Venerable St. John of Rila, a great spirit-filled ascetic struggler of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, is the heavenly patron of the Bulgarian People. He was born in the year 876 in the village of Skrino in Sardica Province (which today is Sofia). Orphaned at an early age, the boy hired himself out to strangers as a shepherd.
It happened that a rich man beat him because a cow and its calf had gotten lost. For a long time, the little boy wept and prayed that God help him. At the time he located the cow and the calf, the water level of the Sturma River had risen sharply. The young shepherd prayed, made the sign of the cross over his outer clothing, laid it on the surface of the water, picked up the calf and carried it across, as if on dry land, to the other shore, where the cow was waiting for them. The rich man, who had been hiding in the woods, was terrified upon witnessing this miracle; giving the boy a generous reward, he released him from service.
The boy gave away his fortune, and went off to his native village. When and where he received monastic tonsure is unknown. At first he took up his struggle on a high, barren hill, where he his only sustenance was drawn from plants that grew in the wilderness. His hut was made of brushwood. One night soon after he settled there, he was attacked by bandits, was beaten, and was driven away. He then made his dwelling in a deep cave.
Soon thereafter, his nephew, St. Luke, moved in as well. The place was so bereft of people that when Luke appeared, St. John at first thought that it was a machination of the demons. On realizing that the youth was in fact seeking salvation of his soul, he lovingly accepted him. However, they were not to live together for very long. St. John’s brother located the spiritual strugglers and forcibly took away his son. Along the way home, the youth was bitten by a snake and died. The brother repented of what he had done, and asked forgiveness of the Venerable One. The desert dweller would often visit the righteous youth’s grave; it was his favorite place to rest.
The Venerable One spent eleven years in the cave in the wilderness. After that, he moved to the wilderness of Rila, where he took up residence in the hollow of a tree. He fasted a great deal, prayed, and constantly wept; he ate only grass. Taking note of the Saint’s patient suffering, God had bean plants spring up to provide him with sustenance for a long time. It was the appearance of those beans that caused people to learn of his spiritual struggles.
It happened that a flock of sheep was startled by something, and ran off along the mountain ridges. They stopped at the place where the Saint lived. The shepherds following after their flock were stunned to see a hermit tenderly feeding the sheep. He said to them, “You have come here hungry. Pluck some of my beans for yourselves, and eat.” All ate until they were full. One of them hid away a lot of beans for later. Along the way home, he offered them to his companions. However, not a single bean was to be found in the stolen bean pods. In repentance, the shepherds contritely returned to the Elder. He forgave them, and with a smile said, “You see, children, God provided those beans for sustenance in the wilderness.”
From that time on, people would bring to the Venerable One those who were sick or possessed by evil spirits, and he would heal them through prayer. To avoid fame, the spiritual struggler left his beloved tree-hollow and settled onto a high and almost inaccessible cliff, where he spent seven years under the open sky. Word of the great desert-dweller reached King Peter of Bulgaria (927-969), who wanted to meet him. However, St. John wrote him a letter, humbly declining the meeting.
Later, the desert-dweller took under his care monastics who established a monastery and a church in the cave where St. John had previously lived. He wisely shepherded his flock until his repose, at the age of 69, on August 18, 946. Five years before his death, he wrote his Testament to Disciples, one of the finest compositions in the body of ancient Bulgarian literature. The spiritual struggler’s life and the signs of God’s mercy shown as the result of his prayers were the best possible testimony regarding the Christian Faith in the newly-Baptized Bulgarian land.
In the troubled time of war between Bulgaria and Byzantium – during the reign of King Samuel (976-1014), St. John of Rila appeared to his disciples, and directed that they move his relics to Sardica (Sofia), where Patriarch Damian of Bulgaria (927-972) had taken refuge. It is thought that the translation of the relics took place in the year 980. Some time later St. John of Rila’s right hand was taken to Rus’, after it first was taken to Rila, where the Church of Venerable St. John of Rila, and a side-chapel of the Holy Martyrs Flor and Laurus was erected. Those Martyrs are celebrated on August 18, the day of St. John’s repose.
