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St Sergius of Radonezh

St Sergius of Radonezh

St Sergius is a figure of major significance. He is described as 'the Teacher and Mentor of the Russian land". His life was recorded by one of his followers, Ephiphanius the Wise (in about 1417-18), subsequently adapted by Pachomius the Serb (in 1470), of which there are at least three versions. He is mentioned 12 times in early Russian chronicles and is recorded in 7 different official documents.

He was born 1314 in Rostov to noble and devout parents and given the name Bartholomew. He was a slow pupil at school, but was, according to the tradition, miraculously enabled to read after an encounter with a starets.

As a young man he cared for his parents and then, when they died, moved about 3 hours walking distance from Radonezh (where the family had fled after Rostov had been attacked) into the forest, where he - with Stefan, one of his brothers - built a cell in which to live and a church which he dedicated to the Trinity (the present Trinity Cathedral in Sergiev Posad replaced the first wooden Trinity church in 1422).

He became a monk, with the name Sergius, when he was 23. His brother left to take up other duties, but the reputation of St Sergius for holiness, miracles and wisdom spread, and people flocked to him. Many stayed, building their own cells and gardens, but coming together for prayer in the church. A community was formed, and over time monks went out from the monastery and established 40 other communities, in what has been called the monastic colonisation of Northern Russia.

Metropolitan Alexei of Moscow honoured him and chose him as his successor, but Sergius refused. Nevertheless, he appears to have had a significant role in bringing the warring Russian principalities together to make peace and to unite under Moscow. The manuscripts indicate that he had the authority to close churches in those cities where the rulers refused to submit to Moscow. He blessed Dmitri Donskoy, ruler of Moscow, when he went to fight the Tatars in what became known as the Battle of Kulikovo field (1380) with the words, 'Go fearlessly, prince, and believe in God's help'.

Below are highlighted three of the many strands which come together in his Life: his harmony with nature, his significance in shaping community life and his ascetic lifestyle.

He is known for being at harmony with nature.

We are told of how he at first feared the wild beasts in the forest but later came to regularly share his bread with a bear; of how he had a vision of a flock of beautiful birds and of how he taught peasants better methods for cultivating the soil. 

He shaped an understanding of community life.

St Sergius dedicated the church that he built to the Holy Trinity. That was unusual for the time, and it is because of him that 'the cult' of the Trinity develops, with many churches subsequently being named after the Trinity. The emphasis on the Trinity, three persons, unique and independent, but of one being (ousia), and being together in complete freedom and harmony becomes the basis of a vision of a community life. Monks and peasants gathered freely together around the new monastery, and lived as independent agents (there is a rugged pioneer individualism about the first monks) but who came together for prayer and willingly submitted to 'the rule' of the abbot - which, in turn, was shaped by the canonical rules of the wider Church and the needs of the individuals in the community.

In an article, Sergiy Radonezhsky. Russian Path to Solidarity Vladimir Milkov writes,
"Built on the principles of collectivism and mutual assistance, the monasteries revived communal principles and demonstrated how striving for unity could solve important problems. Sergius' method for instituting monastery reforms presented a model for interpersonal relationships in communal labor, moderation, mutual assistance, service to God and the state. For the surrounding world and laymen, ‘coenobyte living became an ideal basis of the world order’ [Клибанов, с. 98], epitomizing a positive and attainable example of unity." 
Perhaps the best known illustration of the envisaged community life is to be found in Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity, which was originally in the Trinity Church in Sergiev Posad, and which was 'written' only 30 years or so after the death of St Sergius.

Pavel Florensky, (who was executed in 1937 for not revealing to the Soviet authorities where the relics of St Sergius had been hidden) writes about this icon:
"Among the powerful circumstances of the time, among the feuds, the international discord, the universal savagery and Tatar raids, amid this deep peacelessness that corrupted Rus, opened a spiritual glance into an infinite, unflappable, indestructible peace, ‘the upper world’. Enmity and hatred that prevailed in the lower world, was opposed to mutual love, flowing in eternal harmony, in eternal silent conversation, in the eternal unity of the upper worlds" (Флоренский П. А. Троице-Сергиева лавра и Россия p19; as cited by Milkov)
Milkov adds,
"Rublev's icon inspired the thought that celestial unity can be a blueprint for earthly unity, and the the world's feuds can be overcome with kindness, humanity and solidarity based on love. He gave an answer to the question of how one should live"
According to his Life, the reason that the monks asked Sergius to become their abbot was not his strict asceticism, but his gentleness and meekness. He was lenient with monks who broke the community rules, not punishing them but asking them to correct themselves through humility and meekness.
"And he loved everybody equally and respected equally, neither choosing, nor judging, nor looking at peoples faces" (The Life of St Sergius).
He is known for his ascetic lifestyle.

St Sergius lived for the 'heavenly Jerusalem' and not for the things of this world. He rejected precious gifts. He prayed constantly, struggled with the demons, and worked hard for all his life. He would often speak about how we need to struggle to attain holiness (cf Philippians 3) .
"If you want to serve God, prepare your heart not for food, not for drink, not for rest, not for ease, but for suffering, so that you may endure all temptations, trouble and sorrow."
"God's grace cannot be given without trials; after tribulation comes joy". 

At the end of his life
"He made them [the community] promise to be steadfast in Orthodoxy and to preserve oneness in mind with each other; to keep pure in body and soul and to have unhypocritical love; to avoid all evil and carnal lusts; to be moderate in food and drink; above all, to be clothed with humility; not to forget love of strangers; to avoid back-talk, and on no account to set value on honor and praise in this life, but rather to await reward from God in the joys of heaven and eternal blessings."
St Sergius died on 25 September 1392. 

His relics were restored to the Church of the Holy Trinity in Sergiev Posad in 1946, and today they attract thousands of visitors.


Pachomius the Serb and his Autograph of the life of St Sergius
Sergiy Radonezhsky. Russian Path to Solidarity, Vladimir Milkov


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