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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • The Conversion of the Slavs
      • The Russian Church under the Mongols (1237-1448).
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The Russian Church under the Mongols (1237-1448).

  The suzerainty of the Mongol Tartars over Russia lasted from 1237 until 1480. But after the

great battle of Kulikovo (1380), when the Russians dared at last to face their oppressors in an

open fight and actually  defeated them, Mongol  overlordship was considerably weakened; by

1450 it had become largely nominal. More than anything else, it was the Church which kept alive

Russian national consciousness in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as the Church was later

to preserve a sense of unity among the Greeks under Turkish rule. The Russia which emerged

from the Mongol period was a Russia greatly changed in outward appearance. Kiev never recov-

ered from the sack of 1237, and its place was taken in the fourteenth century by the Principality

of Moscow. It was the Grand Dukes of Moscow who inspired the resistance to the Mongols and

who led Russia at Kulikovo. The rise of Moscow was closely bound up with the Church. When

the town was still small and comparatively unimportant, Peter, Metropolitan of Russia from 1308

to 1326, decided to settle there; and henceforward it remained the city of the chief hierarch of


  Three figures in the history of the Russian Church during the Mongol period call for

particular mention, all of them saints: Alexander Nevsky, Stephen of Perm, and Sergius of Ra-


  Alexander Nevsky (died 1263), one of the great warrior saints of Russia, has been compared

with his western contemporary, Saint Louis, King of France. He was Prince of Novgorod, the

one major principality in Russia to escape unharmed in 1237. But soon after the coming of the

Tartars, Alexander found himself threatened by other enemies from the west: Swedes, Germans,

and Lithuanians. It was impossible to fight on two fronts at once. Alexander decided to submit to

Tartar  overlordship and to pay tribute; but against his western opponents he put up  a vigorous

resistance, inflicting two decisive defeats upon them . over the Swedes in 1240 and over the

Teutonic Knights in 1242. His reason for treating with the Tartars rather than the west was pri-

marily religious: the Tartars took tribute but refrained from interfering in the life of the Church,

whereas the Teutonic Knights had as their avowed aim the reduction of the Russian .schismat-

ics. to the jurisdiction of the Pope. This was the very period when a Latin Patriarch reigned in

Constantinople, and the German Crusaders in the north aimed to break Orthodox Novgorod, just

as their fellow Crusaders in the south had broken Orthodox Constantinople in 1204. But Alexan-

der, despite the Mongol menace, refused any religious compromise. .Our doctrines are those

preached by the Apostles,. he is reported to have replied to messengers from the Pope. ..The

tradition of the Holy Fathers of the Seven Councils we scrupulously keep. As for your words, we

do not listen to them and we do not want your doctrine. (From the thirteenth-century life of Alexander


Nevsky; quoted in Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, p. 383). Two centuries later the Greeks after the

Council of Florence made the same choice: political submission to the infidel rather than what

they felt would be spiritual capitulation to the Church of Rome.

  Stephen of Perm brings us to another aspect of Church life under the Mongols: missionary

work. From its early days the Russian Church was a missionary Church, and the Russians were

quick to send  evangelists among their pagan conquerors.  In 1261  a  certain Mitrophan went as

missionary bishop to Sarai, the Tartar capital on the Volga.  Others preached, not among the

Mongols, but among the primitive pagan tribes in the north-east and far north of the Russian con-

tinent. True to the example of Cyril and Methodius, these missionaries translated the Bible and

Church services into the languages and dialects of the people to whom they ministered.

  Saint Stephen, Bishop of Perm (1340?-1396), worked among the Zyrian tribes. He spent

thirteen years of preparation in a monastery, studying not only the native dialects but also Greek,

to be the better fitted for the work of translation. While Cyril and Methodius had employed an

adapted Greek alphabet in their Slavonic translations, Stephen made use of the native runes. He

was an icon painter, and sought to show forth God as the God not of truth only, but of beauty.

Like many other of the early Russian missionaries, he did not follow in the wake of military and

political conquest, but was ahead of it.

