07 October 2009

'He Filled the Wilderness with Ceaseless Prayer'—St Sergius of Radonezh

Today, 25 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Sergius of Radonezh (1313-1392), Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery and a ‘great ascetic and light of the Rusian Church’ (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 373). Helene Iswolsky refers to St Sergius as ‘one of Russia’s greatest saints’, ‘who possessed to the highest degree the heroic virtues’ (Christ in Russia: The History, Tradition, and Life of the Russian Church [Milwaukee: The Bruce, 1960], pp. 55, 56). James Billington calls St Sergius the ‘central figure in the monastic revival and in the unification of Russia during the fourteenth century’ (The Icon & the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [NY: Vintage, 1970], p. 50). Ivan Kontzevitch calls him ‘the great Elder of the Russian land’, and credits him as one of ‘the founders of a new epoch of spiritual rebirth and the restoration of the inward activity (the true Orthodox spiritual life), which had grown weak or been all but forgotten owing to the Tatar incursions’ (‘Introduction: Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia’, The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North, rev. ed., ed. and trans. Hieromonks Seraphim [Rose] and Herman [Podmoshensky] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995], p. 1).

Along with two brothers, Stephen and Peter, St Sergius was born to pious parents, Cyril and Mary, and baptised with the name Bartholomew. The young man had great difficulty learning to read, and ‘often prayed to God in secret and with many tears: “O Lord, give me understanding of this learning. Teach me, Lord, enlighten and instruct me.” His reverence for God prompted him to pray that he might receive knowledge from God and not from men’ (Epiphanius the Wise, ‘The Life, Acts, and Miracles of our Blessed and Holy Father Sergius of Radonezh’, trans. Nicholas Zernov, Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, rev. and enlarged ed., ed. Serge A. Zenkovsky [NY: Meridian, 1974], pp. 262-3).

One day, having been sent out to look for a lost foal, the young Bartholomew came across ‘a monk, a venerable elder, a stranger, a priest, with the appearance of an angel . . . standing beneath an oak tree, praying devoutly and with much shedding of tears’ (p. 263). When he completed his prayers, the Elder asked Bartholomew what he was seeking. The latter replied that he wanted more than anything else ‘to understand the Holy Scriptures’ and asked the Elder to pray that God would give him ‘understanding of book learning’ (p. 263). The old man prayed accordingly, then gave the boy ‘what appeared to be a little bit of antidoron or prosphora, saying, “Take this in your mouth, child, and eat; this is given you as a sign of God’s grace and for the understanding of Holy Scriptures. Though the gift appears but small, the taste thereof is very sweet’ (Northern Thebaid, pp. 17-8). Indeed, it tasted to the boy like honey, and he replied, ‘Is it not of this that it is written, How sweet are Thy Words to my palate, more than honey to my lips, and My soul doth cherish them exceedingly? (Ps 118:103, 167)’ (NT, p. 18). The Elder told him ‘from this time forth the Lord will give you learning above that of your brothers and others your own age’ and ‘instructed him for the profit of his soul’ (NT, p. 18).

In gratitude, the boy entreated the Elder to accompany him home for a meal, where the latter took Bartholomew to the chapel and told him to read the Psalms. ‘Whereupon, to the astonishment of all present, the boy, receiving the monk’s blessing, began to recite in excellent rhythm; and from that hour he could read’ (Medieval Russia’s, p. 264). After the meal, the Elder rose to leave, prophesying, ‘Rather rejoice and be glad, for the boy will be great before God and man, thanks to his life of godliness’ and ‘pronouncing a dark saying that their son would serve the Holy Trinity and would lead many to an understanding of the divine precepts’ (MR, p. 264). Finally, the Elder became invisible, and the parents wondered if he had been angel sent solely in order to give Bartholomew ‘knowledge of reading’ (MR, p. 264). ‘After this the boy could read and immediately understand any book, was submissive to his parents, attended church services daily, studied holy writings, and constantly disciplined his body and preserved himself in purity of body and soul’ (NT, p. 18).

Soon, the boy asked his father’s blessing to leave for the eremitical life, but was told to wait until his parents had passed away, which he gladly did. Upon their death, after the forty days, he gave his inheritance to his younger brother Peter, found his older brother Stephen at the monastery where the latter retired after the death of his wife, and headed into the forests. The two brothers built some cells and a chapel, which they dedicated to the Holy Trinity having recalled a sign from before the Saint’s birth that he ‘would be a disciple of the Blesed Trinity’ (MR, p. 266). Unfortunately, Stephen soon found the desert life too difficult and, retiring to a coenobitic monastery in Moscow, there lived a ‘godly life’ (MR, p. 267).

Bartholomew was soon visited by an Elder Mitrofan, who tonsured him into the monastic life on 7 October, the feast of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, thus giving the twenty-three year-old anchorite the name ‘Sergius’. According to Epiphanius:

Blessed Sergius, the newly tonsured monk partook of the Holy Sacrament and received Grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. From one whose witness is true and sure, we are told that when Sergius partook of the Holy Sacrament the chapel was filled with a sweet odor; and not only in the chapel, but all around was the same fragrant smell. The saint remained in the chapel seven days, touching no food other than one consecrated loaf [prosphora] given him by the abbot, refusing all else and giving himself up to fasting and prayer, having on his lips the Psalms of David. (MR, p. 268)

It was a much-needed fortification for the trials that were to come in the desert solitude. As Epiphanius goes on to write:

Who can recount his labors? Who can number the trials he endured living alone in the wilderness?

