The Second Feast of the Monastery

Our patron, Saint Gregory of Sinai, has, as we say, three feasts and no services. He is celebrated on April 6 (and on some calendars, April 7), today, August 8/21, and on the day of his repose in 1346, November 27/December 10, the day we keep as our main feast.

The three dates all occur within periods of fasting in most years, appropriately enough for a monastic. The absence of a service is curious. Saint Gregory is a major figure within the world of hesychast spiritual life, and one would expect that a liturgical composer would have been found early-on, drawn from the same circles that composed the service for his younger (and better-known) contemporary, Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. But no liturgical text is extant for Saint Gregory of Sinai.

Saint Gregory was born in the 1260's (traditionally 1265) in a family which we may see as rural gentry, in a village at the southern end of the bay of Smyrna (currrently Turkish Izmir). He comes to public attention when he, with his family, falls victim to a Moslem raiding party looking for prominent captives who will be ransomed, and humbler captives for the slave markets. The captives were taken to Syrian Laodikeia where they were indeed ransomed, as expected. But during their captivity Saint Gregory comes to the attention of the local community when his chanting in a local church is unusually accomplished, and his physical beauty is remarked. We do not know the fate of the rest of his family after their release, but an apparently teen-aged Gregory goes off to Cyprus, the first stage of a life-long pilgrimage in search of a deeper union with God. On Cyprus he is clothed in the first stage of the monastic life (the stage called rassoforos, from the wide-sleeved robe donned by the beginner) by a hermit. Gregory moves, after a short time, to Mount Sinai, where he is fully-tonsured into the ranks of the monastics at Saint Katherine's Monastery. Looking at the buildings, the interior walls and ikons, and at the magnificent mosaic of the Transfiguration in the conch of the basilica's apse today, we see what Saint Gregory saw during his stay at Sinai. Here he became adept at the ascetic disciplines designed to deconstruct the worldly man, and to reconstruct the heart in Christ. Strictness in keeping the fasts, lengthy vigils (in the church's liturgical cycles and in the individual kelli, the cell), prolonged standing during prayer, all-night chanting of psalms and other severe feats tamed and disciplined the flesh rendered unruly and self-absorbed as a result of the mortality programed into the human condition as a result of the ancestral sin in Eden. The goals included a growing self-mastery, a purification of individual will, and a capacity to detect, and deflect the assault of the daemonic, working through the passions to which all flesh falls heir.

Our knowledge of this phase of Saint Gregory's life and spiritual growth comes from a companion of those early years, one Father Gerasimos, whose verbal account was heard and written down by one of Saint Gregory's late disciples, Kallistos, who later served as Oecumenical Patriarch (twice, in fact: 1350-1353 and 1355-1363). Patriarch Kallistos' life is our one source for the life and teaching of Saint Gregory of Sinai. Kallistos lived in obedience to Saint Gregory for a number of years.

Confronted with the envy of other brothers in the Sinai monastery, Saint Gregory quietly quit the place, taking Gerasimos with him, and landing on Crete during a storm, the two took the landfall as a sign that they were to settle in a quiet, obscure place. Finding a cave, they took up residence and lived on a spare diet of bread and water, while looking for an older monk to mentor their struggle. The Holy Spirit inspired an elderly holy monk, Arsenios, to find them and it was from Arsenios, on Crete, that Saint Gregory learned of the practice of hesychasm, which we call by various names today - contemplative prayer, inner prayer, prayer of the heart. Arsenios told Saint Gregory that the following of a regimen of interior spiritual discipline and prayer could result in the hesychast's becoming wholly light (olos fotoeidis). He explained that Gregory's efforts until now fell under the heading called 'praxis' (bodily ascetic practices), but his advice would be to move inward to 'theoria' (interiorized ascetic disciplning of the mind and of the heart).

