Sveti Ivan Rilski (ca 876 - 946) is the first Bulgarian hermit and the founder of the grandest monastery in Bulgaria. He was born in the village of Skrino (near the town of Doupnitsa) and until the age of 25 he was a herd keeper. Then he took the monastic vows, but did not stay long in the cloister; in fact, he became devoted to living in complete seclusion, prayers, fasting and privation.

On two occasions, low people drove him away from the places where he had chosen to retire. At last, he could isolate himself in the austere bosom of the Rila mountains. There he spent 12 years in a cave before he was turned out by a band of brigands. After that the ascetic took shelter in the hollow of a huge oak-tree. Soon the rumour about the righteous man spread around the neighbouring villages, and the local Christians began to seek his help. With God's blessing, the anchorite performed miracles: he exorcised evil spirits, healed illnesses and infirmities. However, the strangers' visits disturbed his meditation so that he left the hollow settling on a high rock, where he remained for 7 years and 4 months.

With time, the hermit's fame spread all over the country, reaching the capital city. Taking advantage of a journey to Sofia, Tsar Peter I travelled the 120-kilometre distance to the mountains in order to meet the pious old man. The righteous Ivan did not let him approach,  just making a bow from a distance, the monarch returning the bow. It goes without saying that the anchorite returned the gold Tsar Peter had sent him.  

Sveti Ivan Rilski

Upon this, his celebrity grew even more and he was joined by his disciples who began building their own shelters around his place of retirement. This is how the most famous Bulgarian monastery was set up.

The anchorite died in 946 at the age of 70. Soon after his death the Tsar was visiting Sofia again and by his order the saint's relics were transferred to that town. Naturally, the case containing Ivan Rilski's relics had wonder-working power. The Greek writer John Skilitisa witnessed the healing of the Byzantine Emperor Michael I Comnenus (1143-1180).

During a war in 1183, the Hungarian King Bela II conquered Sofia and sent the saint's relics to his capital of Estergom. Because the local Catholic archbishop argued he knew nothing of such a saint, Ivan Rilski punished him by striking him dumb. The archbishop recovered his speech only when he bowed down before the case with the relics and asked forgiveness. Awe-stricken by this miracle, in 1187 the Hungarians brought back the saint's relics to Sofia.

Several years later, in 1194, the Bulgarian Tsar Assen ordered that the relics be moved to the capital city of Veliko Tarnovo. They  miraculously survived the devastation of the city after its seizure by the Turks in 1393. By Sultan Murad II's permission, the relics were sent back to the Rila Monastery in 1469.

The transportation of the relics was a major event of its time. To this date the Orthodox Church commemorates it.

Ivan Rilski is revered as the patron saint of the Bulgarian people.

Of course, he is held in reverence by all other Orthodox Christians too. Some centuries ago his cult spread as far as Siberia.


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