The Apprentices Of Saint Anthony

excerptIAfter Shrovetide Reverend Ghelasie, mighty tired after the evening of Shrovetide that expended to till the matins service, spent in the company of his friend and neighbor Ghervasie, opened an eye only when the early March sun, also fatigued, cast a reddish-yellow light through the window. Then he closed it, yawned in installments and tried to continue sleeping like a man free of any considerable worries and knowing no fixed hours. Awoken by their master's yawn, Matei and Nastase, two chubby and lucky tomcats, yawned in their turn just as lazily but could no longer go back to sleep. Matei, who was sleeping under the eiderdown, felt like sharpening its tongue on Ghelasie's fingers that probably had not lost all aroma of roast beef gravy. Flattered by the fondling of the tomcat, reverend Ghelasie allowed himself to be tickled, barely retaining a peel of laughter under his sparse yellow moustache. Unwilling to play second fiddle to its brother, Nastase, who was resting near the master's head, extricated a long tail from under itself and plumped it up on the pillow several times in order to shake off the lint and the fleas, and then waved it close to the reverend's nose. Most sensitive to the cat's attention, the pious man laughed yawningly and postponing sleep, rewarded the furry creature with tender caresses on the back and under its belly. Afterwards he gave another yawn. A shabby one that resembled the bark of a dog mad at some flies. Then he wanted then to know the time. For this he had to sit up and look over the bed head, a trouble that he did not take. He found if easier to open the door a little and ask the neighbor across the hall: "Brother Ghervasie!"Reverend Ghervasie was sleeping like a log, moaning and groaning and snoring."Ghervasie!""Hmm?"
"Peel your eyes and look at the clock."Ghervasie failed to peel anything and instead turned on the other side. Ghelasie scratched himself angrily behind a ear and tried to sit up again. But then he gave up a second time, knowing better."Ghervasie, my man!""Mmmm?""Man, look at the clock!""Zzzzz…."Infuriated, Ghelasie put out a hand and with a supreme act of will got hold of a piece of wood lying by the stove and threw it at the door in front of him which opened up and slammed against the wall. Ghervasie gave a start and a "wow" from his potbelly, making the windows rattle."Wake up, man, it's nearly vesper time! What's got into you with all this sleep?"Realizing what had caused his fright, Ghervasie puffed disparagingly through his chubby lips so that his moustache and beard bristled up setting in motion the spider above which, according to the habit of the place, was not a great one for getting up at daybreak either."What's the matter with you, you crazy or something? Wanna break down the door?""Get up, it's late. Why you sleeping so long? You forget what a monk should do: fast a lot and sleep a little…"Father Ghervasie put an end to a seemingly endless yawn and then replied:"Saint Anthony fasted for me and the folks at the Monastery of the Sleepless kept vigil for my sinful self…How about you? Are you up?""I…you know me, I take more care of the souls of others…""You're a hypocrite.""You're a Pharisee.""After eating for seven men it's only right that you sleep like for two at least…""The righteous Anastasia would take a bite only in the evening, a little rye bread and then she would sleep with her head propped on stones…""Could be… But Saint Anastasia was a hermitess and before she became a nun she gulped down lots of goodies and slept on feathery beds. Whereas, my poor self, born in poverty, living in want and dying in misery, is entitled to bend the rules, on Shrovetide at least…"Ghelasie gave a loud laugh."Shut up, or God will strike you dead! You weigh a hundred and twenty kilos, rogue!""Don't prattle, Ghelasie, else you'll sin like those who accuse. My fat comes from a broad heart and a humble spirit, whereas your thinness from meanness and vanity…""Greed and the inferno of slumber will be the death of you…""Better to die out of greed and sleep than out of envy and malignance. The devil may prove somewhat more forbearing. The seven princes of Ephesus slept for three hundred and seventy-two years and still they inherited the heavens.""God put them to sleep to show people that the resurrection of the dead is no joke.""There was no need for them to sleep for centuries, you rattlebrained dolt!""Don't you see, rogue, that you can't grasp the Scriptures? Better look at the clock!"Ghervasie opened his eyes in search of the clock. He discovered it on the chest, that is in its place, only that it was lying on the side so that notwithstanding all his efforts he could not oblige his neighbor."Why, you don't have a clock?""Mine has…stopped.""That's very well. Monks shouldn't live by the clock. There's no job to compel them, no wives to rush them…""Usually you don't blab all this nonsense, Ghervasie! I guess it's the new wine you had last night…Come on, get up and tell me the time, hear me?"
