Michael Prokurat, Alexander Golitzin, Michael D. Peterson
The A to Z of the Orthodox Church


SERGIUS OF RADONEZH, priest-monk, ascetic, St. (ca. 1314–1392). Considered one of the greatest of Russian saints (q.v.), Sergius’s life is coterminous with Russia’s shedding of the Tartar yoke, the rise of Muscovite power, and the reestablishment of cenobitic (community) monasticism (q.v.); and he influenced all three events in particular ways. Born to nobility in Rostov and baptized Bartholomew, he fled with his family to Radonezh to lead a peasant life-all victims of the rise of the Muscovy principality at the expense of the nobility of Rostov. Of three brothers he was the slowest, and even his ability to read and write was granted as a wondrous gift from God.

During the time of the Tartar Appanage, whatever cenobitic monasticism existed in Russia had been destroyed. This might be connected with the fact that many such monasteries in the East served as defensive garrisons for urban areas, and were considered a military threat by the Tartars. In any event when Sergius, at about age twenty, and his widowed brother Stephen went out to the forested wilderness to begin their monastic life, they did so as hermits, and their skete was dedicated to the Holy Trinity (q.v.). Stephen soon left for a monastery near Moscow. But the man tonsured Sergius remained a hermit in a life reminiscent of Antony of the Desert (q.v.). He almost disappeared from sight, until his reputation inspired other disciples to gather around him, and he was ordained and made abbot of the monastery. At the site the forest was cleared, a road was beaten, and a village sprang up, and the life of seclusion was replaced by a type of frontier monasticism.

In 1354 the question arose whether individual hermits in (occasional) community or true cenobitic, communal monasticism should be the norm. Patr. Philotheus of Constantinople recommended the latter in a personal letter to Sergius. But when he complied, a division occurred, and rather than put the monks at odds with one another, Sergius quietly left to another site deeper in the forest where he founded another monastery. After four years Metr. Alexis of Moscow ordered Sergius back to Holy Trinity where he was heartily welcomed. In all, Sergius is credited with the foundation of about forty monasteries. Two of the most striking aspects of Sergius’s monastic endeavor are that his eremetic “desert” was a wild forest, and that from a human organizational point of view, he had no business succeeding-either as a hermit or as a communal monk. He not only was successful, but became a living model, not having been exposed to other examples of the types of monasticism that he epitomized.

The Tartar occupation, beginning with the first invasion in 1237, continued to suppress Russia, but was showing signs of weakness. By the 1370s many people, including heads of Church and state, consulted Sergius for advice. In fact Sergius had been offered the metropolitan see in 1378, but refused it. Among those who sought Sergius’s counsel was Prince Dmitri Donskoy of Moscow who had to decide whether to defy Khan Mamai (1367–1380) and risk the annihilation of Muscovy or continue the Appanage. Sergius blessed Dmitri’s resistance, and this resulted in the rout of the Tartars at the battle of Kulikovo Polye on 8 September 1380. Sergius sent two monks to the battle with Prince Dmitri, and the two stories of their involvement reflect two antithetical traditions about religion and war. One story reports the monks had been soldiers and were sent to fight along with the troops. Another says that the monks were sent with spiritual resources, probably Holy Communion, to minister to the spiritual needs of the soldiers-a type of forerunner to military chaplaincy.

Ironic as it may be, the boy whose family had been supplanted by the rising power of Moscow helped that principality to continue its expansion. Not only was this accomplished by the freedom gained from the Tartar yoke and the expansion of inhabited lands by the movement of monastic “frontiersmen,” but by simple, sound advice. Sergius had enough influence over all classes of society to prevent four civil wars among the Russian princes. And early Muscovite Christian tradition (q.v.) bore Sergius’s seal, disdaining internecine warfare, which allowed Moscow to centralize its power even further.

The spiritual legacy of Sergius is formidable. He was known as a clairvoyant and mystic, but not particularly for any human strength other than charity. He healed soul and body, but was not considered a popular healer. The rule of prayer (q.v.) he and his monks observed left little time other than for necessary work, but he expressed his Christian love in service to others. Sergius’s legacy continued into the 20th c. as well: When the Soviets were unable to squelch his memory and suppress his cult by closing his monastery and stealing his relics (q.v.), they reopened the monastery in 1945, restored his relics, and-with some embarrassment-proclaimed Sergius a national hero.

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