St. Sergius of Radonezh. Saint Sergius of Radonezh, one of Russia’s most beloved saints and credited by many as being the central force of the monastic revival in Russia during the fourteenth century, has been compared with many of the hesychastic fathers of his era. A recent example is his being referred to as a “Hesychast monk” in a modern compendium of Orthodox theological articles.1 Given that the saint’s life and work were contemporaneous to the hesychastic controversy and the Palamite Synods of 1341, 1347 and 1351, we can argue that there may be the possibility of him having been exposed to hesychastic literature and polemics at some point. However, what must be investigated is whether the saint considered himself as a ‘hesychast’, or at least a transmitter and practitioner of that tradition, and if the Church viewed him as such on his canonisation.
It is true that in Orthodox spiritual life, theology, asceticism and hesychasm cannot be separated from one another, all three being key components of the Christian path of purification, illumination and deification, especially in the monastic life, where they are experienced and lived in their fullness. Neither was the hesychastic controversy of the fourteenth century a reaction against some new teaching—hesychasm, although present in the Old Testament and Apostolic Eras, developed in its current form at the same time as the rise of monasticism in the third century onwards. As part of the Church’s living dogmatic tradition, it has its ideological background in the mystical writings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite and is explicitly mentioned in the writings of monastic pioneer Saint Anthony the
Great, who is quoted as saying “Let us be men of silence and hesychasts”.2 The majority of monastic writers from the third century onwards, in particular Saint Macarius the Great and Saint John of the Ladder, refer to hesychasm either implicitly or explicitly, showing its deep roots in Orthodox Christian tradition. With hesychasm and the Orthodox monastic tradition being effectively inseparable, one could quite justifiably ask why we should mark out specific monastic saints as being ‘hesychasts’ or part of the ‘hesychast movement’ in general.
Hesychasm is the specific practice of ‘stillness’ (hesychia) and watchfulness (nepsis) or the ‘guarding of the heart’ usually centred on the use of the ‘Jesus prayer’, or the repetition of the name of the Saviour, the latter practice first recorded in the martyrdoms of Saint Ignatius the God-Bearer and Saint Neokorus.3 Monks who practice hesychasm are notable in having achieved a very high spiritual level and a state of constant contemplation (theoria) of God through mental, or noetic, prayer. Hesychasm is the primary method, for want of a better term, of the purification of the heart, the illumination of the nous and, eventually, the glorification of the individual. The writings of hesychastic fathers mention revelations of the uncreated Glory of God to the illumined Christian, often called the ‘uncreated light’ or the ‘Taboric light’, which is the same as that which the disciples witnessed at the Transfiguration.
In a sense, the practice of hesychasm is merely the concentrated and dedicated pursuit of that which all Christians are called to, deification and the vision of the uncreated Glory of God. For the sake of this paper, we will define ‘hesychasts’ and ‘the hesychast movement’ as being those Fathers who were influential in establishing the basic teachings of hesychasm, defending it during the attack of the Barlaamites and propagating it to the rest of the
Orthodox world at large, especially during the ‘golden age’ of hesychasm.
This ‘golden age’ can be estimated to begin in the late thirteenth century with the labours of Saint Gregory the Sinaite, who began his monastic life on Mount Sinai, before learning noetic prayer on Crete and subsequently taking up residence on Mount Athos, where he refined the teachings of hesychasm and wrote his 150 Chapters on Mental Prayer. A younger contemporary of his, Saint Gregory Palamas, was the man chosen by his brother monks to defend the hesychasts when they came under attack from Barlaam the Calabrian and his followers in the early fourteenth century.
The Hesychastic controversy erupted when Barlaam, a Greko-Italian monk and philosopher, was scandalised by what he thought were erroneous and heretical practices of the Athonite monks and attacked the hesychastic tradition in his writings. Saint Gregory Palamas was mobilised to defend hesychasm and in his many writings, specifically Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts, fought against Barlaam’s accusations. After a long conflict, during which both parties held the Ecumenical throne at certain points, hesychasm was eventually exonerated and Barlaam condemned in a series of councils in Constantinople in 1341, 1347 and 1351.
