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 10, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part III


In this issue we will continue our 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 continue our 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. Today's study focuses on the conscience.

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DIRECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE -- ST. ABBA DOROTHEUS
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BEGIN:

17. In creating man God implanted in him something Divine -- a certain thought, like a spark, having both light and warmth, a thought which illumines the mind and shows what is good and what bad. This is called conscience and it is a natural law. By following this law -- conscience -- the patriarchs and all the saints pleased God, even before the law was written. But when, through the fall, men covered up and trampled down conscience, there arose the need of written law, of the holy Prophets, of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, to uncover and raise it up, to rekindle this buried spark by the keeping of His holy commandments.

18. So not it is in our power either to bury it again or to let it shine in us and illumine us, if we obey. When our conscience tells us to do something and we disregard it, and when it tells us again but we continue to trample on it and not act on it, we bury it. Then it can no longer speak to us clearly for the weight which presses upon it, but like a lamp shining behind a curtain it begins to show us things more and more dimly. Just as no one can recognize their face in water muddied with slime, so we, after transgression, fail to apprehend the voice of conscience, so that it seems to us not to exist in us at all.

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THE CONSCIENCE AS THE "ADVERSARY"
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19. Conscience is called the adversary, because it always opposes our evil will; it reminds us of what we ought to do but do not, and condemns us if we do something we ought not. That was why the Lord called it adversary and commanded us: "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him" (Matthew 5:25), that is, while you are in this world, as Basil the Great says.

20. So let us guard our conscience, while we are in this world; let us not allow it to accuse us in something, nor disregard it in anything however small. For you must realize that from disregarding this small and insignificant thing we pass to neglect of big things. If someone begins to say "What does it matter if I eat this scrap? What of it if I look at this or that?", then from this "What matters this, what matters that?" he will fall into a bad habit and will begin to neglect big and important things and trample down his conscience. Thus becoming hardened in evil, he will be in danger of falling into complete insensitivity.

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GUARDING THE CONSCIENCE
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21. Conscience should be guarded towards God, towards one's neighbor and towards things. In relation to God, he guards his conscience who does not neglect God's commandments and who, even in things not seen by men and that no one demands of us, guards his conscience towards God in secret. Guarding conscience towards our neighbor demands that we should never do anything which, to our knowledge, would offend or tempt him, whether by word or deed, look or expression. Guarding conscience towards things means not to misuse a thing, nor let it be spoiled nor throw it away needlessly. In all these respects conscience should be kept pure and unblemished, lest one should fall into the calamity against which the Lord warns us (Matthew 5:26). END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 157 - 158