Thursday, March 26, 2015

St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Sergius of Radonezh: A Comparison of Lives


This is a conference paper given last October on the occasion of the St. Sergius Conference held at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary. Since today (technically tomorrow, but liturgically it’s already his feast day) is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, I am publishing these remarks. These might be published some day, in which event I will take this paper offline, but until then, I hope you find it edifying.

Today, we are commemorating the 700th anniversary of the birth of St. Sergius. The theme of this conference made me wonder: who would the monks of St. Sergius’ time regard as their monastic forefathers? If they met together, perhaps they would have spoken of the fathers of the Kiev Caves, the Desert Fathers, or any of the other great fathers of the East. I think they would have lauded the feats of a father of the West, St. Benedict of Nursia, whose biography was available to them in Slavonic translation. This saint was born in 5th century Italy, nine hundred years before St. Sergius blessed Prince Dimitry to fight Khan Mamay at Kulikovo. His parents, of distinguished birth, sent him to Rome for a liberal education, but Benedict saw the sinful exploits of his classmates and left everything to serve God in the wilderness. There, he lived as a hermit, battled demonic temptations, and gained many followers. He founded over a dozen monasteries in Italy, including the famous monastery of Monte Cassino which stands to this day. He had gifts of clairvoyance and wonderworking, and was able to foretell the day of his death.

As we can see from this brief summary, both St. Benedict and St. Sergius led very similar lives. In this paper, I would like to compare the two saints based on the record left by their hagiographers. St. Benedict’s life forms part of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome. St. Gregory wrote his Dialogues in the 6th century in order to demonstrate that the saints of Italy were just as grace-filled as the ascetics of the East. Thus, he patterned his accounts after the lives of ascetics such as St. Anthony the Great. The Dialogues were so popular that they were translated into many languages including Greek and Slavonic. In the Orthodox Church, St. Gregory is known as “the Dialogist” and is credited with the composition of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. The life of St. Sergius was first recorded by Epiphanius the Wise and revised by Pachomius the Serb; it follows the Byzantine hagiographical tradition. Although Epiphanius and Gregory used common tropes of hagiography, they wrote while their subjects were still in living memory, and used the testimonies of their disciples. Thus, when we read the lives of Benedict and Sergius in tandem, the individual personalities of both saints come through. In addition to hagiography, I will also reference the famous monastic rule which St. Benedict introduced in his monastery. According to St. Gregory, “Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.” This rule is still in use today in hundreds of monastic communities around the world, including Benedictine monastic houses in our own Russian Church Abroad.

I will compare the two saints in four areas. First, I will examine each saint’s response to temptations. Second, I will compare how each saint lead his monastic community. Third, I will look at how each saint’s interacted with the secular authorities. Finally, I will recount the mystical experiences of each saint, and how these experiences are interpreted in Eastern and Western theology.

When Benedict and Sergius turned to the monastic life, they followed the example of the Desert Fathers and went into the wilderness. There was no desert in Italy or Northern Russia; Benedict instead settled in a cave, Sergius in the deep forest. Neither man was completely alone. Benedict had a visitor, the monk Romanus, who clothed him with the monastic habit and fed him with bread from a nearby monastery. Sergius (or as he was then called, Bartholomew) found his forest habitation with his older brother Stefan, but Stefan could not get used to life in the wilderness and soon went back to his monastery in Moscow. Later, a monk named Mitrofan came and tonsured the young Bartholomew into the angelic life, and became his spiritual father. Despite this occasional company, Sergius and Benedict were mostly alone, and fought alone against both the demons and their own passions. Each saint had his own “fighting style.”

