Albert Einstein once said that ‘solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is mature’. A hermit is defined as a person living in solitude, and whilst it isn’t exactly that appealing to the majority of folk the fact that ol’ Albie said such nice things about it means the life of a hermit can’t be that bad. The first Bulgarian hermit (that we know of, anyway) remains to this day their most famous, and this solitary chap is the numero one dude when it comes to the nation and their patron saints.
His name was Ivan, or Ioan, or John, or whatever form of that name tickles your fancy the most. The ‘Slavic’ aspect of our title means we’ll go with ‘Ivan’ from here on out. Ivan was born freakin’ ages ago, way back that glorious time of 876. The world was a different place in the late 9th century, and four years later Old Church Slavonic was recognised by Mr. Pope as the fourth liturgical language. Ivan was born in the village of Skrino, some 90km or so from the not-then Bulgarian capital of Sofia. His folks were of the god-fearing type, and as a result Ivan was encouraged to be kind and respectful to all and sundry from a young age. This piety led to some ruthless heckling from the more excitable youths of the village, but Ivan stood strong.
Originally a herder, Ivan quickly tired of the bullshit of early 10th century life and subsequently gave away all of his earthly possessions to the poor. He became a priest at the age of 25 and quickly moved further into the spiritual world, accepting life as a monk and continuing his existence in solitude. Ivan was regarded as a master of obedience and humility, and he was soon given permission by the abbott to bugger off and live on his own in the forest. Ivan built himself a small hut in the middle of nowhere, and a life of true solitude was his.
Those hoping that gossip is a modern invention will remain sorely disappointed, as word soon spread of this weird friendly dude living on his own in the forest. A gang of robbers decided to go and rough him up and take his belongings (because obviously), and this alteration only forced Ivan further into the wilderness. He carved out a home in a huge tree, although I would say the word ‘dwelling’ is probably more accurate there. Prayer and solitude helped Ivan get over the robber incident, and he truly became one with his surroundings.
Legend has it that our Ivan performed all sorts of miracles in that tree, although if a hermit makes gold out of a goose but no one sees it is that goose golden? Still, young folk are immensely naive, and hordes of young ideologues soon set up camp around Ivan’s tree dwelling. Ivan’s desire to live alone and get on with his shit had led to rumours spreading of his mythical powers. The miracles led to a fame that he didn’t want, but in truth the majority who went to see him were respectful enough. A monastery was set up nearby to his dwelling, which still stands today. This is the Rila Monastery, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is arguably Bulgaria’s most important.
So this dude is performing miracles up in the hills and you think the 10th century emperor is just going to let that shit fly? Of course not. Tsar Peter I wanted in on the action, and he subsequently took a 120km trip to the mountains to seek the advice of the isolated one. Upon seeing how inaccessible Ivan’s home was Pete was a little miffed, which grew when it became clear that Ivan had no interest in seeing the tsar. The two shared a knowing nod from afar, and the emperor left. He also left gifts, although Ivan refused to accept them.
Ivan died around 946, most likely due to living in a hole in a tree. The legend goes that he attempted to embalm himself by drinking special potions, and the healing powers of his remains are almost as mythical as the man himself. Ol’ Pete had his remains transferred to Sofia soon after, where they stayed until the Magyars conquered the city in 1183. Ivan’s remains were then sent to the Hungarian capital of Esztergom, where they stayed for four years before returning to Bulgaria.
Ivan (or John of Rila, or whatever you feel fit to call him) is Bulgaria’s patron saint, the holiest of holy hosses from history. He was canonised almost immediately after death, held up as an ethically model human being. He founded a community that served as a model for the entire state, with his message of strict and pure asceticism attracting hordes of followers. Ivan’s humility, obedience and silence are lessons for us all, although I wouldn’t recommend living in a tree any time soon.