Rila Monastery is the oldest and largest religious sanctuary in the country of Bulgaria, and as such, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983. Close to one million people visit the site each year, and I daresay they value the experiences they have there for different reasons.
For many, the highlight of the complex is the main church, built in the 19th century and adorned with incredibly detailed and colorful frescoes painted by Bulgarian masters. For others, the complex’s architecture is most memorable. After driving up multiple switchbacks through heavily wooded forest to arrive at Rila Monastery, the sight of this fortress-like assemblage of buildings is completely unexpected. The residence building is four stories tall, and the bell tower even taller. With black and white striped arches and imposing pillars, the structures make absolutely no effort whatsoever to blend into their surroundings. None of these buildings are original, of course, as Rila Monastery fell victim to several devastating fires in addition to multiple raids by the Ottoman Turks. Like many historic sites in Europe, it has been reconstructed multiple times.
What is original, however, is the monastery’s location, and it is this aspect of Rila that most impacted me. The site was chosen for its solitude, beauty and contemplative power by Ivan of Rila, Bulgaria’s patron saint. Ivan, who was born in 876, chose to leave civilization – which he saw as morally repugnant – for a life of simplicity and prayer in the mountains. It is believed that he lived in the caves in the vicinity of the monastery’s current location during the 10th century. His many supporters who trekked into the mountains in hopes of receiving a blessing or an education from him eventually constructed permanent structures there.
Modern visitors to Rila Monastery still have to make a bit of a journey to arrive at their experience. The drive from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria (where most tourists stay) takes nearly two and one-half hours. It winds through pastoral countryside and small rural villages until it arrives at the Rilska River. It then follows the drainage up to an elevation of 3700 feet in Rila Mountain Nature Park, a park with alpine terrain and substantial summits.
This spot is isolated now, in 2015. I can only imagine how secluded it must have been in the 9th century, when Ivan first sought refuge there.
Despite being an introvert by nature, when I seek inspiration, I tend to do it out in the world. I go on walks, I take pictures of people and places, I watch movement in the city streets. While I enjoy silence and solitude, I use it as a way of recharging my batteries so that I can go back out into the world to create, do, help, be.
For this reason, I am intrigued by people that choose silence and solitude as a way of life. Ivan was clearly one of these people, as were the many monks that inhabited the 300 rooms available at the Rila Monastery over the years. These are individuals who found the hustle and bustle of 10th and 11th century urban Bulgaria too stimulating for their tastes; imagine what they would think of our cities today! I appreciate their ability to recognize that they would best flourish and make their unique offerings to the world in a remote setting, and I admire them for having taken the steps necessary to live in those surroundings – even while I would not make the same choice.
I took a few minutes to simply stand in the courtyard of the Rila Monastery and look up and around me. The walls of the complex are womb-like, and they gave me a feeling of protection. At the same time, the view above them was majestic. An open alpine slope provides their backdrop and creates a powerful reminder of how small we all are. I can see the appeal in this combination of feeling safe and loved and yet insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I’m not sure if that’s what the many architects, builders, and monks of Rila Monastery were trying to capture in their construction efforts, but it certainly makes sense that deeply religious monks in search of a community of quiet contemplation would be drawn to this location.
It’s a distinct calling, the monastic life. Although it’s not my calling, I like knowing that there are brave souls throughout time and space exploring the inner depths of the human soul in places like Rila Monastery. While their contributions to the world are not as obvious as those of an inventor or a political leader, I believe that they are living out an important aspect of the human experience that, these days, could easily be forgotten.
Visiting Rila Monastery forced me to remember.