Tag Archives: Mikhail Nesterov

All of his riches are within.

On Sept 25th we are remembering St. Sergius of Radonezh, a Russian of the 14th century who “filled the wilderness with ceaseless prayer, and transformed the forest into a holy place of God.” From The Prologue of Ohrid I give you this sweet story:

A saint does not shine outwardly. All of his riches are within, in his soul. A peasant came from afar to the monastery to see St. Sergius. When he asked the monks for the abbot, they told him he was working in the garden. The peasant went to the garden, and there saw a man in poor, ragged clothes, digging like any other peasant on a farm. The peasant returned to the monastery dissatisfied, thinking that the monks had made fun of him. So, to make things clear, he asked again for the glorious holy father, Sergius. Just then, Sergius returned to the monastery, and welcomed the peasant, serving him at the table. The saint saw into the heart of his guest, and knew the low opinion he had of his appearance. He consoled him by promising that he would see Sergius in a little while.

A prince and his boyars then arrived at the monastery, and they all bowed low to St. Sergius, and asked his blessing. The monks then removed the peasant from the room in order to make room for the new guests. In amazement the peasant looked on from a distance, to see that the one he had sought had been nearby all the time. The peasant rebuked himself for his ignorance, and was greatly ashamed. When the prince departed, the peasant quickly approached the saint, fell at his feet and began to beg his forgiveness. The great saint embraced him and said to him: “Do not grieve, my son, for you are the only one who knew the truth about me, considering me to be nothing–while others were deluded, taking me for something great.”


painting by Mikhail Nesterov


Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of
the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes
the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces
the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry
to the Theotokos:
“Rejoice, O Full of Grace,
the Lord is with you!”

The announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ, the Son of God, is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the church year in Orthodoxy, and is celebrated exactly nine months before the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, on March 25th. The words above are from a hymn that we sing on this feast.

Not long ago I read The Presence of Mary, a booklet by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in the St. Athanasius Study Series, published by Conciliar Press © 1988. In 26 pages the author discusses in depth the role of Christ’s mother in our salvation history, and sets it against “…the fundamental spiritual disease of our time [that] must be termed anthropological heresy.”

That last clause piqued my interest, too! I’ve been wanting to take the time to read the booklet again and write a real review about the truths that Fr. Schmemann helps to clarify, but that time is not now. However, the present moment and celebration does seem to be right for at least posting a quote from the book, as we contemplate her who is “blessed among women.”

It is clear that an abstract and impersonal study of man posits a self-evident conclusion: man as total dependence. An equally abstract exaltation of man posits its a priori premise: man as total freedom. But both are revealed in the unique personal experience of Mary, an experience given to the Church and made into her experience, as one and the same truth about man.

In Mary, the very notions of “dependence” and “freedom” cease to be opposed to one another as mutually exclusive. We are inclined to think that where there is dependence there can be no freedom, where there is freedom there can be no dependence. Mary, however, accepts, she obeys, she humbles herself before the living Truth itself, a Presence, a Beauty, a Life, a Call so overwhelmingly evident that it makes the notion of “dependence” an empty one — or rather identical and coextensive with that of freedom. For as long as freedom is nothing but the other side of dependence — a protest, a rebellion against dependence — as long as freedom itself depends on dependence for its meaning, it is also an empty notion. Each time freedom chooses and accepts, it ceases to be freedom. Here, however, in the unique experience of Mary, freedom becomes the very content of dependence, the one eternally fulfilling itself in the other as life, joy, knowledge, communion, and fulness.

Admittedly these are poor, inadequate, and clumsy human words about an experience, a vision, a reality which transcends all human words. But, having read them, look again at that woman who eternally stands at the very heart of the Church filling our hearts with a mysterious yet ineffable joy, making us repeat eternally that same salutation which she heard in the depth of her heart on the day of Annunciation: Rejoice!

(Icon by Mikhail Nesterov)

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