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Bridget RyderDecember 22, 2023
Christmas nativity hand made by religious in SpainPhoto courtesy of Fundación Contemplare.

Ana Garcia and Rodrigo Gonzalez wanted one thing: muffins made by nuns.

The couple, in their early 60s, were waiting in a line coming out of a historic building, covered in Christmas lights, in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor to get into the Feria Monacal. They got lucky that night and were the last people admitted to the monastic sweets fair that took place over the weekend beginning on Dec. 8, a bank holiday in the Spanish capital and a busy travel and shopping weekend nationally.

“Nuns are known in Spain for making excellent sweets,” Ms. Garcia told America. “You know they’re always good quality. We visited Baeza not long ago and went to the monastery to buy muffins. We’re hoping we can find them here.”

Contemplare emphasizes the contemplative life behind the goods it markets through the tagline “Made in Prayer.”

Baeza is home to a community of Poor Clares that have resided in the monastery since the 15th century. The couple left the fair half an hour later not only with the classic Spanish orange muffins called magdalenas, made by the same Poor Clares, but also with a basket of other treats for Christmas.

The Christmas fair was the work of Fundación Contemplare, a nonprofit set up to help Spain’s monasteries continue a legacy of gourmet baked goods and handmade candies but also, more importantly, to support contemplative life and reconnect monasteries with the world around them.

“We realized that the contemplative life is really important,” Alejandra Salinas, the foundation’s director, said. “Donations are always welcome, but if they can live from their work, that is ideal.”

Ms. Salinas helped found Contemplare eight years ago with other Spanish women—Catholics and mothers with professional backgrounds in sales, business, marketing and even chemistry—with a similar desire: to put their professional capabilities at the service of something transcendent.

They chose to support Spain’s 712 monasteries and 7,906 monks and nuns. Those numbers are down slightly from 2021, according to an annual report from Spain’s bishops’ conference. These religious men and women live simply as an expression of their vocation, and many strive to support themselves by the work of their own hands.

The fair was the work of Fundación Contemplare, a nonprofit set up to help Spain’s monasteries continue a legacy of gourmet baked goods and handmade candies and to support contemplative life.

For centuries this meant meeting subsistence needs through gardening and farming, but monastics have also long sold their handiwork—from altar linens, holy cards and statues to gourmet products like beer, fruitcakes and chocolates. These sales are now more important than ever to assure the sustainability of monastic life.

Monks and nuns’ needs are few—by definition—and monasteries are exempt from taxes, but necessities that either did not exist in prior centuries or were free before now must be budgeted. Monastic communities have electric and water bills to pay every month, along with other costs like building and property maintenance.

In Spain, in order to have access to the public health care system, monastics must pay social security taxes. For monasteries where most members are under retirement age, those taxes can add up to thousands of euros each month. Many monasteries are composed of large historic buildings that are expensive to keep up and to refit to modern expectations while at the same time maintaining their ancient aesthetic.

When Ms. Salinas asked monastics how she and her friends could help, they were told again and again: “Help us sell our products.”

She realized the monastic embrace of poverty and the relative isolation of life in the cloister means many monastics “don’t have the complicated tools today’s world requires”—even just to sell cookies.

“We want to serve as a bridge,” she said, connecting monastics to the modern world and the modern world to the monastics.

Besides the online marketplace, the Contemplare website includes profiles of each of the communities the foundation serves, providing information about their history, spirituality, architectural patrimony and location.

Contemplare now works with 120 religious communities in Spain, principally helping them to increase the sales of their artisan goods but also to remind the world outside monastic enclosures of the importance of contemplation.

For the Poor Clares in Baeza, the help of Contemplare has been a godsend. “We’re really grateful,” Sister Inez Kasiva, who is in charge of baking, told America.

Her community of 10 nuns come from three different continents—Africa, South America and Europe—but live “like family.” The spiritual and community life is good, but they are grateful for the temporal help from Contemplare.

Sister Kasiva’s community connected with Contemplare in October 2022, just missing that year’s Christmas campaign. But the 2023 campaign brought their first large order: 500 boxes of nine different products.

