Lately, many consumer goods have been getting the sustainable stamp, even though they are actually a by-product of the oil industry. As it turns out though, here in Bulgaria we have alternatives that are both sustainable and support a good cause. They come from a curious monastery.
In my neighborhood, there is a tiny store. Above the door hangs a wooden sign with the words “from the monastery”. The shopkeeper claims that their goods come from a sanctuary, buried deep in the mountains, where animals are free to graze on lush pastures and have been hand-milked.
I thought this claim was too good to be true. Most farms stuff their animals full of antibiotics and cheap artificial feed, instead of actual grass. Besides, automated milking damages the udder and causes pain to the animal, even though it speeds up production.
Apparently, all those large companies claiming to be eco-friendly, have sowed a seed of doubt in my mind and so I was determined to investigate the shopkeeper’s claims. I wanted to know if the supposed monastery groceries were real, or yet another marketing trick.
How to Reach the Monastery
The village of Zhablyano is located 85km. southwest of Sofia. The male monastery “St. John the Forerunner”, is about 5km away from the center of the village, and 3km from the railway station. Across the town hall, near the main square (which is also the only square), look for a barely-there sign, to show you the way to the monastery.
Unless you’ve been blessed with a Soviet truck, Lada Niva, or some other huge yet cheap vehicle, you better abandon the temptation of driving to the monastery. Park your car near the train station and walk the rest of the way. The scenery is beautiful and the walk is not too difficult.
With the train station as your starting point, take the “main” dirt road and you will be up at the monastery after a few kilometers of steady denivelation.
The sanctuary has a long, rich history of spiritual enrichment. However, our goal was to see the animals, talk to the people, and decide if we should vote for the monastery’s products, with our money.
We were greeted by monk. A. I had never met another human being whose eyes seem so good and welcoming. As they say, the eyes are the windows to the soul. A., dedicated to both spiritual and physical work, was just climbing into a tractor, when we made our way to “St. John the Forerunner”. We apologized for arriving at lunchtime but he reassured us that the monastery’s doors are always open to visitors, no matter the time. Even though walking was a struggle for the monk, when he heard our story, he immediately offered to take us to meet the animals.
All About the Animals
On our way to the barn, A. told us how every morning the animals are let out and are free to roam the lush forests, grazing on whatever juicy piece of grass they choose. At dusk, the monks call their old shepherd dog and he leads them to the herd. The monk shared his affection for the rams. “Sure, their play is a bit rough sometimes”, he said, “but they are just messing around”.
The monk’s old farm clothing and the simple wooden cross, hanging on a cord from his neck, were completely in sync with his philosophy of life. He told us that it’s the goodness of your soul that matters, not the things you have.
We were happy to discover that, in this case, marketing wasn’t a trick. Not only are the animals free to go wherever, but they are also hand-milked. According to our favorite monk A., him and his compatriots milk about 40-50 sheep and a few cows, in a mere hour. Unfortunately, they are planning to introduce automated milking to the monastery. Yet the silver lining is that the monks are vegetarian and don’t slaughter their animals.
In the barn, we found a few lambs and rams, chickens, a newborn calf that loved licking the camera, and the antithesis to monk A. This individual, told us the elaborate tale of how he enjoys destroying sparrow nests, just after the chicks hatch, and made sure we knew he normally dresses better. Monk A. showed us his favorite rams, who sniffed and licked the palms of our hands, through the fence. At the same time, his antipode bragged about how he once hit the ram, who was gently touching my hand with his pink nose, so hard that the poor animal almost died.
This man, whose name I couldn’t bear to learn, turned out to be a recent addition to the monastery. I wonder if spiritual life has the power to soothe his soul, or if he would need much more to work through the traumas that are guiding his behavior.
The Historical Importance of the Monastery
I never thought that a barn could cause so many contradicting emotions and was ready to head to the monastery.
A few minutes up a footpath and the sanctuary emerged from the cliffs. Submerged in deep forest green, “St. John the Forerunner” has an ancient and interesting story. No one knows exactly when the monastery was founded, but it was demolished and rebuilt a few times. For hundreds of years, it has been a place of learning and spiritual enrichment for the local people. Through the years, it has been both a male and female monastic community. Currently, the sanctuary is home to 6 monks, and Father Superior welcomes pilgrims and tourists with equal joy.
“St. John the Forerunner” is unique also because it uses the old Orthodox calendar, which includes specific rituals.
In the monastery’s garden, there is a drinking fountain, peeking behind a flower bed. Next to it, on a simple wooden bench, Father Superior had welcomed a few other guests and was discussing the monastery’s history. You can feel it with your skin when someone is passionate about a topic and wants to give, rather than take. So, I wouldn’t dare seize the monk’s role, by trying to recreate the monastery’s chronicles on this page.
Instead, I would suggest that you walk the path to the lush garden, sit by Father Superior, and immerse yourself in the monastery’s atmosphere. You are bound to leave with food for thought.
On our way back home, we felt the kind of simple joy that only animals, nature, and kind people can fill your soul with. Contrasted, yet charming, the monastery’s residents gave me faith. Faith that sometimes that modern marketing and product placement can serve a purpose higher than money.
You can find the eco-friendly cheese, milk, and eggs, from “St. John the Forerunner”, in a few grocery stores throughout Sofia. They carry the monastery’s label and logo. The “Holly Annunciation” monastery, near Kyustendil, collaborates with St. John’s and supplies the same stores with fresh produce and fish.
Do you have a favorite monastery in Bulgaria? Tell us about it in the comments below ?