Saint Sergius of Radonezh is one of the most celebrated saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, credited for reforming and revitalizing monasticism in medieval Russia. He lived in the 14th century, and was known for his piety, as well as for his visions and miracle-working. He is particularly known for promoting the hesachystic movement in Russia., which is a form of prayer very prominent in the Eastern Orthodox Church, emphasising an experiential encounter with Jesus Christ.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Prof Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we cover Saint Sergius of Radonezh
Saint Sergius of Radonezh was born with the name Bartholomew in 14th century Russia, in the village of Varnitsa. He was an abbot who greatly revitalized monasticism in Russia, and thus is celebrated as one of the Russian Orthodox church’s most revered saints. Let us read an account of his early life, from the webiste of the OCA.
Saint Sergius of Radonezh was born in the village of Varnitsa, near Rostov, on May 3, 1314. His parents were the pious and illustrious nobles Cyril and Maria (September 28). The Lord chose him while still in his mother’s womb. In the Life of Saint Sergius it is reported that even before the birth of her son, Saint Maria and those praying heard the thrice-repeated cry of the infant at the Divine Liturgy: before the reading of the Holy Gospel, during the Cherubic hymn, and when the priest pronounced: “Holy Things are for the Holy.”
God gave Cyril and Maria a son whom they named Bartholomew. From his very first days of life the infant amazed everyone by his fasting. On Wednesdays and Fridays he would not accept milk from his mother, and on other days, if Maria used oil in the food, the infant also refused the milk of his mother. Noticing this, Maria refrained altogether from food with oil.
At the age of seven, Bartholomew was sent to study together with his two brothers: his older brother Stephen, and his younger brother Peter. His brothers learned successfully, but Bartholomew fell behind in his studies, even though the teacher gave him much special attention. The parents scolded the child, the teacher chastised him, and his classmates made fun of his lack of comprehension. Finally, Bartholomew besought the Lord with tears to grant him the ability to read.
Once, his father sent Bartholomew out after the horses in the field. Along the way he met an angel sent by God under the appearance of a monk. The Elder stood at prayer beneath an oak in a field. Bartholomew approached him, and bowing, waited for the Elder to finish praying. The monk blessed him, gave him a kiss and asked what he wanted.
Bartholomew answered, “With all my soul I want to learn reading and writing. Holy Father, pray for me to God, that He may help me to become literate.” The monk fulfilled Bartholomew’s request, offering up his prayer to God. In blessing the child he said to him: “Henceforth, my child, God gives you to understand reading and writing, and in this you will surpass your brothers and peers” (See the famous M. Nesterov painting “Vision of Bartholomew”).
Then the Elder took a vessel and gave Bartholomew a piece of prosphora. “Take, child, and eat,” said he. “This is given to you as a sign of the grace of God, and for the understanding of Holy Scripture.” The Elder wanted to leave, but Bartholomew asked him to visit at the home of his parents. His parents received their guest with joy and offered him their hospitality.
The Elder replied that it was proper to partake of spiritual nourishment first, and he bade their son to read the Psalter. Bartholomew began to read, and his parents were amazed at the change that had occured with their son. In parting, the Elder prophetically said of Saint Sergius, “Your son shall be great before God and the people. He shall become a chosen habitation of the Holy Spirit.”
After this the holy child read without difficulty and understood the contents of books. He became immersed in prayer with a special fervor, not missing a single church service. Already in childhood he imposed upon himself a strict fast. He ate nothing on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on the other days he sustained himself on bread and water.
The young child Benjamin was eventually tonsured a monk, named Sergius. He excelled in his monastic life, and began to work miracles, and receive visions from God. Thus he is also known as Saint Sergius the wonderworker. We continue with the account on the OCA’s website, which covers the miracles and visions of Saint Sergei:
Already during his lifetime Saint Sergius had been vouchsafed the gift of wonderworking. He raised a lad, at a point when the despairing father had given up on his only son as lost. Reports about the miracles worked by Saint Sergius began quickly to spread about, and the sick began to come to him, both from the surrounding villages and also from remote places. And no one left from Saint Sergius without receiving healing of infirmities and edifying counsel. Everyone gave glory for Saint Sergius, and reverenced him on an equal with the ancient holy Fathers. But human glory did not hold allure for the great ascetic, and as before he remained the example of monastic humility.
