For many centuries the holy relics of Venerable Ilya, whose memory the Orthodox Church honors at the very start of the year, on January 1st/December 19th, have been kept in the caves of Kiev-Pechyora Monastery. Popularly, this Saint is better known as the Great Russian bogatyr hero, Ilya Muromets, a favorite character of epic tales and legends. That is why for many people of today it was a revelation to learn that he is a Saint, venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church, and as such is not at all a fictitious character romanticized in tales, but a real-life historic personage.
Bogatyr Ilya was born in the village of Karacharovo, near Murom, in a peasant family. That is whence he got his nickname of “Muromets”. The name of the village has survived to this day. In his childhood and youth he was afflicted with a grave illness which left him motionless. However, he accepted his lot with humility and bore his cross with grace. The Lord not only cured Ilya, but endowed him with tremendous powers.
This is how it happened:
Once, Elders came to Ilya’s house and said, “Go and bring us some water to quench our thirst.” In an attempt to comply with their request, Ilya receives help from above and rises to his feet. He goes and brings a whole pail of water.
“Drink it yourself,” said the Elders. Ilya drank it.
“What do you hear inside yourself?”
“I hear inside me a strength that tells me I can uproot a tree,” he replied.
“Bring another bucket,” said the Elders. “What do you hear inside you now?”
“If a ring could be inserted into the earth,” said Ilya, “I would then turn the earth around.”
“That is too much,” said the Elders. Go fetch a third bucket.”
Ilya brought a third bucket, and felt he now had less strength. “That shall be more than enough for you,” said the Elders, and left.
Having received from God such strength, Ilya used it only for the protection of his Homeland or for maintaining justice. He set off for Kiev, to Grand Prince Vladimir, to help him in the fight against the Polovets nomad warriors.
The Prince’s troops headed by Ilya Muromets fought valiantly, committed many a heroic deed which were described in epic ballads and tales. Once a Polovets spear, penetrating the chain armor, went straight through Ilya’s arm. Fortunately, clever herb doctors and bone-setters saved it.
After that Ilya Muromets many a time crushed Polovets troops. However, in one of the battles he was badly wounded when a spear struck him in the chest. After that injury he could nolonger fight. Ilya decided to leave military service and took the vows at Kiev-Pechyora Monastery. This was in line with the traditions for an Orthodox warrior – to substitute an iron sword for a spiritual one, and end one’s days battling not for material boons, but spiritual ones.
We know nothing of Ilya’s spiritual feats, yet there is no doubt they were great, indeed. This is testified by his remains, which many years after his death were discovered imperishable.
In soviet times everything was done to hush up the Saintliness of Ilya Muromets: instead, he was hailed as the embodiment of the popular notion of a great national warrior. That is why the epic bogatyr hero Ilya Muromets and Venerable Ilya were not accepted as one and the same. Meanwhile, a pilgrim of the 16th century, a certain Leontiy, writes in his notes, “I saw the brave warrior Ilya Muromets, imperishable, lying under golden robes; his height was that of today’s tall men, his left arm – pierced through by a spear, his right – depicting the sign of the cross.” Ilya Muromets was canonized in 1643.
In 1988 the relics of the Saint were examined, and the result proved that, indeed, he was of bogatyr height, a head taller than an average man of the 12th century, in his childhood and youth had experienced paralysis of his extremities, his left arm – was pierced by a spear, and there was a large wound in his chest – in the area of his heart.The Russian people have always lovingly honored the memory of bogatyr hero Ilya Muromets, whose spiritual strength amazes people even more than did his military feats.