Gregory of Sinai

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GREGORY OF SINAI (d. 1347) was an ascetic and mystic canonized by the Eastern Orthodox church. The Greek church commemorates his life on February 11 and the Slavic churches on August 8. Much of the life and writings of this great church father is known from the life composed by his disciple Kallistos I, patriarch of Constantinople.

Born in Asia Minor, Gregory took his monastic vows on Mount Sinai. After travels to Cyprus and Crete he came to Mount Athos. Disturbed to find the holy men of Athos in ignorance of true silence and contemplation, he undertook to instruct both monks and solitaries in the contemplative art. Further travels took him to Constantinople and to Thrace, where he founded monasteries and taught the techniques of mental prayer.

Gregory did not write extensively. Most of his works are concerned with mental prayer and hesychasm, the spiritual life of inner wakefulness. He taught that through obedience, mourning, tears, and the power of pure contemplation the mind is cleansed and led to a vision of the "uncreated light" of God. Spiritual perfection is finally achieved in deification (theōsis ).

The contemplative art practiced and taught by Gregory is known as "prayer of the heart." In his Instructions to Hesychasts he describes a method whereby the mind is forced to descend from head to heart and is then held in repeated invocation of the name of Jesus Christ. Mental prayer is thus remembrance of God through a pure and imageless contemplation. He urged his disciples to keep their minds "colorless, formless, and imageless" and emphasized the use of such physical aids as rhythmic breathing for attainment of inner stillness. But, because human effort alone cannot accomplish meditative union, he urged that "no one can hold the mind by himself, if it be not held by the Spirit." As humans work at prayer, the prayer works in them, and the mind rejoices with the presence of the Holy Spirit and is strengthened in its striving for perfection.


The largest compilation of Gregory's works is published in English in Eugènie Kadloubovsky's and G. E. H. Palmer's Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart (London, 1951). An excellent account of Gregory's theology can be found in Kallistos Ware's "The Jesus Prayer in St. Gregory of Sinai" in Eastern Churches Review 4 (1972): 322. It includes a complete bibliography. An account of Gregory's life can be found in John Maximovitch's "The Life of St. Gregory of Sinai" in The Orthodox Word 5 (1969): 165179.

George S. Bebis (1987)