St. Sergius of Radonezh +1392

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

Throughout our lives all of us  struggle with living and practicing the Gospel of Christ.  We sometimes fall into thoughts such as:  Is it really possible to live completely the commandments of Christ in the 21st century?  Is it really possible to be loving, kind, selfless, and sexually chaste?  Is it possible to take time from our busy lives for frequent prayer and worship?  Or is the life that Jesus taught us an impossibility?  The lives of holy men and women in every generation, in every century, show us that is not only possible but their lives give concrete examples of how we can follow Christ today.  From the distant 14th century the life of a holy man of God continues to inspire people of the 21st century to live a life of holiness and piety.  St. Sergius of Radonezh is the most beloved saint of Russia, their national saint and patron.  If you visit the monastery he founded near Moscow – The Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery – every day there is a long line of people waiting their turn to venerate his relics which are enshrined in a silver reliquary.  The love of the Russian people for St. Sergius is so strong that an estimated 350,000 people flocked to his monastery in 2014 for the celebration of the 700th anniversary of his birth. 

His Early Life

Our venerable father Sergius was born with the name Bartholomew into a family of boyars - aristocrats- the second of three brothers.  His parents, Cyril and Maria were pious Orthodox Christians and themselves have been canonized saints in 2014.  Young Bartholomew struggled as boy to learn the arts of reading and writing and often prayed to God for help.   One day his father sent him to the pasture to watch over the cattle when an unknown monk appeared to the little boy and asked:

“What are you seeking, or what do you want child?  

Bartholomew replied:  My soul desires above all to know how to read and write…My soul aches, because I practice reading and writing but cannot manage to learn.  Will you, holy father, pray to God for me, that He will give me understanding and book learning?  

The elder raised his hands and eyes to heaven, prayed and then took a small piece of prosfora (Communion bread) from his bag and said:  Take this and eat.  It is given to you as a sign of God’s grace and for the understanding of the Holy Scriptures…. Do not worry about book-learning; you will find that from this day on the Lord  will give you learning above that of your brothers and others of your own age”. 

From that time on young Bartholomew had a much easier time with his studies.

To the Remote Forest

After the death of his parents in 1334, he joined his widowed brother Stephen and moved to a remote forest where they built themselves a primitive church and hut out of logs.  In 1337 Bartholomew was tonsured as a monk with the name “Sergius” and ordained to the priesthood   After a time, Stephen could not endure the harsh lifestyle of the wilderness and moved to an established monastery near Moscow leaving his brother alone.  In the isolation of the dense forest Sergius labored in prayer, fasting, battling his passions and working to supply his bodily needs.  Sergius lives alone for a number of years but slowly others were drawn to him seeking spiritual guidance and a small community of monks was formed.   His biographer, Epiphanius the Wise described Sergius:

All came to him, not only neighbors, they came from afar, from distant cities and countries, wishing to see him and to hear a word from him, and they all received great benefit and salvation for their souls from his edifying deeds.  He taught many by his edifying words and made them repent before God.

People were drawn to St. Sergius because they saw something in him that attracted them, some quality in him that they desired in themselves:  it was simply the light of Christ shining through him.  Sergius had spent years in seeking a closer union with the Lord through prayer and fasting.  His life and his effect on others are reflected in what St. Gregory Nazianzus wrote in 391 A.D.:

“…it is necessary first to be purified,  then to purify; to be made wise, then to make wise; to become light, then to enlighten; to approach God, then to bring others to Him; to be sanctified, then to sanctify…”

(St. Gregory Nazianzus:  In Defense of His Flight to Pontus)