"It's eleven…""You're lying…""Rise and check.""The angel of meekness has left you… Woe on your soul, Ghervasie!""Food and sleep got to your head.""Tell me this when you sleep in the chair like the apprentices of Saint Pahomie, not now when you drink like a sponge, you gossip!""?""Windbag!""Slanderer!""Customs man!""Ribald!""Sleepyhead!""Tell it to me when you sleep hanging on the rope like Saint Eftimie."" 'Man should do what he can'," says the venerable Augustine." 'Monks should sleep all dressed up and tied with rope', commands pious Venedict.""May God grant you the spirit of humility…""And take away from you the spirit of impotence…"" 'When I am weak then I am most powerful,' spoke great Anthony.""Saint Anthony had in mind a weak thin body not a weak thin character…I told you so many times not to mix up the Scriptures, you egghead!""Forget the Scriptures and tell me what the time is for I have to go to the lake, preacher man!"Ghelasie made a show of rising but then he felt like yawning and laid again back on the pillow."I feel lazy. You look for yourself.""I too feel lazy…""But Ghervasie, today Lent begins! What a pair of sinners we are! At this time of the day we ought to be praying…At least to have genuflected a hundred times…"Ghervasie looked worried. And when he heard about genuflecting he shuddered and began to sing in the sixth voice, immediately mimicked by Ghelasie:"My soul, my pooooor soul, why are you sleeeeping? The end is drawing neeear and you want to get confuuused. Awake now so that Jesus Christ may taake piity on youuu, Heee who is everywheree and who fulfiiils everything!""Let's get up, Ghelasie…""You get up first for you have to look for the fishing gear.""And how about you, mustn't you pray for the both of us?"Ghelasie wrinkled his nose, yawned and rubbed his forehead."I don't know why my head feels heavy…""You drank two bottles…""You lie, together we had four. I mean I had one and you three…""Whatever, but get up now!""It takes guts, Ghervasie…"" 'Don't be sleepy!' " commends Solomon."Solomon…He's better taken care of his own sins. Aauch!""A dumb man's yawn! Up you go! When I say three we are up, the two of us! One, two, three!"Nobody moved."It takes courage, Ghervasie. Count to twenty."Ghervasie counted to thirty but they still didn't get up. Instead they burst into laughter."What rascals we are, Ghelasie!""You better say full of sloth. Aauch! Nastase, son, is it nine o'clock?"The tomcat yawns too and blinks an eye."The cats have got it from us…Just look at Matei."Matei flickered its eye lashes and went on purring an imaginary song."Come on, Ghelasie! Get up, you hear me. We'll be the laughing stock of all. Even the devil's.""So what. We'll show him this Lent!""Right. Seven weeks!""Long and difficult…""Being a monk is tough, Ghelasie…""Get up, Ghervasie, we have to go to church. What's this sloth over you?""Today the service begins at a later hour. The holy fathers had a good idea…Because after Shrovetide, no matter how hermity at heart you cannot help lingering in bed…""That so, but with some monks this lingering is the rule."Ghervasie kills a yawn between his teeth and starts singing:"Your commands are my laaw, Goood…""Ghervasie!""Eh?!""Let's rise!""Let's."Reverend Ghervasie raked the hairs on his chest with his fingers, then his beard, then rubbed his eyes, his nose, yawning, stretching…and staying put.Ghelasie scratched his head, his beard, put a foot out of the eiderdown, remembering the time when he was a dean, inflated his bare thin chest and then expelled a shout that frightened the cats:"Geeet uuuup!"As if in church at the beginning of a vigil, hieromonk Ghervasie cleared his throat and after an energetic cough began to sing in the eight voice, long, squeaky and nasal:""Cooome and maaake a crosss aaand…Coome…""Ghervasie!""Whaat?""You crazy? Didn't you read in the Canons that the holy fathers forbid the clergy to shout their lungs out and bellow like cattle? Heathen!""I know. Canon 75 of the sixth Synod…""My, you're not as dumb as you look!""You're an ass!""You don't have the ears.""And you the tail.""And you the burdens.""Brother