The establishment of this connection between Saint Gregory and the monk Arsenios would be, as one of Saint Gregory's recent biographers notes, "a milestone in the great Hesychast Movement which swept through the monastic world, triumphed in the mid-fourteenth century . . . and launched among the Slavonic and other non-Greek Churches dependent on it a broad and beneficial wave of spirituality and reform, of which the effects lasted for centuries and can even be felt today". (David Balfour, "Discourse on the Transfiguration", p. 65).

Immediately, Saint Gregory left Crete and landed on Mount Athos, where he searched wide and far for hesychasts who could continue and further the education of his mind and heart. Significantly, he found almost no one - none at all residing in the great ruling coenobitic monasteries - and finally settled a half-hour walk to the right of the main gate of Philotheou, in a small skete called Magoula, where three monks (Isaiah, Kornelios and Makarios) followed a way of life attending to both the familiar 'praxis' and to 'theoria' as well.

Here Saint Gregory constructed cells for his own disciples, and at some distance, a kelli for himself. Here, concentrated within himself, and using the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me), he began to undergo a 'good and strange transformation' as the energy of the Holy Spirit transformed the inner man. And, just as had been predicted by the monk Arsenios, his kelli was filled with 'light, the effulgence of Grace' while Gregory himself overflowed with joy, weeping tears, filled with divine love. His desire for God was overwhelming, and he himself - as well as his kelli - was filled with light.

Now Gregory's attractiveness - physical, when noted in his teen years by the Christians who came into contact with him during his captivity - becomes spiritual and monks of all kind flock to his side 'like bees to honey'. Some are already adepts, and well-known. Others - like the Bulgarian Kliment - are simple - Kliment was a humble shepherd. The mixing of ethnicities and languages at this early stage will continue as Saint Gregory lays the foundation for what a 20th century Romanian Byzantinist will call 'the hesychast international'.

One is reminded of the late Father Alexander Schmemann's remark that the history of the West is a history of 'radical discontinuities' while the history of the East is one of 'radical continuities' - much of the material in Patriarch Kallistos' biography of his Elder is practically identical to material found in the early and classic reflections of the Christian spiritual life as practised by the monastic community, such as Saint John Klimakos' 'Ladder of Divine Ascent'. This is not merely the repetition of cliches, but the manifestation of a continuum of effect in the God-man relationship. And again, turning to Father Alexander's gift for summarizing distinctions memorably - 'While secularized Christians in the West always want to hear Christ saying, "Behold, I make all new things", the fact is that Christ said, "Behold, I make all things new", and that fundamental truth informs the amazing continuity one finds within the Church.'

Patriarch Kallistos notes in his biography that the gifts found in Saint Gregory's life as he went from glory to glory could not 'safely be described to uninitiated persons . . . who believe the grace and gift of the Spirit is a mere creature' - he is referring to the westernized opponents who spoke out vehemently against hesychasm, and who were confronted by the writings in defense of the hesychasts penned by Saint Gregory Palamas (+1359). The Latin West held that grace is created; the Church knew grace as uncreated. The fierce polemics between Saint Gregory Palamas and the hesychasts, on the one side, and the partisans (who included some Byzantines) of a westernized understanding of grace and the spiritual life, racked Constantinople and what was left of the empire of the New Rome for years, and while the final vindication of the hesychast position came within Saint Gregory Palamas' lifetime, that victory was by no means assured during the heat of an intensely-fought battle. Saint Gregory of Sinai, however, seems (as far as the extant documentation indicates) to have stood apart from the polemics of the age, preferring the unhindered, undistracted pursuit of the joys of the heschast life to their public defense under the most trying conditions.

At times even the mild tasks of mentoring like-minded hesychasts under his direction proved overly-distracting and Saint Gregory would leave Magoula for a time, for remoter, uninhabited regions, where he had built cells for the purpose. However, a more serious intrusion came in the form of Moslem raiding parties which afflicted Athos during this period of the final break-down of the security of the civil life of the eastern Roman Empire.