Under different forms and from time to time the devil wrestled with the saint, but the demons beset St Sergius in vain; no matter what visions they evoked, they failed to overcome the firm and fearless spirit of the ascetic. (MR, p. 268)

Like the desert Saints of old, St Sergius was visited by wild animals who behaved towards him with the natural reverence of the beasts towards our Forefather Adam in Paradise. A bear used to come to him for bread, and St Sergius would lovingly share whenever he had some. According to Epiphanius, ‘Sometimes, although there was but one slice of bread, the saint gave it to the bear, being unwilling to disappoint him of his food’ (MR, p. 269). Concerning St Sergius’s spiritual life at this time, we read:

Often the Saint occupied himself with the reading of holy books [i.e., the Scriptures], nourishing thus every virtue in himself, and by understanding what was hidden in them he inspired his mind to desire the treasures of eternal good things. He never weakened in his fervor for the silent, undisturbed life of the wilderness, remaining alone with God. (NT, p. 21)

Eventually, however, disciples came, and the hermitage became a skete, St Sergius joining the newcomers in the chapel for the full cycle of daily services.

The Saint built four cells with his own hands and performed other monastic duties at the request of the brethren. The monastery came to be a wonderful place to look upon. The forest was not far away, and the shade and murmur of trees hung above the cells; around the church was a space of trunks and stumps, and in other spaces there were garden beds, where many kinds of vegetables were grown.

The Saint flayed and ground grain, baked bread and cooked food, cut out shoes and clothing and stitched them; he drew water from the spring nearby, carrying it in two pails on his shoulders, and put water in each cell. He spent the night in prayer, without sleep, eating only bread and water, and those in small quantities. He never spent an idle hour. Remaining thus in ceaseless prayer and labors, he completely wore out and refined his flesh, having the constant desire to be a citizen of the Jerusalem that is above. (NT, p. 22)

Eventually, St Sergius yielded to the entreaties of the monks to be made their abbot. Accordingly, he was ordained to the holy priesthood and elevated to the rank of abbot, celebrating the liturgy and hearing the brothers’ confessions daily. For a time, the brotherhood under St Sergius remained twelve in number, but eventually, the community began to increase, the monks being joined by the renowned archimandrite Simon and the Saint’s brother Stephen’s younger son, Ivan, who was promptly tonsured with the name ‘Theodore’ (MR, pp. 272-3). Epiphanius describes, too, how the area around the monastery was gradually settled as well, the trees being cut down and laymen building houses and eventually a whole village around the monks, ‘and visitors came to the monastery bringing their countless offerings’ (MR, p. 274).

One day the saint, in accordance with his usual rule, was keeping vigil and praying for the brotherhood late at night when he heard a voice calling: ‘Sergius!’ He was astonished, and opening the window of the cell he beheld a wondrous vision. A great radiance shone in the heavens; the night sky was illumined by its brilliance, exceeding the light of day. A second time the voice called: ‘Sergius! Thou prayest for thy children; God has heard thy prayer. See and behold great numbers of monkss gathered together in the name of the Everlasting Trinity, in thy fold, and under thy guidance.’

The saint looked and beheld a multitude of beautiful birds, flying not only on to the monastery, but all around; and he heard a voice saying: ‘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.’ (MR, p. 279-80)

As the numbers grew, so did the fame of the monastery and its abbot, and so too did the need for greater structure. Accordingly, there soon came a delegation of Greeks from Constantinople, bearing gifts from the great hesychast Patriarch, the disciple and biographer of St Gregory Palamas, St Philotheus Kokkinos. St Philotheus had written a letter to the Russian abbot, blessing him, praising and glorifying God for the report of St Sergius’s ‘godly life’, and finally, urging him to institute a coenobitic rule (p. 280). This the Saint did, in humble obedience. Besides this connection with St Philotheus, and that with the other figure Kontzevitch credits with co-founding with St Sergius the ‘monastic blossoming in northeastern Russia’ (NT, p. 1), St Alexis, Metropolitan of Moscow, St Sergius was closely connected to one of Russia’s great missionaries, St Stephen of Perm (on whom see this post), ‘a god-fearing and devout man, [who] had for St Sergius a deep spiritual affection’ (MR, p. 283).

