Rila Monastery, Bulgaria: Part I, The Cave of St. John of Rila

 

The snow capped Rila Mountains welcome us into the historic, religious center of Bulgaria--Rila Monastery,  the largest monastery in the Balkans.  Even though it is hidden in the mountains, it has been overcome by bandits and Ottoman Turks, but  the Bulgarian people always rescue it with re-building and negotiations.  Books and treasures were brought here for safe keeping.  Educated monks and teachers prayed, wrote, exchanged ideas, printed books, sang and  taught.  The Bulgarian culture and religion was saved here. 

Map of Bulgaria

It all started 1,000 years ago with one man, Ivan Rilski, leading a life close to God. He is now the patron saint and protector of the Bulgarian people (later known as St. John of Rila, ca. 876-946). 

Let me take you to where he lived.  We begin our pilgrimage from Sofia, the capital, and drive south 120 km or 70 miles.  

After leaving the four lane highway, we stop for a rest beside the Struma River.  It flows from Vitosha Mountain in Sofia, down to the Aegean Sea,  providing an ancient transportation vein through the valleys and gives water for agriculture.  I took the river picture from this suspension bridge.  In the cafe, you may order tea or a tiny cup of espresso, guaranteed to open your eyelids!

Our drive continues south, closer to the mountains where St. John of Rila, or Ivan Rilski, lived.  Most fields do not have fences, so men or women stay with the herd during the day, taking them home at night.

Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila) worked as a shepherd or cowherd in the region until he was 25 (about 901).  During this time, Christianity was spreading in Bulgaria. It had become Bulgaria's official religion in 865 when Tsar Boris I accepted the Christian faith.  In 927 Constantinople gave them the right to establish an independent Bulgarian Church with their own patriarchate.

Ivan Rilski was upset with the morality of Bulgaria's leaders.  He entered a monastery to be educated as a monk, when he was ready, he left the monastery and went into the remote Rila Mountains.

We turn left off this road onto a narrow road that winds up the mountain and through a small village spread along the road.  The houses are grey stucco, grape arbors provide shade in side yards.  In the fall, there will be homemade wine.

We drive past the monastery at an elevation of 1100 meters (3600 feet), slowing down when the road narrows between large trees.  A parking lot sign says we have arrived at the path leading to Ivan Rilski's cave.  It is a good hike upward.

The woods seem to be mainly smooth barked beech trees.  This is in May and the leaves are new and delicate.

The woods seem to be mainly smooth barked beech trees.  This is in May and the leaves are new and delicate.

Del stands in front of a large trunk.

Del stands in front of a large trunk.

The mountain air is fresh, birds sing, water tumbles and rushes over rocks--the woods feel very peaceful today.  This is indeed a place to pray and to be close to God

The mountain air is fresh, birds sing, water tumbles and rushes over rocks--the woods feel very peaceful today.  This is indeed a place to pray and to be close to God

The cave of John of Rila, also known as Ivan Rilski

The cave of John of Rila, also known as Ivan Rilski

When St. John of Rila left the monastery for the mountains, he lived in different places, sometimes being chased by bandits.  Eventually he found a small stone cave deep in the forest.

There is a stone ledge for a bed and a hole for smoke from his fire to escape.  Yes, we climbed in!  You can stand up inside.  It is maybe 15 feet long and 12 feet wide.  A nearby spring provides water, the woods have berries, and it is said he ate beans, possibly garbanzo.  (The swift Rilska River has fish, but I don't know if he ate them.  We did.)

St. John prayed and lived simply without possessions or money, honoring and serving God.  He tried to lead a pure life as put forth in the Bible.  Shepherds stumbled across him and were fed.  People were healed with his prayers when they visited him, and he became known as a miracle worker. 

Tsar Peter wanted to visit him and came with food and gold gifts.  It is said that St. John did not want to meet with the king because it could be a source of pride.  Although he did not meet with the king, he did accept the food.  He asked the king to use the gold to help the poor.

A few monks came to learn from him, living in the woods. Eventually they established the Rila Monastery, with his approval, a few years before his death.  Brother Gregory was put in charge.  It was based on "The Testament" of his beliefs that he wrote.  He believed in the equality of all people and in helping the poor. He said, "Let brotherly love continue."  The monastery is open to all visitors and pilgrims who come to pray.

 The Church at the Grave, also named the Church of The Assumption of St. John of Rila was built about 1746 and rebuilt in 1820.  His first burial was in the cave.  Then he was moved several times because each king wanted the saint's body in their capital.  In 1496 he is returned to Rila Monastery

 The Church at the Grave, also named the Church of The Assumption of St. John of Rila was built about 1746 and rebuilt in 1820.  His first burial was in the cave.  Then he was moved several times because each king wanted the saint's body in their capital.  In 1496 he is returned to Rila Monastery

 St. John of Rila drank from this cold, sacred spring.  It is the custom to let water run over your hands, a type of blessing.   Notice the pieces of paper with prayers written on them.

 St. John of Rila drank from this cold, sacred spring.  It is the custom to let water run over your hands, a type of blessing.   Notice the pieces of paper with prayers written on them.

This wild orchid grows near the spring.

This wild orchid grows near the spring.

John of Rila's prayer rock.

John of Rila's prayer rock.

Just across from the spring is the rock where St. John of Rila (Ivan Rilski) prayed every day, facing east.  He lived with the four basic elements:  earth, fire, water and air or wind.

(In our visits to Bulgaria we have visited several ancient worship sites such as the area where Orpheus  is said to have lived,  not far away in the Rhodope Mountains.  Now Bulgaria has about 100 monasteries).

The image of St. John of Rila, also known as Ivan Rilski, is painted on Rila Monastery.

The image of St. John of Rila, also known as Ivan Rilski, is painted on Rila Monastery.

"This prayer from the saint's long life is a vivid example of the Bulgarians' confidence that the saint of Rila, their protector and patron, would intercede:

"Preserve the pure faith in us.  (Bless our cities.)
Pacify the world (From hunger and perdition save us.)
From fierce aliens guard us. (Console the old)
Guide the young.
Pity the widows. (Protect the orphans.)
Nurture the children."

He wrote the short "Testament of John of Rila"  before his death to provide a written record of his teachings.  It also sets down the outline for monastic life. The text is here.   Or you can copy the web address below and paste into your browser.    http://www.pravoslavieto.com/docs/eng/Testament_of_John_of_Rila.htm   Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: Testament of St. John of Rila written before his death

Our visit continues when we enter Rila Monastery in the next post, Part Two.

References for Part I:
-6 personal visits to Rila Monastery with knowledgeable guides.
-Quotes are from Rila Monastery by Mararita Koeva, 2003. www.borina.com
-Booklet:  Stefan Stamov, published by Milen Petkov, MIL ART
-Website of the Official Tourist Portal of Bulgaria  
                                                    Pictures are copyrighted by Del Weliver and Evelyn Weliver.