Although the major battles of the hesychastic controversy were fought at the Palamite councils under the Patriarchate of Constantinople within the Roman Empire, the Russian church was not without its activity in this period. Contemporary Metropolitans of Moscow were involved, albeit at a distance, and keeping abreast of developments in the Empire. The Metropolitan of Moscow, Saint Theognostes, was a Palamite and a copy of the Tome of 1341with his signature exists in the Moscow Synodal Library.4 When the anti-Palamite faction was in power, he suffered deprivation of income until order was restored. His successor, Saint Alexius, was a favourite of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheus, who was a strong Palamite and supported Saint Alexius in his struggles with the Novgorodian hierarchy. Saint Alexius was also a monastic co-struggler with Saint Sergius’ brother, Stephen, at the monastery of the Theophany in Moscow, and later became closely acquainted with Saint Sergius.
Against this backdrop of ecclesiastical conflict in Constantinople and repression by the Tatars in Russia, Saint Sergius, in the world Bartholomew, along with his brother Stephen, set out for the forest near his hometown of Radonezh. The intention was to go into the wilderness and live like the desert ascetics of Egypt. They established themselves in a clearing and built some dwellings and a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The brothers lived an austere ascetic life, too austere for Stephen, who returned to coenobitic monasticism at the monastery of the Theophany. The saint continued his labours as a solitary and was eventually tonsured by Elder Mitrophanes when he was twenty-three years old, taking the name Sergius.
Having spent the early years of his monastic life in complete isolation, one can wonder how Saint Sergius learned of the spiritual teachings of the Church Fathers that he put into practice. As can be seen in his Life, Saint Sergius was chosen from the womb for his holy task and “received his learning not from men, but from God”.5 However, his God-given spiritual gifts do not necessarily need to rule out book-learning and, after having received the gift of reading at the age of seven, he was known for reading the Holy Scriptures, the Church’s liturgical texts and the writings of the Church Fathers, which were all available from Rostov library.6 Not only this, but his youth had been a preparation for the rigours of the ascetical life led in the wilderness, with strict fasting from a young age and the ceaseless repetition of the Psalms,7 in itself a practice rooted in the hesychastic monasticism of the Egyptian desert.
The youth’s ability to read, as well as his access to ecclesiastical writings, opens up the possibility that he was exposed to hesychastic literature from a young age. During the fourteenth century, “innumerable translated texts of hesychast literature found their way northwards”8 from monastic centres in Constantinople and elsewhere. The Russian monks in Constantinople and on Mount Athos were known to receive books from the Bulgarians, which were copied and sent back to Russia.9 There are manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, still in existence today, of classic writings such as the complete works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, writings by Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Ephraim the Syrian, and, most importantly for our study, Saint John Climacus’ The Ladder, writings of Saint Nilus of Sinai, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, Saint Isaac the Syrian, Saint Simeon the New Theologian and “most of the spokesmen for the contemporary hesychast movement in Greece”10 Saint Gregory the Sinaite, and Callistus and Ignatius Xanthopoulos. Surprisingly, no translations of Saint Gregory Palamas’ works exist from this period, other than a copy of his Against the Latins.11 What is known is that the library of Saint Sergius’ monastery did contain Slavonic translations of some of these texts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although whether they were there during the saint’s tenure as abbot is uncertain.12
With potential access to such profound writings, as well as regular encounters with the monastics who struggled in his local monasteries, we can imagine that the young Saint Sergius’ spiritual development could have been heavily influenced and informed by the hesychastic tradition of the Church. Despite this, Fedotov maintains that it would not be possible for the young saint to acquire the sufficient knowledge of ascetic literature and patristic writings by the age at which he set off into the forest.13 However, what is impossible for man is certainly possible for God and the spiritual drive that Saint Sergius had from his youth could certainly make up for his lack of knowledge in these matters.
