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The Priest Bogomil
The sources of doubt

He was a legendary character from the first half of the 10th century. A preacher and leader of the heretic movement named after him, his dualistic teaching was an alternative to the canons of official Christianity and was quite influential in Bulgaria until the end of the 14th century. Bogomilism had a profound influence on heretic teachings in Russia, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy and France.

"Why worship and kiss the cross where Christ was crucified? Should someone kill the tsar's son with a club, would that club be dear to the tsar's heart? If you kiss the cross you should also kiss the mule, for Christ rode a mule." According to a twelth-century copy of How to Judge People, these words belonged to the priest by the name of Bogomil who had lived three centuries earlier. A folk tale goes like this: A peasant was looking for a worthy best man for his wedding. He met Christ and said, "I don't want you, you give wealth to some and let others starve to death." Then he met Saint Peter and said, "I don't want you, you let some in and leave others out." Finally he chose Archangel Michael for his best man, "You are my kind of man, you play up to no one."

The sermon attributed to the priest Bogomil and the folk tale are based on the same logic: common-sense, earthly arguments against the official doctrines, leaving a permanent mark on the people's mind. The logic and reason behind these arguments provides an explanation for the centuries-long broad impact of one of the numerous medieval heresies, founded in Bulgaria by a priest of the name of Bogomil. It had a profound influence over the spiritual pursuits in Europe. As Presbyter Kozma wrote, "he appeared in the time of the pious Tsar Petar and was the first one to spread a heretic teaching in Bulgarian lands."

Some scientists doubt that he actually existed, while others, on the contrary, attribute him with sermons and even writings. The available sources have preserved only the curses against him, even though he was not only the author of heretic books, but also the father, the teacher, and the master of dozens of followers (not all of whom were anonymous) who "spread his heresy in every town and province." Some believe he came from a distinguished Slavic family, others insist that he was of humble parentage. Two legends describe, though somewhat superficially, his entire life. The first one tells of his trip through the south-western parts of Bulgaria. According to that legend, he was born in the village of Bogomila, his followers held their meetings in a cave near Nezhilovo, and Bogomil was buried near his birthplace where, later, a small chapel was erected. According to the other legend, he lived and preached in Gorno Pavlikeni near Lovech and was buried there after he was killed in a place called Kamenishte.

We can even picture what he could have looked like, for Presbyter Kozma and the Byzantine Empress Ana Comnena have left descriptions of Bogomils. In them "one could see nothing of the worldly," for they "hid under their cassocks and kamelaukions." Sullen-looking, with half their faces covered, they walked with their heads bent and their lips moving in silent prayer. Their faces were pale from excessive fasting. Sparing of words, they never laughed aloud and never showed curiosity, reluctant to attract attention. When they preached, however, they looked "as if they were in heaven."

Bogomil's sermons were fascinating and overwhelming. He was a contemporary of Saint Ivan of Rila and his exact opposite. Bogomils described hermits as "foxes hiding in their dens," and themselves as "mothers of God," for they believed the Holy Spirit proceeded form their sermons. Their most important mission was to travel and recruit followers. Despite the complexity of its cosmogony and theology which reflected the influence of other heretic teachings, Bogomilism boiled down to a very concrete essence: turning Christianity into a practical, working, everyday ethic.

God has no need for mediators, Bogomils maintained, therefore the churches were but ordinary houses and liturgies mere verbiage. No man could be holy, only God was sacred, and saints were but dead bodies. Icons were no more than paint on board, the unction oil for lamps, and the cross a gallows. The Communion bread and wine were simply food and drink, for Bogomils believed that the Four Gospels were the body of Christ and the deeds of the Apostles his blood, and that absolution could be obtained only in a sincere exchange between believers. They also maintained that it was hypocritical and meaningless to baptise children; the baptising ought to follow the conversion of the heart and mind. They did not believe in the Day of Judgement, not in resurrection.

They claimed that the tsars and patriarchs would "die like beasts" and that "it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to go to heaven." They condemned the priests who would bless wars or death sentences, for shedding the blood of man or beast was a crime in God's eyes. Bogomilism was a dualistic teaching according to which the visible world was a creation of Satan, the fallen angel who was driven by his envy of God. It was a simple and understandable teaching. The priest Bogomil himself had undoubtedly reached the highest level of approaching the Truth: he was one of the so-called "perfect" who had renounced all material possessions or earthly pleasures. In a sense, he was not very different from the hermit Saint Ivan of Rila. But the social consequences of his teaching were dangerous. It amounted to a revolt against social realities, based on a seemingly sound theory. For many decades the folklore, the church murals and the literature reflected the influence of the teaching of the "thrice cursed priest Bogomil."

{Spiritual Leaders of Bulgaria}

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