Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Wasting Time, Part II: How I Ended Up in Russia

And now I shall continue this rambling story, and you will find that it is not without interest.

I grabbed this book off my shelf yesterday and became absorbed by it, but, as I said, the Lord is merciful. It turned out to be a very interesting book about Saint Sergius and Russian Spirituality. Yes. Really! That book attracted my interest, and I started reading. I found it hard to stop reading. (I challenge anyone to a NERD contest, any time, any place... I will outnerd you!)

This icon has pretty much the whole story.
But seriously: I already knew a lot of what was in this book, and I knew that is was great and deeply significant history, but present circumstances put it in a new perspective.

Sergius of Radonezh is a Russian Orthodox saint of the 14th century. He is one of the great saints of Russian monasticism who also played the role of peacemaker among the factions that were emerging as the Mongol grip was loosened in the north. St. Sergius is a national hero and symbol for Russia, although this is something of an accident of history. His monastery was near Moscow, and his counsel to the prince and his prayers are linked forever to the decisive Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, which was a "Lepanto-like" victory by Christian Slavs over the Mongols.

Stay with me here, because this matters. This is the birth of the Russia we know today. This Russia traces its origin to the great lost city of Kiev, which was a wonder of the 11th and 12th centuries and known well throughout Europe. Ancient Kiev was vaporized by the Golden Horde in 1240, and I mean really vaporized! The Mongols -- an inscrutable confederacy of nomads brought together by Genghis Khan -- were like a combination of an unstoppable force of nature and a ferocious weapon of mass destruction.

Ancient Kiev, the Kiev of St. Vladimir and the people of Rus, was basically nuked. The "Golden Horde" didn't need a bomb. They killed everyone. They burned everything. Then they pitched camp, chewed on dried mutton, rested, raced their horses, and headed for the next town.

They had a simple philosophy. A divine being ruled heaven, and they ruled earth. Their motives for being ruthless weren't very clear, but at some point they realized that if they came to a city and decided not to just toast it, there was a lot of money to be made.

The Christian Slavs who could fled, many to the north. Kiev was erased from the map. Part of the problem of tracing the Slavic heritage is this unparalleled event and its consequences. The Mongols swept over the world of medieval Rus, wiped part of it out and left the rest of it to pay tribute. This was terrorism. But it also became, over time, a migration and partial assimilation, with the "Tartars" settling and some even converting to Christianity. The khans were curious about religion, and even considered Christianity. In the end, however, they chose Islam.

Russia was born over a century later, inspired in part by a monk who was a man of peace, a monk who lived as a hermit and shared his bread with a bear every day, who founded a monastery under obedience to the bishop and served as abbot by building the cells of his novices and bringing them water and food, a monk who counseled peasants and princes, and who convinced princes not to fight with one another.

The Battle of Kulikovo was a matter of self defense. When it became clear that the Horde could not be stopped by tribute or even temporal humiliation, Sergius blessed Prince Dmitri and told him to go forth boldly, trust God, and prepare for death. Many did die on that day, but the Prince lived and prevailed. Muscovy and its princes became the unifying center of the Eastern Slavic world. Eventually they became Emperors with a stature beyond anything St. Sergius could have imagined in the 14th century.

Fascinating stuff. And, in fact, very much worth knowing and remembering.

In celestial glory, St. Sergius prays for peace between his brothers on earth today. May his prayers be heard.