St. Benedict used the common ascetic practices of prayer, fasting, and vigils. However, when he was faced with strong temptation, he was nearly willing to destroy his own body in order to win against the passions. Once, the demon appeared to him in a form of a woman whom the saint had seen in Rome. Inflamed with passion, he fought it by flinging himself into a brier patch and rolling in the thorns and nettles. St. Gregory writes: “Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart.” As he became more spiritually mature, St. Benedict stuck to the middle path and introduced the spirit of moderation into his monasteries, requiring “nothing harsh or burdensome” and allowing for concessions to the young, the weak, and the elderly. Nevertheless, he was a man of his time, and was not above using physical force when necessary. When the saint had already established many monasteries, one of his abbots told him that he was having problems with a monk who would always leave the common prayers. The saint rebuked the wayward monk several times, but without success. St. Benedict then saw with his spiritual eyes a small black demon leading the monk away from prayer. The saint defeated the demon by beating the monk with his staff. The corrected monk never left his prayers again. Benedict did not beat his monk out of cruelty, but in order to wake him up. The Rule of St. Benedict also prescribes corporal punishment in many cases. It seems that the saint believed that the kingdom of God is literally taken by force.

St. Sergius faced similar temptations, but he did not resort to such extreme measures. In praising him, we sing at Little Vespers: “O venerable father, with great abstinence, pure supplications and the sweat of ascetic toil thou didst extinguish the burning coals of the body…” After the hegumen Mitrofan left him in the wilderness, Sergius faced many attacks from demons and wild beasts. Hordes of demons—depicted as Lithuanians in the hagiography—pounced upon him and threatened him with many violent words. The saint responded to the demonic attacks through prayer and the sign of the cross. The demon fired the arrows of carnal temptation, but the saint shielded himself from them through prayer. Wild beasts also roamed the forest, howling, roaring, and surrounding the saint, even sniffing at him! Throughout these temptations Sergius remained undisturbed. He was even friendly with one of the beasts, a hungry bear. This bear would come to the saint’s hermitage nearly every day, and the saint would give him some of his bread to eat. Sergius would even go hungry so the bear would not go away with an empty stomach. Whereas St. Benedict violently killed the passions, St. Sergius “lulled them to sleep” through prayer, fasting, and manual labor. Instead of standing in a mosquito-infested swamp or living on a pillar, he let the harsh elements of his environment become the source of his podvig. His feeding of the bear also symbolizes a different approach to the passions. Instead of trying to crush the passions like St. Benedict did, St. Sergius transformed the passions and made them submit to the needs of his spirit, just as he tamed the wild bear.

Saints Sergius and Benedict also lead their monastic communities in different ways. Generally speaking, St. Benedict was an institutional leader who focused on enforcing law and order, and St. Sergius was a transformational leader who lead through both example and personal charisma. We must be wary of oversimplifying: St. Benedict was very charismatic, and St. Sergius introduced a strict rule for his monastery. We can still say that each saint had a particular tendency.

St. Benedict’s first experience as a leader came when a group of monks begged him to leave his hermitage and become their abbot. He relented, but he implemented strict policies which irritated the monks, who by that time had grown accustomed to laxity. They regretted choosing Benedict as their abbot and decided to kill him with a poisoned flask of wine. At dinner, they placed the tainted flask in front of their (soon-to-be former) abbot, but when the saint made the sign of the cross over it, the flask broke apart, as if it were hit by a stone. Benedict then rebuked his would-be murderers and left them in peace.

St. Benedict then established twelve monasteries, each featuring twelve monks and an abbot. He also built a monastery for himself on a mountain formerly used for pagan worship. There, he created the spiritual regulations which would be later codified into the Rule of St. Benedict. In the Rule, Benedict addresses his monks as a kind father:
“Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from Whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.” 
The Rule of Benedict is summed up in the motto Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work). The monastic schedule was divided between work, prayer, and spiritual study. The abbot provided everything necessary, and monks could not own any property, including personal objects. For example, St. Benedict once beheld through clairvoyance a monk that took some handkerchiefs from some nuns whom he was visiting. The saint then upbraided the monk, who by that time had forgotten that he even had the forbidden items on his person. There are many similar scenes in St. Benedict’s hagiography in which the saint clairvoyantly sees a monk break a rule. The saint then rebukes the erring brother and gives him a penance. Thus, the saint’s charismatic gift is used to strictly enforce the order of the monastery.

