Eating Manna at the Monastery


July 2/15, 2012, Placing of the Honorable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae (5th cent.)

I always feel uncomfortable when someone asks about my favorite food in Russia, for like the Israelites in the desert, it is not so much about what’s on the menu as the relationship with the Provider. Manna, what the Israelites ate in the desert, literally means “What is it?” But a better question than this is, “Who gave it?” For in both cases of manna and monastery food, they clearly come from heaven.

At the Divyevo trapeza, the free one offered to all pilgrims, the menu never really changes: soup, bread, tea, and that ever useful, multi-purpose, everywhere present KASHA. True confession that I have never really liked kasha, probably because of its plainness. I probably have asked the disdainful question of the Israelites about it as well, “Just what exactly is it?” In America, its humility places it on the bottom of the breakfast menu. We really only know one kind of kasha, oatmeal, and no one but a health nut ever really orders it. Yet there is something about kasha which makes Russians love it, for among other things, it is ordinary food which gives strength and endurance to pilgrims.

Food, reminds the apostle Paul, does not bring us near to God. We are no better if we do not eat, or if we do eat (I Cor. 8:8). It is rather the setting or context that can help us in our salvation. Our family has never had a meal in a monastery that did not taste delicious because of how it was consecrated by love for God and prayer. The lives of the desert fathers and the record of the deplorable things they consumed testifies that God can indeed turn stones into bread.

While we in America obsess over the right restaurant or the perfect gourmet experience, we miss the point. Kasha, like the ancient Manna, directs our attention away from gourmet obsessions toward thankfulness for whatever God provides.

Sunday Tea with Batiushka

Sunday, June 25/July 8, 2012

St. Febronia

Aleksei Naumov “Drinking-Tea”- 1896

In Greece, they have a saying, “Everything is possible, and everything is impossible.” In Russia, at times it seems that only the latter is true. Yesterday, we spent nearly the entire day attempting to set up a wireless connection for our laptop to no avail. But as I said in a previous post, these difficulties are gifts from God so that we may rely more on His power and less on our strength or the strength of human systems.

Today is Sunday, Voskresenie, which literally means “the Day of Resurrection.” The atmosphere all over Moscow is qualitatively different on the Lord’s day, even for non-believers or those who don’t attend church for the morning Liturgy. Streets are relatively free from traffic and a large portion of people on the street are all headed to church. It’s refreshing to be in an Orthodox country in which almost every church you pass by is of the same faith. This unity trickles down to the smallest of details, so that even the food in the grocery store is marked as “fasting appropriate.”

In the afternoon, I have my first experience in Russia with a trapeza (a sit-down meal in which the head directs the conversation or reading in a spiritual way) at our apartment attended by a priest traveling through Moscow from Ulan Ude. I have been to larger monastery trapezas, but this time it was only Fr. Alexei, an igumen (head) of a monastery in eastern Siberia, and our family in attendance. What a treat to speak to a batiushka (Russian diminutive for priest) from a remote southeast corner of the motherland! Tales abounded of overcoming bureaucracies to bring much needed improvements to local villages and of bringing the faith to areas with many nominal Orthodox and few churches to serve them. Truly, the situation here in the capital, with a church on almost every corner, is not yet so in the outlying provinces where they are just beginning to rebuild after the fall of communism in 1991.

Still, the overall tone in the Orthodox Church in Russia is revival and renewal, with new churches being built constantly, and it is a glorious thing to behold.

Toasting the Company of the Saints

Icon of All Saints

Thursday, June 22/July 5, 2012 HM Eusebius

We arrived yesterday evening on the 4th of July at Domodedova Airport to the other great “land of the free and home of the brave”, this thousand-year-plus old home of saints and those aspiring to be so, Mother Russia. I have decided to launch this blog instead of merely emailing our travel reflections. It worked last summer to post my trip to Greece and Turkey as a series of emails and then finally compile them into one Pilgrimage Memory Book, available here. But email is limited in the sense that the text and pictures cannot live close enough to one another, and so much of what I write is illustrated in particular photographs. God has gifted our family so greatly with these summer trips to Russia (this is my forth, and our family’s fifth); it would be selfish to keep all of these blessings to ourselves.

