The Testament of St. John of Rila

St John of Rila, south portico of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Rila Monastery St John of Rila, south portico of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Rila Monastery This is the spiritual testament of the most famous Bulgarian saint, John of Rila (Ioan Rilski), which he wrote and signed on 25 March 941, five years before his death. St. John of Rila was a hermit who brought together a group of monks that led to the founding of Rila Monastery in southwest Bulgaria, a World Heritage Site. This was less than a hundred years after the mass conversion of Bulgaria to Christianity under their king Boris I, an Orthodox saint, in 865.

I, the humble and sinful John, who have never done any good on the earth, when I came to this Rila wilderness, found no man in it, but only wild beasts and impenetrable thickets. And I lived here alone with the beasts, without any food or shelter, but the sky was my shelter, the earth my bed and herbs my food. Blessed God, however, for the love of Whom I despised everything and endured hunger and thirst, frost and summer heat, and bodily nakedness, did not abandon me in the slightest, but like a good and indulgent father plentifully provided all my needs. And what do I have to give the Lord in return for all that He has given me? Many are His blessings towards me, since He looked down from His holy heights on my humility and helped me to endure everything – not me, but Christ’s strength which is in me, because every good deed is from Him and every perfect gift proceeds from on high.

And since I see you gathered here today in the Lord, in this place where, as I said, no man has lived before, but only wild beasts, and furthermore, since I perceive that the end of my earthly life will not be long coming, for this reason I thought, before my departure from here, to leave you this fatherly testament, as fathers in the flesh also leave their children an earthly inheritance of silver and gold, and other wealth, so that when you remember your father in the Holy Spirit, you will not forget his testament.

I know, beloved children in the Lord, I well know that you are beginners and not yet firmly established in the monastic life. But do not be afraid, because God’s strength is made manifest in weakness. This also is why I thought to write down for you this rude and unlettered testament, so that by keeping it ever in mind, you might be fortified in body and spirit in the Lord and succeed through the virtues in the fear of God. I trust in God, Whom I have served from my youth, and have zealously striven so that, after my departure, this wilderness, which was fearful and hostile until now, may be inhabited by many desert dwellers, and here also may be fulfilled what was written: “More are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman” (Isa 54:1).

Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos with the Tower of Hrelja, the oldest surviving structure in Rila Monastery Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos with the Tower of Hrelja, the oldest surviving structure in Rila Monastery For this reason I beg you, little children whom I have gathered in the Lord, I beg you, my bowels, do not disregard your father’s instruction, and with the Apostle I say: “I labour in birth again until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). I beg and adjure you by God’s fearful name, do not transgress or omit any of this after my death, but everything I have written, as it is written, fully fulfil, as you also promised before God. But whoever should violate or transgress any of this, let him be accursed and separated from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and let him not have a share with the saints who have pleased God from the beginning, rather let his share be with those who crucified the Lord of Glory and with his betrayer, Judas, and let him be erased from the book of the living and not be written down with the righteous.

Above all, I instruct you to keep the holy faith unblemished and untouched by any slander, as we received it from the holy fathers, without mixing it with foreign and different teachings. Stand firm, hold on to the traditions you have heard and seen in me. Branch out neither to the right, nor to the left, but go along the royal way. Keep yourselves from worldly passions and always remember why it is you have left the world, and why it is you have despised the world and what is in it.

View of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos from the south-east View of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos from the south-east Most of all, keep yourselves from the snake of love of money, because love of money is the root of all evil, according to the Apostle, who calls it a second idolatry. Because, for the monk, wealth is not silver and gold, but perfect poverty, renunciation of one’s own will and great humility. I am not saying this to you from my own commandments, but reminding you of Christ’s commandments. Because He says to His holy disciples – and through them to all those who have renounced the world – “Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag” (Mt 10:9-10) and so on… Gold and silver are a monk’s great enemy; like a snake, they bite the one who possesses them. If we have undoubted hope in God, He will not leave us lacking in anything, since He Himself has said: “A woman may forget her children, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15). And again: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt 6:33). Because in the beginning, when I came to this wilderness, the evil one tried to tempt me also with love of money, since the devout king [Peter I of Bulgaria] sent me much gold. When I refused to see him because of the Lord, I understood that this had been an act of cunning on the part of the devil. I did not accept it, but returned it to the one who had sent it, having thought to myself: If I wanted to have gold and silver and such things, then why did I come to this fearful and impenetrable wilderness, where I haven’t encountered a single man, but only wild beasts? In this way, I escaped the clutches of the evil tempter, who longs to trip us up with the very things we have voluntarily rejected. For this reason, do not seek any of these things, either. Your heavenly Father knows what you have need of before you ask Him.

And do not seek to be known and loved by earthly kings and princes, nor place your hope in them by abandoning your heavenly King, for Whom you have signed up to be soldiers and to fight not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this age. The prophet Jeremiah warns us about this when he says: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man” and so on… And, when enumerating evils, he adds: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord” (Jer 17:5, 7). Do not say: “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. 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? Having once left the world, do not turn back with your body or your mind, because no one, as it is said: “having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). The Apostle also teaches us: “One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Phil 3:13). What does it mean, “forgetting those things which are behind”, little children? Nothing other than that we should cast into the depths of oblivion all we have left behind and scorned for God’s sake, when we abandoned the world, and strive towards the next contest which has been set before us by the Judge, our most kind Lord and Master Jesus Christ, Who has vouchsafed us to take upon ourselves His gentle yoke, because His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

