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Saga of a Saint

Did a young monk know that by following his faith he would leave his mark on history?

St. Sergius of Radonezh, an Orthodox monk who became one of the most powerful religious figures in Russia, was born on 3 May 1314 in the Russian town of Rostov. Baptized Bartholomew, he was the pious son of a wealthy boyar, or nobleman, who lost his wealth late in life and retired to a monastery. His wife, Bartholomew’s mother, retired to a convent at the same time.

Young Bartholomew grew up in a turbulent era. The region destined to become the Russian nation consisted of independent city-states whose princes fought incessantly with each other. Tartars, a fierce Central Asian tribe who had first invaded Russia during the 13th century, continued to reinforce their control with frequent incursions. Russian princes were forced to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Tartar khans, who sent tax gatherers to collect tribute from these vanquished rulers; they in turn collected tribute from less powerful Russians such as Bartholomew’s father. Otherwise, the Tartars appear to have left the princes alone. Historians note there was practically no intermarriage, no religious persecution and no confiscation of lands or estates.

Throughout this period, the leaders of the city-states, particularly Moscow, Novgorod, Pskov and Tver, vied for supremacy. Eventually, Moscow emerged the victor. When Rostov fell into the hands of the Grand Duke of Moscow, its princes and boyars were deprived of power, property and rank. Bartholomew’s newly impoverished father fled with his family from Rostov to Radonezh.

In 1336, following the deaths of their parents, Bartholomew and his elder brother, Stephen, who was a monk, established a hermitage in the forests near Radonezh. Together they erected a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity and began their life of labor and prayer. Stephen, however, daunted by the hardships they encountered, soon left this isolated retreat and traveled to Moscow, where he entered the Monastery of the Epiphany. There he met the future Metropolitan Alexei, who was then leading a quiet monastic life. Alexei would one day assume responsibility for the Russian Church and soon after his death would be canonized a saint.

Despite his fervor, Bartholomew had not yet taken monastic vows. As a child, he had encountered many difficulties in learning to read and write, unlike his brother Stephen, a bright student who mastered the Scriptures early in life. In contrast, Bartholomew enjoyed manual labor and had an aptitude for handicrafts, skills he found useful in his solitary life. The young hermit nevertheless approached the abbot of a nearby monastery for instruction in monastic life and, on 7 October 1337, at the age of 23, he was tonsured a monk. Because he was tonsured on the feast of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, he received the name Sergius. The future saint then returned to his solitary retreat.

There are many legends about St. Sergius’ life as a hermit. It is said that he wrestled with demons; it is said that he lived unharmed among wild beasts. Perhaps the most charming legend relates that a bear would visit St. Sergius daily and he would give the beast a slice of bread. If he had only one slice of bread, the saintly hermit would give it to the bear. If there was no bread, both he and the bear went hungry.

No one knows how long St. Sergius lived alone in his forest wilderness; what is known is that eventually other monks joined him. With their arrival, Trinity Monastery, destined to become the foremost Russian center for religious renewal and a symbol of national identity, began to take form. The nascent monastery needed an abbot. At the brother’s insistence St. Sergius traveled to the town of Pereislavl, where the bishop ordained him a priest and appointed him abbot. When he returned to Trinity, the community, including the abbot, numbered 13 monks.

The small community slowly grew as men, drawn by St. Sergius’ reputation for asceticism, miracle-working and compassion for the poor, entered monastic life. By 1354, Trinity Monastery – believed to be the first religious house in Russia named after the Trinity – had become a center for missionary activities in northern Russia, establishing as many as 75 dependent monasteries. Moreover, St. Sergius’ doctrine of communal life and his social programs (he taught the peasants better methods of farming) had made him one of Russia’s most respected spiritual leaders.

Among the many miracles attributed to St. Sergius are two that achieved lasting fame. It is said that when the only child of a devout Christian man who lived nearby became ill, the father brought the boy to the saint and asked for his prayers. While the distraught father was talking, his child died and was laid in the abbot’s cell. The father left to prepare for the burial; the saint went in to pray over the dead child. Suddenly the boy came to life and began to move. On his return, the father found his young son alive. The astonished father flung himself at St. Sergius’ feet and thanked him profusely.

The abbot reportedly told the grateful father that his son had not really died; the bitter cold had frozen the child and the warmth of the abbot’s cell had revived him. According to St. Sergius, no one who had really died could come back to life until the Day of Resurrection.

A second miracle involved a man afflicted by an evil spirit whose relatives brought him to the monastery. When the monks gathered and sang the “Te Deum,” the possessed man grew calmer. With the help of the saint’s prayers, he recovered and was restored to his right mind.

The abbot’s life was not without problems. His brother Stephen had come to Trinity Monastery in 1355. As the elder brother in a feudal society, Stephen had authority over St. Sergius, but in religious life the tables were turned. As abbot, St. Sergius had authority over Stephen, who envied his younger brother. It could also be argued that Stephen was the true founder of Trinity Monastery, since he, not St. Sergius, had been priest and monk when the two brothers established the original hermitage.

