23 August 2009

'For Us, the Physician Medicine Prepared'—St Gregory of Sinai

Yesterday, 8 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Gregory the Sinai. Unfortunately, I did not have time to prepare a post for the actual day of his feast. Of course, he is celebrated two other times during the year, but both of those dates have come and gone since I started this blog, and I hated to let an entire year of Logismoi go by with no post on this great hesychast and theologian of the spiritual life. I simply had to post on St Gregory, even if I was late.

Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) writes that ‘St Gregory the Sinaite is viewed as the main promoter of the fourteenth century hesychast renewal, and his works count among the most important in the Philokalia’ (Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel [Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008], p. 36). According to the ‘Introductory Note’ on St Gregory which prefaces his works in the English Philokalia, ‘Gregory of Sinai was born, probably around 1265 (but the date is uncertain), near Klazomenai, on the western shores of Asia Minor. Taken prisoner as a young man in a Turkish raid, after being ransomed he went to Cyprus, where he entered the first grade of the monastic life’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 207). Continuing the story, here is the account of St Gregory’s life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid: Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], pp. 169-70):

He was named ‘the Sinaite’ because he became a monk on Mount Sinai. In the time of the Emperor Andronicus Palaeologus, in about 1330, he went to the Holy Mountain to visit the monasteries and discover more about mental prayer and contemplation. But these two spiritual exercises were little known at that time among the monks of the Holy Mountain. The only one who was experienced in them and practised them perfectly was St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia. Gregory spread his teaching on mental prayer through all the cells and monasteries of the Holy Mountain. His most famous pupil was Kallistos, Patriarch of Constantinople, who wrote Gregory’s life. After that, Gregory went to Macedonia and to other parts of the Balkans, and founded communities in which the monks engaged in mental prayer, thus helping many to deepen their prayer and come to salvation. His writings on mental prayer and asceticism are found in the Philokalia. Among other things, he wrote the hymn to the Holy Trinity: ‘It is meet and right . . .’, which is sung in the Midnight Office on Sundays. He stands among the most famous ascetics and spiritual teachers of the Balkans. He entered peacefully into rest in 1346, after a life of great toil, and went to the Kingdom of Christ.

According to the Life written by his disciple, Saint Patriarch Kallistos of Constantinople (The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and Sinai Desert, trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997], pp. 239-40):

Gregory, who exercised due care in all works, like the apostles, desired to encompass all the world and bring all the Christians to divine ascent with his teachings, that by means of active virtues, they might mount to the summit of mental prayer, just as he ascended by the co-operation of the divine Spirit. With this teaching, he wished with all his heart that all be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. To the divine Gregory, the following words are appropriate: ‘His sound has gone forth into all the earth, and his words unto the ends of the world’ (Ps 18:4). In every place that the saint went, he did not fail to sow and communicate his teachings of the benefits of solitude and mental prayer. And his divine words did not stop with him, but his disciples went on to spread this teaching.

Indeed, Anthony-Emil Tachiaos of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has done a thorough preliminary study of St Gregory’s influence among the Slavs of Bulgaria and Serbia, through his own writings as well as through the activities of his disciples: ‘Gregory Sinaites’ Legacy to the Slavs: Preliminary Remarks’, Cyrillomethodianum vii (1983), pp. 113-65. Tachiaos writes:

The period when Gregory was in Paroria [present-day Bulgaria] was a glorious spiritual era in XIVth-century Hesychast monasticism. He acquired new disciples there whose number seems to have increased daily. Gregory brought the Hesychast traditions of Sinai and Athos unchanged to Paroria, where his disciples kept them alive and flourishing. (p. 118)

Speaking of these disciples, Fr Placide writes:

One of them, Theodosius, founded the monastery of Mount Kelifarevo . . . after Gregory’s death. From this monastery, hesychast spirituality radiated to the entire world of the Slavs, thanks to its great monks and pastors: Euthymius, patriarch of Tirnovo; Romylos and Gregory the Hesychast, who spread hesychasm to Serbia with the help of prince Lazarus; Cyprian, Metropolitan of Kiev, who brought it to Russia, thereby imbuing St Nil Sorsky (1433-1508) with the doctrine of the Sinaite a century later. (p. 36)

Fr Placide also goes on to speak of the content and depth of St Gregory’s spiritual teaching as contained in his various Philokalic texts:

The spiritual doctrine of St Gregory the Sinaite is centered entirely on the guarding of the mind and the prayer of the heart. He teaches how, through hesychast prayer, the monk can progressively acquire consciousness of grace deposed in him through baptism and nourished by the Eucharist. Taking his inspiration from the Ladder of St John Climacus and the Mystagogy of St Maximus the Confessor, ‘Gregory presents the summit of the prayer of the monk as a priestly worship, in spirit and in truth, accomplished in the sanctuary of the heart’ (M. van Parys, ‘La liturgie du coeur selon saint Grégoire le Sinaïte’ in Irénikon, 51 [1976], pp. 312-337). (p. 37)

Here are two ‘chapters’ from his work, ‘On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; on Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and also on Stillness and Prayer: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Texts’:

2. Only those who through their purity have become saints are spiritually intelligent in the way that is natural to man in his pre-fallen state. Mere skill in reasoning does not make a person’s intelligence pure, for since the fall our intelligence has been corrupted by evil thoughts. The materialistic and wordy spirit of the wisdom of this world may lead us to speak about ever wider spheres of knowledge, but it renders our thoughts increasingly curde and uncouth. This combination of well-informed talk and crude thought falls far short of real wisdom and contemplation, as well as of undivided and unified knowledge.

3. By knowledge of truth understand above all apprehension of truth through grace. Other kinds of knowledge should be regarded as images of intellections or the rationals demonstration of facts. (Philokalia, p. 212)

I have previously blogged on a passage from St Gregory’s writings here, and on his Slavic disciples here. In this post, I have translated a brief excerpt of his dialogue with St Maximus Kapsokalyvites from volume 5 of the Greek Philokalia. In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Gregory from the Prologue:

Sinaite, the all-wise one, taught the monks,
And, by his example, confirmed his teachings:
Passionlessness, that is the Promised Land,
By the Spirit, the passionless soul illumined.
Without any thoughts, man then becomes
When, with prayer, his mind rests in the heart.
Of all passions, thoughts are sinful forerunners,
Which, in the demonic authority, keeps the soul.
Sick people are we; for us, the physician medicine prepared,
To be healed, to be healthy.
The Name of Jesus, in your heart, speaks,
It will, as a fire, consume passions,
Let that powerful name, with heavenly radiance
In your heart move, with breathing.
If, in your heart, you do not have Jesus the Lord
All other mortifications, remain as water.
Only Jesus inside me is able
The water of my being, into wine to convert.
As in a nest, your whole mind, in the heart place,
And then glorify Jesus, by ceaseless prayer.
O, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner!
Let the prayer be slow; not hurried—
Until the heart, from prayer, bursts into flame—
Then, the mind, heaven sees and on earth, remains not.

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