Sergii of Radonezh

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SERGII OF RADONEZH (1322?1392) was a Russian Orthodox monastic saint and founder of Holy Trinity-Saint Sergii Monastery (in present-day Sergiyev Posad). The life of Sergii is known largely from two fifteenth-century hagiographical accounts, supplemented by Russian medieval chronicles. Sergii himself wrote nothing.

Sergii (in secular life known as Bartholomew) was born in the principality of Rostov, but early moved with his family to the Muscovite village of Radonezh. In search of the ascetic life, he persuaded his already tonsured brother Stephen to venture with him into the neighboring forests. The severity of their life as hermits caused Stephen to withdraw within the year. For the succeeding two or three years (c. 13451348), Sergii tested his vocation alone. However, news of the solitary spread, and he attracted a company of independent monks around the wooden Trinity Church he had erected with his brother. In about 1353 Sergii accepted abbacy and the priesthood.

Soon Sergii received a missive from the patriarch of Constantinople urging him to establish a community rule and thus to transform an essentially idiorrhythmic monastery into a cenobitic one. Although Sergii's monastery may not have been the first Russian monastery of the early Muscovite period to accept such a transformation (c. 1356), it was to be the most influential in so doing. It provided the model (and the founding fathers) for thirty such monasteries in Sergii's lifetime, and perhaps five times that number by the middle of the following century.

The establishment of community life at the Trinity Monastery encouraged not only its spiritual but also its economic development; perhaps for this reason the Muscovite state acted both as Sergii's patron and his client. Sergii's spiritual authority was seen to fit him for several demanding diplomatic tasks. The blessing that he gave Grand Prince Dmitrii (1380) to proceed against the Mongol horde acted as a vital spur to the Muscovite troops and helped to ensure their victory in the battle of Kulikovo, a watershed in Russian history.

But Sergii cannot be described simply as a political saint. When he was offered elevation to a bishop's (and in due course to the metropolitan's) chair he refused it firmly. Regardless of office held or proffered he continued to dress in the roughest of robes and persist with the most menial of tasks. His humility was deep seated: It informed his prayer and predisposed him to visions. These visions were several and various. A number were centered on light or fire, and two of these were linked with the celebration of the Eucharist. But the one most carefully described in the lives of Sergii involved the appearance of the Mother of God, who assured Sergii that his monastery was under her direct protection.

Such visions had no precedent in Russian hagiography, and even elsewhere precise parallels are difficult to find. It may be that they are among the first fruits of that school of mystical (hesychast) prayer that was beginning to make inroads into Russia from Mount Athos in Greece.

Sergii died in 1392. His relics were exposed for veneration in 1422. The monastery (soon to be renamed the Trinity-Saint Sergii Monastery) expanded, and by 1561 it was designated first among all Russian monastic communities. Catherine the Great confiscated much of its great landholdings, but it was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that challenged its very existence. However, the revival of church life during the war years (19411945) eventually promoted the reopening of the monastery and the restoration of the relics to the church (1946). The tomb of Saint Sergii once again attracts countless pilgrims year after year.


The hagiographical account of Sergii's life has been translated with care, if not with grace, by Michael Klimenko: The "Vita" of St. Sergii of Radonezh (Houston, 1980). See also chapter 6 of G. P. Fedotov's The Russian Religious Mind, vol. 2, The Middle Ages: The Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries, edited by John Meyendorff (1966; Belmont, Mass., 1975). But the most scholarly studies are in Russian. Noteworthy among these remains Evgenii E. Golubinskii's Prepodobnyi Sergii Radonezhskii i sozdannaia im Troitskaia Lavra, 2d ed. (Moscow, 1909).

Sergei Hackel (1987)