Saint Sergius of Radonezh-The Guardian of Bears
Today, September 25, we celebrate the feast of Saint Sergius of Radonezh.
The Holy man known as Sergius of Radonezh was a spiritual leader and monastic reformer of medieval Russia. Together with Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, he was one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most highly venerated saints.
Saint Sergius of Radonezh lived in the 1300s and is considered one of the greatest Russian saints by Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians alike.
Born Barfolomei Kirillovich in 1314, Saint Sergius of Radonezh came from a once-wealthy family and lived with his parents until they died in 1334.
Sergius of Radonezh worked miracles during his lifetime. Father Sergius descended into a nearby thicket when the monastery began to lack water due to the lack of water in the spring. He prayed over rainwater to God, asking it to be plentiful and to become a healing spring. The water was enough not only for the monastery but also for the peasants living in the area.
Sergius of Radonezh is also a saint who cured many people, both from bodily and mental illnesses. There are known cases of curing people with deadly diseases and those possessed by demons.
He made his home at one point in the wilderness, like the hermits of old.
Under various forms and multiple times, it is said that the demons attack Sergius, but so exhausted did they become of the saint’s righteousness that they attempted to frighten him out of the wilderness using wild animals.
Wolves, bears, and other beasts were sent forth to frighten the ascetic but did not cause him to forget his faith and centering prayers. Eventually, the animals let him be. All except for one bear.
Sensing that this bear came not to frighten him but rather was searching for food, the Russian anchorite began sharing his only food with the bear—a slice of bread.
The bear made a habit of eating with Sergius since food was difficult to find elsewhere. More than once, when there was only one slice of bread to eat, Sergius would give it all to the bear rather than let it go hungry.
Other stories tell the legend differently: It has it that when St. Sergius of Radonezh was a young monk alone in the woods, he became friends with a wild bear. Once during his ritual prayers, St. Sergius heard a wild bear roaming near his church. He took a piece of bread and gave it to the bear as a treat. Since then, they became friends, and the wild animal came to visit and protect the saint.
So do we take our passions by bread and fasting, and by “making friends of the mammon of iniquity” (Lk. xvi) do we convert them to our own cause.
Sergius of Radonezh received signs that his monastery was not forgotten by the Grace of God.
For one time, at night, the Monk Sergius saw the light and heard a voice from heaven, pointing out to him the suddenly appeared birds, symbolizing all the monks. A great light emerged from heaven and drove away all darkness of the night, and the night was illuminated by this light which excelled by its brightness the light of day. Then, for the second time, the voice was heard, saying, “Sergius! You are praying for your children, and the Lord has accepted your praying. Look carefully and see a multitude of monks who are gathered in the name of the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity in your flock to be taught by you.”
The saint looked and saw many very beautiful birds that flew not only over the monastery but also around the monastery. The voice was heard, saying:
“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.” The most famous case is considered the appearance of the mother of God to Father Sergius, together with the apostles’ Peter and John, who promised never to leave the monastery with her mercies.
It is unknown how or when, or even if St. Sergius’ Bear met its demise. For all we know, the Russian Bear was living a lonely eremitical existence in the Russian wilderness for the last seven hundred years. He was probably quietly waiting for someone to bring him a piece of bread in exchange for a story about its old master.