Artist Vasnetsov A.M. St. Sergius’s monastery in his lifetime.
By the time of Saint Sergius’ exodus into the forest, most Russian monasteries were in urban areas, or on the outskirts of inhabited places.14 However, in its beginning, monastic life in Russia had been established on the premise of the anchoretic spirituality of Mount Athos. On Mount Athos, with the strong hesychastic tradition preserved there, monasteries were generally divided between coenobia and hesychasteria, with the average coenobitic monastery having one or two hesychasteria nearby.15 Saint Anthony, founder of the Kiev Caves Lavra, had been a monk at the Great Lavra and had experienced both the coenobitic and eremitic life whilst on the Holy Mountain. Having returned to his native land, he took up residence in a cave near Kiev and commenced his struggles. Eventually, with a brotherhood gathered around him, the monastic centre for Kievan Rus par excellence was formed that became the standard for all Russian monasteries.
It was the period of Saint Theodosius’ abbacy that firmly established the Russian monastic tradition, when he built up the monastic churches and dormitories, introduced the Studite typicon from Constantinople and regularised the monks’ lives along a more semi- eremitic fashion.16 It has also been noted that it was during this time that the use of the Jesus prayer in Rus is first recorded,17 most likely carried over from Saint Anthony’s time on Athos. Saints Anthony and Theodosius died in 1073 and 1074 respectively, with the latter spending twelve years as abbot, from 1062. Saint Anthony was never abbot of the monastery, instead spending his life in relative seclusion as the spiritual father and avoiding administrative responsibilities, devoted to the spiritual guidance of the monks and visitors to the monastery.
Saint Sergius’ community, and those that followed, were not of the urban monastic spirit contemporaneous with the rest of Russia. Their spirit was that of the desert. However, when the time eventually came for Saint Sergius to establish his brotherhood as a monastery, the community was established on coenobitic grounds. Prior to this, Saint Sergius and his small group of twelve monks had observed a semi-eremitic, modified Studite typicon and the full cycle of divine services, except the Divine Liturgy, which was occasionally celebrated by visiting clergy from the area. With the brotherhood’s plea for Saint Sergius to be made abbot answered and the saint’s ordination to the priesthood, the Jerusalem typicon of the Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified was introduced, as it was all over the Greek and Russian world in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The establishing of a coenobitic community was at the behest of Patriarch Philotheus of Constantinople, a disciple of Saint Gregory Palamas, who personally wrote to the saint.18 One of the main reasons for this thrust from semi-eremitic to coenobitic monasticism, which was mirrored all over the Orthodox world, surprisingly came from hesychasts themselves, who thought that too much individualism was developing in some of the monasteries, which had led to idiorrythmic foundations springing up. Another, more practical, reason is that a community life would be more conducive to survival, especially in Russia’s frozen north.19 Saint Sergius’ desire to live the life of a desert anchorite had led him to become abbot of what would become Russia’s major coenobitic monastery.
As it goes, the Jerusalem typicon found good soil in Russia, being close to the Russian spirit, allowing the monks to contribute to the world around them and conduct missionary work.20
Artist Nesterov M.N. St. Sergius, laboring.
