Illuminated manuscript depicting St. Gregory of Sinai found in the St. Catherine's Monastery library.
THE VENERABLE GREGORY THE SINAITE
“But I am at a loss to know how to write about the root of all virtues, his obedience and profound humility, lest it should seem to the easy-going that I am telling a lie, but as it would be a sin against the truth itself to remain silent about it, I must relate what I heard from his most devoted and sincere disciple Gerasimus.”~Kallistos, Patriarch of Constantinople
St. Gregory of Sinai was born around 1265 in the small village of Klazomenai in Asia Minor, close to Smyrna. He was tonsured as a rasophore monk in Cyprus, living in silence under the direction of a virtuous hermit. In time, he desired greater asceticism and traveled to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai where he received both the lesser and later, the greater Schema. When he arrived in Sinai, with great courage, he put aside all earthly desires and zealously engaged in the divine struggle. Very quickly he amazed his more experienced Sinai brethren with his angelic monastic life of strict fasting, vigils, all-night hymnody and prayer. He was known as 'the bodiless one' by the other ascetics in Sinai.
His disciple, blessed Gerasimus, later wrote that the divine Gregory zealously carried out every obedience without hesitation or delay. He was always aware it was God who was observing his labors and not his superior alone. He quickly achieved a complete renunciation of his self-will. In spite of his many obediences on behalf of the monastery, he never neglected to faithfully fulfill his rule of prayer. After confessing his sins with a broken spirit to his abbot and receiving a blessing to retire for the evening, he would seal his door, clear his mind of distractions, and then draw close to God through unceasing prayer of the heart and psalmody, often reading the Psalter in its entirety until the sounding of the semantron for Orthos in the morning. He then would be the first to arrive for the service and the last to depart. He would eat only enough of a crust of bread and sip enough water to sustain life. According to his disciple Gerasimus, he lived as an "incorporeal angel, bearing an immaterial principle in a material body."
He was assigned the obedience of serving as a cook and baker for the brotherhood for more than three years. Though this was generally regarded as a lowly task, he considered himself serving angels rather than men and felt deeply honored for such an obedience. He was also extremely skilled in calligraphy and spent much time in spiritual study and reading. He surpassed most in his theological knowledge. Because of his great devotion for the God-seer Moses, he had a pious custom of climbing the holy God-trodden Mount Sinai, up the 3000 Steps of Repentance, almost daily in order to pray in deep reverence at the site where God had openly revealed Himself.
In time, his labors began to arouse jealousy and envy among fellow Sinai ascetics. In order to not be a temptation and stumbling block for them, he quietly took his faithful disciple, Gerasimus, and left for Jerusalem. It was because of his ascetic exploits at Sinai that he received the name Sinaite.
St. Gregory of Sinai's cell in the high country behind Mount Sinai. The almond tree in bloom was three trees intentionally twisted into one.
From The Prologue from Ochrid, by St. Nikolai Velimirovic:
Gregory is called "the Sinaite" because he received the monastic tonsure on Mount Sinai. During the reign of Emperor Andronicus Palaeologus (about the year 1330 A.D.), he arrived at Mt. Athos to visit the monasteries and to learn more, if possible, about the practice of mental prayer and contemplation. At that time, however, these two forms of spiritual practice were almost unknown among the holy Athonites. The only one who knew them--and practiced them to perfection--was St. Maximus of Kapsokalyvia. Gregory spread his understanding about mental prayer through all the cells and monasteries on Mt. Athos. His most distinguished disciple there was Kallistos, Patriarch of Constantinople, who would later write the biography of St. Gregory. After this, Gregory crossed over to Macedonia and to other Balkan regions, and established communities in which the monks practiced mental prayer. Thus he assisted many in the deepening of their prayer, to their salvation. His writings about mental prayer and asceticism can be found in the book "Dobrotoljublja: The Philokalia." Among other things, he wrote the hymn to the Holy Trinity "It is meet and right," which is sung at the Sunday Midnight Service. Gregory was one of the most eminent ascetics and spiritual teachers of the Balkans. He died peacefully after a long and laborious life, and took up his habitation in the Kingdom of God.