The courtyard of Rila Monastery with a view of Rila Mountain, the highest mountain range in the Balkan Peninsula The courtyard of Rila Monastery with a view of Rila Mountain, the highest mountain range in the Balkan Peninsula And as the grace of the Holy Spirit has made you all one, so you also should endeavour to be of one soul and one mind, with a single breath to pursue only the eternal reward which God has prepared for those who love Him. Communal living is in many ways more useful for monks than solitude, since solitude is not suitable for many, but for the few who have become perfected in all monastic undertakings. Communal life, on the other hand, is useful for everybody; the books of the fathers have quite a lot to say and to teach us about this. The God-inspired prophet David praises it when he says: “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Ps 133:1). And another God-inspired church composer adds to that the following: “For of this did the Lord promise eternal life” (Anabathmoi, Tone 8). And doesn’t our gracious Lord and Master Jesus Christ say with His most pure lips: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20)? Of the hermitic life, our God-bearing fathers state: “Woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up” (Eccl 4:10). For this reason, little children, you also should not overlook communal living, which has been commended by the Holy Spirit through the mouths of prophets, but you should endorse it even more and be as one body in the Lord, which has different members, some representing the head, which orders and directs, others the limbs, which work and carry, still more other members of the body, so that from all is made one spiritual body in the Lord, led and governed by a rational and articulate soul (in the spiritual sense), with nothing set apart. And when such a life and stay in God is established, then He also will be among you, governing you invisibly.

Repose of St John of Rila, south portico of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos Repose of St John of Rila, south portico of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos Do not seek to sit in the best places or to be in command, but remember the One Who said: “And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mk 10:44). Choose your tutors and have as your superiors those that God shows you – that is, men who are attested by all on account of their spiritual undertakings and who excel everybody in reason and spiritual understanding, who are endowed with gifts, that they may piously direct the flock entrusted to them in the pastures of devotion and Christ’s life-giving commandments. Wish for them that they may be guided by God rather than by their own opinion. And if, as our great father and monastic tutor St Ephraim the Syrian says, you all start to want to be in charge and to have the presidency, all to be abbots, all tutors, and interpreters, and teachers, and there arise among you discord, arguments, quarrels, rivalry, calumny, contempt, envy and other unseemly passions for monks, then know that Christ is not among you, for Christ is the teacher not of discord and disagreement, but of peace and unity. He prays to God and His Father that His holy disciples may be one, that is, of one mind – and not only they, but also all those who believe in Him through them – when He says: “Holy Father, keep them through Your name, that they may be one as We are” (Jn 17:11). And elsewhere: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one” (Jn 17:20-21). So you also should be one. Have peace among you, as He says to His disciples: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you”. And what, little children, is this peace of Christ? Again He tells us when He says: “Not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27). This peace of Christ surpasses all understanding. This is the peace of which the prophet speaks: “And of His peace there will be no end” (Isa 9:7). But the Apostle also teaches us when he says: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). This is the peace you should have among you; with great oneness of mind and understanding arrange everything in God, so that you do not anger our gentle Master.

But if from among you there should be one who sows weeds, discord and other temptations, then immediately lead him out of your assembly, so that he does not become a cancer, in the words of the Apostle, and evil is not spread among the good, “lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Heb 12:15). And let not the evil wolf confuse the peaceful flock of Christ, because such as these will appear. Christ forewarns us about them when He says: “Woe to the world because of offences! For offences must come” (Mt 18:7). For this reason keep yourselves from such as these, little children, and do not allow them to live among you, but drive them far from you, as the shepherd drives mangy sheep from the clean flock.

And as you live together for the Lord’s sake and bear one another’s burdens, do not neglect those who live in solitude and wander in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth (of whom the world was not worthy), but help them in any way you can, so you may have them as intercessors before God, for “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jam 5:16).

St John of Rila, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Orlitsa Metochion St John of Rila, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Orlitsa Metochion Instruct yourselves in the law of the Lord day and night, read the books of the fathers often and strive to imitate our holy fathers Anthony, Theodosius and the others, who by their good deeds shone as lights in the world. Hold fast to the rules of the Church and do not lay aside or neglect anything that is prescribed by the holy fathers.

Do not neglect handiwork, but always have work in your hands. Let the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” be constantly on your lips, and together with it the memory of death in your mind. Such was the occupation of the ancient desert fathers, and they did not eat their bread in vain; not only did they live by the labours of their hands, but they gave to those in need, and so they were not deceived in their hopes. “For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them,” says the Apostle, and he adds, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:9, 1-2).

Confirm the newly enlightened fellow members of your nation in the faith and admonish them to leave aside foolish heathen customs and evil manners, which they continue to practise even after they have received the holy faith. They do this on account of their inexperience, which is why they need to be brought to their senses.

I had a lot more to say to you, my beloved little children in the Lord, but I cannot write everything. I entrust you to the One Who is the source of all wisdom and reason, the true Comforter, the Holy and life-creating Spirit, that He may instruct you, bring you to your senses, enlighten you, teach you and bind you to every good deed.

In my place now as tutor and superior, I leave you our beloved brother Gregory, about whom you all bear witness that he is able to lead you well, in God, and whom you unanimously choose as your superior, even though he didn’t want this, but out of obedience and humility he submitted to your request. After that – whomsoever God should show you.

From now on, I should like to live in silence and stillness, to repent of my sins and to beg mercy of God. Always remember me, your sinful father, in your prayers, that I may be granted mercy on the Day of Judgement, since I have done nothing good on the earth and am afraid of the judgement and torments that have been prepared for sinners such as myself. May God’s blessing be with you all, illuminating you and protecting you from all evil. Amen.

This was written in the year 6449 since the creation of the world (941 AD), on the twenty-fifth day of the month of March.

I, the humble and very sinful John, first inhabitant of the Rila wilderness, undersign and confirm the above with my hand.

St. John of Rila
Translated from Bulgarian by Jonathan Dunne


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