Saturday, 20 April 2013


I found it extremely hard to make my third selection from such an array of wonderful people, all of whose stories are interesting. So, my wife chose a random number from the range of page numbers in the book. The result was the Bulgarian saint, John of Rila. This pleased me because he is one of the lesser known saints but his story is as inspirational as those of the better-known Desert Fathers.

Since I am also at a loss for a choice for next week's fourth and final extract, I would welcome requests or suggestions to help me select.   

Ivan (John) of Rila, Venerable (August 18)

Reminiscent of the early desert fathers, the patron saint of Bulgaria was a great spiritual  guide, ascetic, and hermit, widely recognized as a saint even in his lifetime. Born in 876 in  a village near Sofia, he was a solitary child and, when orphaned at an early age, took a job as a cowherd to keep away from people. At the age of twenty-five he entered a monastery, but then left to find a life of solitude and prayer. He tried several locations, including a cave in the Rila Mountains and the hollow of a tree in the wilderness.

His life was hard and, in his own words, “when I came into this wilderness of Rila, I found no man over here, but only wild animals and impenetrable thickets. I settled alone in it among the wild animals, without food nor shelter, but the sky was my shelter and the earth my bed and the herbs my food.” He quickly became known as a healer of both physical and spiritual ailments, and unfortunately (for him), his reputation as a holy man and miracle-worker brought him great fame. Many disciples settled in the area, causing him to flee to
an almost inaccessible crag high up in the mountain, where he lived in the open for the rest of his life. Eventually, he did allow his disciples to build a monastery in the cave which had been his home and continued to guide his “flock” from the cliff top. (The Rila Monastery is still one of the main cultural, historical, and architectural monuments in Bulgaria and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

On one occasion, Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria braved the seventy-five-mile trip into the  mountains to meet Ivan and seek spiritual advice. On his arrival, however, he was daunted by the inaccessibility of the cave, while Ivan refused to go down to meet him for fear that being greeted by such an important visitor would tempt him to pride and vanity. In the end, they just bowed to each other from a distance. The tsar sent gifts up to the hermit, but Ivan only kept the food, returning the gold and other precious gifts on the grounds that the tsar needed them more than he did, for protecting the country and helping the poor.

Five years before he died in 946, Ivan wrote one of the great treasures of Old Bulgarian literature, A Testament to Disciples, full of spiritual and practical advice for the running of the monastery: “Do not amass wealth, keep yourselves away from the avaricious snake. For gold and silver are great enemies of the monk and bite those who have them like a snake.”

Shortly after his death, his remains were transferred to Sofia. After several other moves, the holy relics were finally returned to Rila Monastery in 1469, where they still remain. He is deeply revered in Bulgaria, where his icons appear on coins and banknotes. His  veneration has been carried to the USA, where the Bulgarian Orthodox Church of St. Ivan of Rila in Chicago is dedicated to him. Even more remote from his homeland, the St. Ivan Rilski Chapel built in 2003 at the Bulgarian Antarctic base on Livingston Island is the first Eastern Orthodox church in Antarctica, and the southernmost Eastern Orthodox building of worship in the world. For a man who loved solitude, this must be a fitting tribute.

Additional Feast Day: October 19 (Transfer of Relics)

© Conciliar Press 2013

The book is available direct from Conciliar Press at a price of $18.95 + postage: 

It can also be bought from for the same price:

1 comment:

  1. looking forward to getting my hands on the book Chris xxx Rosemary x


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