August 8 – Gregory of Sinai; Dominic de Guzman

Gregory of Sinai (ca. 1268–1346), son of rich Asia Minorites (Asians Minor?), was kidnapped by the Hagarenes (or Seljuk Turks) and escorted to Laodicea. He was ransomed, and ended up on Cyprus (one could do worse, at least before 1974). He later worked as cook and baker and copyist at St. Catherine’s on Sinai, and learned hesychastic* prayer from a monk named Arsenios on Crete. His itchy feet then led him to Athos*, and then, when the Muslim raids got to be irksome, he and his disciples removed to, and founded a monastery in, the mountains of southeastern Bulgaria. He ended his days on either Mount Paroria or Mount Katakryomenos, although neither name seems to exist outside his hagiographies (when mountains change names, somebody should make a note in the margin).

While he avoided public embroilment in the debate over hesychasm, Gregory is famed for his writings on that subject. Hesychasm, the prayer of the heart, involves certain physical and spiritual practices centered on the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Repetitions of the prayer are often accompanied by the telling of beads (or knots). He was also an accomplished writer of hymns, including the Marian hymn, “It Is Truly Meet.”

Dominic de Guzman (1170–1221) is the son of a quondam inconceivable mother, (Blessed*) Joan of Aza. She sought help at the shrine of Dominic of Silos (Dec 20), where she had a dream in which a dog bearing a torch leapt from her womb. Sure enough she (some months later) gave birth to a (human) son, but when the child was baptized, his mother saw a star shining from his chest, indicating something.

Dominic studied the arts (or philosophy) and theology at a school that became a university after he left. When famine struck Spain in 1191, the young scholar gave away his money, clothes, furniture, precious manuscripts, and Precious Moments™ figurines (of which he naturally had none, they not having been invented yet) to feed the hungry. After a stint as a cathedral canon, he went as part of a mission to Denmark to secure a bride for the crown prince of Spain. She was secured, but (sadly) died on the return trip.

In 1215 Dominic and companions set up shop in Toulouse as the Order of Preachers (O.P.), but everybody who’s anybody calls them the Dominicans, after their leader, the Domini canis (“hound of the Lord”) (I did not make that up). The Dominicans worked especially among the Albagensian Cathars, a group of heretics who believed—well, what they believed depends a good deal on whom you ask. Their Christology was (perhaps) Sabellian, their theology was (perhaps) Dualist, their sacraments were—sorry, sacrament was—(definitely) irregular, and their ecclesiology was (assuredly) insular. But this is not their story.

Dominic became discouraged at the order’s failure to make inroads with the Cathari, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to him in a dream, showing him a wreath of roses, and imploring him to pray the rosary and teach the practice “to all who would listen.” Dominic is sometimes mistakenly believed to be the inventor of the rosary, but it predates him by—well, the sources say a lot about prayer beads, which predate Dominic by centuries, and the telling of “decades,” which predates him by a decade (heh) or two, and of the name “rosary,” which postdates him (at least in print) by a decade or three. Heck, maybe he did invent (or receive through divine revelation) what we today call the rosary.

The cheerful Dominic, a strict ascetic and vegetarian, spoke little (just a little ironic for the guy who founded the Order of Preachers), but sought ever to draw closer to God. He finally died in Bologna, worn out with his many worries and travels. He is the patron saint of astronomers.