Growth

Mikhail Nesterov’s St Sergius Working (1896-97)

In the beginning, when the monastery was first built, many were the hardships and privations. The main road lay along way off and wilderness surrounded the monastery. Here the monks lived, it is believed for fifteen years. Then, in the time of the Grand-Duke Ivan Ivanovich (1353-59), Christians began to arrive from all parts and to settle in the vicinity. The forest was cut down, there was no one to prevent it; the trees were hewn down, none was spared, and the forest was converted into an open plain as we now see it. A village was built, and houses; and visitors came to the monastery bringing their countless offerings. But in the beginning, when they settled in this place, everyone suffered great privations. At times there was no flour for bread, and all means of subsistence was lacking; at times there was no wine for the Eucharist, no incense, nor candles. The monks sang Matins at dawn with no lights except for a single birch or pine torch.

One day there was a great scarcity of bread and salt in the whole monastery. The saintly abbot gave orders to all the brethren that they were not to leave, nor beg from the laity, but to remain patiently within the monastery and await God’s compassion. He himself spent three or four days without any food. On the fourth day, at dawn, taking an ax he went to one of the elders, called Danila (Daniel), and said to him: “I have heard it said that you want to build an entrance in front of your cell. See, I have come to build it for you, so that my hands shall not remain idle.”

Danila replied: “Yes, I have been wanting it for a long while, and am awaiting the carpenter from the village; but I an afraid to employ you, for you will require a large payment from me.”

Sergius said to him: “I do not require a large sum of money. Have you any mildewed loaves? I very much want to eat such loaves. I do not ask anything else from you and where will you find such a carpenter as me?”

Danila fetched a few mildewed loaves and said: “This is all that I have.”

The saintly Sergius said: “That will be enough and some to spare. But hide them until evening, I will take no payment before the work is done.

Then Sergius, tightening his belt went to work chopping wood, cutting planks and building the entrance. At the close of the day, Danila brought him the promised loaves. Sergius, offering a prayer, ate the moldy bread and drank some water. He had neither soup nor salt; the bread was both dinner and supper.

Several of the brethren noticed something in the nature of a faint breath of smoke issuing from his lips, and turning to one another they said, “Oh, brother, what patience and self-control this man possesses.”

But one of the monks, not having had anything to eat for two days, murmured against Sergius and asked: “Why moldy bread? Why should we not go outside and beg for some bread? If we obey you we shall perish of hunger. Tomorrow morning we will leave this place and not return; we cannot endure such want and scarcity any longer.”

Not all of them complained, only one brother, but because of this one, Sergius, seeing that they were enfeebled and in distress, convoked the whole brotherhood and gave them instruction from the holy scriptures: “God’s grace cannot be given without trials; after tribulations comes joy. It is written, at evening there shall be weeping, but in the morning gladness. You, at present, have no bread or food and tomorrow you will enjoy abundance.”

And as he was yet speaking, there came a rapping at the gates. The porter, peeping through an aperture, saw that a store of provisions had been brought; he was so overjoyed that he did not open the gates but ran to tell Sergius first. The saint gave the order to let them inside: “Open the gates quickly, let them come in and let those persons who have brought the provisions be invited to share the meal;” while he directed, before all else that the “bilo” be sounded, together with all the brethren, they entered the Church to sing the Te Deum. Returning from Church, they entered the refectory and fresh bread placed before them. The bread was still warm and soft, and the taste of it was had an unimaginable and strange sweetness; as though honey was mingled with the juice of barley and spices.

When they had eaten, Sergius remarked: “And where is our brother who was murmuring about moldy bread? May he notice that it is sweet and fresh. Let us remember the prophet who said, ‘Ashes have I eaten for bread and mixed my drink with tears’.” Then he inquired whose bread it was and who had sent it. The messengers announced: “A pious layman, very wealthy, living a great distance away, sent it to Sergius and the brotherhood.” Again the monks, on Sergius’ orders, invited the men to sup with them, but they refused, having to hasten elsewhere.

