Saint Ivan of Rila (cir. 876 - 946)
Another elect of God

He was one of the first Bulgarian Christian hermits and saints canonised after Bulgaria's conversion. He was the founder of Bulgarian monachism and of the first monastery in Bulgaria, the Rila Monastery.

Christian saints were martyrs to their faith. Their lives culminated in suffering, and they died heroic deaths. Saint Ivan of Rila, one of the first saints of the newly converted Bulgaria, was one of the few exceptions to that rule. He devoted his life to his faith without having to face abuse, persecution and execution.

All folk legends, as well as the ten Lives, written between the 10th and the 19th century describe the life of the hermit of Rila as a spiritual achievement. What we know of the life of this "son of pious parents, neither very rich nor poor but rather well-to-do," as the hagiographers put it, or "pauper, orphan and cowherd to an evil master," as the folk legend goes, is reduced to his escape into the recesses of the Rila mountain and a few minor miracles, described in the legends but ignored by the sophisticated hagiographers. Nothing disturbed his seclusion and he died in peace, surrounded by disciples and followers. The life of Saint Ivan of Rila was not an earthly drama but a drama of spiritual growth and purification, a complicated psychological experience of extreme significance to the new religion.

He was found worthy of a place next to Cyril, Methodius and their five disciples. While the work of Cyril and Methodius materialised faith in script, Saint Ivan of Rila's work embodied the effort to internalise it. Placing him next to the great enlighteners, in hard times Bulgarians would find comfort in the inseparable unity of religion and language, the two mainstays of national unity and statehood.

According to legends, Saint Ivan of Rila provided an example to follow in an area of Bulgaria that was never exposed to the influence of the disciples of Cyril and Methodius: from the Rila to the Vitosha mountain and along the Strouma valley. He was the founder of the largest monastic community in Bulgaria, the Rila Monastery. The result of his efforts was the formation of a community of his 66 followers, and this marked the beginning of hermitages in Bulgaria. Until then the monasteries were half-secular educational centres providing a retreat from worldly matters. In his precept, preserved in a nineteenth-century copy, Saint Ivan of Rila laid down the principles of monastic community: getting closer to God through the mutually supportive spirit of community, as well as the purposes of seclusion including "reading the Scriptures and teaching the newly converted people."

From the recesses of Rila began the long journey of the saint's relics that also "performed quietly the lofty task of spreading the faith." To Tsar Petar I who started that centuries-long journey by moving the relics to Sredets on October 19, 946, it was important not only that "even after death the vulnerable body made the blind see, the lame walk, the numb heal, the exhausted recover, and chased away the evil spirits," but also that "it supported true faith and crushed the fanatic philosophising of those who did not believe in resurrection." Three foreign rulers set their faith on the miraculous power of the saint's relics: the Hungarian King Bela and the Byzantine emperors Manuil Comnenus and Isac Angelus. People of many different nations worshipped and glorified him, including Serbs, Romanians, Russians and even "our enemy" the Greeks.

However, it was the Bulgarian people that benefited most from the relics' miraculous power. Twice they crossed the whole country, from Sredets to Turnovo shortly after the revival of the Bulgarian state during the reign of Tsar Assen I (1194), and from Turnovo to the Rila Monastery in the darkest times of the Ottoman domination (1496). They were accompanied by huge processions, and legends and writings about the saint's life were revived. His faith gave Bulgarians the conviction that they were strong enough to face the vicissitudes of their lives. To the people, Ivan of Rila became the true messenger of God, and he was depicted on icons all over the country. "Rejoice, father! You are our light in the desert!", reads the tenth-century liturgical text in memory of the saint.

See also: Rila Monastery

{Spiritual Leaders of Bulgaria}

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