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Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh - Pachomius the Serb's  autograph

Spiritual Leader of Russia

Several generations of the Russians have been brought up by moral values that were highlights of St. Sergius of Radonezh's life. Moral principles have always been necessary to every person, and, in a general sense, morality is the same at all times and for all people. So Sergius of Radonezh is not only the patron saint of Russia, he also guides us on our life and helps in the search for our own spiritual path.

Sergius of Radonezh lived at a time when the country was gradually recovering from destruction and devastation caused by the Mongol invasion. The peaceful life was still interrupted by violent raids of the Golden Horde upon Russian cities. In the second quarter of the 14th century, there began a period of particularly strong development of monasteries in Russia. The new monastic communities differs from those existed in Russia before the Golden Yoke. In Kievan Rus', monasteries were located in cities or nearby suburbs. After cities were destroyed, most of the monasteries fell into disrepair. Monks were attracted to the isolated life of hermits and left the monasteries for the uninhabited places such as caves and forests, where they undertook the most difficult ascetic practices and became deeply immersed in prayers. The devout hermits gave an example of even greater seclusion from the world than Kiev ascetics.

New ascetic communities were springing up aroud Russia. In Novgorod region unaffected by the the Golden Yoke, there was founded the Valaam Monastery located on the isolated island in Lake Ladoga. Bishop Dionysius, an inspirer of the creation of the famous Laurentian Codex, established the Pskov-Caves Monastery where hermits settled in local caves. But the most striking representative and spiritual leader of the new monasticism became St. Sergius of Radonezh.

Under the Protection of the Holy Trinity

The main source of biographical facts about St. Sergius of Radonezh is «The Life» - one of the most famous Old Russian landmarks, that was a favorite hagiographic book to read.

St. Sergius (born Bartholomew) was a son of the Rostov nobleman Cyril, who moved with his family from the principality of Rostov ravaged by Ivan I of Moscow to the city of Radonezh near Moscow. «The Life» describes two mystical incidents which revealed the protection of the Holy Trinity. One occurred before the birth of the saint - in the womb, the baby cried three times during the liturgy. The other event happened when he was a child. Bartholomew had much difficulty learning to read. He miraculously gains the ability to learn quickly and comprehend of the dogmas of theology, after an encounter with a mysterious holy elder who blessed him.

Upon his parents' death, Bartholomew found his destined path - he went to the Monastery of the Intercession in Khotkovo near Moscow, where his older brother Stefan was a monk. He persuaded Stefan to seek for a place for reclusion from the world. The brothers found such a place to live the ascetic life in the desert forest at Makovets , about 15 km from Radonezh and 10 km from Khotkovo. In 1345, they built a small wooden church in honor of the Trinity.

So St. Sergius of Radonezh began a tradition of dedicating Russian churches to the Holy Trinity. This is hardly accidental. The Doctrine of the Trinity, representing God to be trinity in unity, was a religious embodiment of the idea of unity of the people that was realized by contemporaries as the barest necessity of the time.

The present Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, constructed of blocks of white stone in 1422, replaced the wooden Trinity Church over which it was built. The relics of St. Sergius are held in this cathedral. The greatest icon painters of medieval Russia, Andrei Rublev and Daniil Chyorny decorated the cathedral with icons and frescoes. The world celebrated icon Holy Trinity placed in the center of the Trinity Cathedral's iconostasis, was painted by Andrei Rublev, as Chronicles state, 'in praise of his Father Sergius'.

From a Hermit's Life to a Monactic Community

Unlike ancient Christians practiced asceticism in the Egyptian Thebaid, Russian hermits had to do a lot of hard manual labour under harish climatic conditions. Unable to bear the hardship of the solitary life, Stefan left his younger brother and moved to the Theophany Monastery in Moscow. But soon, Bartholomew was visited by the holy monk Mitrofan from whose hands he received the tonsure and the religious name Sergius. However, after a short time, Mitrofan returned to Hotkovo and only occasionally called on St. Sergius.

«The Life» eloquently narrates about the anchorite's asceticism and about the terrible "demonic temptations" and St. Sergius' all-embracing love. Every day a bear came to his cell, and Venerable Sergius shared his piece of bread with him.

Over time, other monks started coming to him to settle in the wild forest. Each built his own cell and planted his own vegetable garden. All of them gathered in the church for a common prayer. They asked Sergius to become their Father Superior, and he was ordained priest. «The Life» emphasizes not so much his rigid asceticism, but deepest humbleness and mildness of Father Superior Sergius. He once himself built an entrance-room in a cell of one of the monks to earn some loaves.

About 1355, Patriarch Philotheus sent a mission from Constantinople to visit St. Sergius. They handed him a letter from Patriarch of Constantinople, in which Philotheus recommended him to form a community in the monastery. After receiving a blessing from Moscow Metropolitan Alexei, the new community was established. St. Sergius carried not only spiritual responsibility, but also the entire burden of administrative and economic caries.