The cell and hermitage of St. Gregory of Sinai with twisted almond tree in bloom.
From the Sinai Gerontikon:
Note: The translation below comes from an edition published by St. George Monastery in Jerusalem. Studion Ministries is presently working on a new edition officially blessed by Archbishop Damianos of Sinai. The copyright and all profits of the new edition, when released, will belong to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai.
Excerpted from The Life of St. Gregory Sinaites, by Patriarch Kallistos of Constantinople.
1. ...And he wore the monastic attire that he had received from him and spent a little time with him, and after gaining spiritual insight, he too, like Moses before him who saw God, ascended Mount Sinai; there his head was shorn and, together with his hair, he forsook his fleshly desires and mortified his bodily urges, diving deeper and deeper and fighting stalwartly the good fight of faith. After but a short time, he had so astounded everyone by his spiritual and nearly incorporeal existence of fasting and vigils and unrelenting comportment, as well as his endless and unbroken psalm recitation spanning whole nights at a time, not to mention his petition and intercession with God. It was as if he strived to bring the spiritual and immaterial into his physical body; everyone thought he was almost miraculously free from fleshly constraints. He was such a student of obedience — the root and mother of the virtues, exalting the humble — that we are loath to commit all the details to writing for fear that wagging tongues should accuse us of telling tall tales. But even so, I will not keep silent and stifle the word of truth altogether, and I will record all that I have been taught and learned from his most faithful student, who loved him to the utmost, who followed in his footsteps and gave an exact imprint of his virtues; I mean of course the holy Father Gerasimus. For this blessed man gives an exact account and confirms that, “Once he had diligently and speedily completed whatever task the Abbot had assigned him, as if God were observing his affairs from above, he was never missing when the brothers assembled for the liturgy. And then when evening fell, he would confess his sins to the Abbot and receive his customary blessing. Afterwards, he would retire to his cell and seal the doors, and as soon as he was shut in, he would lift his hands towards God, being careful to clear his mind utterly of distractions, drawing near to God as God drew near to him. Then he would rush eagerly to the liturgy and offer up psalms to God, kneeling and praying all night long with his whole heart until he had carefully recited all the Davidic psalms and felt their ecstasy flood his soul.
Later when the wood was struck, he would always be the first outside the chapel gate, standing at attention and meditating, which he did with unflagging intensity; he would never leave the church before the morning prayers to God had been completed, and he was always first to enter the sanctuary, leaving after everyone else. His food was a crust of bread and a sip of water, just enough to keep him alive; in this way he sought to "dissolve the body’s hold on his spirit even before he died.”
2. But who could do justice to his work in the kitchen and the mancipium where he served for over three years, and to the great restraint which he showed; for the thought never entered his mind that he was serving men, but his commission was angelic, and he saw the place of his service as the very sanctuary and altar of God. Moreover he was devoted to honoring Moses the Great, the God-seer, as he deserved, to whom God spoke face-to-face, not in riddles; he almost never failed to ascend to the August and Holy Summit of Mount Sinai almost every time and in deep reverence to venerate the colossal wonders which had taken place there. This was a holy man and his hands were diligent at calligraphy, but he was just as fond of reading and would pore over his books night and day, like a hardworking bee, diligently gathering the blossoms of Divine Scripture (meaning both Old and New Testaments) and impressing them upon his mind, more than any other I know, for he outmatched and outpaced all his peers.
3. But the Evil One could not abide this state of affairs, that age-old foe and adversary of the race of man, he inflamed the monks with jealousy, sowing confusion and discord in among them like tares among the wheat. But Gregory, the student of gentleness and peace, sensed their jealousy and stole away from the monastery, taking with him the venerable Gerasimus; this man hailed from the Island of the Euripus, of the line of king Bonifacio. He had already forsaken his great fortune and vain-glory and counted it, as did the great Apostle, as rubbish compared to the vision that is to be revealed to the just. So taking his cross on his shoulders, he went himself to Mount Sinai, where he met the divine Gregory and marveled at his surpassing virtue. He became one of his students, and by God’s support and assistance, he ascended to the heights of both deed and thought, so that he was after him a paragon and model to the others of all good things...
