May 01, 2009

Sergius of Radonezh

When you enter the gates of the St. Sergius Lavra along with the diverse crowd of people piously crossing themselves, you sometimes think to yourself, “Why has there never been a special observer in this cloister, like the chronicler of old Russia, who, with a calm and steady gaze, could observe and, with an even and impartial hand, could write, ‘this is what happened in the Russian lands,’ and did so year in and year out, from century to century, as if it were one and the same person, living on for centuries at a time?” Such a ceaseless observer would tell of the people who came here over the course of 500 years to bow down to the tomb of the Venerable St. Sergius and of the thoughts and feelings with which they returned home to every corner of the Russian land. Among other things, he would explain to us how it happened that the people that came in an uninterrupted flow to the tomb of the Venerable One remained unchanging for five centuries. Even during the life of the Venerable One, as one of his contemporaries who described his life attests, many multitudes came to him from various countries and cities, and among those who came were monks and princes and grandees and simple “village folk.” And in our day, people of all classes of Russian society flow to the tomb of the Venerable One with their thoughts, prayers, and hopes; government leaders come at difficult points in the life of the people, and simple folk come at moments of sorrow or joy in their private existences.

with such impassioned words, the great historian Vasily Klyuchevsky began his essay on Sergius of Radonezh (in English he is also known as Sergius Radonezhsky). And both Sergius himself and the Trinity St. Sergius Lavra that he founded truly have been at the center of Russian religious life – and not only religious life – for many centuries. Even in Soviet times, Zagorsk (as the town was called then; its previous name, Sergiyev Posad, has since been restored) was an amazing place, where, for whatever reason – maybe just for show or to confound foreigners – church services were held, the monastery functioned, monks lived, and the seminary was actually producing priests…

But here is an interesting question: what is it about Sergius of Radonezh as a person that attracts people? Of all of Russia’s saints, why is he the one who is seen as the most important – not St. Cyril of Beloozero, who went to live in the remote forests of Vologda, not Sabbatius and Zosima, who founded the magnificent Solovetsky Monastery, not Metropolitan Philipp, who met a martyr’s death at the hands of Ivan the Terrible’s chief executioner, Malyuta Skuratov?

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