Mikhail Nesterov- Youth Saint Sergius (1892-97)
The Life, Acts, and Miracles of our Revered and Holy Father Abbot Sergius
by Epiphanius the Wise
Our holy father, Sergius, was born of noble, Orthodox, devout parents. His father was named Cyril and His mother, Mary. They found favor with God; they were honorable in the sight of God and man, and abounded in those virtues which are well-pleasing unto God.
Cyril had three sons, Stephen, Bartholomew and Peter, whom he brought up in strict piety and purity. Stephen and Peter learned to read and write, but the second boy did not so easily learn to read and write, and worked slowly and inattentively; his master taught him with care but the boy could not put his mind to his studies, nor understand, nor do the same as his companions who were studying with him. As a result, he suffered from the many reproaches of his parents, and still more from the punishments of his teacher and the ridicule of his companions. The boy often prayed to God in secret and with may tears: “O Lord, give me understanding of this learning. Teach me, Lord, enlighten and instruct me.” His reverence for God prompted him to pray that he might receive knowledge from God and not from men.
One day his father sent him to seek for a lost foal. On his way he met a monk, a venerable elder, a stranger, a priest, with the appearance of an angel. This stranger was standing beneath an oak tree, praying devoutly and with much shedding of tears. The boy, seeing him, humbly made a low obeisance, and awaited the end of his prayers.
The venerable monk, when he had ended his orations, glanced at the boy and, conscious that he beheld the chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit, he called him to his side, blessed him, bestowed upon him a kiss in the name of Christ, and asked: “What are thou seeking, or what dost thou want, child?”
The boy answered, “My soul desires above all things to understand the holy scriptures. I have to study reading and writing and I am sorely vexed that I cannot learn these things. Will you, holy father, pray to God for me, that He will give me understanding of book learning?”
Mikhail Nesterov’s Vision to the Child, Varfolomey (1889-90)
The monk raised his hands and his eyes toward heaven, sighed, prayed to God, then said, “Amen.”
Taking out from his satchel, as if it were some treasure, with three fingers, he handed the boy what appeared to be a little bit of white wheaten bread of the Holy Sacrament, saying to him, “Take this in they mouth, child, and eat; this is given to thee as a sign of God’s grace and for the understanding of the holy scriptures. Though this gift appears small the taste thereof is very sweet.”
The boy opened his mouth and ate, tasting a sweetness as of honey, wherefore he said, “Is it not written, how sweet are Thy Words to my palate, more than honey to my lips, and my soul doth cherish them exceedingly?”
The monk answered and said, “If thou believest, child, more than this will be revealed to thee; and do not vex thyself about reading and writing; thou wilt find that from this day forth the Lord will give thee learning above that of thy brothers and others of thine own age.”
Having thus informed him of divine favor, the monk prepared to proceed on his way. But the boy flung himself with his face to the ground, at the feet of the monk, and besought him to come and visit his parents, saying: “My parents dearly love persons such as you are father.”
The monk, astonished at his faith, accompanied him to his parent’s house. At the sight of the stranger, Cyril and Mary came out to meet him, and bowed low before him. The monk blessed them and they offered him food but before accepting any food, the monk went into the chapel, taking with him the boy whose consecration had been signified even before his birth, and began a recitation of the Canonical Hours, telling the boy to read the Psalms.
The boy said, “I do not know them, father.”
The monk replied, “I told thee that from today the Lord would give thee knowledge in reading and writing; read the Word of God, doubting nothing.”
Whereupon, to the astonishment of all present, the boy, receiving the monk’s blessing, began to recite in excellent rhythm, and from that hour, he could read. His parents and brothers praised God, and after accompanying the monk to the house, placed food before him. Having eaten and bestowing a blessing on the parents, the monk was anxious to proceed on his way. But the parents pleaded, “Reverend father, hurry not away, but stay and comfort us and calm our fears. Our humble son, whom you bless and praise, is to us an object of marvel. While he was yet in his mother’s womb, three times he uttered a cry in Church during Divine Liturgy. Wherefore we fear and doubt of what is to be, and what he is to do.”
The holy monk, after considering and becoming aware of that which was to be, exclaimed, “O blessed pair, O worthy couple, giving birth to such a child! Why do you fear where there is no place for fear? Rather rejoice and be glad for the boy will be great before God and man, thanks to his life of godliness.”
Having thus spoken, the monk left, pronouncing a dark saying that their son would serve the Holy Trinity and would lead many to an understanding of the divine precepts. They accompanied him to the doorway of their house, when he became of a sudden, invisible. Perplexed, they wondered if he had been an angel, sent to give the boy knowledge of reading. After the departure of the monk, it became evident that the boy could read any book, and was altogether changed; he was submissive in all things to his parents, striving to fulfill their wishes and was never disobedient. Applying himself solely to glorifying God, and rejoicing therein, he assiduously attended services in God’s Church, being daily present at Matins, the Divine Liturgy and at Vespers. He studied holy scripts, and at all times, in every way, he disciplined his body and preserved himself in purity of body and soul.