From the Philokalia:
"You cannot be or become spiritually intelligent in the way that is natural to man in his pre-fallen state unless you first attain purity and freedom from corruption. For our purity has been overlaid by a state of sense-dominated mindlessness, and our original incorruption by the corruption of the flesh." ~ pg. 212, #1.
"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 crude 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." ~ pg. 212, #2.
"By knowledge of truth understand above all apprehension of truth through grace. Other kinds of knowledge should be regarded as images of intellection or the rational demonstration of facts." ~ pg. 212, #3.
"If you fail to receive grace, it is because of your lack of faith and your negligence; if you find it again, it is because of your faith and your diligence. For faith and diligence always conduce to progress, while their opposites do the reverse." ~ pg. 212, #4.
"Nothing so converts anger into joy and gentleness as courage and mercy. Like a siege-engine, courage shatters enemies attacking the soul from without, mercy those attacking it from within." ~ pg. 214, #13.
"To try to discover the meaning of the commandments through study and reading without actually living in accordance with them is like mistaking the shadow of something for its reality. It is only by participating in the truth that you can share in the meaning of truth. If you search for the meaning without participating in the truth and without having been initiated into it, you will find only a besotted kind of wisdom (cf. 1Corinthians 1:20)." ~ pg. 216, #22.
"Grace-imbued faith, energized by the Spirit through our keeping of the commandments, alone suffices for salvation, provided we sustain it and do not opt for a dead and ineffectual faith rather than for a living effective faith in Christ. To embody and give life to an effective faith in Christ is all we need to do as believers. But nowadays we who call ourselves orthodox believers have in our ignorance imbibed not the faith imbued with grace but a faith that is merely a matter of words, dead and unfeeling." ~ pg. 217, #28.
"The Trinity is simple unity, unqualified and uncompounded. It is three-in-one, for God is three-personed, each person wholly interpenetrating the others without any loss of distinct personal identity." ~ pg. 217, #29.
"God reveals and manifests Himself in all things in a threefold manner. In Himself He is undetermined; but through the Son in the Holy Spirit He sustains and watches over all things. And wherever He expresses Himself, none of the three Persons is manifest or to be perceived apart from or without the other two." ~ pg. 218, #30.
"Passion-embroiled states are foretastes of hell's torments, just as the activity of the virtues is a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We must realize that the commandments are activities producing effects, and that virtues are states, just as vices that have taken root are also states." ~ pg. 218, #35.
"As the first fruits of future chastisement are secretly present in the souls of sinners, so the foretaste of future blessings is present and experienced in the hearts of the righteous through the activity of the Spirit. For a life lived virtuously is the kingdom of heaven, just as a passion-embroiled state is hell." ~ pg. 219, #38.
From Saint Paisios of Mount Athos, Spiritual Counsels II, Spiritual Awakening, pp. 168-169.
"At Mount Sinai, I was impressed by the Bedouins, who had nothing to offer. But still, they gather some very small stones that are different from the others, or if they find a few leaves in the cracks of the mountain, they gather them and go up and leave them on the rock which Moses struck with his rod and water gushed out. Or the mothers who are nursing their babies go there to drip a few drops of their milk with the thought, 'May God grant me milk to nurse my children.' You can see the gratitude they have. It is not a small matter. And look at us. Those Bedouins will judge us. They leave on the rock little pieces of wood, a few leaves, some bright little stones...Has God any need of these? No, but God helps because He sees the good heart, the virtuous disposition. This is how their good intentions are expressed."
