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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

6. Russian Orthodoxy (41 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 12

Early Russian Monasticism — St. Sergius.

While the general picture of the moral condition of society in the period of the Tatar yoke is undoubtedly a gloomy one, and the gloom darkened still further with the passing years, the unquestioned blossoming of Russian acts of holiness and sainthood gleams against this background. The ties were not broken with the East or with Mt. Athos, where a revival and rebirth of spiritual life had come with the movement of the Hesychasts in the fourteenth century. Metropolitan Cyprian, for example, a Serb by origin and a monk of Athos who had zealously pursued liturgical reform in Russia, was a confirmed Palamite. At Athos whole settlements of Russian monks were created who continued the work of translation. Through them speculative literature reached Russia: the works of Basil the Great, Isaac the Syrian, Maxim the Confessor, and Simeon the New Theologian. Russia was not yet cut off from its blood relations with universal Orthodoxy. This uninterrupted spiritual tradition appeared most clearly in Russian monasticism, of which the fourteenth century was the golden age. This was the time of St. Sergius of Radonezh and of all that northern Russian Thebaid — the series of monasteries connected with him — which would remain the true heart of Russian Orthodoxy forever.

With St. Sergius (1320-92) Orthodox saintliness was revived in all its brilliance. From his withdrawal into the desert through physical asceticism, self-crucifixion, and meekness, to the last rays of the light of Mt. Tabor and the partaking of the kingdom of heaven, Sergius recapitulated the journeys of all the great witnesses to Orthodoxy from the first centuries. The nationalist would emphasize the support he gave Prince Dimitri Donskoi for his attempt to liberate Russia from the Tatars. Sociologists and economists insist upon the colonizing and enlightening significance of the immense network of monasteries founded by his disciples and successors; yet these are of course not the most important thing about him — rather, the absolutism of his Christianity, the image of the complete transformation of man by the Holy Spirit and his aspiration to “life in God.”

This made St. Sergius the center of Russian Orthodoxy in the dark years of her history and brought many roads to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius. All that was genuine and vital in the Russian Church at that time was linked in one way or the other with St. Sergius. He himself wrote nothing, yet nothing expresses so convincingly and forcefully his influence and the content of the doctrine he incarnated than the icons painted by St. Andrei Rublev, discovered rather recently after centuries of oblivion. His “Trinity” is a most perfect work of religious art, an actual “meditation in color.” In general, Russian religious experience was expressed and incarnated in those ages less in verbal, theological work than in church architecture and the icon. These bear witness with “a sort of material authenticity to the complexity and genuine refinement of ancient Russian religious experience and to the creative power of the Russian spirit.”[54]


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