Ghelasie!" "What's the matter, brother Ghervasie?" "Let's get up…"Ghervasie ravished the hairs on his chest, yawned one more time, then pushed away the eiderdown with his feet, ordered something to himself and got on the edge of the bed. There he lingered to make plans.He looked at his feet, thick as logs and covered with crisp curly hairs, and deemed, in good justice, that first of all he needed pants. He looked for them and found them discarded on the Book standing on the desk… He felt sick deep down in his pious soul and asked pardon from the Holy Book for he had done the impious act while not exactly sober. Besides pants he also needed socks. He discovered one lying crumpled in a corner but the other was still to be found.He gave himself an energetic command and rose in search of the pants. He picked them up, happy he didn't found them in an even worse and more blasphemous position. He kissed the Book but did not cross himself. He made the sign of the cross only after having thrust his feet into his slippers.He found the second sock in the water bucket. He didn't mind the fact it was soaking wet, as he had several clean pairs, but that all night he had quaffed his thirst drinking that dubious water…He ground his teeth and let his steam off barking at his neighbor:"Ghelasie!""Yes?"
"May God strike you!" "Why is that?""I'll tell you."After a long search he located his trousers under the eiderdown; the comb – a sort of smaller rake – was lying under the table, the towel, under the bed, the surplice behind the stove and the cap in the basin…"Ghelasie!""Eh?""May the Virgin strike you!""And you too!"Hieromonk Ghelasie solved the matter of getting dressed much easily since he had got to bed with the whole kit and caboodle. All he needed was to put on his boots and tie up his hair. Pour a pot of water over his head and wipe himself on a clean towel that he kept hanging high up close to the ceiling lest the cats got it."Ready?""Ready.""Bless us and forgive us.""God Almighty and the Virgin bless the two of us and forgive us.""Amen!"Father Ghervasie looked at the remains on the table and his mouth watered. Father Ghelasie looked too but his face showed nothing. The cats also looked and licked their chomps. Then the eyes of all of them got stuck on two pieces of sausage left on a plate, and they seemingly all nurtured the same criminal thought…"It's Lent, sons," Ghelasie talked to the cats."A mighty fast!" Ghervasie added, as if questioning the assertion."For three days, only the vesper bell …""No, it appears we'll get a leaf of sauerkraut…""It's the alms of father Isidor…""I feel ague-stricken when I think that until Thursday we'll get no broth.""Five beans…""Beans are all right provided they get some sausages on top…""Forget it, brother Ghervasie. At least this way, by force the road to redemption will get smoother for us…""That's true. After all, yesterday we gorged ourselves to last us a week.""Meat and always meat. As if the devil was busy these days scaring the fish out of our nets…""You'll see, Ghelasie, today I'll fill the baskets with fish…I bet my boots.""You don't know the story in the Book of Saints? The abbot finds a beastly woman in the cell of a pious brother right on Easter Saturday! 'My, my, brother, says the poor abbot, couldn't you wait till tomorrow?' 'Righteous father,' replies the guilty party, 'I could have very well waited till the day after tomorrow for I am used to it, but you think Old Horny brings her over when I choose? He brought her today so that my sin be ten times heavier and his contentment a hundred times greater…'""A terrible fiend the Devil, Ghelasie!""And we indulged him. So inconsiderately! We had no fish but then were we supposed to gorge ourselves on meat? We should have eaten radishes and leek and potatoes from the mess pot…"Ghervasie sighs repentingly, unable to take his eyes off the sausages. Then he says:"Never mind, brother Ghelasie, these days we'll redeem our sin. We'll fast as they say according to the grand canons. Like the true apprentices of Saint Anthony that we are. We use our souls and also our