St. Sergius was a theologian in the highest sense of the word

Representative of the Synodal Information Department
V. R. Legoida speaks in an interview with “The
Russian Idea” on
the importance of this
great saint for the establishment of Russian statehood,
the development of Russian monasticism and Church
institutions in the context of modern Church-state
relations.

 

—How would you evaluate the role of St.
Sergius of Radonezh in forming the Russian state and the
development of monasticism and Church institutions? Can we
consider him a religious philosopher or
theologian?

—There is a well-known expression: “He who
prays is a theologian.” From this point of view
Venerable Sergius is, undoubtedly, a theologian, although
not in an academic sense, as we don’t know any of
his texts, with only a few phrases coming down to our
time. Also, of course, he can hardly be called a religious
philosopher in the conventional sense. But he, I repeat,
was a theologian in the highest sense of the word. The
continuity of the tradition of hesychasm
is obvious in this saint’s prayerful monastic
podvig. As His Holiness Patriarch Kirill recently noted,
“the practice of hesychasm by Venerable Sergius and
his disciples became a spring gathering the people in a
single spiritual whole, which subsequently received the
designation ‘Holy Rus’”[1]… Indeed, the emergence of
Russian spiritual culture and Russian culture in
general, and Holy Rus’ as a cultural ideal and as
the center of values (existing in the cultural space
today), is, undeniably, connected with St. Sergius. We
can’t say with him alone, but with him in the
first place.

As regards the development of monasticism—the saint
left the world, left for the forest, and people began to
come to him, and then a lavra arose. In this way, a
tradition was formed which distinguishes Russian
monasticism, we can say, from ancient Orthodox
monasteries. It would be difficult to reprove Russian
monasticism for non-traditionalism, but it differs from
the habitations of the early Christian anchorites: the
first people left the world and had no more contact with
the world, in which, essentially, was found the point of
leaving. And St. Sergius, on one hand followed this
tradition, and on the other… Russians can’t
imagine not being allowed to go to a monastery unless
you’re a monk. St. Sergius established a new model
of cooperation between the monastery and the world, from
which, by the way, arose the phenomenon of Russian
eldership. Monks leave the world but the world leaks into
the monastery—for spiritual direction, for help, for
solace. People of various classes, of various spiritual
and cultural needs found answers to their numerous
questions within the walls of Optina Pustyn in the
nineteenth century. All of this is also in large part the
heritage of the abbot of the Russian land. By the way,
it’s been repeatedly noted that only St. Sergius is
given this name: not the abbot of the Lavra, but of the
whole Russian land.

Regarding the Russian state—as is known, Russian
political culture has such a characteristic: the people
and the state, the nation and the state are not so rigidly
differentiated, as, for example, in the political culture
of America. The concept of the state as a group of people
hired by the people and serving the people, is not really
native to Russian political culture. This, of course, can
be viewed in different ways. But if you approach it
objectively, then traditionally, there are requirements
that apply to those who run the government, not simply as
to officials who we hired to serve us. And here
there’s even a fundamentally different semantic:
“statesmen” are absolutely not the same as
“effective managers”… This
understanding is also connected with the time of St.
Sergius, although to us it’s totally obvious that
the times have changed, and the relationship of the Church
and state has changed repeatedly. Institutionally the
modern state hardly reminds us of the princedom of the
fourteenth century. But political culture as a system of
value orientations still largely feeds on that which took
shape in the time of Venerable Sergius.

—As is known, St. Sergius took part in the
reconciliation of princes, and persuaded them to march out
with St. Dimitry Donskoy. Did he somehow contribute to the
strengthening of the Church and the growth of its
authority?

—That’s a question a bit “from the
outside.” In what lies the particular importance of
this saint? He was a Christian, that is, a man who tried
to lived according to the Gospel, and we see that he
managed in full measure. His life, his hagiography is a
resplendent illustration of that principle which,
centuries later, was succinctly articulated by another
famous Russian saint, Venerable Seraphim of
Sarov—“Acquire a spirit of peace and thousands
around you will be saved.” Why did rugged soldiers
begin to listen to this man—a man who came out from
somewhere in the woods? Why did St. Dimitry
Donskoy
go to St. Sergius? What was he to the prince
that he listened when he suggested to first go to church,
and then make his fateful decision? Speaking of the
importance of St. Sergius’ activity for societal
life, we must understand, above all, what precisely was
his own, as we would say today, motivation. What was
important to him? For him it was important that life could
be lived as the Gospels say—to defeat evil within
oneself, to help others overcome evil, to defeat evil in
relationships with others, and to overcome the
“hateful discord of this world.”

—But it coincided with the general movement
towards strengthening the Church, which, came out in
support of the Muscovite princes and began to acquire
precisely a political authority.

