Serapion of Kozheozero
The Tatar Tursas (later Serapion) was born and grew up in the Kazan khanate. He was descended from a noble Tatar family and was brought up in the Islam. When Kazan was taken by Russia in 1552, he was captured alongside other nobles, who were brought to Moscow and taken under the patronage of boyard Zacharia Ivanovich Plescheev. Plescheev’s wife, Tatar princess Iliaksha (christened Juliania) was Tursas' relative. In Moscow many eminent Tatars began to convert to Orthodoxy: prince Utemysh-Gyrei was baptized with the name Alexander, and the last khan of Kazan, Ediger-Mohammed, confessed faith in Christ, and was named Simeon. Inspired by these examples and persuaded by Juliania, who had been Orthodox for quite a while by that time, Tursas was baptized with the name Sergius. It is quite possible that he was christened in honor of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who had been canonized over a hundred years before and was deeply revered.
Sergius’ conversion fell during the time when the Russian Church was headed by St. Makarius of Moscow (+1563; feast on December 30). No doubt, the future ascetic of Kozheozero prayed during the Liturgies of St. Makarius, watched him, and listened to his sermons. Here Sergius came to love our Lord Jesus Christ so sincerely, so deeply, and so purely that he decided to part from the world to observe the highest rules of the new faith.
At that time the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery had become the main Russian monastery. The Tsar himself and many boyards with their kinsfolk came there for pilgrimage. No doubt, the new Tatar convert with his godfather, the boyard Plescheev, also prayed here. After getting acquainted with the monks in the Holy Trinity St. Sergius monastery, learning by the example of his patron saint the highness of these ascetic labors, Sergius made up his mind to become a monk.
But the cloister of St. Sergius was already very famous at that time, and he wanted to live as a hermit, so Sergius went far to the north in search of a spiritual guide. For several years he would go from one northern monastery to another, headed for the White Sea, until finally he came to the Oshevensky monastery. Here he became acquainted with the hermit Nifont, who lived near the distant lake Kozheozero. This wonderful lake was hidden far from mundane settlements, behind impassable windfalls and swamps. Sergius immediately directed his steps there and found what he had been searching for – a good teacher of spiritual life.
Seeing sincerity of Sergius’ faith and how he stood the proper tests, St. Nifont tonsured him a monk under the name Serapion. About they lived the ascetic life together for eighteen years, keeping a strict fast and eating only roots and berries.
“It was not long that they stayed alone. Other people came who, like them, strived for salvation, and asked to accept them, and love did not let them refuse.1