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St. Sergius and the Church in Moscovite Russia: XIV-XV Centuries
The tide began to turn in the late fourteenth century with the emergence of the principality of Moscow. The central figure in this period of the Russian Church's history is St. Sergius of Radonezh. Born to peasant parents in the northern Russian city of Rostov in 1314, Bartholomew (his name before adopting the monastic name of Sergius) was distinguished for his love of church writings and the Bible. At an early age he sought the life of a solitary; retiring as a monk to the vast forests north of Moscow, he gathered around himself a community of like-minded zealots. to whom he was appointed abbot (hegumen). The community built a small monastery dedicated to the Holy Trinity. St. Sergius attracted the attention of the Metropolitan of Moscow (the primarily see by this time having been transferred to Moscow from Kiev via Vladimir) Alexis, who tried to persuade him to become his successor. Sergius declined, yet his influence on the Russian body politic was idiosyncratically strong for a humble monk. It was Sergius who was the broker for peace between quarreling princes and it was Sergius who gave his blessing to the prince of Moscow Dmitry Donskoi to go into battle with the Mongol khan Mamai at Kulikovo Field in 1380. The Battle of Kulikovo Field was a turning point in Russian history as it shattered the legend of the invincibility of the Mongol army, yet was only the beginning of the Russians' liberation from their Oriental rulers.
St. Sergius' spiritual legacy had consequences for the building up of the Church in Russia that are felt to this very day. Sergius did not leave to the Church any spiritual writings. His spirituality is embodied in his Vita written by Epiphanius the Wise, and it was a spirituality centered on prayer and contemplation serving as the bedrock for service to one's brother or sister in Christ. Sergius gained fame as an exponent of an interior, ascetic style of monastic life, what the Byzantine spiritual masters termed 'hesychasm', the silent prayer of the heart of the recluse. Debate had raged in thirteenth-century Byzantium over whether God could be contemplated and whether the human person was capable of being united with Him. Yes, was the answer to both questions, the hesychasts claimed conditionally: God can be contemplated not in His essence but in His energies and the human person can become united, or deified in Him, but only through the way of the Cross and only by grace: he cannot become a god by nature. St. Sergius' life embodied this teaching by combining a reclusive life with compassion for those whom encountered in the northern forests.
This renewal of the Church's life of prayer found expression in the revival of iconography, the most perfect example of which is Rublev's Trinity, painted in honour of Sergius' vision of the Trinity. Under Sergius' tutelage the hesychastic monastic movement in Russia took root in the far north of Russia. This 'monastic colonization' laid the foundations for the great monasteries of St. Cyril of Beloozero and Solovki and the skete of St. Nil of Sora, who introduced this particular form of monasticism from Mt. Athos.
After Sergius' death in 1392 Russia witnessed an extraordinary renaissance in both the inner and outward life of the Church. The early fifteenth century saw the emergence of the characteristic onion domes of Russian church buildings, while masterpieces of iconography by Andrei Rublev, Theophanes the Greek and Daniel Chorny adorned cathedrals and churches in dioceses that grew across the length and breadth of Muscovite Russia. The Church's mission reached as far as the Ural mountains with the evangelization of Finno-Ugric peoples, especially the Zyrians into whose language St. Stephen of Perm had translated the Gospels and Divine Liturgy.