Sergius and his brotherhood lived in dire poverty:  often there was no wine to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and no incense to offer in prayer.  Lacking even candles, the brothers had to resort to using birch or pine tree splinters in order to read their prayers at night.  St. Sergius was granted several miraculous visions.  One evening when he stepped onto the porch of his hut he saw a huge flock of birds flying in the air and heard a voice:  “Sergius, God has heard your prayer; as many birds as you see, by so many will your flock of disciples increase; and after your time they will not grow less if they will desire to follow in your footsteps”.  Another time St. Sergius was celebrating the Divine Liturgy when an angel was seen in dazzling brightness standing at the altar with him while fire fell from heaven onto the holy chalice at the moment of the consecration of the holy gifts.  He was blessed to see a vision of the Mother of God with the Apostles Peter and John.   Sergius fell to the ground in fear and humility and the Blessed Virgin said to him:

“Do not be afraid, chosen one!  I have come to visit you.  Your prayer for your disciples and your monastery has been heard.  Do not be worried, your monastery shall prosper, not only in your lifetime but after your departure to God.  I will be with your monastery, supplying its needs abundantly and protecting it.”

The promise of the Theotokos became true:  St. Sergius’ monastery of the Holy Trinity became a beacon throughout the Russian land.  To this very day it is the spiritual center of the Orthodox Church of Russia and home to a prestigious seminary.  In fact the town that has sprung up around his monastery is known as “Sergiyev Posad” which means “suburb of Sergius”. 

St. Sergius became known throughout Russia as a holy guide not only for peasants and common people but also the elite and wealthy.    A significant event in his life occurred in 1380 when the Great Prince Dmitri Donskoy of Moscow came to Sergius seeking his blessing as he prepared for battle against the Tartars who had enslaved the country.  Sergius blessed him only after he was certain that the Prince had attempted peaceful means to resolve the conflict, saying “Go fearless prince and believe in God’s help”.  The army of Prince Dmitri was victorious in the Battle of Kulikovo and the chains of the Mongol Tartars were broken.

Despite his growing fame, St. Sergius continued to dress and live modestly.   His clothing was described as poor, peasant clothing, old and full of patches.  He was often found at work besides the other monks in the kitchen or the gardens.  One visitor recorded:  “I came to see a prophet, and you show me a beggar!”  Sergius peacefully fell asleep in the Lord on September 25, 1392 and was glorified as a saint in 1452.  He is commemorated on September 25 / October 8 and on July 5/July 18 the day his relics were discovered. 

Tropar    (Tone 4)

As an ascetic of good deeds and a true warrior of Christ our God,
you struggled firmly against the passions in this temporal life;
in psalmody, vigils, and fasting, becoming an example to your disciples;
therefore, the most Holy Spirit dwelt in you,
and by His action, you were radiantly adorned.
Since you have great boldness before the Holy Trinity,
 remember the flock which you have gathered, O wise one,
 and do not forget to visit your children as you promised,
O venerable Sergius our Father.

St. Sergius the Ascetic

St. Sergius devoted his life to the practice of asceticism.  The word asceticism comes from the Greek “ascesis” which referred to gymnastic exercises and later in Greek philosophy it meant achieving virtue by means of exercises.  St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians uses this concept to describe training or discipline in order to win a competitive game and spiritual discipline to struggle against sin and develop virtue:

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may obtain it.  And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things.  Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.  Therefore I run thus:  not with uncertainty.  Thus I fight; not as one who beats the air.  But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. 

 (1 Corinthians 9)

We are saved, not by performing good works but when our lives are joined to that of the Lord Jesus.  It is He who saved us by His Passion, Death and Resurrection.  But in order to be joined to the Lord Jesus I must struggle to free myself of whatever sin stands in the way and struggle to join myself daily to Him.   This requires effort, struggle, discipline, prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  This is especially the purpose of Great Lent, and in fact, of all the fasting periods of our Church.  The Lord said:  “If anyone would come after Me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me”.

Everyone today is involved in some kind of asceticism, usually prescribed by their doctor and only for the health of their body which is temporary:  low salt diet, low fat, regular exercise…  If we are to be saved, if we are to be freed from our sinful passions and joined to the Lord Jesus Christ some forms of asceticism are absolutely necessary and required, not only for monks and nuns, but for all Christians.  The life St. Sergius and the life of other holy monks and nuns are our teachers and guides.

Father Edward Pehanich