Even if we do nothing more than stay in Moscow, there is so much benefit gained by living for a while in another culture. It forces us out of our comfortable patterns and presses us to rely more readily on help from God as we seek to cope with the adjustment. Crossing that airport checkpoint means crossing into another world in which more than just the language is different. To open, I will try to focus on what is pleasantly different and leave the un-pleasantries to hopefully transform me into a better man.

One pleasant cultural difference in Russia is the ease with which people visit one another. In our first 24 hours, we have been greeted by not less than three unexpected guests on two separate occasions. Of course, each occasion warranted the pulling out of several courses: always first a toast after the prayer to the meeting or whatever the occasion, then soup, then salad, an assortment of nuts, salted fish, potatoes, more soup, more salad; then savory things are withdrawn to make room for the dainties that accompany the tea: crispy, donut-like lee-pyoshki, different kinds of jam, fresh peaches and cherries, and a bowl full of hard candy. It’s no wonder Russians in America are unimpressed by our Thanksgiving holiday. For a guest in Russia, every meal is like a Thanksgiving meal, even the ones offered during a fasting period (the Orthodox Church is now in the middle of the Apostle’s Fast in which the faithful abstain from all meat except fish and all dairy and eggs).

But I digress on food which Russians don’t really discuss much at the table like we Americans. No, the point of the meal is the company gathered, and though the Russians have borrowed the English word (companiye in Russian) to describe the experience, I am convinced they have a much deeper understanding of its meaning. The battery of toasts offered during the course of each meal makes this point plain. The first toast will always be for the reason of gathering: If it is a birthday, congratulations to the person celebrating it; if it is an anniversary, congratulations to the couple celebrating it, etc. If there is nothing special anyone gathered can think of, then the first toast za fstreture (“to the meeting”) offers thanks to God for the providential opportunity of just sitting across the table from one another, face to face, and talking.

What follows during the meal varies, but it is usually based on the course of conversation. For instance, at a birthday, it is natural after congratulating the birthday boy/girl to start talking about the couple whose love brought this little one/big one into the world. So, a follow-up toast will be to the parents and/or grandparents. Toasts following this tend to be for other relatives and friends that have figured prominently in the honored guest’s life, and it is only toward the end of the meal when more abstract, general toasts are made for brotherhood, peace and love. I remember when I first learned enough Russian to offer a meager something of my own at the table. I was tempted to rhapsodize eloquently on one of my favorite philosophical subjects when my wife would inevitably nudge me (or refuse to translate my English ramblings) because my toast was not directed to a person or to the company gathered.

This brings me to our beautiful Orthodox theology, as all good culture engenders good theology. “My neighbor [company] is my salvation,” says many noted, contemporary elders of the Church. We cannot find Jesus Christ completely on our own, in pursuit of some idle curiosity, or once we have found Him, sustain his company without others. Rather, the Lord prays, “Make them one, Father, as you and I are one.” (John 17) As we strive for unity in Him, we also grow closer one to another in a company of sanctity that stretches beyond the present in both directions— past and future. The great apostle Paul reflects on this mystery in a passage we read on the Sunday of All Saints, Hebrews 11:33-12:2, in which we commemorate all the vast company of martyrs, confessors, and every righteous man or woman made perfect in faith. But the conclusion of this amazing commemoration is the most humbling, and it speaks to the future direction of the Lord’s plan of salvation: That as great as this company of saints is, they received not the promise. God having provided some better thing for us [in the present], that they without us should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39, 40)

Really? Something better or greater than being sawn asunder and yet alive? Greater than living through a furnace heated seven times hotter than usual? Greater than all these things performed by men and women of whom the world was not worthy? Yes. The Lord intends that with the example and active intercession of these saints who have gone before, we might do even greater things than these. O Lord, may we immerse ourselves in the lives of the saints, so that we not look in judgment and isolation at the lives of those around us. In their great company, may we not take for granted the neighbor you have given to accompany us in our path of salvation. Unto Thee be glory, forever and ever, AMEN.