Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

Walking toward Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius from Sergiev Posad.

Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is the most important monastery in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is named after Sergius of Radonezh, who built a wooden church in honor of the Holy Trinity on Makovets Hill and founded the monastery in 1337. He is one of the most venerated Russian saints and is considered the father of Russian monasticism. Some 400 monasteries were established by monks from Trinity Lavra beginning in the time of Sergius, spreading the Gospel of Christ throughout Russia.

Making our way along the river-lined path to the monastery. Everywhere are sanctuaries and Holy spaces, even outside the the Lavra’s mile-long kremlin walls.

St. Sergius was born Bartholomew. When he was a boy, he had a vision of a monk, who prayed for the Bartholomew per his request: that he’d be blessed in biblical knowledge and  become capable of “book-learning.” The monk beheld that the youngster was the chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit and gave him some prosphora and said, “Take this in thy mouth, child, and eat; this is given thee as a sign of God’s grace and for the understanding of Holy Scriptures. Though the gift appears but small, the taste thereof is very sweet.”

We entered the monastery through the Holy Gates, which were lined with frescos depicting the life St. Sergius. Two frescos from this spot can be seen below.

In 1380, St. Sergius supported Dmitri Donskoy in his struggle against the Tatars and sent two of his monks to participate in the Battle of Kulikovo, which is considered one of the most decisive events in Russian history. It is said that Sergius offered his blessing – “Go fearless prince and believe in God’s help” – but only after he was certain that Dmitry had pursued all peaceful means of resolving the conflict.

As a man, he lived the life of an ascetic and was beloved by other monks. His humility and inner peace through the Trinity was also evident through his relationship with wild animals. There are stories of packs of wolves and bears coming to his hut but not harming him. It is said that Sergius even gave his last piece of bread to a bear with whom he had befriended, simply telling his brother monks, “The bear does not understand fasting.”

Dating back to the 1470s, the Church in Honor of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is the oldest original structure in the Lavra. The monastery has withstood much destruction over the centuries, including Tatar attacks just after Sergius’ death in 1392 and then again in 1408, as well as the siege by Polish during the Time of Troubles in the early 1600s.

St. Sergius lies in repose in Holy Trinity Cathedral. People line up to venerate one of Russia’s most beloved saints. I actually stole this pic from the internet, as it was a whirlwind adventure through the monastery with our “tour guide” Ruslan – an Orthodox sub-deacon, who our priest put us in touch with. The door to the right of Sergius’ relics still has a bullet hole from the Polish attack some 400 years ago.

Holy Water Fountain (on right) sits in the shadow of the bell tower, which was constructed from 1740-70. Standing just shy of 289 feet, it was the highest building in Russia at that time. Ruslan, who is a former student at the monastery, is a man in the know at Trinity Lavra. He had keys which allowed us to climb all the way to the top of the bell tower for an aerial view of the entire monastery grounds, and took us on our own private tour of the the Church Archeological Museum, located in the Tsar’s Chambers of the the Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin. In fact, Ruslan translated into English as the Russian tour guide explained the history behind the icons, vestments, and other church artifacts, many dating back at least 1,000 years.

Chapel Over the Well (on left) was built in the late 1600s over a natural spring, which is said to have healing properties. Dormition Cathedral (on right) was constructed between 1559-85 on orders from Tsar Ivan the Terrible. It was modeled after the church of the same name in Moscow’s Kremlin.

A close-up of Dormition’s architectural detail. This is the church where we attended Vespers during our visit to the Lavra.

View of Holy Trinity Cathedral (the gold-domed sturcture in the foreground) from atop the bell tower. Inside the church, there is an artifact room housing an array of relics, including those of St. Andrew the Apostle, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), and the arm of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, which you can actually see exposed through the glass casing. Utterly mind-blowing!

Stephen and Ruslan rest under one of the enormous bells at the top of the tower. Well, Ruslan may not have been resting, as his normal walk was nearly as fast as my all-out sprint. Man, could that guy move! As we trekked around, I was always in the back behind our group, feverishly snapping photos with frozen fingers in the frigid weather. He would always ask Stephen, “Where’s the wife?” And then jokingly jeer me about always playing catch up. Ruslan was a hoot!

In 1930, the Lavra’s bell tower was home to the “Trotzkoi” (Trinity) bell, which was the world’s 7th largest bell at that time. But that year, Stalin removed and melted down all monastery bells throughout the Soviet Union as just another godless slight to the Christianity; this came some 10 years after the Bolsheviks had already closed down the monastery and were using its buildings to house government agencies and other assorted commie bureaucracies.

Fortunately, the Lavra was given back to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946 (when Stalin experienced some temporary “tolerance” for the faith as to rally the troops during World War II (what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War”), and the bells were replaced in the 2003-04 with nearly 160,000 tons of new bells.

Check out the detail on this bell. So pretty.

Bells, bells, bells everywhere!

Dormition Cathedral from way up high near the Heavens.

Looking out beyond the fortress of the monastery to the city of Sergiev Posad. Interestingly, in 1930 (the same year the bells were destroyed), the town was renamed Zagorsk in “honor” of revolutionary Bolshevik V.M. Zagorsky. It was renamed Sergiev Posad 1991.

Departing the monastery after an amazing day jam-packed with spirituality, history, art, and architecture. Man, pilgrimages can be exhausting! Thanks to Ruslan for helping us see so much in such a short period of time.

Outside a nearby restaurant where we dined with Ruslan on beef tongue, borscht, and other assorted goodies, the 3 Amigos lean on a wooden bear, no doubt placed there in honor of St. Sergius’ “wild-animal whispering” skills.

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