The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part I

In this issue we will start off a new study on the teachings of Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, one of my own personal favorites among the Desert Fathers. Abba Dorotheus lived at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries. As a wealthy young man, he was an ardent student of the secular sciences and was quite well educated by the standards of his day. After completing his secular education, Abba Dorotheus lived for a while near his birthplace, not far from the monastery of Abba Serid, located in either Ashkalon or Gaza. He soon made contact with Abbas Barsanuphius and John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abaa Serid's monastery. Abba Dorotheus soon completed his monastic education under Barsanuphius and John and served in the monastery's hospice and infirmary. After Abba Serid and Abba John died, and the great Barsanuphius shut himself up completely in his cell, renouncing all contact with the outside world, Abba Dorotheus left the monastery and became the abbot of another monastery. It was at this point in his life that Abba Dorotheus began to deliver homilies to his disciples -- 21 in all -- which were preserved and passed on to us by his followers. The date of his death is not known.

We will begin a multi-part study today of these teachings, and will follow these with a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church will provide us with the guidance we need to start the new year with a commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead.


1. In His loving-kindness God has given us purifying commandments so that, if we wish, we can by their observance be cleansed not only of sins but also of passions themselves. For passions are one thing and sins another. Passions are: anger, vanity, love of pleasures, hatred, evil lust and the like. Sins are the actual operations of passions, when a man puts them into practice, that is, performs with the body the actions to which his passions urge him. For it is possible to have passions and yet not to act from them.

2. The (old) law had as its purpose to teach us not to do what we did not want done to us; consequently it forbade only the actual doing of evil. Now however (in the New Testament) we are required to banish the passion itself, which urges us to do evil -- hatred itself, love of pleasures, love of fame, and other passions.

3. Listen to what the Lord says: "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29). He shows here the root and cause of all ills and their cure, the cause of all good, namely, that self-exaltation has brought us down and that pardon cannot be obtained except through its opposite, humility. What has brought all our afflictions upon us? Was it not pride? Man was created for every kind of enjoyment and was in the Garden of Eden. But one thing he was forbidden to do, yet he did it. You see the pride? You see the disobedience (the daughter of pride)?

4. Thereupon God said: man does not know how to delight in joy alone. If he does not experience afflictions he will go still further and will perish completely. If he does not learn what are sorrow and labor he will not know what are joy and peace; and so God banished him from he Garden of Eden. Here he was surrendered to his own self-love and his own will, that they might break his bones and thereby teach him to follow not himself but God's commandments, and that the very sufferings of disobedience should teach him the blessings of obedience, as the Prophet says: "Thine apostasy shall correct thee" (Jeremiah 2:19). So now God's mercy calls: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). He says, as it were: you have labored and suffered enough and have experienced the evil results of disobedience, come now and be converted: restore yourselves to life by humility, in place of the arrogance by which you put yourselves to death. "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29).

5. Some God-loving men, having cut off the actions of passions after their holy baptism, desired to vanquish passions themselves and become passionless. Such were St. Anthony, St. Pachomius and other holy fathers. They conceived the good intention to cleanse themselves "from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit" (II Corinthians 7:1). But realizing that this is hard to achieve while living in the world, they devised for themselves a special form of life, a special form of activity, that is, a solitary life withdrawn from the world; and they began to flee the world and to live in the wilderness, practiced fasting and vigil, slept on bare earth, and endured various other privations, having completely renounced their kith and kin, their goods and possessions.

6. Thus they not only kept the commandments, but also brought gifts to God. Commandments are given to all Christians and it is the duty of every Christian to obey them. It is the same as the tribute that in the world is due to the king. But as in the world there are great and distinguished people, who not only pay tribute to the king but also bring gifts to him for which they are granted special honors, reward and rank, so too the fathers not only paid tribute to God by obeying the commandments, but also brought Him gifts, such as virginity and poverty, which are not commandments but acts of their own will. For it is said of the first: "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matthew 19:12), and of the second: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor" (Matthew 19:21).

7. They crucified the world unto themselves, and thereupon strove to crucify themselves unto the world, imitating the Apostle who says, "The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Galatians 6:14). For when a man renounces the world and becomes a monk, leaves his parents, possessions and all worldly affairs and cares, he crucified the world unto himself. And when, being made free from external things, he fights also against the very enjoyment or the very desire of things, when he struggles against his own wishes, and mortifies the passions themselves, he crucifies himself unto the world and can boldly say with the Apostle, "The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."

8. Our fathers, having crucified the world unto themselves, have also crucified themselves unto the world by their efforts. But though, by renouncing the world and retiring into a monastery, we have seemingly crucified the world unto ourselves, we do not want to crucify ourselves unto the world, since we still love its pleasures, are still attached to it, are moved by its glory, have kept in ourselves a fondness for foods, clothes and other vanities. Yet we should not do so, since just as we have renounced the world and its things, so too should we renounce our very attachment to those things. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 152 - 154