In keeping with the spirit of Advent, the fair in Madrid included a daily showing of a short documentary by the Little Brothers of the Lamb on the making of an icon of the Nativity that serves as the central decoration of the community’s motherhouse in France. A relatively new religious community, the Community of the Lamb follows the mendicant tradition of the Franciscans, Carmelites and Dominicans; that is, they are essentially beggars who preach the Gospel and serve the poor.

The Little Sisters of the Lamb opened a convent in Spain 15 years ago, and now the brothers are working to establish a friary in Madrid. The presentation at the fair serves as an Advent meditation, a glimpse into religious life and an appeal for donations.

Contemplare now works with 120 religious communities, principally helping them to increase the sales of their artisan goods but also to remind the world of the importance of contemplation.

The star of the fair, though, is undoubtedly the sweets—countless varieties of marzipan, nougat, chocolate, tea cookies, cakes and candied nuts from the most storied and historic religious orders in the church.​​

The fair is divided into two sections with separate entrances. The area that offered non-food items—rosaries and statues, figurines for Nativity scenes, natural soaps, organic facial creams and baby clothes, all handmade by cloistered nuns—had a constant flow of browsers and buyers. But over the four days of the fair, a long line extended from the entrance to the cookie zone. Spain’s national news had picked up the event and featured it even before it started. Ms. Salinas was happily astounded by the turnout.

The community fairs are the latest sales channel for monastic products that Contemplare is trying. Just days after the Madrid fair, Ms. Salinas was in Oviedo, near the northern coast, organizing another fair slightly smaller than the one in Madrid. That event collected some 900 goods from just over 80 monasteries.

So far, Contemplare’s principal sales channels have been through an online marketplace and through corporate sales that have included monastic handiwork for gift baskets. In Spain, the custom of company gift-giving to employees remains strong. Giving a Christmas basket to every employee and even retired employees is almost as sacred as the season itself.

Millions of gift baskets are ordered by Spanish businesses throughout the year, but especially during the holiday season. Thanks to Contemplare, many include baking products produced in Spanish monasteries.

Contemplare’s clients include some of the largest companies in the country, like Inditex, the corporate parent of the clothing retailer Zara. Companies can either buy products in bulk to add to their bespoke baskets or order an entire collection from the Contemplare marketplace. To assemble the baskets, Contemplare works with A La Par, an organization that provides employment and support to people with disabilities.

“Nuns are known in Spain for making excellent sweets. You know they’re always good quality.”

With the help of volunteers, Contemplare maintains a showroom in Aravaca, just outside of Madrid. A clearinghouse of monastic-made goods, it is open to the public and has its own local clientele who stop by the shop to make purchases directly. Corporate clients can visit and taste all of Contemplare’s offerings.

Contemplare also hosts occasional encounters with religious at the Aravaca location, allowing visitors to learn firsthand about religious life. Part of its effort is encouraging people to adopt a monastery—visit it, keep up correspondence with the monks or nuns, and promote it. The foundation has also partnered with Le Cordon Bleu cooking school to give cloistered nuns additional training on modern food production.

Ms. Salinas believes Contemplare’s marketing assistance to Spain’s monastics is unique. At the same time, its objectives go beyond sales. Besides the online marketplace, the website includes profiles of each of the communities the foundation serves, providing information about their history, spirituality, architectural patrimony and location.

In its marketing, Contemplare emphasizes the contemplative life behind the goods it markets through the tagline “Made in Prayer.” The hope is that buyers will make more than just a commercial connection with the religious communities and, should they find themselves in the neighborhood of the monastery, stop by—not only to buy more treats but to pray or ask for prayers.

“We want to start to re-establish the link between monasteries and people that we’ve lost somewhat,” Salinas said.

Most people have a desire for spirituality, for contemplation, Ms. Salinas believes. Being in contact with monastic communities can help satisfy the need for spiritual dimension in life. Every cookie, candy and chocolate marked “Made in Prayer” is a reminder that man does not live by bread (or chocolate) alone, that it is still possible to get a glimpse of heaven on earth.

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