Monks of many faiths, perhaps all, take vows of one kind or another. These are generally along the lines of chastity, poverty, and obedience—precisely the sorts of things that minimize distractions and maximize stability in a monastic order. Often the monk (or nun) will adopt a new name to show the thorough and permanent break from the old life to the new. But it perhaps takes a special kind of humility to adopt and retain the name of “Neophyte”—even after long years of leadership and the acquisition of expertise have made one the precise opposite of a neophyte. Even after making an incalculable contribution to the building of one’s nation.
Nikola Poppetrov Benin (1793–January 4, 1881), however, became the Neophyte of Rila, Неофит Рилски (Neofit Rilski). Born in Bansko, Neofit Rilski was the son of a monk who taught in a monastery school. He took up both of his father’s professions, first continuing his vocation and studies at Rila Monastery and then inaugurating his teaching career there. His boyhood home in Bansko is a lovely example of the traditional architecture of that time. The first floor is dedicated to the common needs (kitchen, food storage, farm animals) and the second to those of the family. It is beautifully preserved, and a wing has been built to house a detailed museum devoted to his life and work.
Although he created the first popular Bulgarian translation of the New Testament (commissioned by American Protestant missionaries) he is more known and deservingly revered for his secular educational efforts. Professor Vera Boicheva notes in her Neofit Rilski: Creator of the Bulgarian National School that he was the first Bulgarian writer to champion the use of a pure Bulgarian language, rather than the Greek popularly used in education. It was a truly revolutionary idea: modern Bulgarian was not simply the language of the peasant or the market, but imperative to the continuing development of a national sensibility, culture, and identity without which the country would be ill prepared for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Neofit Rilski lived through the worse years of that struggle for independence. The Bansko house constructed by his father is a tangible reminder. The walls are double built with space between them. This secret space could be entered by several entrances from the house should escape from Ottoman soldiers be necessary. Many houses throughout Bulgaria acted as mini-fortresses and hiding places.
By the time Neofit Rilski passed away at age 88 in Rila Monastery, the symbol of not only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but Bulgarian culture preserved for five centuries, autonomy had been won and nation-building well and truly underway.
In order for the various dialects of the Bulgarian language to be unified, there had to be a way to teach the language in the same way students were already learning the languages of other countries. To that end, Neofit Rilski published the first Bulgarian language grammar book—211 pages—in 1835. And not only did he write the grammar book, he developed the pedagogy to utilize it in schools nationwide. Neofit Rilski thus had an impact not simply on the schools he personally directed—particularly the first fully secular and public school, in Gabrovo—he influenced other schools throughout the country.
The Bulgarian National Revival that flowered throughout Neofit Rilski’s life was an intellectual movement that forwarded a nationalism perhaps unique in the region (Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States (Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe, Vol. 3/1)).
Rather than being conservative and inward-looking, Bulgarian nationalism was expansive and progressive with broad education of both men and women seen as key to the progress of the entire community. It is not incidental that the Slaveno-Bulgarian History of Paisii Hilendarski (also from Bansko) and Neofit Rilski’s Bolgarska grammatika 1835 [Hardcover] are not only the key publications of the early Revival but are meant to be educational. They are not a call to arms, not a political rallying cry, not dogmatic. They do not suggest circling the wagons. They suggest by their very nature that education is the revolution and education is critical to create a strong and independent nation. Nationalism, then, is not best expressed by attempts to expand the borders without but the minds within.