John of Rila

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Saint John of Rila
A fresco depicting St. John of Rila from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Saint Monk, Wondermaker
Diedc. 946
Venerated inEastern Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church[1][2]
Feast19 October[3]

Saint John of Rila,[4][5] a.k.a. Ivan of Rila (Bulgarian: Свети преподобни Йоан Рилски Чудотворец,[6][7] Svеti prеpodobni Yoan Rilski Chudotvorеts; English: Saint (monk) John of Rila the Wondermaker[8]) (876 – c. 946) was the first Bulgarian hermit. He was revered as a saint while he was still alive. The legend surrounding him tells of wild animals that freely came up to him and birds that landed in his hands. His followers founded many churches in his honor, including the famous Rila Monastery. One of these churches, Saint John of Rila was only discovered in 2008 in the town of Veliko Tarnovo. Today, he is honored as the patron saint of the Bulgarians and as one of the most important saints in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

The tomb of John of Rila near Rila Monastery


The Cave of John of Rila near the Rila Monastery

Saint John of Rila was born app. 876 a.c. in Skrino, at the foot of the Osogovo mountain (close to the modern city of Dupnitsa). He was a contemporary of the reign of emperor and saint Boris I, his sons Vladimir (Rassate) and tsar Simeon I The Great, and the son of the latter - Saint tsar Peter I.

Originally a herder, at the age of 25, Saint John of Rila became a priest in the "St. Dimitrii" monastery located under peak Ruen. After accepting the life of a monk, he left the monastery in order to continue his life in solitude and prayer. Saint John of Rila lived in isolation in various locations before going to the Rila Mountains. There he spent the rest of his life in prayer and deprived himself of an everyday life by settling in the uncomfortable conditions of the caves in the Rila mountains.

According to legend, Saint John of Rila was known to have performed a multitude of miracles in order to help the people. These miracles brought him undesired fame as he tried to live the life of a hermit and avoid contact with others. With his growing number of followers, many young believers and supporters set up camps around his cave, seeking a blessing from him. This led the way to the creation of the Rila Monastery, which is considered to be the foremost monastery in Bulgaria.

Word of the miracles he performed reached the capital of the Bulgarian Empire - Great Preslav. Tsar Peter I (son of tsar Simeon I) took a 450 km trip to the Rila Mountains in order to meet St. John and seek spiritual advice. Their meeting is described in detail in one of the hagiologies of St. John of Rila as well as in the Testament of St. John of Rila itself. After a long and exhausting trip, tsar Peter I reached the place where St. John of Rila lived, however, upon arrival, the tsar then realized that the dwelling of the saint was inaccessible, probably due to the rough local terrain. As the medieval hagiologies point out, St. John of Rila refused to meet the tsar in person to avoid the temptation of vanity and pride due to the extraordinary visit. As such, the two men only bowed to each other from a distance. The emperor sent a soldier to deliver the gifts that were brought for the saint. St. John of Rila kept only a small portion of food and returned all of the gold and precious gifts, advising the tsar that monarchs need gold in order to protect the country and help the poor.

Shortly before his death (August 18, 946) St. John of Rila wrote his Testament (Zavet).[9] A literary work and a moral message to his successors and to Bulgarian people.

As the patron saint of the Bulgarian people, his dormition is commemorated each year on August 18 and October 19.


Saint John of Rila - fresco from the church in Rila monastery, Bulgaria.

Shortly after the saint's death, his remains, which were thought to have wonder-working powers, were transferred to Sofia during the reign of Peter I.

After Hungarian King Béla III conquered Sofia in 1183, the remains were sent to the Hungarian capital Esztergom and remained there for four years before being returned to Sofia in 1187.

In 1194, Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen I ordered the remains to be moved to his capital, Veliko Tarnovo. Surviving the Turkish conquest of the city in 1393, they were returned to the Rila Monastery in 1469 at the behest of Sultana Mara Branković, the widow of the late Murad II.

Patronage and tributes[edit]

St. John of Rila is considered the patron saint of Bulgaria and Bulgarian people, and he is venerated widely both in his native country as well as among the Bulgarian diaspora abroad. He is traditionally regarded as the founder of the Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded as one of Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments. One of Chicago's two Bulgarian Orthodox churches St. John of Rila Church is dedicated to him, located in the Portage Park community area.

As the patron saint of the Bulgarian people, his dormition is commemorated each year on August 18 and October 19. One of Saint John of Rila's miracles is "the fable of two pies" where he helped feed the poor when he visited bearing "two pies" which were given to him by the village pie maker. This led to Saint John becoming the Patron Saint of Pies and Pie Makers and it is said that "two pies John" will always provide for makers of pies as thanks to the poor pie maker who gave his last two pies to the Saint. This day is still celebrated in Northern America on National Pie Day which is the 23rd of January, where it's tradition to bring "two pies" to the parties.

Ioannovsky Convent, the largest convent in St. Petersburg, commemorates this saint. St. Ivan Rilski Col on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after John of Rila. The St. John of Rila Chapel built in 2003 at St. Kliment Ohridski Base on Livingston Island is the first Eastern Orthodox edifice in Antarctica and the southernmost Eastern Orthodox building of worship in the world.

An icon of John of Rila is depicted on the reverse of the Bulgarian 1 lev coin issued in 2002,[10] and on the obverse of the former 1 lev banknote, issued in 1999.[11]


  1. ^ Online, Catholic. "St. John of Rila - Saints & Angels". Catholic Online. Retrieved 2021-05-22.
  2. ^ "Orthodoxe Kirche von Bulgarien". Retrieved 2021-05-22.
  3. ^ Great Synaxaristes: (in Greek) Ὁ Ὅσιος Ἰωάννης ὁ Θαυματουργός ὁ ἀσκητής. 19 Οκτωβρίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  4. ^ Tradigo, Alfredo (2006). Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 341.
  5. ^ Lanzi, Fernando; Lanzi, Gioia (2004). Saints and Their Symbols: Recognizing Saints in Art and in Popular Images. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. p. 133.
  6. ^ "Преподобный Иоа́нн Рыльский". (in Russian). Retrieved 2021-05-22.
  7. ^ "Св. преподобни Йоан Рилски Чудотворец". 2020-08-09. Archived from the original on 2020-08-09. Retrieved 2021-05-22.
  8. ^ "Saint John Of Rila Wondermaker". Facebook. Retrieved 2021-05-22.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  9. ^ Testament of St. John of Rila
  10. ^ Bulgarian National Bank. Notes and Coins in Circulation: 1 lev. – Retrieved on 14 March 2018.
  11. ^ Bulgarian National Bank. Notes and Coins out of Circulation: 1 lev. – Retrieved on 14 March 2018.

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