Since antiquity, Russian people have known of and loved St. John of Rila. It was in Russian source materials (the 12th Century Mazurinsky Chronicle) that the date of the Venerable Saint’s repose was recorded. In 1183, among the treasures of Serdets seized by King Bela II of Hungary (1174-1196) during his campaign against the Greeks was the reliquary containing the relics of St. John. They were taken to Esztergom. In 1187, after richly decorating the reliquary, he returned the Holy Relics with great solemnity and honor. On October 19, 1238, St. John’s relics were translated with great solemnity to the new capital, Veliko Tarnovo, and were installed in a church dedicated to the Saint. On July 1, 1469, the Holy Relics of St. John of Rila were returned to the Rila Monastery, where they remain today, and where they afford grace-filled help to all of the Faithful.
The Testament of St. John of Rila to His Disciples
[1.] I, John, the humble and sinful, who has never done anything good on earth, 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. But the good Lord, for the love of whom I disregarded everything and endured hunger and thirst, frost, the heat of the sun, and corporal nakedness, did not abandon me, but like a merciful and child-loving father he lavishly satisfied all my needs. What shall I contribute to the Lord for all he has given me? Many are his benefactions to me, for he looked from his holy height at my humbleness (cf. Luke 1:48) and lent his support to me to go through everything — not I, but the might of Christ, which is in me — because every good gift and every perfect gift is from him (James 1:17).
[2.] Seeing you today gathered together in the Lord here, where, as I told you, no man has dwelled until now, but only wild animals, and foreseeing that the end of my life here is soon coming on, because of this I made up my mind, before my departure (II Tim. 4:6) from life here, to leave you the present fatherly testament of mine, just as carnal fathers leave their children an earthly inheritance of silver and gold and other property, so that when you commemorate your father in the Holy Spirit, you do not forget his testament.
[3.] I know, my beloved children in God, I know you very well, that you, being beginners, are not confirmed yet in the monk’s life, but fear not, for the Lord’s "power is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. 12:9). Just because of this I made up my mind to write for you this rough and ignorant testament of mine, so that you will keep it always in your minds to become stronger in body and soul, in the Lord, and go forward through the virtues in fear of God. Because I believe in my God, whom I have served since my youth and to whom I submitted zealously, after my departure, this wilderness, which until now was terrible and uninhabited, will be inhabited by a multitude of desert-citizens. What was written about it will be fulfilled: "The desolate hath many more children than she which hath a husband" (Is. 54:1; Gal. 4:27).
[4.] Because of this I beg you, my children, whom I have gathered in the Lord, I beg of you, my flesh and blood, do not neglect your father’s admonition and together with the apostle I say: "I am in travail again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). I beg you and make you swear on the dread name of God not to violate or abandon anything after my death, but everything I have written let be carried out, as it is written and as you have promised before God. Whosoever oversteps or violates something of it, let him be damned and separated from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, to have no share with the saints, who were pleasing to God ages ago, but let his share be with those who had crucified the Lord of Glory (Acts 7:2) and with his betrayer Judas, to be erased from "the book of life" (Phil. 4:3) and not to be inscribed [in it] with the righteous.
[5.] First of all, I bequeath to you the obligation to preserve the holy faith immaculate and unaffected by any false teaching, just as we received it from the holy fathers, without "being led away with diverse and strange teachings" (Heb. 13:9). Hold fast and keep the traditions you have heard and seen from me. Do not deviate either to the right, or to the left, but walk along the royal road. Keep yourselves carefully away from worldly fascinations and always remember why you have come out of the world, and why you have despised it and worldly things.
[6.] Now again, keep yourselves away from the avaricious snake, "for the love of money is the root of all evil" (I Tim. 6:10), according to the apostle, who calls it a second idolatry. Because for the hermit wealth consists not in silver and gold,5 but in perfect poverty, in the denial of his personal will, and in lofty humbleness. I am not telling you this as my commandments, but [I am] recalling for you the commandments of Christ. For he told his holy disciples and through them everybody who had renounced the world: "Take no gold, nor silver, nor a bag, nor copper in your belts" (Matt. 10:9) and so on. For gold and silver are great enemies of the monk and bite those who have them like a snake.