St. Sergius also clairvoyantly saw the wrongdoing of others, and he once rebuked a messenger for secretly eating some of the food he was delivering to the monastery. For the most part, however, Sergius chose to lead through his own personal example. When fellow ascetics began to live around the hermit and form a brotherhood, St. Sergius got to work serving them, and his hagiography describes him as being like “a slave who was bought by them.” He cut the wood, ground the flour, cooked the meals, and worked with the strength of many men for the sake of his brotherhood. Although it was in his right to become the leader of the community, he asked his old spiritual father, Mitrophan, to become their abbot. It was only after Mitrofan’s death that Sergius was willing to take upon himself the role of hegumen. Even as the abbot, Sergius never ceased from his labors. During a famine, when there was hardly any bread left in the monastery, the saint discouraged his brethren from begging, but to rely on God to provide them with sustenance. He himself went to one of the other monks, named Daniel, and offered to build him an entrance hall for his cell in exchange for a bowl of moldy bread. He worked from morning until night and refused to even taste a morsel of his wages until he was finished. Sergius was the consummate servant-leader, so much so that at least one pilgrim, upon seeing him, refused to believe that this poor monk, standing in front of them in ragged clothes, was the great Abbot Sergius! Nevertheless, St. Sergius, as we have mentioned, implemented a cenobitic rule in his monastery, after some prompting from Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarch himself, Philotheos Kokkinos. This rule was based on strict obedience to the abbot, common prayer, and manual labor—something very much akin to the spirit of Ora et Labora that we find in St. Benedict’s Rule! Moreover, by Benedictine standards, St. Sergius would be a very good abbot. In the second chapter, we read:
“...when anyone receives the name of abbot, he should govern his disciples with a twofold teaching. That is to say, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds even more than his words, expounding the Lord’s commandments in his words to the intelligent among his disciples, but demonstrating the divine precepts by his actions for those of harder hearts and ruder minds.”
The most significant difference between the venerable fathers was in how they interacted with the secular authorities. This was mainly conditioned by each saint’s historical context. St. Benedict was born four years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. All his life, he was under the rule of barbarians who claimed fealty to the Emperor in Constantinople but in reality ruled in their own right. Roman institutions and ways of life continued, but the Ostrogothic kings of Italy were Arians, hostile to the Orthodox faith. St. Benedict confronted the Ostrogothic leaders several times and overcame them through his spiritual strength. Once, Totila, their king, attempted to trick the holy man by disguising his sword-bearer in his royal robes. The saint, as expected, saw right through this subterfuge. The awestruck king came and prostrated himself before the saint. Benedict rebuked him for his mistreatment, and predicted his eventual defeat. Benedict made no mention of the Orthodox emperor who would defeat Totila—Justinian—and seems to have been generally indifferent to politics. He saw his ideal society, as it were, within the walls of the cloister. A monastery, according to Benedict, “should be so established that all the necessary things, such as water, mill, garden and various workshops, may be within the enclosure, so that there is no necessity for the monks to go about outside it, since that is not at all profitable for their souls.”

St. Sergius, who had implemented the Studite cenobitic rule in his monastery, would have agreed with St. Benedict. On the other hand, St. Sergius also had a high level of involvement in the establishment of Muscovite Russia. Unlike Benedict, his rulers were Orthodox Christians. Although the invading Tatars forced the Russian princes to kowtow to them, the Tatar khan let the princes handle their own internal affairs. With the princes and the leaders of the Church being able to work relatively freely, they eventually grew strong enough to throw off the Tatar yoke, although this took centuries.

Sergius is well-known for blessing Prince Dimitry of Moscow to fight Khan Mamay in 1380. The saint also used his spiritual authority to benefit Moscow in several other ways. First, in the year 1365, Sergius acted as an agent of Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod. The prince there, Boris, resisted the authority of the prince of Moscow and was friendly to the Lithuanians. Sergius placed an interdict upon the city, something common in the medieval West. This meant that all the churches in the city were shut down. As a result, Boris was forced into submission and yielded. Sergius also served as an ambassador and brokered a peace between Oleg of Ryazan and Prince Dimitry, who were bitter enemies. Through the holy man’s gentle words, Oleg was convinced to make peace with Moscow and even marry his son to Dimitry’s daughter. It was precisely because this holy man was so highly regarded that he was entrusted with such diplomatic missions. However, Sergius was not a politician. For the most part he stayed in his monastery and put his trust in God rather than in the sons of men. Nevertheless, because of his reputation, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity gained many secular patrons, and became a place of pilgrimage and burial for the Russian tsars.