Sergius of Radonezh restored the type of Russian monastery, which had been formed in Kievan Rus in the 11th century, but was forgotten in the 14th century. In addition to the Trinity Monastery, St. Sergius and his disciples founded dozens of monastic communities. Among them are the Andronikov Monastery of the Saviour on the Yauza River , the Simonov Monastery on the Moskva River , the monasteries in Serpukhov, on the Kerzhach River and other.

Peacemaker and Gatherer of the Russian Lands

St. Sergius of Radonezh selflessly made the difficult step from the solitary to communal life for the sake of others. Another, even more sacrificial step of the saint was his effective pastoral service to the laymen. According to a strict hagiographic canon, the «Life» does not contain information of St. Sergius' salutary influence on the socio-political situation in the critical moments of Russian history. But historical records and chronicles have preserved the precious evidences of the saint's selfless devotion to his duties in the secular world.

Sergius of Radonezh's spiritual authority was extremely high. Grand Prince of Moscow and princes of other principalities came to his monastery for advice and blessing. Frequently, he left his beloved cloister for Moscow or other cities to baptize princely children. Metropolitan Alexei who had an enormous influence on the secular power, entrusted him important tasks to make peace between princes.

In 1365, Metropolitan Alexei sent St. Sergius in Nizhny Novgorod to resolve disagreements accompanying the gathering of the Russian lands under the leadership of Moscow.

The saint not only imposed a penance on the disobedient Prince of Nizhny Novgorod, but firmly took unprecedented measures to force Prince Boris to submit to the authority of Grand Prince: St. Sergius «closed» all churches in Nizhny Novgorod.

In 1385, St. Sergius played the role of an ambassador from Dimitry of the Don to his worst enemy Oleg of Ryazan. The result of this mission was the marriage of a daughter of Grand Prince with a son of Prince Oleg, that put an end to a bloody feud.

Seer of a Great Victory

St. Sergius of Radonezh blessed Prince Dmitry of Moscow to struggle against the Golden Horde. The Battle of Kulikovo took place on 8 September 1380 and contributed to the integration of the Russian regions. «The Life» tells the story of how the saint, foreseeing a victory, sent a letter to Prince Dmitry to notify him. The messenger managed to deliver it to the Russian army before the start of the battle. However, more recent sources such as chronicles, military novels and stories recount about the role of St. Sergius in these events more detailly.

According to more recent sources, St. Sergius not only blessed Prince of Moscow to fight, but delegated two monk-warriors to help him. They were Peresvet and Oslabia, who were 'well trained in military affairs and could command the army regiments, they also had the strength and boldness, and courage' and became heroes of the Battle of Kulikovo. Sergius of Radonezh blessed the feat of defending the fatherland. The duel between Peresvet against the Tatar champion Temir Morza (known as Chelubei) before the battle of Kulikovo is depicted in the celebrated paintings by the artists V. Vasnetsov and M. Avilov. The duel is also portrayed in the famous Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible of the 16th century.

Chronicle reported that on the eve of the battle, the messenger from the Holy Trinity Monastery handed to Prince Dmitry bread baked at the monastery and the letter of St. Sergius, 'Without any doubt, go against them, and God and the Holy Trinity will help you'. During all the fight, St. Sergius prayed unceasingly and his inner eye saw the battlefield, he named the fallen soldiers killed on the Don to the brethren. Today, the Kulikovo Field is a museum complex including a memorial church in honour of St. Sergius of Radonezh, which was errected in 1913-1918 by the famous architect Alexey Shchusev.

Harmony of Spiritual Achievements and Service for People

The «Life» tells the story of the many miracles of the saint and his visions. Sergius of Radonezh was the first Russian saint to see a vision of the Blessed Virgin. Wonders and miraculous apparitions described in the «Life» are signs of spiritual achievements of the ascetic. St. Sergius of Radonezh harmoniously combined the incompatible: detachment from the world and sacrificial service for the public good. Howerver, all worldly concerns still have less significance for him than spiritual struggle. The «Life» narrates that Metropolitan Alexius, before his death, asked St. Sergius to become his successor, but Sergius of Radonezh declined.

A spiritual follower and younger «companion» of St. Sergius was St. Cyril of Beloozero (died in 1427). The «Life of St. Cyril» reported about their private meetings. Cyril became a monk in the Simonov Monastery founded by St. Sergius of Radonezh. When St. Sergeius visited the Simonov monastery, he first came to Cyril with whom he spoke for hours about "the benefits for the soul".

We also can communicate with St. Sergius of Radonezh when viewing «Holy Trinity» painted by Andrei Rublev in honour of the saint. Looking at it, we plung into the atmosphere of endless meditation, get deeply absorbed in thoughts and feel an extraordinary inflow of joy and purity.