Although Saint Sergius and his monks worked out their salvation within the framework of a coenobitic community, balancing hard labour with dedication to the Church’s divine services, they still managed to maintain some of the practices associated with hesychasteria in their daily lives. The monks practiced revelation of thoughts, with this taking place at the fourth ode of the canon, during Matins.21 Fasting was strict and many stories abound of the brotherhood’s early days, when scarcity of bread led to the monks going without food for days on end. Saint Sergius forbade his monks from begging for alms, which eventually led to a rebellion by the brethren. Despite this severity, the initial rule used by the brothers, that of the Studite monastery, had in fact been relaxed by Saint Sergius, who lessened the demands of rigidity and emphasised humility and gentleness.22 Another local practice, highlighting Saint Sergius’ fatherly role as one guiding his monks along the narrow path, was his nightly inspections of the monastic cells after Compline. After completing his own cell rule, he would go on rounds of the other brothers’ cells, rejoicing if the monks within were praying and making prostrations, reading spiritual books or weeping over their sins and rapping doors if he heard monks conversing or laughing. The following morning, monks who had disappointed him were gently reprimanded.23
One of the central teachings of the hesychastic tradition—and the focal point for Barlaam’s outrage—was the concept of ‘uncreated Grace’, the ‘uncreated or ‘Taboric’ light which could be seen by the Christian who had received a revelation of God’s Glory.
Although the author of Saint Sergius’ Life, Epiphanius the Wise, lacked the theological articulation to bring our attention to this facet of the saint’s inner life, there can be no doubt that the Taboric light is indeed alluded to. It is worth quoting in full some of the accounts of visions of heavenly fire and angelic concelebrants at the Divine Liturgy, the latter being a definite sign of a person’s high level of sanctification. We should bear in mind that it is impossible to accurately describe the uncreated Glory of God in human terms. The first example is the vision of divine light witnessed by Saint Sergius:
St. Sergius and the vision of the birds. “One day the saint, according to his usual custom, was keeping vigils and was praying for the brethren that the Lord help them in their daily work and improvement. And while he was so praying deep in the night, he heard a voice saying “Sergius!” But he was very surprised by this unusual night call and, after he said his prayer, he opened the window of his cell, wishing to see who called, and right away he saw a wonderful vision: a great light appeared from the heaven and drove away all darkness of the night, and the night was illuminated by this light which excelled by its brightness the light of day. For the second time the voice was heard, saying “Sergius! You are praying for your children, and the Lord has accepted your praying; look carefully and see a multitude of monks who are gathered in the name of the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity in your flock to be taught by you.” The saint looked and saw a multitude of very beautiful birds that flew not only over the monastery, but also around the monastery, and the voice was heard, saying “As you saw these birds, in a like manner the flock of your disciples will be multiplied and even after you they will not diminish if they choose to follow in your footsteps.””24
The vision of the angelic concelebrant was narrated in the Life as follows:
“He saw at the altar a fourth man co-celebrating with them: a very wonderful man whose sight was strange and indescribable, shining with great brightness in the face and with radiating vestments. And during the first exit that angelic-like and wonderful man came out after the saint and his face was shining like the sun so that it was impossible to look at him. His vestments were unusual, wonderful, shiny, so that they looked like they were of golden designs. Isakii asked Father Makarii, who was standing close by: “What is this wonderful sight, Father? Who is this wonderful man whom we see?” And Makarii, who was also granted to see this sight and the appearance of great brightness, said: “I do not know, child, I see this bright and unutterable sight, but I think that this is a servant who arrived with the prince.” Prince Vladimir was at the time in the monastery. They then approached and asked those who were with the prince if a priest had come with him, and they answered: “No.” Then they knew for certain that it was an angel of God who was officiating with them.”25 A vision of heavenly fire was reported about the saint thus:
“When the saint was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, there was also present a disciple of the Venerable, ecclesiarch Simon, whom we mentioned before, who was perfect in many virtues, of whom also the Holy Starets himself witness that he had a perfect life. This Simon saw a wonderful vision. Once when the saint was officiating, he said to him that he saw a fire moving over the Table of Oblation, illuminating the altar and encircling the Holy Gifts. And when the saint was about to partake of Holy Communion, the divine fire rolled itself up like a shroud and entered the holy chalice. And so the saint took communion. As Simon saw that, he was frightened, and was filled with trembling and so he marvelled in himself. When the saint moved away from the Table of Oblation, he understood that Simon was granted to see this wonderful vision, and so he called and said: “Child, why is your spirit frightened?” He said: “My Lord! I saw a wonderful vision that the Grace of the Holy Spirit is operating in you.” The saint forbade him and said: “Do not announce to anybody what you saw until the Lord orders my departure from this life.” And they rendered praise to the Lord together.”26
Such events are commonplace in the lives of saints, particularly those renowned for their ascetic struggles. Even accounts of contemporary hesychastic fathers in places such as Mount Athos, Romania and Mount Sinai have stories of similar visions of lights, fire, concelebrating angels and other such occurrences. They are indicative of an extremely high level of sanctity, not only in the recipient of the grace, but in their disciples also, who have been made worthy to behold them.
