“St. George” Monastery

Tranlastion into English: Alexandra Algafari

 

“St. George” monastery was huddled next to the stream where two mountains stood one against the other. Equally powerful. Equally great. Equally majestic. The little river would caress either one or the other with its tenderness. In summertime, its water was so scarce that you could gather all of it in the palm of your hand and it would pour down the little slope. If it wasn’t for a pebble or a fallen branch to get in its way so you could hear the murmur of the stream, you wouldn’t even know there was water running there. And there was nothing there to halt it. It just seemed like it had stopped to examine the beauty all around it. Lovely willows had bent their branches just like a maiden’s hands ready to scoop up the cool clear water. Shining pebbles, rounded by the water, were racing like little children – who would reach nowhere in particular. All God’s creatures, from the tiny flies to the wolves and bears, would gather to drink in the wisdom of the water. And in wintertime, the water would almost freeze. The icy figures, created by wind and water, would resemble fine lace, changing with every next drop. In spring, the little river would show its power and its wrath towards the stoic constancy of the motionless mountains. On several occasions, the river had wildly overflowed out of its bed, hurling whole trees and huge rocks at the mountains. And so the river – the small one, the tender one, the beautiful one – changed them. Slightly and slowly as it was, but it did. What was odd was that never ever had the anger of the river turned towards the monastery. Its waters would only caress the outer walls.
Here, where the tender, pure, little river opposed the scary solidness, many years ago, a monk carrying an icon of St. George passed by. The monk, whose name was long forgotten, had been on a pilgrimage to the Holy lands. On his way back from the land of the prophets, he would avoid the busy market places and roads, trying to keep his body alive and safe from the Crusaders and the Saracen, and, with God’s providence and protection, he reached the village of Maalula1 – a village where the people speak Jesus’ language to this day and in its tiny churches, perched on top of the cliffs, liturgies are still chanted in Aramaic. Some days before the pilgrim monk had arrived, the violently warring in between themselves people, each side ardently defending its faith, set fire to the small church on the hill. Everything burnt. What remained from what were once the walls were only a couple of stones, a few scorched wooden blocks and ash. Lots of ash. The desert wind would play around with the human stupidity and would carry the ash in billows towards all the directions of the world. And there, in the ashes, broken down by the recklessness, the monk sank to his knees and began to cry. His tears would pour over the grey ashes and, drop by drop, they opened the way to the miracle. With the next blow of the desert wind and following another drop that had fallen from the grieving eyes, an icon appeared underneath the ash. All corners scorched, but intact. St. George killing the dragon! The monk wiped the sacred object, held it close to his heart and all of a sudden St. Thecla2 appeared before him. She asked him to carry the icon far away from these troubled lands and she would send him a sign where to leave it. And so the monk carried the scorched icon under his cassock through many a land until he reach the little river
1 A village in Syria
2 St. Thecla was the first martyr from the Christian women. This is why the Holy Church named her Protomartyr. She was also named equal-to-the-apostles for her apostolic work.
between the two mountains. Exhausted and thirsty, he bent down to drink from the clear
waters. He scooped up from the pure blessing. He drank and scooped up some more water to
wash his face. Then, the icon slipped from under his robes and fell in the water. The monk
picked up the holy image, kissed it, wiped it dry and tucked it one more time next to his heart.
He was about to leave, but something halted him. He could not take a single step, as if his feet
were frozen still. He fell to his knees, folded his hands in front of his chest to ask for
forgiveness that he had dropped the icon. Suddenly, St. Thecla appeared in light and said to
him:
“Leave the relic here! Build a temple to St. George here.”
The monk began building a chapel. Kind people from the nearby village rushed to his