The monks came to the abbot in astonishment, saying: “Father, how has this wheaten bread, warm and tasting of butter and spices been brought from afar?” The following day more food and drink were brought into the monastery in the same manner. And again, on the third day, from a distant country. Abbot Sergius, seeing and hearing this, gave glory to God before all of the brethren saying: “You see, brethren, God provides for everything and neither does he abandon this place.” From this time forth the monks grew accustomed to being patient under trials and tribulations, enduring all things, trusting in the Lord God with fervent faith, and being strengthened therein by their holy father, Sergius.

According to an account by one of the elders of the monastery, blessed Sergius never wore new clothing, not any made of fine material, nor colored, nor white, nor smooth and soft; he wore only plain cloth and his clothing was old, worn, dirty and patched. Once they had an ugly, stained and bad bit of cloth, which all the brethren threw aside; one brother would have it, keep it for awhile and then discard it. This went on until it passed through seven hands. But the saint did not despise it; he gratefully took it and cut it out and made himself a habit, which he wore with gratitude, for a whole year until it was worn through and had many holes.

So shabby were his clothes, worse than any other monk, that several people were misled and did not recognize him. One day a Christian from a nearby village, one that had never seen blessed Sergius, came to visit him. The abbot was busy digging in the monastery garden when the visitor looking about asked a monk: “Where is Sergius? Where is that wonderful and famous man?”

The brother answered: “In the garden digging. Wait until he comes in.”

The visitor, growing impatient, peeped through an aperture, and perceived the saint wearing patched, shabby attire, his face covered with sweat and he could not believe this this was the monk; which he had heard so much about. When blessed Sergius came in from the garden, the monks assured the man that this was indeed, the abbot, Sergius.

The visitor turned from the saint and mocked him: “I came to see a prophet and you point out to me a needy looking beggar. I see not glory, no majesty or honor about him. He wears no fine apparel; he has no attendants, no trained servants; he is but a needy and indigent beggar.”

The brethren, reporting to the abbot, said: “We hardly dare tell you reverend father, and we would send your guest away as a good-for-nothing rude fellow. He has been discourteous and disrespectful towards you, he reproaches us and will not listen.”

The holy man, fixing his eyes on the brethren and seeing their confusion, said: “Do not do so brethren, for he did not come to see you. He came to visit me.” And since he expected no obeisance from his visitor, he went towards him, humbly bowed to the ground and blessed and praised him for his fine judgment. Then taking him by the hand, the saint sat him down at his right hand, and bade him to partake of some food and drink. The visitor expressed his regret at not seeing Sergius, whom he had taken the trouble to come and visit and his wish was not fulfilled. The saint remarked: “Be not sad about it, for such is God’s grace that that no one ever leaves this place with a heavy heart.”

As he spoke, a neighboring prince arrived at the monastery, with great pomp, accompanied by a retinue of boyars, servants and attendants. The armed attendants, who preceded the prince, took the visitor by the shoulders and removed him, out of sight of the prince and of Sergius. The prince advanced and from a short distance made a low prostration in front of the abbot. The saint gave him his blessing and a kiss of peace, then they both sat down, while everyone else remained standing. The visitor thrust his way through, and going up to one of those standing by, asked: “Who is the monk sitting at the prince’s right hand?”

The man turned to him and said: “Are you a stranger here? Have you indeed not heard of blessed father Sergius? That is him, speaking with the prince.”

Upon hearing this the visitor was overcome with remorse, and after the prince’s departure, asking several of the brethren to intercede for him, he made a low obeisance before blessed Sergius saying: “Father, I am but a sinner and great offender. Forgive me and help my unbelief.”

The readily forgave, and with his blessing and some words of comfort, he took leave of him. From henceforth, and to the end of his days, this man held a true and firm faith in the Holy Trinity and in St Sergius. He left his village a few years later and came to the saint’s monastery, where he became a monk and spent several years in repentance and amendment of life before he passed away to God.