edited by G.P. Fedotov
The First Hermit and Mystic
Sergius is undoubtedly the most popular and beloved of the saints of Russia and is considered her patron. He became the patron of the principality of Moscow in the fifteenth century, when it began to conquer and unite under its rule the whole of Great Russian, and the extension of his cult soon after his death (1392), is partially explained by the services which he had rendered as a counselor and adviser (and not in spiritual matters alone) to the Russian princes and as the faithful supporter of Moscow’s princely line.
St Sergius’ spirituality gives the most perfect expression to the Russian kenotic ideal, but in him is found a mystical deepening of the spirituality for which St Theodosius had established the pattern. St Sergius was one of the most prominent exponents of a new form of Russian monasticism. All the cloisters of the pre-Mongolian era of which there is a record were situated in towns, or in the outskirts of towns, and were in close relation with the world for which they provided spiritual and cultural centers. The Tartar invasion (1237-40) laid waster to most of the old communities and produced great disorders in the religious life of Russian society. Only in the fourteenth century did the nation begin gradually to recover from the spiritual inertia resulting from the continual devastations of the invaders, but now the leaders of the great monastic revival were hermits, who had taken refuge in the virgin forests of northern Russia, where they lived a life of prayer and contemplation. At first there were the huts and chapels of the solitary men of prayer, but disciples soon gathered about, and eventually communities which throve economically and spiritually arose in the wilderness. Nevertheless the new spirit of silence and contemplation did not die out but penetrated deeper into the wilderness as sanctuaries more remote from society were sought by contemplatives desiring to live in solitude.
For St Sergius years of solitary prayer in which he underwent severe spiritual conflicts with the forces of evil and the temptations of the flesh preceded the founding of the famous monastery of the Holy Trinity. The career of Sergius as monk and abbot has many features in common with that of Theodosius, and in some respects is closely parallel to it. Like that of St Theodosius his asceticism emphasizes labor, self-deprivation, and patience rather than painful corporal penances. There is the coarse and patched clothing, the lack of exterior authority, and the self-humiliation in the presence of subordinates and persons of humble condition. Sergius seems even to have surpassed his spiritual ancestor in the practice of kenotic humility, judging by several incidents recorded of him. First there is his manual labor; he cultivates the soil of the wilderness, works as a carpenter, building first cells and then the chapel, and at the height of his national fame he is still employed in tending the kitchen garden. Although of noble origin, he is not to be distinguished from a peasant in his life as a religious. His meekness, likewise is even more astonishing than that of the Kievan saint: he, the abbot, is engaged by one of his monks to build a cell and is recompensed for his services by a few mildewed loaves. And when he encounters disobedience on the part of his own brother, he leaves the monastery for a period of four years rather than enforce his authority. Like Theodosius he receives a rule for the cenobitical life from Greece and tries to establish it in the monastery, but he is even less capable than Theodosius of preserving order through severe discipline.
Yet in his interior life, in the quality of his prayer, Sergius belongs to another epoch than does Theodosius; he is the first Russian saint in whom mysticism is observed. That he was a mystic is a matter of inference: his biographer, Epiphanius, famous among his contemporaries for the elegance of his style, evidences no knowledge or understanding of this kind of prayer, which had but lately shown itself in Russia, but the visions of the saint which he describes are of a mystical character. Sergius is the earliest saint in Russian hagiography to be favored by heavenly visions in his contemplation; such graces were likewise conferred on a few of his disciples belonging to the same contemplative school. The best known is the vision of Our Lady; others are those of light and fire, often in connection with the Holy Eucharist: Sergius is assisted in the celebration of the Liturgy by an angel, and fire descends into the chalice after the consecration. Fire also darts forth from his hands when he blesses one of his disciples, the mystic, Isaac.
St Sergius dedicated his monastery to the Holy Trinity – a rather unusual dedication at that time; he was himself believed to have been dedicated to the Holy Trinity before his birth. Considering the primitive stage which theological thought had reached in medieval Russia, this was in the nature of mystical revelation. He was moreover contemporary with the exponents of the great movement of Greek mysticism known as Hesychasm. Intercourse between Moscow and Constantinople was not then infrequent: Sergius himself received a letter form the Patriarch; one of his disciples had been at Mount Athos for a time, and some of the manuscripts in the latter’s handwriting, which include ascetical and mystical treatise by writers of the Hesychast school (Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, and others), are preserved. All these factors, added to the characteristic love of solitude and the celestial visions, make it extremely probable that Sergius practiced mystical prayer.
But Sergius’ mysticism did not cause him to decline the responsibility of service to the world. In the best tradition of Theodosius, he comforted, healed, protected the oppressed. He found nothing abhorrent in political activity, but whereas Theodosius had found it necessary only to insist upon justice in political relations, the demands upon a churchman in Sergius’ day entailed other and more dangerous functions. In Theodosius’ time the state had been strong enough to defend itself from aggression by secular arms, but Sergius saw Russia prostrate under a foreign yoke. A national movement of resistance under the leadership of Moscow now arose, and Sergius had to give his blessing to Price Demetrius of Moscow for open military resistance. The first Russian victory over the Tartars (in the Battle of Kulikovo, 1380) raised Sergius to the eminence of a national hero, a builder of Muscovy. This was not the only instance of his intervention in the political sphere; sometimes he took part in diplomatic parleys, reconciling enemies, or even threatening the recalcitrant with the ecclesiastical interdict. In this capacity he acted, most probably, in obedience to the great statesman Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow, who was for several decades a regent in the government of the state.
Modern historians may well differ in their evaluation of the political function which these churchmen exercised: the greatness of the future Muscovite state was its fruit. In the days of St Sergius that close union of Church and State in Russia, which is one of the chief characteristics of Russia’s subsequent life as a nation, had its origin. In its development this ecclesiastical policy stands in drastic contradiction to the kenotic ideals of ancient times. St Sergius, yielding to new historical forces, could see only the blessings attendant upon a strong union of Church and State, not the potentiality for evil likewise inherent in such a government.