[7.] If we, however, have undoubted hope in God, he will not leave us deprived of anything, for he himself says: "A woman may forget her children, yet will I not forget thee" (Is. 49:15). Also in another place: "But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matt. 6:33). For in the beginning, when I came to this wilderness, the sly enemy attempted to allure me, for the pious king sent to me a lot of gold. For the sake of God I refused to see him, for I understood that it was a perfidy of the devil. I did not accept it, but returned it to those who sent it, for I thought to myself: "If I wished to have gold and silver, and suchlike things, why came I into this terrible and impenetrable wilderness, where I found no man, but wild animals?" So I saved myself from the intrigues of the sly tempter, who endeavors to trip us up in those things, which we renounced willfully. That is why you are not to look for any of these things, "for your heavenly Father knows that you need them all" (Matt. 6:32) before your prayer [is offered].
[8.] Nor look to be recognized and beloved by earthly kings and princes, nor put your hope in them, leaving the heavenly King, with whom you enlisted to be soldiers and "wrestle not against flesh and blood," but "against the ruler of the darkness of this world" (Eph. 6:12). For the prophet Jeremiah also threatens us speaking so: "Cursed be the man that hopeth in man" and the rest. Enumerating the evils, he adds that "blessed is the man that hopeth in the Lord" (Jer. 17:5-8). Do not say: "What shall we eat, or drink, or in what shall we be dressed?" for the gentiles seek after these things. "Look at the birds of the air: for they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matt. 6:26). As soon as you have come out of the world, do not go back, neither with your body, nor with your mind, for, as it is said, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of Heaven" (Luke 9:62).
[9.] The Apostle [Paul] too, however, teaches us to "forget what lies behind and strain froward to what lies ahead" (Phil. 3:13). What does "forgetting those things which are behind" mean, my children? Nothing else except to deliver to oblivion all those things which, coming out of the world for God’s sake, we have left and despised, and to strive towards the feat which lies before us, to which we were called by our taskmaster, our most gracious God and Lord Jesus Christ, who has enabled us to endure his gentle yoke, "For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light" (Matt. 11:30).
[10.] As the grace of the Holy Spirit brought you together, so must you endeavor to live with one heart and one mind and one spirit, directing your eyes only towards the eternal reward, which God has prepared for those who have loved him. The communal life is in every way more useful for monks than the solitary one, for solitude is not suitable for the many, but only for a few who are perfect in all monastic virtues. The common life, on the other hand, is useful in general for everybody, about which the patristic books tell us and teach us sufficiently. The spirit-speaking prophet David glorified it saying: "See now what is so good and so pleasant as for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Ps. 133:1). In addition to this, one spirit-moved ecclesiastical hymn writes in this way: "Because in this the Lord promised eternal life." But also our good Master Lord God Jesus Christ, does he not say to us himself, by his immaculate lips: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them"? (Matt. 18:20). Our God-bearing fathers say for the solitary life: "Woe to him that is alone when he falls; and there is not a second to lift him up" (Eccl. 4:10).
[11.] That is why, children, as the Holy Spirit through the mouth of the prophet glorifies the communal life, do you not neglect it either, but on the contrary, confirm it and be like "one body in the Lord" (Rom. 12:5), which has different members. Some of them form, however, the head which governs, others the feet which toil and bear, so that there is formed from all a single spiritual body in the Lord, created with a single mind and logical spirit, and directed by spiritual reasoning, in no wise having divisions. When such a dwelling and life in God is arranged, then he himself will be in the midst of you, governing you invisibly.
[12.] Do not seek the first place and authority, but remember those who have said: "If one would be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). Elect for yourselves preceptors and appoint superiors, whom God will show you, that is, men "of good report" (Acts 10:22) among everybody in spiritual matters and surpassing everybody in intelligence and spiritual discernment, and able to pasture well and comfortably the flock entrusted to them down the meadows of piety and of the life-giving commands of Christ. For these men it is proper to seek confirmation more from God than from our opinion.