Of his disciples, a ‘mystical circle’ existed, consisting of Simon, Isaac and Micah. These monks were also known to behold the uncreated Glory and obediently reported these revelations to the saint.27 This is exactly what Saint Dionysius the Areopagite refers to when he writes about ‘divine energy’ and ‘rays of Divinity’ and what Saint Gregory Palamas expands on when he writes “The Divine Light has not only an allegorical and abstract meaning: it is the fact of mystical experience.”28
Also emphasised in the Life and other accounts of Saint Sergius is his famous vision of the Mother of God and the many miracles worked by him. The account of the vision of the Mother of God shows that the saint had the gift of foresight, or clairvoyance, as he was able to tell his disciple about what was about to happen:
“And as he was praying and singing the thanksgiving Canon of the Most Pure, it is the Akafist, and having finished his rule, he sat down for a little rest and said to his disciple, by the name of Mikhei: “My child, be temperate and vigilant, for there will be to us a wonderful and awesome visit right now.” And while he was still saying this, a voice was heard that time: “Here comes the Most Pure Herself!” And as the saint heard it, he quickly went from his cell into the passage, that is, the entrance, and suddenly great light spread over the saint, greater than the shining sun, and he then saw the Purest Herself, with two Apostles, Peter and John, all glittering in indescribable brightness. And as the saint saw this, he prostrated himself, not being able to suffer unbearable dawn. The Most Pure touched the saint with Her hands and said: “Do not be terrified, my Chosen, I came to visit you. Your prayer for your disciples for whom you prayed and for your abode was heard. You should not worry any more, for from now on there will be everything in abundance and not only as long as you live, but even after your departure to the Lord I will never leave your refuge, providing all necessities generously and protecting the donors.” And having said this, she became invisible. The saint remained in ecstasy of mind and was seized by great fear and trembling. After a while he came to himself, found his disciple lying in fear as if dead, and he lifted him up. But he fell before the feet of the Starets, saying: “Explain to me, Father, for the Lord’s sake, what was this wonderful vision, for my spirit almost parted because of that radiant vision.” The saint, who was rejoicing in his soul so that his whole figure was blossoming with joy, could answer only this: “Be patient, my child, since my spirit also trembles within me from that wonderful vision.”
Appearance of the Mother of God to St. Sergius.
Following this awesome and ecstatic experience, the Life records that the saint “…stayed the whole night without sleep, contemplating in his mind this unutterable vision.”29 This sentence contains within it an absolute treasury of hesychastic allusions, mentioning the saint’s all-night contemplation of an ‘unutterable vision’. Contemplation, or theoria, being the highest of the spiritual levels attained by spiritual strugglers, and the unutterable vision, being one of the finest ways of ‘describing’ the revelation of the uncreated Glory of God granted to those who have become friends of God.
His miracles, although not numerous, were also accounted by Epiphanius, and included clairvoyance, healing and the resurrection of a young boy.30 Visions such as those of the Mother of God, and spiritual gifts, especially clairvoyance, are closely tied with the hesychastic tradition and indicate the high sanctity of the individual in question.
