What is the Legacy of St. Sergius of Radonezh?

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Александр Моисеенков
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The saint lived in the 14th century at the time of the Mongol-Tatar rule. The invasion led to very different outcomes for Russian lands. If the European part that would later become Ukraine and Belarus regained almost total political autonomy by as early as the 1350s, the East would for many decades suffer the tyranny of the invaders. This state of affairs had seminal repercussions. The Tatars kept almost completely out of political manoeuvring of western Russian princes, limiting themselves to demanding tributes and staging raids. Eastern Russian rulers had to ask for khan’s authorisation of their policies up until the end of the 15th century. Even the Grand Princes of Moscow were not exempt from the humiliation of having their legitimacy confirmed by the invaders.

This certainly took its toll on the moral character of the ruling circles as well as the ordinary people. Cyril, who became metropolitan right after the invasion and who spent his entire life working to restore the Church, left writings that mention moral decadence more often than poverty and devastation. The Mongol rule shattered the spiritual foundations to the extent that moral status-quo reverted to pre-Baptism times.

What is worse, there were almost no monks left on the scorched land and ruin. A small number of survivors had fled deep into the forests. Few would want to follow in their steps; a people, numbed by the years of occupation, cared more about survival than lofty ideals. Those seeking monastic life would find it outside of monasteries, each in their own way, seeing that  the older monks with experience to share had been killed, and the books teaching the rules of monastic life had perished in the flames.

It is worth remembering that the lands farther east and north from Kiev took longer to baptise. This sets the stage for a real religious revolution that Sergius was to lead in remote Russian lands transforming them into a second centre of Orthodoxy. Sergius’ efforts produced a magnificent and unparalleled flourishing of monastic life in Eastern Russia.

"Venerable Sergius of Radonezh", Mikhail Nesterov (1898)

He started by staging a rethink of the essence of monastic living. A popular notion held that tonsure was equal to salvation or baptism and the one tonsured was believed to have been redeemed and cleansed of all sins. It was for that reason that a practice would long persist for princes and boyars to be tonsured on their deathbed. Saint Sergius restored Kievan Rus’ best monastic traditions and lived to uphold the true understanding of monasticism. For all the reverend fathers before and after Sergius, tonsure was not second baptism or a ticket to heaven or guarantee of salvation; it was a chance for an ongoing purification of sins granted by the cross. It was a cross of obedience reaching complete self-abdication. It was up to the monk to use or lose this chance.

Sergius’ era gave rise to a great number of saints. His direct disciples were twenty monks who between them founded 40 monasteries. This monasteries, in turn, produced new novices who would found around 50 monastic communities leading to a closely connected network of small and large monasteries springing up in the north of the country between the 14th and the 16th centuries. One of Sergius’ disciples, Abraham of Galich, alone founded four monasteries. Without exaggeration, Sergius is the hegumen of all Russia, the inspiration and, in many respects, the creator of northern Russian monasticism.

"Saint Sergius' labours (central part of the triptych)  Mikhail Nesterov, 1896-1897

In the period described monasteries would be established in the following pattern. A hermit would go into the woods in search of a secluded place for prayer. Others would join him over time to form a monastery. The senior, by then weary of his fame, would leave in search of a more deserted place where all would begin again. In a different pattern, a cenobite would be granted the holy blessing to leave his monastery and found a new one in a different place. Princes and rich people built monasteries as well, but monastic life was established by monks steeled by the hardships of secluded living.

The 15th century is considered the begining of the Golden Age of Russian monasticism. The 14th and the 15th centuries were marked by the endeavours of the likes of Demetrius of Priluki, Cyril of Cholma, Alexander of the Kushta, Stephen of Makhrish, Alexander Kushtsky, Stephen of Perm, Pachomius of the Nerekhta, Dionysius of Suzdal, Sergius of Nurom, Cyril of Belozersk, Sabbatius of Solovki and Andrei Rublev. The list can go on, but it will still fail to include all those monks whose names are lost to time or who chose to remain unknown out of humility. Many monks shared the bonds of friendship throughout their lives and served the people as well as God.

A close reading of their lives reveals a desire to help those around. A Russian monk was always loyal to his country, and even though he would relinquish any wordly ties, he was not a stranger to world or its ills. In pursuit of lofty spiritual aspirations, he still cared for his people and pray for them.

"St Sergius Blessing Prince Dmitry Donskoi Before the Kulikovo Battle", Mikhail Nesterov (sketch, 1898-1899)

When by the 15th century Russia had begun overcoming the horrors of the Tatar rule, the Moscow principality had grown stronger, and the people had felt more secure and confident in their future, monastic life entered a decline. With greater well-being and affluence, fewer sought to trade their wealth and comfort for a secluded life away and a quest for salvation. There were still those who undertook this spiritual endeavour with many monks achieving sainthood, but the overall monastic movement no longer had the motivation and the popularity it enjoyed during the time of Sergius and his disciples. 

Still, whatever the trials that were to face the Church and Russia in the centuries to come, Sergius’ personality was a guiding star for the thousands who would wish to dedicate their lives to God. Be it the Troubled Times, or the turmoil of the Schism, or the storm of Peter the Great’s reform, the splendour of the Palace Revolutions Era, the ‘enlightened’ 19th century, or the bolshevism years, hegumen Sergius was ever the ideal to inspire a monastic following. Even when Russia was farthest from God his life served as a reminder of just how high a Christian may rise in his spiritual endeavour. It would be no exaggeration to say the best of Russia’s culture or moral character including Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity, the white churches, the great literary heritage, is thanks to a reimagination of the blessed experience that the great monk of Radonezh gathered and built on.

"St Sergius Blessing Prince Dmitry Donskoi Before the Kulikovo Battle", Mikhail Nesterov (sketch, 1898-1899)

Original article: https://foma.ru/nasledie-sergiya-radonezhskogo.html

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