Saint Sergius was known as a spiritual leader, a monastic reformer of medieval Russia and one of the most highly venerated saints of Russia.
Born May 13, 1314, this man was baptized Bartholomew, after the Apostle Bartholomew. His parents were Kiril and Maria, members of the highest ranking of Russian feudal aristocracies, big land owners. He was the middle of three brothers, the other two were Stefan and Peter. Their lands were in a small village near Rostov.
Although he was an intelligent child, Bartholomew had a difficult time learning to read. A myth says that a spiritual elder met the child one day and heard his tale of learning. The man gave him a piece of communion host, saying, “Take and eat it, this is given to you as a sign of God’s grace and for understanding of the Scriptures”. Whether this is true or not, the boy could read after that time.
When Bartholomew was 15, Prince Ivan Danitovich, of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, attacked the principality of Rostov. The family lands were confiscated, landing the family in poverty. They escaped to Redonezh, near Moscow, where they were reduced to the status of peasant farmers. The parents then entered holy life, Kiril joining a monastery and Maria, a convent, where they died around 1335.
Stefan had left to join the monastery of Theotokos in Khotkovo before then. Bartholomew joined him after his parents died. But the life in the monastery was not to Bartholomew’s spiritual needs. He persuaded Stefan to live an ascetic life in the woods. So they moved to an area called Makovets Hill, where they built a cell and a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This was the start of the famous church, Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.
Later on, Stefan, unwilling to live such a hard life, moved to the Monastery of the Epiphany in Moscow. He wished to live with fasting and prayer, being alone in his cell. Bartholomew studied and took monastic vows and tonsure from a local abbot. He took the name Sergius. Then he stayed in the forest where he lived as a hermit for a year.
Before long, men, wanting to follow Sergius’ life style, began looking for him, moving near him and building their own cells. His monks worked to supply all their needs, accenting community life. For years there were a dozen men living together in the monastery. Affected by Sergius’ spirituality, they asked him to be their spiritual leader. He was ordained. much against his wishes. He was too humble to accept this great gift. Within a short time, more and more men came to join his rather severe life
It was inevitable that news of his accomplishments would reach the ears of patriarchs far away. Patriarch Piclotheus of Constantinople was impressed and sent Sergius a monastic charter, indicating a grant of land for the monastery’s perpetual use.
There are miraculous stories of Fr. Sergius. Once, when there was no longer any food in the monastery, he would not let the men go out begging, and told them to wait for food. The men were quite distraught and obeyed unwillingly. As they ate moldy leaves for a meal, a knock on the front gate was heard. The porter went to the gate and saw men with food. He went to Sergius and told him. Sergius insisted that the men be invited to eat with the monks. He asked the men where they had gotten the food from, for it was still fresh and warm and there was no village around at that time. They named a place quite far away from the forest. The next day, the same thing happened. And again the third day. Sergius chided the unwilling men. “You see, brethren, God provides for everything, and neither does he abandon this place.”
At another time, the men were complaining about having to go so far for water. They told him he had chosen the site of the monastery. He went to a little ravine to pray about the problem. Soon, water was bubbling up from an underground stream. And the men had a closer source of water to this day.
Then donations began to come in. As the monastery of Holy Trinity grew, several little towns for craftsmen and traders grew around it. Sergius started several monastery schools over his career, one purpose being to teach farmers better methods of farming. Serving as abbot, he thus restored the great monastic tradition which had been destroyed some time before during the Mongol invasions of Russia.
The monastery being well populated, it was time to send out disciples. These men went out through central and northern Russia. They settled, deliberately, in inhospitable places and founded up to 40 new monasteries, including two near Moscow.
Many lay people and religious were impressed with Fr. Sergius and his monasteries. In 1378, Alekei. Metropolitan of Kiev and of all Russia asked Sergius to be his successor. Sergius, unwilling to have a title, even the title of abbot being too much for his humility, declined the invitation.
The monks did not take part in the politics of the day. However, the attacks of the Mongols on the peoples of central Russia had not ceased. Dmitry Donskoy, the Prince of Moscow, became the first Russian to seriously challenge the mongol authority. He came to Fr. Sergius for his blessing before the battle. A good Christian, he still wished to fight. Fr. Sergius would not automatically give his blessing. He waited to be sure that Dmitry had tried everything else in an attempt to get peace before realizing that war was the only choice left. Dmitry won the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. It did not end the Mongol domination over Russia, but it was the turning point of their reign. The people of little states who fought together against the Mongols finally saw themselves as a Russian people.
In 1385, Fr. Sergius and his disciple, St. Micah, witnessed the appearance of the Blessed Virgin at the monastery. She made this promise to him ““Fear not, My chosen one! I have come to visit you. Your prayer for your disciples and your monastery has been heard. Do not be troubled, for your habitation shall prosper, not only in your lifetime, but also after your departure to God. I will be with your monastery, supplying its needs abundantly, and protecting it.”
Fr. Sergius died seven years later. In 1422, his relics were found to be incorrupt. His remains were buried in the Trinity Cathedral and an icon of the Blessed Virgin, as she appeared to him, was placed over his grave. It was reverenced by all.
The icon lived a life of its own. Battles among Russian principalities continued for years. In 1446, the Great Prince Basil was attacked and retreated into the Trinity Cathedral. When his foes came, he walked out, carrying the icon and spoke to them of peace and a reduction of evil.
A Trinity monk named Ambrose made a copy of the icon. This is the one that Ivan the Terrible took into battle with him at the fall of the Tartar khanate of Kazan in 1552.
Several versions of the icon have been painted over the years. The most famous was painted in 1588, using wood from the old reliquary of St. Sergius. His remains had been transferred to a silver reliquary. It went with the tsar at the Polish campaign in 1657. In 1703, the icon went with the military campaigns against the Swedish king, Charles. Then in 1812, it was in Moscow during the Napoleonic campaign. The icon was involved in the Russian-Japanese war of 1905 and it sat in the commander-in-chief’s office during WWI.
Even, later in the 20th century, Sergius has been a force. In 1932, a theologian of Russia was executed in the Siberian gulag for not disclosing the whereabouts of Sergius’ relics. They had been carefully hidden from the Soviets, to save them. They have since been returned.
The monastery and the cathedral are still there for all to see. It is a functioning place and the music of the Daily Office can still be heard. The Blessed Virgin has kept her promise that “This place shall endure”.
Sergius is a prime patron of Russia. The Roman Catholic Church canonized Fr. Sergius in 1452.
Father Sergius, pray for us!
©Debbie McCoy, 2017