[13.] If, as our great father and monastic preceptor, the reverend Ephraim the Syrian says, all of you begin to desire authority and presidencies, and all of you to be abbots, and all of you preceptors, and interpreters, and teachers, and among you spring up rivalries, quarrels, disputes, zealousness, calumnies, haughtinesses, envy and other passions indecorous for monks, then certainly be aware that Christ is not among you, for Christ is not the teacher of discord and dissent, but of peace and unity. For he prays to God the father for his holy disciples to be united, that is, of one mind—they themselves and everybody who believes in him through them, and says as follows: "Holy Father, keep them in thy name that they may be one, as we are" (John 17:11). In another place: "I do not pray for them only but also for those who believe in me through their word that all may be one" (John 17:20–21). If you will be one, be at peace one with another. For he said to his disciples, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you." (John 14: 27) For such is this peace of Christ, children, that again he speaks, saying, "Not as the world gives, do I give to you" (John 14:27). But this peace of Christ surpasses every mind. This is the peace, about which the prophet talks: "And his peace has no bounds." But also the apostle teaches us saying: "Strive for peace with all men and for the holiness, without which no man shall see God" (Heb. 12:14). May you have such a peace, now, among you, and let you arrange everything for God with great unity of mind and heart, so as not to enrage your own God and master.
[14.] If somebody is found among you who sows weeds, discords and other temptations, you have to eliminate at once such a man from your assembly, so that this will not be transfigured into a devouring canker, according to the apostle, and not to spread the evil among the good ones, and "lest any root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble by it, and the many be defiled" (Heb. 12:5); and the wicked wolf not trouble the peaceful flock of Christ, because this sort [of men] will appear. For of them Christ prophesies saying: "For it is necessary that temptations come; but woe to the world for temptations to sin!" (Matt. 16:7). For this and you, children, keep away from these things and do not allow them to live among you, but divert them away from yourselves as the shepherd chases away the scabby sheep from the pure flock.
[15.] Living together for the Lord’s sake and bearing the burdens of one another, do not neglect those who live in solitude and "wandering over deserts and in mountains, and in dens, and in caves of the earth, of whom the world was not worthy" (Heb. 11:38), but supply them as much as you can, in order to hold them as your petitioners before God, for the prayer of the pious may achieve much.
[16.] Instruct yourselves in the Lord’s law day and night (Ps. 1:2). Read often the patristic books and try to be imitators of our holy fathers Anthony, Theodosios and the others, who shone like lamps in the world with their good deeds. Hold firmly to the church rule, leaving or neglecting nothing of this, which is established by the holy fathers.
[17.] Manual labor must not be neglected by you, however, but work must be in your hands, and the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" must be permanently on your lips, as well as the memory of death in your mind. This was the practice of the ancient desert fathers. They did not eat their bread in vain, and they not only lived themselves by labor of their own hands, but they gave to the needy too, and so they were not disappointed in their hope. "For," says the apostle [Paul], "it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace; not with foods which have not benefited their adherents" (Heb. 13:9). He says too: "Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Heb. 13:1–2).
[18.] Establish the newly enlightened from your own race in the faith and instruct them to abandon the indecent pagan rites and the evil customs which they keep even after the acceptance of the holy faith. But they do this because of ignorance, and thus they need to be brought to their senses.
[19.] I had much more to say to you, my beloved children in the Lord, but it is impossible to write everything. I deliver you to him who is the source of all wisdom and reason, and the true Comforter— to the Holy and life-giving Spirit, in order that he himself gives you wisdom, to bring you to your senses, to enlighten you, to teach and instruct you in every good deed.
[20.] Now I leave you our beloved brother Gregory for instructor and superior in place of me, about whom all of you testify that he is able to govern you well and according to God, and you elect him by consensus as superior, even though he does not want it, but because of obedience and humility he acquiesces to your request. After him, [choose] whomever God will show you. As for myself, I wish henceforth to live in quiet and silence, to repent my sins and to beg mercy of God. Have mercy on me, your sinful father, always in your prayers that I may receive mercy on judgment day, for I have done nothing good on earth and fear that judgment and torment prepared for sinners like me. So may the blessing of God be with you all, guarding and protecting you from all evils. Amen.
I have written this in the year from the creation of the world 6449 ( = A.D. 941) on the twenty-fifth day of the month of March.
I, the humble and most sinful John, first inhabitant of the wilderness of Rila, sign with my own hand and confirm the above-written [testament].