Increasing Virtue

Mikhail Nesterov\'s The Youth, Sergius (1891)

Mikhail Nesterov’s The Youth, Sergius (1891)

He diligently read the Holy Scriptures to obtain a knowledge of all virtue; in his secret meditations training his mind in a new longing for eternal bliss. Most wonderful of all, none knew the measure of his ascetic and godly life spent in solitude. God, the beholder of all things, alone witnessed it.

Whether he lived two years or more in the wilderness alone, we do not know; God knows only. The Lord, seeing his very great faith and patience, took compassion on him and desirous of relieving his solitary labors, put into the hearts of certain God-fearing monks, to visit him.

The saint inquired of them, “Are you able to endure the hardships of this place, hunger and thirst and every kind of want?

They replied, “Yes, revered father, we are willing with God’s help and your prayers.”

Holy Sergius, seeing their faith and zeal, marveled and said, “My brethren, I desired to dwell alone in the wilderness and, furthermore to die in this place. If it be God’s will that there shall be a monastery in this place, and that many brethren will be gathered here, then may God’s holy will be done. I welcome you with joy, but let each one of you build himself a cell. Furthermore, let it be known to you, if you come to dwell in the wilderness, the beginning of righteousness is the fear of the Lord.”

To increase his own fear of the Lord, he spent day and night in the study of God’s word. Moreover, young in years, strong and healthy in body, he could do the work of two men or more. The devil now strove to wound him with the darts of concupiscence. The saint, aware of these enemy attacks, disciplined his body and exercised his soul, mastering it with fasting. and thus was he protected by the grace of God. Although not yet raised to the office of the priesthood, dwelling in company with the brethren, he was present daily with them in church for the reciting of the Offices, Nocturnes, Matins, the Hours and Vespers. For the Divine Liturgy, a priest who was an abbot, came from one of the villages. At first Sergius did not wish to be raised to the priesthood and especially he did not want to become an abbot; this was by reason of extreme humility. He constantly remarked that the beginning and root of all evil lay in pride of rank, and ambition to be an abbot. The monks were but few in number, about a dozen. They constructed themselves cells, not very large ones, within the enclosure, and put up gates at the entrance. Sergius built four cells with his own hands, and performed other monastic duties at the request of the brethren; he carried logs from the forest on his shoulders, chopped them up, and carried them into the cells.

The monastery, indeed, came to be a wonderful place to look upon. The forest was not far distant from it as now it is, the shade and the murmur of trees hung above the cells; around the church was a space of trunks and stumps, here many kinds of vegetables were sown.

Mikhail Nesterov St Sergius Carrying Water (1896-97)

But to return to the exploits of Saint Sergius. He flayed the grain and ground it in the mill, baked bread and cooked the food, cut out shoes and clothing and stitched them; he drew water from the spring, flowing nearby, and carried it in two pails on his shoulders, and put water in each cell. He spent the night in prayer, without sleep, feeding only on bread and water, and that in small quantities; and never spent an idle hour.

Within the space of a year the abbot who had given the tonsure to St Sergius fell ill and after a short while, he passed from this life. Then God put it into the hearts of the brethren to go to blessed Sergius, and to say to him, “Father, we cannot continue without an abbot. We desire you to be out abbot, and the guide of our souls and bodies.”

The saint sighed from the bottom of his heart, and replied, “I have had no thought of becoming abbot, for my soul longs to finish its course here as an ordinary monk.” The brethren urged him again and again to be their abbot; finally overcome by his compassionate love, but groaning inwardly, he said, “Fathers and brethren, I will say not more against it, and will submit to the will of God; He sees into our hearts and souls. We will go into the town, to the Bishop.”

Alexis, the Metropolitan of all Russia, was living at this time in Constantinople, and he had nominated Bishop Athansius Volynski in his stead in the town of Pereyaslavl. Our blessed Sergius went, therefore, to the bishop, taking with him two elders; and entering into his presence, made a low obeisance. Athanasius rejoiced exceedingly at seeing him, and kissed him in the name of Christ. He had heard tell of the saint and of his beginning of good deeds, and he spoke to him of the workings of the Spirit. Our blessed father Sergius begged the bishop to give them an abbot, and a guide for their souls.

The venerable Athanasius replied, “Thyself, son and brother, God called in they mother’s womb. It is thou who wilt be father and abbot of thy brethren.” Blessed Sergius refused, insisting upon his unworthiness, but Athanasius said to him, “Beloved, thou hast acquired all virtue, save obedience.”

Blessed Sergius, bowing low, replied, “May God’s will be done. Praise be the Lord forever and ever.” They all answered, “Amen.”

Without delay the holy Bishop, Athanasius, led blessed Sergius to the Church and ordained him subdeacon and then deacon. The following morning the saint was raised to the dignity of the priesthood, and was told to say the Divine Liturgy and to offer the Bloodless Sacrifice. Later, taking him apart, the bishop spoke to him of the teachings of the apostles and of the holy fathers, for the edification and guidance of souls. After bestowing on him a kiss in the name of Christ, he sent him forth, in very deed an abbot, pastor, and guardian, and physician of his spiritual brethren. He had not taken upon himself the rank of abbot, he received the leadership from God; he had not sought it, nor striven for it; he did not obtain it by payment, as do others who have pride of rank, chasing hither and thither, plotting and snatching power from one another. God Himself led His chosen disciple and exalted him to the dignity of abbot.