Monastic Fantastic

Rila Monastery Bulgaria

I went to the Rila monastery on Sunday. It’s set in a beautiful spot in the Rila mountains about 120km from Sofia. Even though it’s supposed to be one of Bulgaria’s must-see attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was still blown away by it – both by its size and its beauty.
Lion Flap

No monastery is complete without a lion flap.

While I was there, I mainly spent my time:

  • Wishing that my mum was with me, because I know she would love it.
  • Stuffing my face with freshly fried doughnuts and the thickest yoghurt I have EVER eaten (it was like a yoghurt/cheese hybrid) from the bakery next door.
  • Wandering along a path through the forest beside the Rilska river, marvelling at the incredibly clear water.
  • Hoping that the smaller door in the main gate was a big-cat-flap for the monastery’s pet lion.
I thought I should find out a bit more of the history of the monastery, and of the hermit St Ivan of Rila, who the monastery is named after, so I bought a wee guide, which was amusing both because the information in it was correct as of 1945, and also because of the overinflated language used. For example:
“…the monks’ brotherhood was chased away from the monastery… Yet the perennial abbot of the Rila Monastery – St Ivan of Rila, the Wonderworker, remained there, and no one’s efforts could eject his imperishable and sweet scented relics from the monastery…”

But it wasn’t just the book that was a bit over the top. Wandering round the monastery, I began to wonder what St Ivan himself would have thought of it, and I suspect it would have made him quite uncomfortable. Because whilst the buildings and frescoes are stunning, Ivan had rejected all his possessions and sought a life of solitude and mysticism in the mountains. According to my guide, at one point he actually lived in a tree. After his followers had moved to be near him and built up the first small monastery with him as an abbot, he appointed one of the other brothers as his deputy and went to live in a nearby cave for the rest of his life. It struck me that a hermit who had given up all his belongings to live in a tree/cave might not feel comfortable with the grand buildings at the current monastery (or the gift shops, or the fact that you are charged to enter pretty much every room).

Rila MonasteryGiven his desire for solitude and a simple life, I wonder whether he would be disappointed or relieved to find that a once thriving religious community within the monastery is now reduced to a set of buildings overrun by tourists, where a number of officials and employees work and only a handful of monks live.

PS. if you are at all interested in mysticism, I can’t recommend Silence and Honey Cakes by Rowan Williams enough.

About sozofia
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2 Responses to Monastic Fantastic

  1. Rhona says:

    nice to see that your theology degree is coming into use! I’ll let Jane know that you’re promoting her husband’s books on your blog :)

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