Moreover, some monks were dissatisfied with the Spartan rule of the monastery, with its emphasis on asceticism, contemplation, manual labor and poverty, and turned to Stephen for leadership. The rule, which had its roots in the Byzantine Church, was relatively new to Russian monasticism. In some monasteries, the monks owned property and maintained themselves by private means; in others, the monks engaged in trade. At Trinity Monastery, however, possessions were shared, property was held by all and the monks engaged in liturgical and contemplative prayer, self-denial and rigorous manual labor, depending on the charity of the populace for support. This monastic lifestyle, established at Trinity Monastery by St. Sergius, was endorsed by the Byzantine Church, which had seized the opportunities for communication made possible by the establishment of trade routes and had formed strong ties with the Russian Church. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheos, first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy, sent his personal blessing as a sign of favor to St. Sergius and the monks of Trinity.

To avoid dissension, St. Sergius left Trinity Monastery and asked Metropolitan Alexei for permission to build a church near the Kerzhach River dedicated to the Annunciation of the Immaculate and Blessed Virgin, Mother of God. As men began to join him, a second monastic community formed. The monks at Trinity Monastery, however, petitioned Alexei to send St. Sergius back to them. The Metropolitan acceded to their request and ordered St. Sergius to return, promising that those monks who were dissatisfied with his leadership would be removed from the monastery. After choosing an abbot for the second community, St. Sergius returned to Trinity.

Another, more significant challenge awaited the saintly abbot. Amidst rumors and fears of a new Tartar invasion, Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoy of Moscow was trying to unite the scattered Russian principalities under his authority. With this end in mind, he sent St. Sergius on several diplomatic missions. Prince Dmitri then asked St. Sergius if he should go against the heathen Tartars. Departing from the traditional nonviolent stance of Russian Orthodoxy, the saint advised the prince to challenge the Tartars and predicted that the Russian forces would be victorious.

In 1380, Prince Dmitri, spurred on by St. Sergius’ exhortation and blessed by a holy icon depicting the Mother of God, led the assembled Russian forces in repelling both Tartar and Mongol armies at Kulikovo, a plain south of Moscow by the Don River. As a result, St. Sergius was hailed as “Protector of Russia,” a title he holds to this day.

At this point, the aging abbot was only 12 years away from death. His fervor seemed to grow, however, as his body weakened; he continued to fast, work and celebrate the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. In September 1392 he fell seriously ill and on 25 September, at the age of 78, he died.

For most of the 14th century, during a period of violence, disorder and moral disintegration, St. Sergius, with his personal sanctity and ascetic rule, was a source of inspiration to the Russian people. As a major leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was also a significant unifying force. His mentor, Metropolitan Alexei, educated Prince Dmitri Donskoy and, flouting Tartar domination, helped the prince end the feudal quarrels that divided the Russian city-states. It was Metropolitan Alexei who urged Prince Dmitri to consult St. Sergius.

Monasteries were centers of education that helped preserve the Russian national identity during the Tartar occupation and Trinity Monastery was certainly the most influential. By establishing daughter monasteries and monastic schools, St. Sergius contributed profoundly to Russia’s recovery following the ravages of the Mongol invasions.

Trinity Monastery also shaped Russian monasticism by introducing a new kind of communal life in which property was held in common; its saintly abbot’s teachings inspired an oral tradition that strongly influenced Russian spirituality. By adopting the monastic life and founding new monasteries throughout northern Russia, St. Sergius and his disciples also contributed to the colonization and development of the region. Trinity Monastery soon became a center of Russian culture. By the 15th century, the monastery had its own literary tradition and within its walls the talent of famed icon-writer Andrei Rubliev was nurtured.

In 1920, the Bolsheviks closed the monastery and turned it into a state museum. Ten years later, the Soviets named the town in which it was located Zagorsk in honor of an obscure secretary of the Moscow Party Committee, Vladimir Zagorsky. In 1946, with a softening of the official attitude toward religion, Trinity again became a working monastery. Some 150 monks, together with 1,000 seminarians, presently live, work and pray there. The seminary, founded in 1742, remains the principal Russian Orthodox theologate.

Today, Trinity Monastery is once again a beacon of faith to the Russian people. Pilgrims seeking their cultural roots and religious identity flock to the newly renamed town of Sergei Posad (two hours north of Moscow by commuter train) that surrounds the monastery’ fortified walls. Now free of Communist restraints, Trinity Monastery welcomes the faithful. They come to revere their beloved saint, whose remains lie within the monastery walls, to pray and to reestablish their Christian faith, wounded but not destroyed by 70 years of Communist rule.

Sergei Bassehes, a Russian émigré, is a classical musician, scholar and translator.

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