.”

Kucherskaya says she hopes English-speaking readers will see the book as a story “about people who ardently believe something and who carry this belief out into the real world.” But belief does not jump out of these pages. Which only, if the truth be told, adds to its power. And, yes, its deep sense of spirituality – although not necessarily or exclusively of the Russian Orthodox kind. Like all great works of art, Kucherskaya’s book is a contradiction in terms – and extremely confusing.

The views expressed here are the author’s own.