aid. They constructed a small building and kept on adding to it until, a hundred years after the
omen, it was transformed into an imposing monastery. Christians, Muslims and Judahs from
all corners of the empire flocked to bow before the saint, seeking his help and his protection.
They gave lands and money to the monastery – everyone spared what they could. Monks from
Mount Athos constructed a building for themselves and it grew to a whole wing for the
monk’s dormitories. For the pilgrims coming from a far, they constructed another building
and now, Stoyan and Kalina and the children were led up its steps by an old monk.
The monk stopped in front of one of the doors and opened it. He raised the kindling
wood to shed some light in the room. It was cosy and tidy, with two plank-beds a wardrobe
and a sofrá3 in the middle. The window, tiny like everything else in the room, had a white
curtain so as to stop the sunrays. The old man pulled a thin twig from the kindling wood, took
a few steps into the room and lit the cresset next to one of the plank-beds.
‘Now, welcome!’, the monk urged them in. ‘The other room will be for the children.
I’ll open it right away!’, the old man said and made for the next-door cell.
Kalina entered the first room with the suckling and Rayna, while Stoyan and the boy
followed the monk. The old man looked at them in bewilderment, shook his head and waved
with his hand – all kinds of people walked the earth. While he was opening the door, he
looked towards the last cell on the wooden veranda. He listened. He could hear the distant
quiet chant of a prayer. A beautiful and gentle voice was speaking the words of the prayer
which were falling like the beads of a rosary. The old man opened the door of the cell and lit
its cresset too.
‘Don’t waste too much oil!’, he ordered. ‘Should I bring something for the children to
eat?’
‘Bless you, father. We have food for now. We’ll feed them.’
The monk made for the door. He hesitated and he turned to Stoyan.
3 A small low round table
‘Son, it’s none of my business… but why don’t you sleep in the same bedroom as your
bride? If she conceives here it would be with the Lord’s blessing!’, smiled the old man.
Stoyan raised his gaze from his son and stopped it on the monk’s face. He shook his
head barely noticeably and set to undressing the child’s wet garments. Mumbling to himself,
the old man walked out of the cell. Stoyan untied one of the bundles. He took out bread,
cheese, an onion and some yoghurt in a small clay pot.
In the other room, Kalina had laid the baby on the plank-bed. Tucked in and sucking
its thumb, it had given in to deep sleep. The little girl took a bite from the hunk of bread. It
sipped from the water and lay down. Her mother tucked her in and she closed her eyes. Kalina
sat next to her daughter. She brushed her lips to her forehead and stroked her head.
‘Mum, is daddy coming?’, asked the little one, her eyes closed shut.
‘I don’t know, baby. Sleep now!’, and she gently sang:
Nani, nani little child,
Nani ni, nani, baby birdie.
Come, Sleep, from the woods,
And bring sleep in a sack
To put it in a golden cradle,
Golden cradles swing and sway
To lull my little child to sleep.4
Kalina pulled away the arm she was holding her daughter with carefully. She rose
from the bed and undressed, leaving only a kenar5 robe on and she stood in front of the
window. The moonlight shone upon her face. After brushing her blond hair for a long time,
she put the comb down and lay next to her little boy. Her son, Momchil, waved his tiny hands
as if fighting something in his sleep but he stopped just as suddenly as he had started. Her
mother leaned over him. She kissed her forehead, closed her eyes and somehow silently, the
only way a woman’s could, the tears filled her eyes. A tear rolled through her curved
eyelashes and splashed on the beautiful sleeping face of her child. He rubbed the spot where
the tear had touched him with a tiny hand, smacked his lips and was transported once more to
the world of bliss. Somewhere far away, an owl hooted and silence reigned once again. The
mother drew her body closer to the sleeping angel, she threw the blanket over herself and
waited for sleep to come and take her away.
4 Lullaby recorded by Yordanka Mankova, Bulgarian ethnologist
5 White fine cotton material, weaved manually on a horizontal loom
In the neighbouring cell, Stoyan sat down on the empty plank-bed, cradled his temples with his palms and his fingers dug into his forehead. Heavy man tears rolled down his cheeks. A silent cry, no moan nor wail, shook his body.