Saint Gregory evidently decided to return to Sinai, and, taking a number of disciples (including the future Oecumenical Patriarchs Isidore and Kallistos - his biographer) with him, he journeyed to Thessaloniki, then on to Chios (intending to go on to Jerusalem, a plan abandoned when they met a monk from there who warned them against the idea) and Lesvos and Constantinople. But the idea of going on to Sinai was evidently abandoned, and the party returned to Athos, where Gregory was well-received at the Great Lavra, and was given a hermitage (hesychastirion) nearby. Moslem raids, however, only increased and finally Saint Gregory and his brothers found themselves in the Strandzha Mountains on the then-border between the Empire and the Bulgarian Kingdom. Near Paroria, above the Black Sea coast, the final monastic settlement was established, not without terrible trials, including some from envious local monks jealous of Saint Gregory's reputation and success in recruiting disciples. But Gregory was much-aided by the timely attention of the Bulgarian King, John Alexander (reigned 1331-1371), a man of piety who loved the monastic life, who provided both material resources and a force to police and secure the area, ensuring the undistracted and unhindered pursuit of the hesychast life as far as was possible in an age of upheaval and violence.

Here recruits from Slav- and Greek-speaking communities included some of the most famous spiritual leaders of the next generation, Saint Theodosios of Trnovo and Saint Romylos among them.

Many days before his repose, Saint Gregory was forewarned of his impending departure from this life. He went to an isolated cell taking with him a disciple. Here his final days on earth saw a horde of daemons descend on him, seeking to destroy him. Saint Gregory was not frightened by this daemonic invasion, although the daemons continued to attack. For three days he neither ate nor slept, and he encouraged his single companion to join him in the "hard wrestling" by "clinging to prayer and psalmody". Then, a deep spiritual composure settled on the Saint and filled him with consolation. He noticed this change and gave thanks to God saying "Thy right hand, O Lord, hath crushed our enemies, the daemons, and destroyed them utterly . . . . " He called his disciple who came and found him joyful and tender, smiling, and telling him that "some divine force has come down and driven away the evil spirits and freed us from their temptation." (Balfour, 90-91 for the full account).

And today's Gospel is the appearance on the water of our Saviour, Who invites the bold Apostle Peter to join Him in the miracle, and Peter does. And then, Peter notices the storm, and sinks.

How often does our Saviour come to us in the context of a storm, of a situation that threatens us and terrifies us. And at its heart, stands the Saviour Who is the Lord of storms at sea and of storms in our family life, our professional life, our community, our inner life. The Saviour calls to us from the eye of the storm, calling us to be with Him in the context of what is an unbelievable miracle, a miracle that turns what we know inside-out, that inverts and re-orients all our certainties.

We would prefer a Savioiur of easy days and quiet afternoons, of sunny weather, of gentle breezes, a Saviour Who allows us to apprehend Him when all is calm, within and without. But that is not always going to be the case. How well the life of Saint Gregory of Sinai illustrates this. His life is time and again torn apart, all the routine gestures of routine daily affairs broken down, and he is left like Peter, all exposed.

Christ, or the storm. How often those are the alternatives before Saint Gregory, as they were before Peter the Apostle. Saint Gregory suggests that the path of sanity and health, of personal stabilty and spiritual strength, is laid down within our heart through the discipline of ascetic struggle. And that must be the way we look at things, whether the ascetic struggle is carried out in the context of married family life or of the monastic life. Consistent, persistent, motivated by love of God and of the least of His brethren, whose serving accomplishes our salvation - these are the elements that converge today on our patronal feast as we hear the Gospel of Peter and the storm, at whose heart is Christ. We already hear the Saviour's triple question to Peter, asked after the resurrection: Peter, lovest thou Me?

The Lord grant that we hear all the lives of all the Saints who speak to us across the centuries, or from our own fleeting moment in history, who discover Christ in the midst of the day's stormy struggles and questions. And may the prayers of the uncomplaining Gregory of Sinai, driven hither and yon in a time of violent change, strengthen us in our own struggle and in our own love for the Lord of the storm.

--A word from Bishop Sergios on the feast of Saint Gregory of Sinai, August 8/21, 2005