From its beginnings in the 9th century, the culture of ancient Russia has had a rich heritage epic ballads and tales spread by word of mouth. The ballad of three Russian warriors Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich is an outstanding example of this heritage. The character of Ilya Muromets is perhaps the most notable of the three. According to most historians, he became a monastic at the end of his life and was canonised by the Church as Venerable Saint Ilya Pechersky.
Reliable evidence of Ilya’s life is scant. It is believed that he was born circa 1143 in the family of a peasant in the village of Karacharovo near Murom. As a child, he suffered from leg paralysis. His illness taught him great patience and humility and also strengthened his character. One day, he was lying alone at his home. He was 33 years of age. Three elders came to his house dressed as beggars and asked him for some water. Forgetting about his paralysis, Ilya rose to his feet and brought water to the strangers. At their insistence, he drank it all up himself. The water gave him great bodily strength and the elders told him: “You are not going to die in a battle”. After hearing these words, the young man resolved to dedicate himself to the defence of his country and people.
For many years, Ilya served in the druzhina (militia) of Vladimir Monomakh, a Kiev duke. He was victorious in all his battles, but he never prided himself on it, and he let the defeated go in peace. In an epic ballad, Ilya gives this simple description of himself. “I am a simple Russian knight warrior, son of a peasant. I am not protecting you for a reward; I want no silver and no gold. I am fighting for the people of Rus, its children, young women and their mothers. I do not seek a rich life as a Voyvoda. My richness is my prowess, my work is to serve my country and to protect it from the enemies.”
Eventually, Ilya Muromets was badly wounded in the chest in a battle with the Tartars. At that point, he ended his military service and became a warrior of the spirit by taking tonsure as a monk at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. At his time, many former warriors did the same. Yet we find no mention of the venerable Ilya in the Patericon of the Lavra, which suggests that his life as a monastic did not last very long. His tonsure likely took place under Hegumen Polycarp of the Caves (1164 – 1182). He died circa 1188 before reaching his old age. Yet he already had a large record of ascetic deeds to be venerated as a saint. His relics are kept at the Anthonian caves of the monastery.
Ilya Muromets was canonised in 1643. His feast day is celebrated by the Church on 1 January. Since 1643, many military and battlefield churches in Russia have been consecrated in honour of the Venerable Ilya.
The Church and the Orthodox faithful are confident that the knight warrior Ilya Muromets and Saint Ilya are the same people. Multiple examinations of the relics have confirmed this. The relics of Saint Ilya have still kept traces of long-term paralysis of the limbs, soundness of the body and a deep wound in the chest around the heart, the likely cause of his premature death.
During the dispute between the Russian Orthodox Church and the old believers in the 17th to 19th century, the Orthodox referred to the position of the fingers in the relics, which showed that he was crossing himself with three fingers. According to the chronicle, Saint Ilya died after crossing himself with three fingers, and the present-day Orthodox do – three fingers together, and the last two bent towards the palm.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy has instituted the order of the Venerable saint Ilya Muromets. It is awarded to members of the clergy and the laity for their service to God and their country.
There is at least one confirmed recent account of a miracle attributed to Ilya Muromets and verified by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church*.
One servant of God from Donbass was suffering from the paralysis of the limbs. The disease had progressed to the advanced stage when the tissue begins to separate from the bone. The woman could not get out of bed, she was tormented by severe pain and was expecting to die at any moment.
One day, the woman saw, in a slumber, a miraculous vision. She was standing in a field and saw in front of her a large man in the attire of an old Russian knight warrior. Speechless, she was looking as he was mowing the grass around her. In the grass, she saw large numbers of snakes escaping in a panic in different directions. When he finished, the knight warrior looked at the woman and said: “You are not going to be ill any more. The Lord gave His blessing to cure you. You are my blood relative. I am Ilya Muromets. My relics are laid to rest in the near caves of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Anticipating the surprise and disbelief from the woman who was not even going to church, he reminded here: “No member of our clan by paternal lineage could walk on their feet before age three”. The woman remembered that her father and her grandfather both had stately figures, but neither could walk until they were three. At this point, her vision ended.
The woman opened up her eyes and realised that she was no longer in pain. She felt refreshed, joyful and excited, and she tried to walk. She turned on her television and saw on her screen a documentary about the Kiev Pechersk Lavra and Ilya Muromets. Struck by the coincidence between with her healing, the woman cried. She gave a promise to put away the money from her pension to visit the Lavra, see the relics of Ilya Muromets and thank him for his miracle.
Eventually, God brought the pious woman to see the relics of her ancestors. She prayed vehemently over the reliquary in the Anthony caves and told the other Christian pilgrims around her the story of her miraculous healing.
*The story of the healing was transcribed and entered in the Book of Miracles of Modern Times. The book was published in 2016 with the blessing of the Most Blissful Onuphrius, Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.