Although the historicity of the story has been questioned in modern times (for example, by John Fennell, who concludes that with St Sergius ‘the spiritual outweighed the political’, A History of the Russian Church to 1448 [London: Longman, 1995], p. 239), Russian tradition affirms with Epiphanius that St Sergius blessed the ‘puissant and reigning prince, who held the scepter of all Russia, great Dmitry [Donskoi]’, to fight and defeat the Tatar hordes at the battle of Kulikovo (1380). St Sergius is said to have told the Grand Prince, ‘It behooveth you, lord, to have a care for the lives of the flock committed to you by God. Go forth against the heathen; and upheld by the strong arm of God, conquer; and return to your country sound in health, and glorify God with loud praise’ (MR, p. 284). According to Epiphanius:

They fought; many fell; but God was with them, and helped the great and invincible Dmitry, who vanquished the ungodly Tatars. In that same hour the saint was engaged with his brethren before God in prayer for victory over the pagans. Within an hour of the final defeat of the ungodly, the saint, who was a seer, announced to the brotherhood what had happened, the victory, the courage of the Grand Duke Dmitry, and the names, too, of those who had died at the hands of the pagans, and he made intercession for them to all-merciful God. (MR, p. 284)

One day when St Sergius had been praying and sat down to rest with his disciple, Micah, he heard a voice announcing the Theotokos, and hurried into the corridor outside his cell. There he saw the Panagia with the Apostles Peter and John shining with ‘ineffable glory’, blessing him and promising her blessing and protection over the monastery. According to Epiphanius the Saint was ‘so filled with ecstasy that his face glowed therewith’. When Micah tried to ask what had happened, St Sergius responded, ‘Wait a while, son, for I, too, am trembling with awe and wonder at this miraculous vision’ (MR, p. 287).

St Sergius received a premonition of his death six months in advance, convening the brethren to appoint a successor. During his final illness, the great abbot once again called the monks to give them instructions and exhort them ‘to be steadfast in Orthodoxy’. Epiphanius writes:

As his soul was about to leave his body, he partook of the Sacred Body and Blood, supported in the arms of his disciples and, raising his hands to heaven, with a prayer on his lips, he surrendered his pure, holy soul to the Lord, in the year 6900 (1393), September 25th, probably at the age of seventy-eight. After his death an ineffable sweet odor flowed from the saint’s body. (MR, p. 289)

Fr Seraphim’s translation observes, ‘Angels preceded him after his repose and opened for him the doors of Paradise, leading him into the desired blessedness, the repose of the righteous, the radiance of the Angels, and—what he had always desired—the illumination of the Most Holy Trinity’ (NT, p. 38). St Nicholas in the Prologue writes, ‘His community became filled with monks during his lifetime, and has served throughout the ages as one of the chief centres of spiritual life and of God’s miracles. . . . A saint is not remarkable on the surface; all his riches are internal, in his soul’ (p. 374).

According to John Fennell, St Sergius made a ‘great contribution to the history of the early Russian Church’ through ‘his profound influence on the development and spread of Russian monasticism’ (p. 239). Earlier in his Russian Church history, he writes:

The most remarkable example in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the spread of monasticism from one mother foundation is without any doubt the multiplication of monastic houses issuing from St Sergy Radonezh’s Trinity Monastery. . . .

. . . Precise numbers are hard to substantiate, but the great Russian historian Klychevsky estimated that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as many as twenty-seven hermitages and eight town monasteries sprung from Sergy’s Trinity Monastery and its offshoots. (p. 207).

Here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Sergius from the Prologue:

An example of prayerful meekness
From his youth, holy Sergius
Loved God and God's beauty,
And instilled serenity and goodness in himself.
He filled the wilderness with ceaseless prayer,
And transformed the forest into a holy place of God.
He cared not for worldly vanity,
Nor was he ever angered.
He was utterly quiet and meek with everyone,
Yet not meek toward the wicked adversary.
With the foe of God, the father of all lies,
Who seeks to devour the souls of men,
Sergius bravely waged a bitter struggle,
Tireless and powerful unto the final victory.
Thus the elder reposed, but the saint remained
As a fiery pillar for the Russian people,
Beseeching God for every blessing
And bringing blessings down from heaven to his people.
Holy Sergius, do not cease to shine,
Do not cease to pray to the Most-high God
For the good of the Church, for the good of Russia,
In the glory of Christ, O Saint Sergius!

Here is how Alvin Alexsi Currier concludes St Sergius’s story in his delightful children’s book, The Wonderful Life of Russia’s Saint Sergius of Radonezh, illust. Nadezda Glazunova (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar, 2001):

Today more than six hundred years
Have fallen like leaves from the tree of ime
Since that day long ago when St Sergius
Fell asleep in the Lord.
But like a carpet of leaves,
His life and deeds
Color and cover the course of history.
Into the forests his disciples plunged
Founding across the Russian lands
Over fifty communities before he died
And forty in the next generation.
And over the centuries
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity grew
Until today, with golden domes against the sky of blue
Still protected by the Holy Mother
It is the spiritual heart of Russia.
And with still wider circles around the globe
The whole of the Orthodox world sings:

‘Champion of virtue and warrior of Christ,
thou didst contend against earthly passions;
thou wast a model to thy disciples in vigil, chant and fasting
and the Holy Spirit came and dwelt in thee.
As thou hast boldness towards the Trinity remember thy flock
and visit thy children as thou didst promise,
O holy Father Sergius.’

(Troparion of St Sergius in the 4th Tone.)

I highly recommend that all take a look at this site, featuring amazing colour images of a 19th-c. manuscript of St Sergius’s Life.

No comments: