John of Rila

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St John of Rila
The venerable John of Rila, the wonderworker, was the first Bulgarian hermit who was revered as a saint in his own time. His followers established and guided the Rila Monastery, which became a spiritual and creative center of Bulgaria. He is honored as the patron saint by the Bulgarian people. He is remembered on August 18, the translation of his relics is celebrated on October 19.


John was born in 876 in the village of Skrino in Sardica Province (today Sofia) of God-fearing parents of Bulgarian ancestry. From an early age John was disposed to a life of piety and good deeds. Orphaned at young age, he hired himself out as a cowherd. It happened that a rich man beat him because a cow and its calf had gotten lost. John cried a long time and then prayed that God would help him. When he located the cow and calf along the Sturma River the water was running swiftly and high. The young boy John prayed again to God, made the sign of the cross over his tattered cloak and placed it on the surface of the water. He then picked up the calf and carried it across to the other shore, as if it were dry land, to the cow that was waiting for them.

The rich man, who had been watching from a hidden place, became frightened as he saw this miracle. He paid the boy generously and released him from his service. Giving away his worldly things, John left his village to live in the barren countryside. When and where he took his monastic tonsure is unknown.

He began his ascetic life in a brushwood hut on a high, barren hill. For his food he gathered from the plants in the wilderness. But, soon he was attacked by robbers who beat him and drove him away. Finding a deep cave he settled there and was soon joined by his nephew Luke. The area around the cave was so unpopulated that John thought that Luke's appearance was a demonic trick, but he soon learned that the youth was looking for salvation of his soul. However, their lives together did not last long as John's brother found the ascetics and took his son away. On their way home, Luke was bitten by a snake and soon died. His brother repented for his action and asked forgiveness of John. John would often visit the grave of his cousin, a place that became his favorite place of rest.

After living for twelve years in the lonely cave, John moved to the wilderness of Rila where he settled in a hollow in a tree. There he fasted and prayed while weeping incessantly. He only ate grass. Seeing such endurance, God caused beans to grow nearby that provided sustenance for the ascetic. The beans soon caused people to learn of John's spiritual struggles.

Once, a flock of lost and frightened sheep came upon the place where John lived. Chasing their sheep, a group of shepherds were surprised to find the hermit who greeted them with an offer of beans to eat. As all ate, one shepherd gathered some beans to have in reserve. When, on their way home he offered the beans to his companions, they found no beans in the stolen pods. Turning back contritely, the shepherds were received again by John who quietly admonished them that the beans were only for subsistence in the wilderness.

From that time on, people would bring to John those who were sick or possessed of evil spirits whom he would heal through prayer. To avoid fame, John departed from his tree hollow to settle onto a high, nearly inaccessible cliff. Here he spent seven years under the open sky. When news of the great ascetic reached King Peter of Bulgaria, he wanted to meet him. John, however, wrote him a letter humbly declining the meeting.

Later, John began to take under his care monastics who begged him to accept them in their desire to follow his divine way of life. As these disciples grew in number they built a church in the cave he formerly lived in and soon formed a monastery. Five years before his repose, John wrote one of the finest creations of Old Bulgarian literature, his "A Testament to Disciples".

He continued to wisely looked after his flock until his repose on August 18, 946. He was seventy years old.


During the uneasy time of struggle by Bulgaria with Constantinople, under the Bulgarian king Samuel, St John appeared to his disciples in 980 and commanded them to transfer his relics to Sredets (now Sofia), where the Patriarch Damian was hiding.


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