Saint Sergius’ retreat into the desert of the vast Russian forests acted as a catalyst for mass monastic colonisation of Russia’s northern lands and the formation of many monasteries, mostly founded and led by his disciples. Indeed, evidence does exist for monastic communities existing in this part of Russia from earlier times but it was the spiritual renaissance that took place at the Holy Trinity Lavra that created a strong and authentic spiritual tradition to carry to the north and transfigure whole tribes and peoples.
Eleven of Saint Sergius’ disciples were founders of monasteries, some during his own life, and the Holy Trinity Lavra was responsible for “fifty monasteries, which in their turn produced forty more”.31 While local conditions, such as the despoiling of Russia by the Tatars, were conducive for the move to the north, there was also strong influence from the hesychast movement in the Greek lands. As has been mentioned, there were innumerable hesychastic texts available in the Slavic language and they no doubt proved to be an inspiration for the thousands of monks who ventured into the deserts of Russia, the ‘northern Thebaid’.
Although it would be wrong to say that all of the hundred and fifty or so monasteries that were founded in northern Russia during this period were directly related to Saint Sergius, a good majority were. Those that were not developed along similar lines were undoubtedly sustained from the same deep spiritual wells that Saint Sergius and his monks drank from.
Many accounts of the lives of these strugglers on Russia’s frontiers include mention of ‘unceasing prayer’, ‘mental prayer’ and similar terms, usually denoting hesychastic practices. Following from the spiritual revitalisation occurring in the heartlands of Russia, many of these monks, having sanctified themselves in the wilderness, committed themselves to missionary work on its wild frontiers, Saint Stephen of Perm being a notable missionary.
Moving on from the historical themes that point towards Saint Sergius’ immersion in the hesychastic tradition, we can look at how the Church itself views the great saint. In the Church’s liturgical commemorations, his spiritual life is alluded to in typically poetic fashion. In the stichera of Small Vespers on his feast day of 25th September, he is referred to as having “been united with the Light that is utterly pure.” In the aposticha of the same service, Saint Sergius is mentioned as “being worthy to see the divine light.” The stichera of Great Vespers mention his “unceasing prayer”. The canons at Matins make reference to watchfulness (nepsis), seeing Christ face to face, his being “enlightened by bright beams of light”, going into “the depth of silence”, “shining with divine light” and, again, “unceasing prayer”.32 While none of these phrases refer directly to hesychasm, the poetic language used in the services to the saint strongly resembles that used by Epiphanius when referring to Saint
Sergius’ spiritual experiences and can be seen as alluding to hesychasm, as these are the kind of terms that one finds in many hesychastic texts. In fact, Saint Sergius’ services actually have more allusions to hesychasm than those of Saint Gregory Palamas. We should, therefore, not doubt that the Church, when composing the liturgical texts for the saint, considered him as part of the core hesychastic tradition and a carrier of the teachings.
Having looked at the historical movements of the era and their influence on Saint Sergius, the highly-regarded and fairly contemporary accounts of his life as well as the Church’s view, we can conclude that Saint Sergius is a definite carrier, practitioner and transmitter of the hesychastic tradition. Of course, as has been mentioned, we cannot separate hesychasm from Orthodox monastic spirituality, but in a time such as his, when the urban monasteries of Russia had mostly become decadent, the transmission of authentic desert eremitic spirituality was a rare light in the darkness. Evidently spurred on by divine zeal and his God-given spiritual gifts, complimented by his exposure to ascetic and patristic texts, Saint Sergius was able to transform Russian spiritual life and reinvigorate the lagging monasticism of the Russian church. With communications between the Russian and Greek worlds being evident and regular, we cannot doubt the heavy influence of the Hesychastic movement under Saint Gregory Palamas on the upsurge of Russian monastic spirituality, as well as the greater Balkans region. Upon his death and canonisation, the Church recognised his part in this movement, as shown by the liturgical texts presented above. While we can say that the Church, his followers and scholars both of his era and ours consider him as a hesychast, would the Saint himself? This last question may only be answered by looking to his extreme humility and coming to our own conclusion.