Sergius, St.

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(c. 13221392) Saist, founder of the Trinity monastery near Moscow, leader of a monastic revival, participant in political and ecclesiastical politics, and subject of a cult as intercessor for the Russian land.

Information about Sergius's early life and much of his later public career comes from the Life composed by Epifany "the Wise" in 1418 and revisions of it by Pakhomy "the Serb" from 1438 to 1459. Baptized Varfolomei, he was the second of three sons of a boyar family of Rostov. In 1327 and 1328 the Mongols devastated Rostov, ruining his family. In 1331 Prince Ivan I "Kalita" of Moscow annexed Rostov and resettled the family in Radonezh. Varfolomei's brothers married, but he remained celibate. When his parents died, he and elder brother Stefan, a monk since the death of his wife, went to live as hermits in a nearby "wilderness" in 1342. They built a chapel, dedicated to the Trinity, and Varfolomei was tonsured as the monk Sergius. Stefan left for Moscow, where he met the future Metropolitan Alexei and became confessor to magnates at court. Sergius lived alone in poverty two years, sharing food with animals, tormented

by demons and the devil, an ordeal replicating narratives of hermit saints of early Christianity. He attracted twelve disciples and in 1353 acceded to their entreaties and became abbot. Sergius's example of humility, manual labor, and disdain for material things attracted more monks and brought to his house the support of neighboring peasants and landowners. While Sergius lived a simple life, and he and his disciples sought an intense spirituality resembling that of Hesychast solitaries in Byzantium, there is no evidence that he knew or practiced formal Hesychast methods of prayer.

Sergius became a historical person when a source other than his Life recorded that he founded a monastery at Serpukhov for Prince Vladimir Andreyevich and baptized Yuri, the second son of Grand Prince Dmitry I of Moscow, in 1374. Probably in 1377, at Metropolitan Alexei's behest and blessed by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople, Sergius established a cenobite rule at Trinity modeled on the rule of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople. It mandated communal living and control of property supervised by an elected abbot. Some monks led by Stefan, who earlier had returned probably expecting to become Trinity's first abbot, opposed this. Instead of resisting, Sergius left. This caused defections and appeals from other monks at Trinity to Metropolitan Alexei and Grand Prince Dmitry, who intervened to reaffirm a cenobite rule there and to restore Sergius as abbot.

Sergius's example inspired a wave of monastic foundings. He assisted in establishing six houses and, reportedly, four more. Biographies of at least seven other founders said their subjects were Sergius's disciples or inspired by him. These houses became engines of agricultural, industrial, and commercial development, as well as spiritual centers, contributing to the economic and cultural integration of the Russian state. In 1422 Abbot Nikon instituted worship at Trinity of Sergius's sanctity and probably originated the story related by Pakhomy that the Mother of God appeared to Sergius and put his house under her protection.

According to Pakhomy and later sources, Alexei and Grand Prince Dmitry wanted Sergius to be metropolitan upon Alexei's death in 1378, but Sergius refused. In reality a metropolitan-designate named Kiprian, installed by Constantinople to assure the unity of the eparchy in Moscow and Lithuania, was waiting in Kiev. Also Dmitry and Alexei had a candidate, Dmitry's confessor and former court official Mikhail ("Mityai"). Kiprian's three letters to Sergius and his nephew Fyodor, requesting or acknowledging their assistance, and other evidence make clear that Sergius supported his candidacy, which eventually was successful. The letters cause some to argue that Sergius, like Fyodor, was Dmitry's confessor.

Sergius is most famous as intercessor for Dmitry's Russian army that defeated the Mongols on Kulikovo Field near the Don River in 1380. It was the first Russian victory over the Mongols, and Sergius's intercession was taken to mean that God favored Russia's liberation from the Mongol yoke. Although the earliest text mentioning Sergius's intercession is Pakhomy's revision of Sergius's Life in 1438, the episode became widely accepted, and Sergius was recognized throughout Russia as a saint at some point between 1448 and 1450. Thenceforth this episode was embellished many times in tales and histories and gave rise to legends of subsequent interventions by Sergius against Russia's enemies. Sergius remains for many the personification of Russian exceptionalism. On July 29, 1385, Sergius baptized Dmitry's son Pyotr. That same year Dmitry asked Sergius to reconcile him with Grand Prince Oleg of Ryazan and to compel Oleg to recognize Dmitry as his senior, a task he performed successfully. A story that Sergius similarly intervened for Moscow in 1365 in Nizhny Novgorod is probably apocryphal.

See also: trinity st. sergius monastery


Fedotov, G. P. (1965). A Treasury of Russian Spirituality. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Fedotov, G. P. (1966). The Russian Religious Mind, vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meyendorff, John. (1981). Byzantium and the Rise of Russia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, David B. (1993). "The Cult of Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Its Political Uses." Slavic Review 52: 680699.

David B. Miller