Orthodox America

Saint Sergius of Radonezh - 1392-1992

Although the Tartars displayed a general tolerance for Christianity, the Mongol Yoke burdened the Russian land with such political chaos and material distress as to stifle spiritual life. Its recovery can largely be credited to the exceptional influence of St. Sergius of Radonezh. This year, in celebrating the 600th anniversary of his repose, we would do well to examine his spiritual legacy, and its possible significance for us today.


     St. SERGIUS was born in 1314 in the city of Rostov, of noble and devout parents, Cyril and Maria, who gave him the name Bartholomew. He was seven when he was sent to school, but although a serious child, he had great difficulty applying himself to his lessons. An old monk to whom the boy confided his distress gave him a piece of holy bread: "Take and eat this which is given to you as a token of the grace of God and for the understanding of the Holy Scripture." Indeed, the gift of learning was miraculously communicated to the boy. He astonished his parents that evening by reading the Psalter. The same monk told the parents that their son would be "great before God and man, thanks to his life of godliness....He will be a servant of the Holy Trinity."

      Moscow's annexation of Rostov compelled the family to move, and when Bartholomew was fifteen they settled in the small town of Radonezh, some forty miles northeast of Moscow. His heart's desire was to become a monk but since his two brothers had left home to get married, he consented to stay in order to care for his parents. They both died in 1334, shortly after having entered the monastic life, and Bartholomew persuaded his elder brother Stephen, a widower and already a professed monk, to share with him a life in the wilderness. They found a suitably remote location in the middle of a forest about seven miles from Radonezh, and set about building a cabin and then a chapel which, with the blessing of Metropolitan Theognostes, was consecrated to the Life giving Trinity. Thus was a humble foundation laid for what grew to be the glorious Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, the boast of Holy Russia.

      The physical rigors of their existence proved too much for Stephen, who went to Moscow, to the Monastery of the Theophany, where he later became abbot. Left alone, the desert-loving Bartholomew with yet greater concentration exercised himself in the spiritual warfare. The advantage of his early training--in fasting, meekness, obedience, moral purity and self-discipline--proved itself in his successful battles against the invisible foe and his manifold temptations of pride, despondency, worldly seductions, false humility. His physical privations were more than compensated by the accumulating wealth of his inner life. The blessed desert-dweller was visited infrequently by the elder Mitrofan, who wondered at his spiritual proficiency and willingly acceded to his request to be tonsured, bestowing upon him the name Sargius, after the martyr Sergius on 'whose day he was professed.

      The new monk would have been content to persevere in the solitary life to the end of his days, but when some young monks asked to join him he recognized it as the will of God and welcomed them with joy. The elder Mitrofan served the community as a priest. When he died within a year St. Sergius reluctantly consented to enter the priesthood and become abbot. He continued to dress as one of the poorest monks and in no wise changed his manner of life: he chopped wood, hauled water, ground flour for the holy bread and baked it, made candies..., never spending an idle hour. And all these labors were accompanied by ceaseless prayer. In the words of his biographer, he served for all as "an example of monastic perfection"

      The first years were hard, but the trials served to manifest the Saint's spiritual excellence. When for days there was no bread and the brothers began to grumble, the Saint exhorted them to have patience and to trust that the Lord would provide. He had but finished speaking when a cart loaded with still warm bread arrived at the gate, the gift of an un-known benefactor. When on another occasion the brethren began to complain of a lack of sufficient water, the Saint made the sign of the Cross over a pool of rainwater and immediately a bubbling spring arose.

     The grace of the Holy Spirit acted in the Saint with such power that he returned a dead child to life and restored the mind of one possessed. Above all, however, it was his holy life and his gift as an unerring instructor of souls that attracted new members to the community. Not only monastic aspirants but contemplative ascetics came to draw on the wisdom of this great "Elder of the Russian land." He was a guide as well to laity, many of whom came to settle nearby while others added generously to the community's material assets, enabling it to expand its charity--a virtue which had been a feature of the Saint's home life and which he practiced even when living alone in the forest, where he regularly shared his meager supply of bread with a visiting bear.