bodies. You're already dried up but I, if I get to weigh a stone less I would be but grateful to our Lord…"…Still their eyes remained glued to the sausages. Seeing the temptation, Ghelasie got hold of said temptation, meaning to give it to the cats. Ghervasie declared against it:"Brother, you know the Ninevites in order to relegate disaster made even their beasts fast. Because prophet Jonah had so castigated them for their evil ways. How about making the cats starve for a while too? And the pigs and the bitch and the poultry? They have enough fat on them not to shrivel in a mere couple of days."Father Ghelasie turned a despondent eye to his two tailed friends whom he loved dearly. He had raised them since kittens, removed their fleas, bathed them, took them for walks and on the lake, fed them at his table, put them in his own bed and under his own eiderdown, and deemed them more than his brothers unto Christ. It had never ever occurred to him to make them fast for his own sins. For a while he had tried hard to teach them to stand at attention when he prayed but he had not managed the feat. He had also tried to deter them from other sins but likewise, found it impossible so he had to proceed to the relevant surgery.He combed their heads and backs and asked their opinion:"Sons, you hear what this foe says? To make you keep a severe, monkish fast. For three days only sauerkraut and that only after the sun goes down…Does that suit you, sons?"In reply, the cats pointed their ears to the plate of sausages, licking their chomps."I feel pity for them, Ghervasie. You're joking, aren't you?""Not at all!" replied his neighbor, bent on contrition. "Let all creature fast so that the good Lord may have the proof of our remorse at having stuffed ourselves last night and other times. So that there may be no opportunity of temptation. Because if you are starving and they are gobbling right under your eyes and right from your hand the devil will gather more strength to bend you. You mark my words!""At least let's give them these pieces of sausages," Ghelasie prayed insistently."No way. You want water in your mouth and sin in your thoughts?"And taking the plate of sausages he set out to throw them in the latrine. Knowing him for the rogue he was, Ghelasie went after him to make sure he didn't stuff the meat in his bosom. The cats followed him quite confused."Brother Ghervasie, feed the sausages to the cats, it's sinful to throw them away…"Father Ghervasie seemed to relent for a moment but then he remembered the deed of a Tebana monk who killed his apprentice in order to rid himself of temptation and he let the meat drop into the deep latrine."May God strike you, Ghervasie!" Ghelasie cursed on behalf of the cats. Then he caressed his friends: "Don't you worry, sons, and don't feel deprived, three days won't kill you. After this I'll buy you milk from auntie Leanca and cram into you fish caught by this villain, and then I'll remove the ban on sparrows so that you can hunt down as many as you please." Father Ghervasie groomed his beard with satisfaction, confiscated the key of the seed storeroom and went in search of the fishing gear; the cats lingered plaintively near the latrine, while Ghelasie scratched his nape and leaned against the door to make a working plan. He had to clean up the cell, tend to the pigs, the bitch and the poultry and read the monk canons. He looked at the clock: it was nine. He postponed the cleaning for after the service, abandoned the prayer for the moment he would have assuaged the beasts and descended to the back of the house. The three pigs, not exactly ravenous, met him reprovingly nonetheless. To calm them down and soften them up he scratched them under their chins and pulled their ears friendly. Then he announced somehow contritely that they'd have to fast; afterwards he moved to the poultry which were also giving signs of impatience. His holiness had possession of six hens and a rooster, four ducks and a drake, two turkey hens and a turkey, two geese and a gander, as well as five guinea fowls and a male respectively. When he opened the door of the