There is a second story here that I now realize is also worthwhile to convey, besides the lives of Sinai saints, and that is the one of the Bedouin of the Jebeliya Tribe. Their way of life makes it starkly apparent what we in the West have largely lost. And that is simplicity, day-to-day trust in God's providence, as well as humble acceptance of suffering if that is God's will. They have an incredible amount of love within their family, that extends even towards us outsiders, and a strong sense of community with their extended family and greater tribe. The love the husband, Hussein, has towards his wife, Hoda, and vice-versa is amazing. He is grateful to God for her and feels she is more precious than any money to him. He fully realizes many people, who are far more wealthy than himself, are unhappy in their family life, while he is extremely happy and grateful for what he has. I have an incredible photo of him interacting with his niece who is disabled with cerebral palsy. It shows the intense love and tenderness between them. But I cannot show it publicly. The photos included in this post are also of his beautiful niece, which I do have permission to share.
I truly believe we, Christian as well as non-Christian, have lost something as a result of our crumbling culture and may not even realize it.
The Jebeliya Tribe is historically peaceful and has maintained a symbiotic relationship with St. Catherine's Monastery for over 1400 years. St. Justinian the Great originally sent 200 Roman soldiers, along with their families, to serve as protectors for the newly built fortress monastery. These families then intermarried with local tribesmen and formed the Jebeliya Tribe of today. Despite having since been forcefully converted to Islam, they have continued to remain faithful protectors of the monastery from less friendly neighboring tribes.
In January 2018, after working several days helping the monks of St. Catherine's Monastery harvest olives, one of the monks who we had become friends with, took us up to the hermitage of Sts. Galacteon and Episteme where St. Paisios of Athos had resided. He then brought us to the hermitage of Father Moses, which overlooked the monastery of St. Catherine's. Father Moses had been helping the Bedouin women living in the vicinity of St. Catherine's Monastery for years to get organized and improve their quality control so that their embroidery could be sold overseas. But he had to retire and the Bedouin women were left without help. By the providence of God, we were able to take over with Father Moses' blessing. We began small, working with a particular group of women he was most concerned about.
In January 2020, as we embarked on a hike out of the village of St. Katherine's towards the cave of St. John Climacus, a Bedouin woman with her young children came out from a little cinder-block house on the very edge of the village to ask us to come visit her for tea. We told her we would do so when we returned from hiking to the cave of St. John Climacus. When we did return, we were invited into her sewing room. We were amazed by the exquisite quality of her work. I also immediately felt a very strong connection with her. We purchased as many items as we could and it was my hope to return again, later in 2020. Unfortunately, Covid made that impossible.
During the pandemic, we knew this would be an especially difficult time for the Bedouin close to St. Catherine's Monastery because of their heavy dependence on tourism for income. I later made the decision to travel to Sinai in February of 2021 and return again a month later, in March, in preparation for a major Orthodox conference, Saint Kosmas Orthodox Education Conference in Arizona, where I would be a vendor. It was an important opportunity to both show and sell their embroidery and we had run out of most of what we had from previous trips.
I went to Sinai in February 2021, knowing the monastery and all facilities next to it, would be closed. So I made arrangements to stay in the village of St. Katherine. My original intent was to continue to work with the village of women Father Moses had first directed us to, but unfortunately, the interpreter who had been helping us, no longer was able to be involved. So instead, I walked to Hoda's house, the young mother and skilled seamstress, who I had met the year before by the trailhead leading to St. John Climacus' Cave.
She immediately recognized me as I walked to her house and was overjoyed. She told me that she asked her sister, Ada, three days before what might have happened to me, and Ada said, "Maybe she is coming?" It turns out, I began my long journey there on that very day.
Hoda is now my intermediary with all the Bedouin women Father Moses originally organized. We were able to employ the full 150 women community of embroiderers during our 2021 Spring Embroidery Project. Because they had been suffering so much financial hardship due to Covid, they were extremely grateful for the work. Hoda, in particular, is expecting her third child and did not have the money for prenatal care or the needed C-section (will be her third C-section). They have no insurance, so the unexpected income allowed her to get prenatal care and pay for the C-section.