Saints Benedict and Sergius may have had different conceptions of the monastic life, but as saints, they were each enlightened by the same Holy Spirit. They both mystical experiences involving an awesome vision of divine light.

Benedict received his vision while praying in the middle of the night. According to St. Gregory, he “beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away.” The saint then saw the entire world enveloped in a single beam of light, and the soul of a bishop he knew being carried up to heaven. Benedict cried out to his guest, the deacon Servandus, who came up in time to see the last of the vision. St. Gregory, in explaining the vision, states: “All creation is bound to appear small to a soul that sees the Creator. Once it beholds a little of His light, it finds all creatures small indeed.” St. Benedict’s vision of light presented a theological problem for Western theologians, who equated seeing God with seeing the divine essence. St. Gregory himself taught in his Homilies on Ezekiel that no mortal man could ever see God in Himself: “...with whatever effort the human mind strains...while placed in mortal flesh [it] is not able to see the glory of God as it is. But whatever of that is which shines in the mind, is a likeness, and not itself.” St. Augustine thought that God could be seen in this life, but it required a kind of ecstatic state in which the mind is practically separated from the body. Based on this teaching, the Latin theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that St. Benedict could not have seen God because he was not in a full ecstasy, but was aware enough of his surroundings to be able to call out to Servandus. It was not a vision of God Himself, but “a light derived from God.”

St. Sergius also had visions of the divine light. While praying in the dead of night, the saint heard a voice call out his name. Surprised, he looked out his window and saw that “a great light appeared from heaven and drove away all darkness of the night, and the night was illumined by this light which excelled by its brightness the light of day.” The saint then saw a vision of a flock of many beautiful birds, and a voice from heaven said to him, “As you saw these birds, in a like manner the flock of your disciples will be multiplied and even after you they will not diminish if they choose to follow in your footsteps.”

Sergius had a second vision of light which accompanied a visitation by the Mother of God. After the saint finished his prayer rule in front of the Icon of the Virgin, he told his disciple Mikhei: “My child, be temperate and vigilant, for there will be to us a wonderful and awesome visit right now.” At once, light filled the place where they were standing, and the Virgin appeared to them alongside the Apostles Peter and John. The Mother of God spoke to St. Sergius, and assured him that his monastery would always be under her protection.

In Orthodox theology, these visions of light experienced by both saints are not a likeness or simulacrum of the divine light, but were a foretaste of the glory of God in which both saints now dwell. Orthodox theologians would agree with Aquinas that St. Benedict did not see the divine essence—and in fact, we believe that no creature can—but would affirm that he did see God through His energies. St. Gregory Palamas, who defended the doctrine of uncreated light and the distinction between essence and energies, was a contemporary of St. Sergius, but we are not certain whether he knew of the hesychast controversies, but we know that he participated in the same ascetic tradition of the hesychasts, whose roots can be traced to the most ancient fathers and, indeed, Holy Scripture itself—the same roots from which St. Benedict drew his inspiration. As for St. Benedict, St. Gregory mentions him in his work in defense of hesychasm, The Triads,  as an example of someone who experienced the uncreated light.

Despite some differences in ascetic practice, monastic governance, and interaction with the outside world, Sts. Benedict and Sergius were both inspired by the same gospel and lived the same faith. This is why was held up as an example by the monks of St. Sergius’ time, and why we should also look to him as an example like that of St. Sergius. I will close this paper with his troparion:

By thine ascetical struggles, O Godbearing Benedict, thou didst prove true to thy name. For thou wast the son of benediction, and didst become a model and rule to all who emulate thy life and cry: Glory to Him Who has strengthened thee; glory to Him Who has crowned thee; glory to Him Who through thee works healings for all.

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