The Ancient Modern
Two Saints / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Among the more colorful and obscure hagiographies of the Orthodox Church are the lives of Saints Gregory the Gardener and Demno the Sleeper, the Young.
Saint Gregory the Gardener
Church tradition has given us two icons for St. Gregory. First a typical depiction of the Saint standing, haloed, sometimes with a shovel or spade. The other icon is more complex, with flowers in the lower foreground, mountains above, and in the middle, a row of trees among which Gregory is shown in a seated position, partially obscured by iris and wild hyssop. Like images of St. Seraphim feeding the bear, this second icon of Gregory comes from one of the stories of his later life.
From Syria, Gregory was born in 1249 to a poor but respected family in service to the local Ottoman government. Gregory’s father was a clerk and his mother was known for her charity, to both their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Gregory married, but his wife died in giving birth to their first child. Grieved, but maintaining faith in God, Gregory took his infant son into the mountains to a small monastery near Damascus to raise him. Gregory became the monastery gardener, and after many years received a blessing to become a wandering hermit.
Wherever Gregory happened to settle for a time—in forests or caves, near springs or creeks—he would arrange and tend the plants so skillfully that they became large and beautiful, though the region was subject to frequent drought.
Other monks or travelers journeying through that part of Syria would report finding themselves suddenly struck by the beauty of a grove of trees or a field of wildflowers. This sight of an ordered and light-filled place brought a deep feeling of compunction and a longing for Paradise and a desire to repent and be reconciled to God.
Gregory rarely built shelters for himself, but would live quietly in his wild gardens, engaged in fasting and prayer. As his fame spread, pilgrims went out to find him and receive a word. Many came back and said that Gregory was so still and quiet that what they thought a stone or a shrub was the Saint himself, deep in prayer for the world. Gregory had the gift of seeing into the hearts of those who came to him. He often answered questions before they were asked, but he never spoke to the merely curious.
The circumstances of his death are unknown, but many miracles through the centuries have been attributed to St. Gregory’s intercessions.
Saint Demno the Sleeper, the Young, was born in Prespa, Bulgaria around 910 to pagan parents. In early youth, he fell from an oxcart and received a severe injury to his skull which rendered him unconscious for several days. His mother, panic-stricken, went to a church and knelt before an icon of the Theotokos and prayed that if her son was spared, she would dedicate him to Christ and give him to the Christian community to be raised. Demno survived, and his mother kept her promise and took him to a local monastery.
Due to his injury, Demno would unexpectedly fall asleep and had extreme difficulty fulfilling his monastic obediences. He would miss services, fail to finish his chores, become lost in the woods and even fall asleep during the Liturgy while singing.
Demno was especially hated by the choirmaster of the monastery who beat him whenever he fell asleep, and assigned him the most humiliating tasks in the community—cleaning latrines and tending to those with contagious illnesses. However, Demno never complained, neither about his own infirmity nor about the difficult work assigned to him. He approached every task with joy, patience and prayer.
The Abbot of the monastery especially loved Demno, but did nothing to show favor outwardly. He even added more chores to the menial work assigned by the choirmaster, knowing that Demno’s humility and patience were a model to the whole community. When the choirmaster would complain and curse Demno, the Abbot would simply say, “outward appearance is not a measure of holiness. Only God can judge.”
Demno’s condition worsened over time, but the choirmaster did not let up his abuse, until one night he had a vivid dream. He dreamed that a bright light appeared in his cell. The door opened and Demno entered, accompanied by an angel. “Look there,” Demno said to the angel, pointing to the bed where the choirmaster lay, paralyzed with astonishment. “He is sleeping now, as I have done so often. Do you know how much I owe to him? The Cross given to me by Christ came through him. You were my guardian angel, but you must guard him now that I am gone.”
The next morning, the monks discovered that Demno had died. The Abbot wept openly, and went himself to bring the body to the church so Psalms could be read over it in preparation for the funeral. But the choirmaster was missing from the services that day, and the Abbot went and found him kneeling in his cell before the icons, face wet with tears, sobbing and trembling from head to foot. He told the Abbot what he had seen in the night and that he now knew the extent of his cruelty to the young monk.
“Take heart,” said the Abbot. “He has become a Saint of God, and stands unsleeping among the angels and righteous ones. See how he loved you and forgave you! He even gave you to his guardian angel. Pray to him and ask for his blessing, and you will be forgiven, too.”
The choirmaster repented, and asked forgiveness of all the monks of the monastery to whom he had shown anger. In old age, he became one of the most gentle and compassionate elders of the monastery and served briefly as Abbot after the former Abbot died.