Saturday, February 21, 2009

Beware the Blini!

Tomorrow is known as Meatfare Sunday because it is the last day on which Orthodox Christians are permitted to eat meat until Pascha, some eight weeks hence. The week following Meatfare Sunday (Monday through the coming Sunday) is known as Cheesefare Week, since during that period all foods are allowed, with the exception of meat.

For those in the Russian tradition, this is the week of blini, yeast pancakes (known to most Americans by the Yiddish word blintzes) normally served with sour cream, melted butter, hard-boiled eggs, caviar, green onions, smoked salmon, and herring, often accompanied by vodka. (For a recipe with illustrations, see here.)

While this is a lovely and harmless tradition, it is possible for the pre-Lenten revelry to get a bit out of hand. This is by no means a new temptation. St Theodore the Studite, writing in the late eighth or early ninth century, began his catechesis for Meatfare Sunday with these words:
Brethren and fathers, it is a universal law on this day for those who live in the world to stop eating meat and one may see among them great competition in meat-eating and wine-bibbing, and even spectacles of outrageous pastimes which it is shameful to speak about. It is necessary to participate with moderation and to give thanks to the Lord for what we have and to make worthy preparation for the banquet before us; while they possessed by the wiles of the devil do the opposite, demonstrating that they have accepted one rather than the other.
S. V. Bulgakov, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, and citing throughout his comments from the works of the great eighteenth-century Father, St Tikhon of Zadonsk, offered these useful words of warning:
Really, by that measure as the Holy Church strengthens and ennobles its summoning voice for fasting and repentance, the world, as is known, today multiplies its amusements and entertainments, trying to take hold of the souls and hearts of the worshippers. How many seductions, temptations and dangers to the pure and undefiled heart are hidden under a seductive cover, even the so-called, innocent amusements and entertainments in these prelenten days! How manyChristian souls are turned, so to say, in their whirlwind up to self- oblivion! What darkness and gloom covers souls, betrayed by passionate, seduced hearts or to unrestrained inclinations of the flesh! How many people for whom it will be necessary to wail many and bitter tears over a few hours of immediate fun and ecstasy of feelings! Can the most cautious be praised if they regret nothing and repent nothing, if they lost none of the beneficial gifts of a pure and undefiled heart, if none have suffered in the calmness of his conscience? "Cheese Fare Week", teaches St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, "is the threshold and the beginning of the fast. That is why for the true children of the Church it is necessary to act all the more temperate in Cheese Fare Week than in the previous days, although they should always do so. However, will the Christian listen to the sweet odes of his loving mother?" "She ordains to revere these days more, but they commit more excesses; she commands to abstain, and they betray less control; she makes rules to cleanse body and soul, and they defile them more; she orders to lament committed sins, and they add more iniquities; she inspires God to be merciful, and they all the more anger the Most High God; she appoints a fast, and they overeat and revel more; she offers repentance, and they become more violent. A worthy voice of pity and weeping: "Sons are born and raised up, for you reject me! Listen, O heaven and inspire, O earth"! Children have turned away from their mother, Christians do not listen to the holy Church, those who renounced Satan and all his works are again converted to the works of an evil spirit, a lamentable and altogether terrible work! And whoever does not listen to the Church, is not the son of Church; whoever is not the son of the Church, Christ is not his shepherd; whoever Christ is not the shepherd, is not the sheep of Christ; whoever is not the sheep of Christ, vainly expects eternal life. Such are the results of a licentious celebration of Cheese Fare Week. The very celebration of butter week (maslianitsi) in the aforesaid manner is pagan work. The Pagan false god (the inventor of intoxicated drink) to whom they have established a special annual feast (so called Bacchanalia) was and spent these festivals in every dissolute abomination. Look, do not Christians also do the same in observing butter week (maslianitsi), and is the same for many of these festivals? I do not have to show it to you: see it in the light of the midday. And once again I will say, that whoever spends butter week (maslianitsi) in excesses, it becomes obvious that he is disobedient to the Church and shows himself unworthy of the name of Christian". "In order to spend Cheese Fare Week according to the Christian obligation, it is needful to act according to how the Holy Church commands during this time, namely: to drop every indecent care and to drop evil customs, remembering the Last Judgment and our ancestral Fall".
Lest you think these words hyperbolic, just recall what Mardi Gras has become in the West. Enjoy the blini, but don't overdo it!

1 comment:

Simka said...

...And yet, we don't want to become too puritanical, do we? If the ideas of Charles Taylor, Mikhail Bakhtin and others are to be taken seriously, the zany, slightly crazy, upside down world of pre-lenten festivities (as opposed to today's hedonistic, modernist, and commercialized Mardi Gras) was actually a sacred way in which the warp and woof of a truly religious existence was expressed. The wholeness of human experience, including the extremes of human passion (but not outright sin) must be sanctified. Maslenitsa is zig to Great Lent's zag. They complement each other, and reducing the force of the former may just have the same effect on the latter. Maslenitsa is a time in which the passions (again, not the sins) are highlighted, so that our repentance gets enough lift to get off the noeitc tarmac, as it were.
I suspect that by trying to puritanize maslenitsa the way the texts you have posted imply, we step onto the slippery slope of modernity taken by the Puritans whose motivation for abolishing similar festivities had just as sanctimonious a veneer as the sources that you quote in your post. Unfortunately, we know what came of the Puritan project: a wholly desanctified modern era in which unholy events like secularized Mardi Gras go on 24/7 in cinemas, bars, shopping malls, and at your nearest college spring break bash. Since the passionate forces were not given a properly defined arena in which to dance a bit, they spilled out into every ares of existence so that, in fact, we live in world that the Puritans would have abhorred, but created for the most part by that very Puritan ethic of totalatarian moralism.