One time Saint Stephen, Bishop of Perm (April 27), who deeply revered Saint Sergius, was on journey from his diocese to Moscow. The roadway passed eight versts distant from the Sergiev monastery. Intending to visit the monastery on his return trip, the saint stopped, and having recited a prayer, he bowed to Saint Sergius with the words: “Peace be to thee, spiritual brother.” At this instant Saint Sergius was sitting in the trapeza for a meal with the brethren. In reply to the blessing of the holy hierarch, Saint Sergius rose up, recited a prayer, and made a return blessing to Saint Stephen. Certain of the disciples, astonished at the extraordinary action of Saint Sergius, hastened off to the indicated place, and became convinced of the veracity of the vision.
Gradually the monks began to witness also other similar actions. Once, during Liturgy, an angel of the Lord served with the saint, but Saint Sergius in his humility forbade anyone to tell about this until after his death.
Saint Sergius was connected with Saint Alexis by close bonds of spiritual friendship and brotherly love. Saint Alexis in his declining years summoned Saint Sergius to him and besought him to accept to be Russian Metropolitan, but Saint Sergius humbly declined to be primate.
The Russian Land at this time suffered under the Mongol-Tatar Yoke. Having gathered an army, Great-prince Demetrius Ioannovich of the Don went to monastery of Saint Sergius to ask blessing in the pending struggle. Saint Sergius gave blessing to two monks of his monastery to render help to the great-prince: the Schemamonk Andrei [Oslyaba] and the Schemamonk Alexander [Peresvet], and he predicted the victory for prince Demetrius. The prophecy of Saint Sergius was fulfilled: on September 8, 1380, on the feastday of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, Russian soldiers gained a total victory over the Tatar hordes at Kulikovo Pole (Kulikovo Field), and set in place the beginning of the liberation of the Russian Land from the Mongol Yoke. During the fighting Saint Sergius and the brethren stood at prayer and besought God to grant victory to the Russian forces.
For his angelic manner of life Saint Sergius was granted a heavenly vision by God. One time by night Abba Sergius was reading the rule of prayer beneath an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. Having completed the reading of the canon to the Mother of God, he sat down to rest, but suddenly he said to his disciple, Saint Mikhei (May 6), that there awaited them a wondrous visitation. After a moment the Mother of God appeared accompanied by the holy Apostles Peter and John the Theologian. Due to the extraordinary bright light Saint Sergius fell down, but the Most Holy Theotokos touched Her hands to him, and in blessing him promised always to be Protectress of his holy monastery.
Having reached old age, and foreseeing his own end six months beforehand, Saint Sergius summoned the brethren to him and designated his disciple Saint Nikon (November 17), who was experienced in the spiritual life and obedience, to be igumen. In tranquil solitude Saint Sergius fell asleep in the Lord on September 25, 1392. On the night before, the great saint of God summoned the brethren a final time to give them his final instruction: “Brethren, be attentive to yourselves. Have first the fear of God, purity of soul and unhypocritical love....”
Saint Sergius was known for his devotion to hesachysm, a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer in the Orthodox Church, developed by Saint Gregory Palamas with emphasis on an experiential encounter with Jesus, often through using the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God have mercy on me a sinner. This hesachystic tradition continues to be important in the Orthodox church today, particularly in monasteries, thanks to the efforts of Saint Sergius.
He also was known for revitalising monasticism in Russia. Many of his followers became founders of monasteries themselves. For an excellent overview of Saint Sergius’ legacy, we quote from the end an article from Hieromonk Theodore Stanway, of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville, New York, titled "Saint Sergius of Radonezh and the Hesychast Movement".
Saint Sergius’ retreat into the desert of the vast Russian forests acted as a catalyst for mass monastic colonisation of Russia’s northern lands and the formation of many monasteries, mostly founded and led by his disciples. Indeed, evidence does exist for monastic communities existing in this part of Russia from earlier times but it was the spiritual renaissance that took place at the Holy Trinity Lavra that created a strong and authentic spiritual tradition to carry to the north and transfigure whole tribes and peoples.