coop – a former cell, now all dilapidated – he was received with extreme protestation. To show their vexation at his being late the hens threw him slanting looks and brood-hen cackling; the ducks received him with a sort of toothless-hag barking, the geese, a little more self-conscious, merely turned their backs on him, the turkey spewed a Gypsy cuss on him, and the guinea hens considered him severely, waiting for explanations.Father Ghelasie said good-morning to them in a culpable voice and started counting them. Then he called them by their names and asked them how they fared. "Costache sonny, is your crest still smarting from the cold? And how are the wives, sonny? You have six, scoundrel, and I have none. Shame on your beak! Father's good and beautiful little hens! And my guinea hens, my little ladies, don't you go on shouting about sin1 now during Lent, people will hear you and you will shame me. My clever little females, with such a gift of the gab. You lay eggs, my girls, and multiply the gang. Mackensen, you dumb gander, Costache has six wives and still feels up to sneaking into the neighboring yard. You do your job with your females, old man, and have them lay eggs to improve your kind. Don't let them stay seedless like it happened once to Lot's daughters. But not now, in a week or after three days when the big fast is over that our brother unto Christ, Ghervasie the hieromonk, has ordered for you… My beautiful much bickering little ducks, you've put on weight like dawdling nuns, bless you. Hey, Pilate, what are you thinking of? Your place is not in a monastery but in a harem, stinker! Hang you…but not now. When the fast is over. Until then you lay eggs in peace and live in understanding as the Scriptures say. You hear me? You stop the mischief for it's the Holy Week and it doesn't behoove…You, Averescu2! You hear me? Have patience a little for you have lived like kings in my yard. It's Lent, my dears, Lent, and I mean it."The turkey, vainglorious and demanding, cussed him a second time and refused to fold its wings. Father Ghelasie, knowing it to be grumpy and hard to please with empty talk left it alone and opened wide the door. "Go for a walk, critters. It's a fine day. You look for a blade of grass, some fly, or pebbles, or seeds left on stalks. Father Pimen the cook will rest for three days so the bellies of all guzzlers have some respite. So long!" Nine and a half.Father Ghelasie entered the little kitchen and appraised Irodiad, the gentle intelligent bitch, of the terrible adamant resolution of father Ghervasie. Then he invited it out to bask in the sun, while he went to the desk to say his morning prayer."Praise unto you, our Lord, and glory to your name!""You have risen me from sleep and from bed, Lord; enlighten my mind and my heart and open my lips so that I can praise the Holy Trinity! You are holy, holy you are, oh Lord! For the prayers of all your saints, bless us…""Bless us, Godbless, Godbless, Godbless, Godbless, bless, bless, bless, God bless…!""Father, don't deprive me of your heavenly benevolence!""Lord, save me from eternal labor!""Oh, God, enlighten my mind for it is darkened by wicked, cunning temptation!""Lord, as a man I have sinned; but you as a merciful God, seeing the impotence of my soul, forgive me and bless me.""God bless me, God bless, Godbless…""God, give me the good thought to confess my sins.""God, give me tears and humility and remembrance of death!""Lord, give me patience, gentleness and unvanquished will!""Lord, plant in me the root of your kindness and fear of you!""Lord, protect me from peevish people, from devils, the passions of the flesh and other unholy things!""Hallowed angel standing before my passionate soul and my lowly life, do not forsake me, the sinner, and do not walk away from me because of my intemperance.""Do not allow the cunning devil to forcefully rule over this weak, mortal body.""Steel my impotent hand and put me on the road to redemption! Amen!"
1 In Romania, guinea hens give out a sound that resembles the word "sin".2 Romanian politician and army marshal.

by Damian Stănoiu (1893-1956)