The death in Bulgaria of Dobri Dobrev has been confirmed.
He was aged 103.
The death of a beggar is not normally announced on the BBC. The deaths of beggars in Bulgaria are even less likely to be reported here.
So who was Dobrev that he should draw the interest of the BBC?
For those conversant with a certain strand of Eastern Orthodox asceticism, Dobrev will be a familiar character. He long ago renounced the world and set himself to begging in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. The money he collected, over the years amounting to many thousands of euros, he gave away to the cathedral, to orphanages and to monasteries.
Born on the eve of the First World War, in 1914, Dobrev grew up in Bailovo, a village about 13 miles east of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. His father was killed in the war and his mother was left to raise the boy alone. During the Second World War, as a result of an aerial bombing, Dobrev lost much of his hearing. In 1940, he married and with his wife raised four children. He outlived this wife and two of these children.
After the Second World War, in Communist-controlled Bulgaria, Dobrev worked in a commune as a shepherd. Breaking Communist prohibitions, he would secretly visit shrines in the mountains to pray.
Around the year 2000, aged 86, Dobrev withdrew from the world. He gave away what he possessed and went to live close by his local church in Bailovo. From there, he walked each day to the front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia to beg.
Dressed in his homespun clothes and ancient leather shoes, no matter what the season, Dobrev was to be seen standing outside the cathedral. Every day he held out his tin box asking for donations. Touched by his appearance, locals rushed to give money to the elderly man. Dobrev not only raised thousands for good causes in this way but also, unwittingly, became a local celebrity.
The aged ascetic, dressed in peasant garb, seemed to have come from another era — from the pages, even, of Chekov or Tolstoy. Needless to say, the 21st-century media loved him. He appeared on television and film. In 2013, a documentary entitled The Silent Angel was made about Dobrev’s life and witness.
In a recent media appearance, Dobrev was interviewed where he lived, sitting on the floor where he slept each night. Surrounded by the few things he possessed — mostly objects of religious devotion — he tells the interviewer that he lives on his State pension of about 1.5 euros per day. All of the money he collected in begging he gives away. “God gives me bread,” he tells an incredulous interviewer. Does he fear death? he is asked. Dobrev replies, “God is merciful. He who confesses his sins will be forgiven.”
On Feb. 13, 2018, the website of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced that Dobri Dobrev had died. It noted simply: “We regret to report that Dobri Dimitrov Dobrev [Grandpa Dobri], loved by all, reposed in the Lord today.”
It is fitting that we in the West should hear of the passing of this man on Ash Wednesday, and contemplate a man who lived almsgiving at a heroic level.