Eleven of Saint Sergius’ disciples were founders of monasteries, some during his own life, and the Holy Trinity Lavra was responsible for “fifty monasteries, which in their turn produced forty more”.31 While local conditions, such as the despoiling of Russia by the Tatars, were conducive for the move to the north, there was also strong influence from the hesychast movement in the Greek lands. As has been mentioned, there were innumerable hesychastic texts available in the Slavic language and they no doubt proved to be an inspiration for the thousands of monks who ventured into the deserts of Russia, the ‘northern Thebaid’.
Although it would be wrong to say that all of the hundred and fifty or so monasteries that were founded in northern Russia during this period were directly related to Saint Sergius, a good majority were. Those that were not developed along similar lines were undoubtedly sustained from the same deep spiritual wells that Saint Sergius and his monks drank from.
Many accounts of the lives of these strugglers on Russia’s frontiers include mention of ‘unceasing prayer’, ‘mental prayer’ and similar terms, usually denoting hesychastic practices. Following from the spiritual revitalisation occurring in the heartlands of Russia, many of these monks, having sanctified themselves in the wilderness, committed themselves to missionary work on its wild frontiers, Saint Stephen of Perm being a notable missionary.
Moving on from the historical themes that point towards Saint Sergius’ immersion in the hesychastic tradition, we can look at how the Church itself views the great saint. In the Church’s liturgical commemorations, his spiritual life is alluded to in typically poetic fashion. In the stichera of Small Vespers on his feast day of 25th September, he is referred to as having “been united with the Light that is utterly pure.” In the aposticha of the same service, Saint Sergius is mentioned as “being worthy to see the divine light.” The stichera of Great Vespers mention his “unceasing prayer”. The canons at Matins make reference to watchfulness (nepsis), seeing Christ face to face, his being “enlightened by bright beams of light”, going into “the depth of silence”, “shining with divine light” and, again, “unceasing prayer”.32 While none of these phrases refer directly to hesychasm, the poetic language used in the services to the saint strongly resembles that used by Epiphanius when referring to Saint
Sergius’ spiritual experiences and can be seen as alluding to hesychasm, as these are the kind of terms that one finds in many hesychastic texts. In fact, Saint Sergius’ services actually have more allusions to hesychasm than those of Saint Gregory Palamas. We should, therefore, not doubt that the Church, when composing the liturgical texts for the saint, considered him as part of the core hesychastic tradition and a carrier of the teachings.
Having looked at the historical movements of the era and their influence on Saint Sergius, the highly-regarded and fairly contemporary accounts of his life as well as the Church’s view, we can conclude that Saint Sergius is a definite carrier, practitioner and transmitter of the hesychastic tradition. Of course, as has been mentioned, we cannot separate hesychasm from Orthodox monastic spirituality, but in a time such as his, when the urban monasteries of Russia had mostly become decadent, the transmission of authentic desert eremitic spirituality was a rare light in the darkness. Evidently spurred on by divine zeal and his God-given spiritual gifts, complimented by his exposure to ascetic and patristic texts, Saint Sergius was able to transform Russian spiritual life and reinvigorate the lagging monasticism of the Russian church. With communications between the Russian and Greek worlds being evident and regular, we cannot doubt the heavy influence of the Hesychastic movement under Saint Gregory Palamas on the upsurge of Russian monastic spirituality, as well as the greater Balkans region. Upon his death and canonisation, the Church recognised his part in this movement, as shown by the liturgical texts presented above. While we can say that the Church, his followers and scholars both of his era and ours consider him as a hesychast, would the Saint himself? This last question may only be answered by looking to his extreme humility and coming to our own conclusion.
Saint Sergius of Radonezh is celebrated on Sept 25. Additionally, on July 5 the Russian Orthodox church commemorates the uncovering of his relics.
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Troparion — 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.
Kontakion — Tone 8
Wounded by love for Christ, O venerable one, and following Him with unwavering desire, / you despised all carnal pleasures, and as the sun, you shone upon the land of your birth. / Therefore, Christ has enriched you with the gift of working miracles. / Remember us who honor your most illustrious memory, / that we may call to you: “Rejoice, O divinely-wise Sergius."