These two trips were my 4th and 5th to Sinai. In every previous trip, I had stayed close to the monastery and my primary focus of activity involved the services and hiking to various holy places. This year, monastery services were unavailable and most of the hiking was closed by Egypt (though I did manage to make a couple of hikes anyway and will share photos later). So my primary focus of activity was with Hoda's family and her community. It actually was a great blessing. I had many fears and anxieties, still, regarding traveling in Egypt, safety, etc. and all of these were completely dispelled after spending so much time in the village of St. Katherine, walking everywhere on foot, and making the second trip completely alone. I felt safer there than I do here in north Texas.
I have become like a sister to Hoda and very much a part of her family. Our budding relationship is a deeply moving and meaningful experience. And I hope to travel there several times a year in order to better provide ongoing work to her community and help them continue a traditional art form. The beautiful thing about the women and their embroidery is that they are able to work together while watching their children play, study for school, and work. The older girls help with the embroidery while the younger girls practice on their own little projects. Because of Covid, the children were also homeschooling while their mothers worked, but the mothers are available to watch, help and care for their children as needed. It truly was heartwarming to watch.
Hoda's husband, Hussein, is deeply proud of his wife, her hard work, and talent. He built a sewing room for her and does everything he can to support her. He is helping to transport embroidery work to women in surrounding villages. Hoda's cousin, a Bedouin guide who wasn't currently working because of lack of tourism, did not see it beneath himself to help her with ironing and cutting linen. Everyone was willing to help one another to the benefit of the family and community, regardless of traditional gender roles.
Hoda's sewing room went from barren to crammed full of embroidered handicrafts as a direct result of our help. Glory be to God!
We are waiting on only one more illustration before the completion of the children's book, "St. Paisios the New in Sinai." We have begun work on the next children's book, "St. John Klimakos and the Ladder of Divine Ascent."
We plan to have the above design embroidered at the ends of linen headscarves. We are currently working on some other new designs as well.
The central motif comes from the St. Catherine Sarcophagus behind the iconostasis. The border and end designs are inspired by Sinai illuminated manuscripts.
Our resident artist/iconographer is working very hard to put together a collection of fine pen-work art representative of Sinai that can be used for book illustrations. We are extremely grateful to her.
We are beginning the translation of the Sinai Synaxarion from Greek into English. We are presently budgeting $500 a month for this.
We also will need to purchase 100 ISBN numbers so that we can begin publishing under the Studion Ministries name. This will require around $600.
There are no other important expenses and anything received beyond this will go directly to St. Catherine's Monastery to help them during these difficult times.
Update: Because of the extreme financial need of St. Catherine's right now, all money is going to meet their needs. We are waiting on the ISBN's and the translation is continuing without payment.
The 2020 Bedouin Embroidery Project was our third annual project employing local Bedouin women originally organized by Father Moses of Sinai. For the first two projects, we left material to be sewn and embroidered, and picked up again at a later date to be transported and sold in the US. For our third project, by far our largest yet, we chose to have the finished items donated to the St. Catherine Monastery bookstores. This allows the initial donation that benefits the Bedouin women and widows, to then be magnified in value and directly benefit St. Catherine's Monastery. This year's project was tote bags. We hope to have a different and more diverse range of items 2021 to donate to the monastery bookstores.
In addition to this project, we providentially met another one of Father Moses' previous Bedouin seamstress/embroidery groups as we walked up to the trail-head leading to St. John Climacus' Cave. Their work was so incredibly beautiful, we bought as much as we could and brought it back with us to be sold here. We are presently listing these items in the Studion Ministries Store. It is our hope to purchase much more from these women in the future, and attempt to more broadly sell their items here in the US.
Though the coronavirus is interfering with our plans, and certainly will interfere with the St. Catherine Monastery Bookstores' ability to sell these donated Bedouin sewn and embroidered items, at least these women, who already live on the edge financially, had some income that might help them get through this current crisis which has stalled their local economy that heavily depends on tourism.