As the sages of the East used to say, one would be cursed to live in a time of abrupt change. Crises happen in the lives of people and individuals. Many of us might call our present days the time of trouble, and with good reason. The uncertainty, covert conflicts and the global pandemic are only a few of their hallmarks. Saint Sergius of Radonezh lived in one of Russia's most troubled periods and left us some valuable insights that have survived his day.
In the life of Saint Sergius, we find the following description of his era. "Ever so often, we hear about one duke travelling to the Mongols, the captors of Russia, to ask for their patronage; we hear of others, who invade the dukedoms of their neighbours, ravaging or capturing them. Still, others have incited the enemies from the East or West to attack Moscow. Rivers of blood have been shed in these feuds, and only the wisdom and persuasion of the righteous men like the Venerable Sergius kept them from intensifying their deadly attacks."
When the brother of the Duke of Suzdal, Boris Konstantinovich, refused to recognise the supremacy of the Moscow duke and captured Nizhny Novgorod, Sergius travelled to Nizhny to bring Duke Boris to his senses. But to the persuasion of Saint Sergius, he responded with arrogance and disdain. "God alone may judge a duke, and I will not submit to anybody's will". Then the Holy Venerable Sergius called for the closure of every church in the city. What this meant for his compatriots is easy to imagine - no church worship, no liturgy, no baptism of children, no marriages or last honours for the dead. Yet the spiritual power of Saint Sergius was so immense that the churches remained closed until the rebellious duke changed his mind.
What was the secret of the saint's authority? In one of his interviews, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill gave the following answer. "The ultimate miracle of the Holy Venerable Sergius is his person. He left the secular world and came to the centre of Russia's life. He shunned all power - secular or ecclesiastic - yet he became the ultimate authority in his homeland and the Church. He purposefully chose for his ascetic deeds a most inhospitable location, yet he created around himself a large monastery and a city. He, a humble monk, mobilised and inspired the Russian people to rise and defend their homeland." The author of his life, Epiphany the Wise, brought us the following last words of Saint Sergius to his monastic brothers. He said, Brethren, out yourselves first! He did not tell them to engage in correcting the mores of others or try to teach them how to live pious and righteous lives. Nor did he command them to maximise their wealth or greatness for themselves, the monastery, or their country. He told them to put themselves first; to preoccupy themselves with their salvation by following the commandment of our Lord: "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6: 33).
Beyond the circle of his disciples and his contemporaries, his teachings also applied to the present moment. He tells us that someone who lives according to the flesh and seeks worldly respect and power over others will not achieve the victory of the spirit. Our aspirations lie elsewhere. We should not desire domination but seclusion and contemplation; we should not seek authority and power - we should shun them. Saint Sergius of Radonezh made this life choice when he retired to live alone amid the Russian forest. He had no goal of attracting a following of disciples or establishing the large monastery in Northern Russia that would become a magnet for believers throughout the land.
By refusing to pursue false goals or to direct most of our time and effort towards them, we create a space for living in the spirit. Our times of trouble are nothing else but a message from our Lord - that it is time to change our way of thinking and going about our daily lives, rise above our daily routines and preoccupy ourselves with our salvation.
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