Wednesday, August 31, 2011

St. John of Rila

Joyous feast! Today we commemorate one of the great lights of Bulgarian Orthodoxy, our Holy Father John of Rila. St. John was born in the late 800s in the vicinity of the current Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and at a young age was orphaned and became a cowherd. Even as a youth he worked miracles, once rescuing a calf from the Struma River by causing its waters to part by his prayers.

As a boy the Saint left his village, becoming a monk in an unknown monastery and pursuing a life of extreme asceticism on a hill and then in a cave alongside his nephew St. Luke. After twelve years of laboring in the cave St. John withdrew to the Rila wilderness, where he settled in the hollow of a tree to fast and pray, eating only grass when he needed food until God caused beans to grow nearby for the ascetic to eat.

The Saint was eventually discovered by nearby shepherds when their sheep led them to the monk's tree and soon they began to bring him the sick and possessed, who were healed through St. John's prayers. Fleeing the celebrity he attained through the healings St. John took refuge on a rock crag that was difficult to access, dwelling there for seven years under the open sky.

Despite his flight from the world the reports of St. John's holiness continued to spread, reaching even the Bulgarian imperial court and bringing a number of monks and novices to Rila, where the Saint eventually accepted them as his disciples and allowed them to build a monastery with a church in the cave where he had previously lived.

St. John shepherded the Rila Monastery until his repose on this day in 946 at the age of seventy. Before his death he wrote one of the most celebrated pieces of literature in the old Bulgarian language. Through both his holy life and his prayers St. John did much to strengthen the Orthodox Faith amongst the newly baptized Bulgarians.

St. John's relics remained at the Rila Monastery until their transfer to Sofia in the face of an invasion of Bulgaria by the East Roman Empire. At some point one of the Saint's hands was translated to Russia, to the city of Ryl'sk, which was named after the place of St. John's ascetic struggles, and he soon became as beloved amongst the Russians as he was amongst his native Bulgarians. The main part of the Saint's relics were later translated back to Rila from the new Bulgarian imperial capita, Turnovo, in 1469, where they remain to this day.

More on St. John's life can be found here. May his blessing and prayers be with us all!

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