Cyril, devout servant of God, led the life of a wealthy and renowned boyar, in the province of Rostov, but in later years he was reduced to poverty. He, like others, suffered from the invasions of Tartar hoards in to Russia, from the skirmishes of troops, the frequent demands for tribute, and from repeated bad harvests, in conjunction with the period of violence and disorder which followed the great Tartar war. When the principality of Rostov fell into the hands of Grand-Duke Ivan Danilovich of Moscow, distress prevailed in the town of Rostov, and among the princes and boyars. They were deprived of power, of their properties, of honors and rank, all of which became Moscow’s to bestow. By the order of the Grand-Duke, a certain noble, Vasily Kotchev, with another called Mina, were sent form Moscow to Rostov as voyevodes (originally the designation of a military chief, it came to be used as the title of the provincial governor).
Upon arrival in Rostov, these two governors imposed a levy on the town and on the inhabitants. A severe persecution followed and many of the remaining inhabitants of Rostov were constrained to surrender their estates to the Muscovites, in exchange for which they received wounds and humiliations, and went forth empty handed, as the veriest beggars. In brief, Rostov was subjected to every possible humiliation, even to the hanging, head downwards, of their governor – Averki, one of the chief boyars of Rostov. Seeing and hearing all of this; terror spread among the people, not only within the town of Rostov, but in all the surrounding countryside. Cyril, God’s devout servant, avoided further misfortune by escaping from his native town. He assembled his entire household and family and with them removed from Rostov to Radonezh, where he settled near the church dedicated to the Birth of Christ, which is still standing to this day.
Cyril’s two sons, Stephen and Peter, married. But his second son, Bartholomew, would not contemplate marriage, being desirous of becoming a monk. He often expressed this wish to his parents, who said to him, “My son, wait a little and bear with us, we are old, poor and sick, and we have no one to look after us, for both of your brothers are married.” The wondrous youth gladly promised to care for them to the end of their days, and from henceforth, strove for his parent’s well-being, until they entered the monastic life – one to a convent and the other to a monastery. Cyril and Mary lived but a few years and then passed away to God. Blessed Bartholomew laid his parents in their graves, mourned for them forty days, then he returned to his house. Calling his younger brother Peter, he bestowed his share of their father’s inheritance on him, retaining nothing for himself. The wife of his eldest brother, Stephen, died, leaving him with two sons, Clement and Ivan. Stephen soon renounced the world and became a monk in the Holy Mother of God monastery at Khotkov.
Blessed Bartholomew now came to Stephen and begged him to accompany him in the search for some desert place. Stephen assented and he and the saint, together, explored many parts of the forest till, finally, they came to a waste space in the middle of the forest, near a stream. After inspecting the place they obeyed the voice of God and were satisfied. Having prayed, they set about chopping wood and carrying it. First they built themselves a hut and then constructed a small chapel. When the chapel was finished and the time had come to dedicate it, blessed Bartholomew said to Stephen, “Now, my lord and eldest brother by birth and by blood, tell me, in honor of whose feast shall this chapel be called, and to which saint shall we dedicate it?”
Stephen answered, “Why do you ask me and why put me to the test? You were chosen of God while you were yet in the womb, and He gave a sign concerning you before you were born, that you would be a disciple of the Blessed Trinity, and not you alone would have devout faith, for you would lead many others and teach them to believe in the Holy Trinity. It behooves you, therefore, to dedicate a chapel above all others to the Blessed Trinity.”
The favored youth gave a deep sigh and said, “To tell the truth, my lord and brother, I ask you because I felt I must, although I wanted and thought likewise as you do, and desired with my whole soul to erect and dedicate this chapel to the Blessed Trinity, out of humility I inquired of you.” And he then went forth to obtain the blessing of the ruling prelate for its consecration. From the town came the priest sent by Theognost, Metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia, and the chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Holy Trinity in the reign of Grand-Duke Symeon Ivanovich; we believe in the beginning of his reign. The chapel being now built and dedicated, Stephen did not remain long in the wilderness with his brother. He realized soon all the labors in this desert place, the hardships, the all-pervading need and want, and that there were no means of satisfying hunger and thirst, not any other necessity. As yet no one came to the saint, nor brought him anything, for at this time, nowhere around was there any village, not house, nor people; neither was there road or pathway, but everywhere on all sides was forest and waste land. Stephen, seeing this, was troubled and he decided to leave the wilderness, and with it his own brother, the saintly desert-lover and desert-dweller. He went from thence to Moscow, and when he reached this city, he found himself a cell, settled in the monastery of the Epiphany, and dwelt there, exercising himself in virtue. Hard labor was to him a joy, and he passed his time in ascetic practices in his cell, disciplining himself by fasting and prayer, refraining from all indulgence, even from drinking beer. Alexis, the future Metropolitan, who at this time had not been raised to the rank of bishop, was living in the monastery, leading a quiet monastic life. Stephen and he spent much time together in spiritual exercises, and the sang in the choir side by side. The Grand-Duke Symeon came to hear of Stephen and the godly life he led, and commanded Metropolitan Theognost to ordain him a priest and later to appoint him abbot of the monastery. Aware of his great virtues, the Grand-Duke also made him his confessor.