—It’s difficult for me to agree with such
political formulations. What was political authority at
that time, in the fourteenth century, when religion and
politics were not differentiated to such an extent as is
the case today? We’re talking about a completely
different period, when in the cultural sphere (in the
broad sense) there was as yet no religious and political
differentiation. This was still centuries before the
formulation of the principle of separation of church and
state, and there was as yet no phenomenon or concept of a
“nation-state.”

What is “political?” In the ancient world
political and religious were for the most part practically
identical. Which was more important in the deification of
the Roman Empire: the religious or the political?
Therefore, your given question, as it seems to me,
somewhat simplifies the situation and doesn’t
completely correctly describe the social ontology of the
time.

—Is such a union of Church and state needed
today? That’s on the one hand. And on the other, are
there today such people who by their domestic service
contribute to the elevation of the Church’s
authority? Is it necessary? Or is it just the affairs of
bygone days?

—Today we often recall the ideal of the Byzantine
symphony, but with the qualification that it was always
just an ideal. Practice always differs from
theory—in Rus’ and later in Russia, and even
in Byzantium where it was first
formulated—nevertheless, I think it is important for
understanding Church-state relations in our culture.

It’s clear that the Byzantine ideal of a symphony
presupposes as a whole an Orthodox society in which there
is an Orthodox sovereign personifying state authority, and
the Church with spiritual authority. Therefore, it’s
impossible to simply impose it upon the modern world;
it’s incorrect. But there’s a word that can be
used to characterize the relationship between the state in
modern Russia and in a few other countries canonically
under the Russian Orthodox Church, especially countries
that were part of the cultural space of historical Russia:
cooperation. In my opinion it is quite correct and
perfectly appropriate.

Yes, the Church and state are separate and independent
from one another in the modern situation. The state
doesn’t dictate to the Church the internal laws of
its life, formally coming into contact with it only in the
legal field (we can say that the Church, as a social
organization, should be registered). But the Church is
also independent: the state doesn’t dictate rules as
those, for example, it dictated in Soviet times, or even
as it did in the so-called Synodal period, when the
canonical tradition of the patriarchate was broken.
Meanwhile, the Church doesn’t interfere in politics,
and has no status as a state Church with all its ensuing
features.

The cooperation of today is largely a result of the
twentieth century in the sense that today the government,
generally, (of course authority is a complex reality,
speaking of politics in general, including of the various
branches and institutions of government and political
parties) has turned towards the Church and other
traditional religions of Russia. The original premise of
this turnaround is connected, as it seems to me, with the
recognition that everything that happened with the Church
in the twentieth century—all the
persecution—was a tragic mistake—unacceptable
and appalling.

Does that mean that today’s relationship of the
Church and state is always and in everything infallible?
No, it doesn’t mean that, but the shift is obvious.
Moreover, the Church is the natural ally of any state, in
the good orientation of the tasks standing before it. The
Church helps the state to more effectively implement such
functions which are aimed at safeguarding the freedom and
dignity of man. In our case, in Russia, Orthodoxy has a
tradition of a particular relationship to the law, of
behavior in agreement with the law. It would be wholly
natural if the government would lean on this tradition in
battle, for example, with the legal nihilism of the
population.

As for people—each time births its own outstanding
personalities.

 

—Returning to St. Sergius of Radonezh: one
of the key moments in Russian history in the fourteenth
century was the Battle of Kulikovo Field. Did St. Sergius
truly bless St. Dimitry Donksoy for victory? Or is it
nothing more than a beautiful story lacking support from
reliable sources?

—I’m not a historian, but I know they’re
various points of views among professionals. Indeed, there
are those who cast doubts on what’s written in
The Legend of Mamai. They advance their arguments
which, at first glance, can seem quite convincing. But
there are serious counterarguments. The purely historical
testimonies, the analysis of which is known to us about
this time shows that Prince Dimitry received the blessing
of St. Sergius of Radonezh. Despite the fact that there
are many doubts in this version that are seemingly
academic, in fact they turn out to be ideologically
biased.

—The 2008 TV show “The Name of
Russia” outlined the lack of an historical actor who
could be called the undisputed national hero. In your
view, why was St. Sergius of Radonezh not in the twelve
finalists of this program? Can’t we consider that
St. Sergius was one of the spiritual actors with most
relevant spiritual legacy for Russia today?

—I well remember this show, including because the
then-Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad
presented the “winner,” St.
Alexander Nevsky
, on the show. Why was St. Sergius not
one of the twelve finalists? In my opinion it
doesn’t reflect the true importance of St. Sergius
for us today (of which our whole conversation has been
about), for our history and culture, but the level of our
knowledge. According to one poll, only 40% of Russian
citizens have at least some idea about him. Here only
education will help. Missionaries, Church personalities,
journalists, teachers—they all must try so that
people from the past would cease being just names and
pictures in textbooks, and become alive, understandable,
and near to us all.

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