Saga of a Saint

The reforms of a medieval monk changed the course of Russian history.

by Sergei Bassehes

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St. Sergius of Radonezh, an Orthodox monk who became one of the most powerful religious figures in Russia, was born on 3 May 1314 in the Russian town of Rostov. Baptized Bartholomew, he was the pious son of a wealthy boyar, or nobleman, who lost his wealth late in life and retired to a monastery. His wife, Bartholomew’s mother, retired to a convent at the same time.

Young Bartholomew grew up in a turbulent era. The region destined to become the Russian nation consisted of independent city-states whose princes fought incessantly with each other. Tartars, a fierce Central Asian tribe who had first invaded Russia during the 13th century, continued to reinforce their control with frequent incursions. Russian princes were forced to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Tartar khans, who sent tax gatherers to collect tribute from these vanquished rulers; they in turn collected tribute from less powerful Russians such as Bartholomew’s father. Otherwise, the Tartars appear to have left the princes alone. Historians note there was practically no intermarriage, no religious persecution and no confiscation of lands or estates.

Throughout this period, the leaders of the city-states, particularly Moscow, Novgorod, Pskov and Tver, vied for supremacy. Eventually, Moscow emerged the victor. When Rostov fell into the hands of the Grand Duke of Moscow, its princes and boyars were deprived of power, property and rank. Bartholomew’s newly impoverished father fled with his family from Rostov to Radonezh.

In 1336, following the deaths of their parents, Bartholomew and his elder brother, Stephen, who was a monk, established a hermitage in the forests near Radonezh. Together they erected a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity and began their life of labor and prayer. Stephen, however, daunted by the hardships they encountered, soon left this isolated retreat and traveled to Moscow, where he entered the Monastery of the Epiphany. There he met the future Metropolitan Alexei, who was then leading a quiet monastic life. Alexei would one day assume responsibility for the Russian Church and soon after his death would be canonized a saint.

Despite his fervor, Bartholomew had not yet taken monastic vows. As a child, he had encountered many difficulties in learning to read and write, unlike his brother Stephen, a bright student who mastered the Scriptures early in life. In contrast, Bartholomew enjoyed manual labor and had an aptitude for handicrafts, skills he found useful in his solitary life. The young hermit nevertheless approached the abbot of a nearby monastery for instruction in monastic life and, on 7 October 1337, at the age of 23, he was tonsured a monk. Because he was tonsured on the feast of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, he received the name Sergius. The future saint then returned to his solitary retreat.

There are many legends about St. Sergius’ life as a hermit. It is said that he wrestled with demons; it is said that he lived unharmed among wild beasts. Perhaps the most charming legend relates that a bear would visit St. Sergius daily and he would give the beast a slice of bread. If he had only one slice of bread, the saintly hermit would give it to the bear. If there was no bread, both he and the bear went hungry.

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Monasticism