    Such was the moral authority of the Saint that he was several times called upon to arbitrate in the internecine struggles which had for so long plagued the Russian land. He was able, for example, to persuade Prince Oleg of Riazan to lay aside his fierce enmity against Moscow, and to smooth tensions between Prince Constantine of Rostov and Grand Prince Ivan II. And he fortified Prince Dimitri, giving him assurance of victory against the Tartars on the Kulikovo Plain.

      Metropolitan Alexis wished St. Sargius to become his successor, but the Saint's refusal was absolute. Although he would undoubtedly have consented out of obedience, he discerned that this was not the will of God and this allowed him to contradict the desire of his superior.

      The measure of his spiritual stature became yet more apparent at the end of his life. One disciple was granted to witness an angel celebrating Divine Liturgy with the Saint; another saw the grace of the Holy Spirit like a flame enter the chalice as the Saint was about to commune; his disciple Micah was vouchsafed to be present when the Holy Virgin, in the company of the Apostles Peter and John, appeared to the Saint promising to protect his monastery even after his departure from this life.

      Foreknowing the day of his repose, the Saint called together the brethren and exhorted them to continue along the same path--to remain steadfast in the Faith, to love truth, to preserve oneness of mind, to maintain un-hypocritical love, to avoid all evil and carnal lust, to be moderate in food and drink, not to forget the love of strangers, "and on no account to set value on honor and praise in this life, but rather to await reward from God for the joy of heaven and eternal blessings." After partaking of the Holy Mysteries he peacefully surrendered his soul to God. He was seventy-eight years old. Thirty years later his incorrupt relics were brought to light, and to this day pilgrims praying at his reliquary experience the grace of this great wonderworker and spiritual benefactor.

    The influence of St. Sergius on the development of Holy Russia is difficult to exaggerate. One night after he had been elected abbot, he was praying in his cell when he saw in the heaven a brilliant light and a multitude of wondrous birds, and he heard a voice: "As many birds as thou seest by so many will thy flock of disciples increase; and after thy time they will not grow less if they will follow in thy footsteps." More than twenty-five monasteries were founded by St. Sergius and his immediate disciples; by the end of the seventeenth century there were another two hundred and fifty. More than a hundred of St. Sergius' disciples were glorified as saints: St. Cyril of White Lake, St. Paul of Obnora, St. Sergius of Nurma, St. Abraham of Galich, St. Dimitri Prilutsky, and rnany other glorious ascetics who populated Russia's Northern Thebaid. "Offspring of his offspring," wrote his biographer,     "burning bright as stars, they are everywhere radiating a serene and wondrous life, and a blessing to all."

       The effect was to usher in the golden age of Russian asceticism-by no means a purely monastic phenomenon. In the Sergianist tradition, contemplative life was joined to service to the world an unfailing hospitality to pilgrims, charity for the needy-and this made possible its great impact on Russian society. Further, as Kovalevsky points out in his study, St. Sergius and Russia Spirituality, the Saint saw his role as abbot primarily as a teacher "who helped his brothers progress in the way of the Gospel." He was in fact a teacher of the nation. By inspiring a general move towards the Christian ideal, towards personal sanctity, he restored the moral fabric of society and the very essence of Holy Russia. St. Sergius has been called the "Abbot of all Russia," and this can be understood in its broadest sense. 

     Today, like Russia at the time of St. Sergius' birth, we too are oppressed, not by foreign lords but by the equally devastating powers of secularization. The moral fabric of our society has become unraveled and we are likewise in need of true heroes of moral goodness, like those raised up under the influence of St. Sergius. These need not be monastics necessarily, but they must partake of the same Christian asceticism, the same Gospel leaven, which can be effective equally in our spiritually barren society. As one historian of monasticism has written:

      “The new worldwide-historical greatness of Christian asceticism lies in the fact that from its arising out of the ground of an all-embracing aspiration towards Christ, there proceeds the perfecting, purifiring, and strengthening of the human personality, and not only for itself, but for the entire society and the entire world; here all ascetic struggle, all manifestations of asceticism are subordinated to the reality of the kingdom of Christ, bearing fruit for all in the work of love." (Seckler, quoted in A Defense of Monasticism by Metropolitan Anastassy.)

      We cannot all attain sanctity but we all can-and must strive towards it. May the life and legacy of this great Saint of Russia inspire us to raise our spiritual aspirations and step boldly onto the path to holiness. Individually, collectively, we, too, can make a difference

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