  Sergius of Radonezh (1314?-1392), the greatest national saint of Russia, is closely con-

nected with the recovery of the land in the fourteenth century. The outward pattern of his life re-

calls that of Saint Antony of Egypt.  In early manhood Sergius withdrew into the forests (the

northern equivalent of the Egyptian desert) and here he founded a hermitage dedicated to the

Holy Trinity. After several years of solitude, his place of retreat became known, disciples gath-

ered round him, and he grew into a spiritual guide, an .elder. or starets. Finally  (and here the

parallel with Antony ends) he turned his group of disciples into a regular monastery, which be-

came within his own lifetime the greatest religious house in the land. What the Monastery of the

Caves was to Kievan Russia, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity was to Muscovy.

  Sergius displayed the same deliberate self-humiliation as Theodosius, living (despite his

noble birth) as a peasant, dressing in the poorest of clothing. .His garb was of coarse peasant felt,

old and worn, unwashed, saturated with sweat, and heavily patched. (Saint Epiphanius, .The Life of

Saint  Sergius,. in Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, pp. 69-70). At the height of his fame, when

Abbot of a great community, he still worked in the kitchen garden. Often when he was pointed

out to visitors, they could not believe that it was really the celebrated Sergius. .I came to see a

prophet,. exclaimed one man in disgust, .and you show me a beggar. (Epiphanius,  in Fedotov, op.

cit., p. 70). Like Theodosius, Sergius played an active part in politics. A close friend of the Grand

Dukes of Moscow, he encouraged the city in its expansion, and it is significant that before the

Battle of Kulikovo the leader of the Russian forces, Prince Dmitry Donskoy, went specially to

Sergius to secure his blessing.

  But while there exist many parallels in the lives of Theodosius and Sergius, two important

points of difference must be noted. First, whereas the Monastery of the Caves, like most monas-

teries  in  Kievan  Russialay  on  the  outskirts  of  a  city,  the Monastery  of  the  Holy  Trinity  was

founded in the wilderness at a distance from the civilized world. Sergius was in his way an ex-

plorer and a colonist, pushing forward the boundaries of civilization and reducing the forest to

cultivation. Nor is he the only example of a colonist monk at this time. Others went like him into

the forests to become hermits, but in their case as in his, what started as a hermitage soon grew

into a regular monastery, with a civilian town outside the walls. Then the whole process would

start all over again: a fresh generation of monks in search of the solitary life would make their


way into the yet more distant forest, disciples would follow, new communities would form, fresh

land would be cleared for agriculture. This steady advance of colonist monks is one of the most

striking features of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Russia. From Radonezh and other centers a

vast network of religious houses spread swiftly  across the whole of north Russia as far as the

White Sea and the Arctic Circle. Fifty communities were founded by disciples of Sergius in his

own lifetime, forty more by his followers in the next generation. These explorer monks were not

only colonists but missionaries, for as they penetrated farther north, they preached Christianity to

the wild pagan tribes in the forests around them.

  In the second place, while there is in  the religious experience of Theodosius nothing that

can  be  termed  specifically mystical,  in  Sergius  a  new  dimension  of  the  spiritual  life  becomes

evident. Sergius was a contemporary of Gregory Palamas, and it is not impossible that he knew

something of the Hesychast movement in Byzantium. At any rate some of the visions granted to

Sergius in prayer, which his biographer Epiphanius recorded, can only be interpreted in a mysti-

cal sense.

  Sergius has been called a .Builder of Russia,. and such he was in three senses: politically,

for he encouraged the rise of Moscow and the resistance against the Tartars; geographically, for

it was he more than any other who inspired the  great advance of monks into the forests; and

spiritually, for through his experience of mystical prayer he deepened the inner life of the Rus-

sian Church. Better, perhaps, than any other Russian saint, he succeeded in balancing the social

and mystical aspects of monasticism. Under his influence and that of his followers, the two cen-

turies from 1350 to 1550 proved a golden age in Russian spirituality.

  These two centuries were also a golden age in Russian religious art. During these  years

Russian painters carried to perfection the iconographic traditions which they had taken over from

Byzantium. Icon painting flourished above all among the spiritual children of Saint Sergius. It is

no coincidence that the finest of all Orthodox icons from the artistic point of view . the Holy

Trinity, by Saint Andrew Rublev (1370?-1430?) . should have been painted in honor of Saint

Sergius and placed in his monastery at Radonezh.

  Sixty-one years after the death of Sergius, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks. The new

Russia which took shape after Kulikovo, and which the Saint himself had done so much to build,

was now  called to take Byzantium.s place as protector of the Orthodox world.  It proved both

worthy and unworthy of this vocation.


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