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)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part IV

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 Abba Barsanuphius and Abba John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abba 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 love and fear, in both their perfect and imperfect states.



22. St. John says, "Perfect love casteth out fear" (I John 4:18). How is it then that the holy Prophet David says, "Fear the Lord, all ye his saints" (Psalms 33:9)? This shows that there are two kinds of fear: the first, initial, the second perfect; one belongs to beginners, the other to perfect saints, who have attained to the measure of perfect love. He who obeys God's will through fear of torment is still a beginner; and he who fulfils the will of God through love for God in order to please Him, is brought by this love into perfect fear; and through this fear, when once he has tasted the delight of being with God, he is afraid to fall away, is afraid to be deprived of it. It is this perfect fear, born of love, which casts out the initial fear.

23. No one can attain to perfect fear unless he first acquires the initial fear. The wise Sirach says, "To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom . . . The fear of the Lord is a crown of wisdom" (Ecclesiasticus 1:14, 18). By the beginning is meant the initial fear, on which follows the perfect fear of the saints. The initial fear belongs to the state of our soul. It protects the soul from every fall, for it is said, "By the fear of the Lord everyone departs from evil" (Proverbs 15:27). But a man who departs from evil from fear of punishment, like a slave in fear of his master, gradually comes to doing good voluntarily -- at first like a hireling in the hope of some reward for his good action. If he continues thus constantly to avoid evil from fear, like a slave, and to do good in the hope of reward like a hireling, then, abiding by God's grace in the good and thus correspondingly uniting with God, he finally acquires a taste for the good, comes to a certain sense of what is truly good, and no longer wishes to be parted from it. Then he attains to the dignity of a son and loves good for its own sake; and although he fears, he does so because he loves. This is great and perfect fear.

24. This sequence is expressed by the Prophet David in the following words: "Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it" (Psalms 33:14). "Turn away from evil," that is, avoid all evil in general, turn away from every action which leads to sin. But having said this he did not stop there, but added "and do good." For sometimes a man does no evil, but neither does he any good: for example, he harms no one but also does not show mercy; or he does not hate but neither does he love. Having said this David continued, "seek peace, and pursue it." He did not merely say "seek," but pursue it with diligence to acquire it. Follow carefully these words in your mind and note the subtlety shown by the Saint. When it is granted to a man to turn away from evil and thereupon, with God's help, diligently to do good, he becomes at once a prey to attacks from the enemy. And so he labors, strives, sorrows, now fearing to return to evil like a slave, now hoping for a reward for good like a hireling. In suffering attacks from the enemy, struggling with him and resisting him from these motives, though the man does what is good, he does it with great effort and grief. But when he receives God's help and acquires a certain habit of good, then he finds rest, then he tastes peace, then he experiences what grievous warfare means and what mean the joy and gladness of peace. Then he begins to seek peace, to strive after it assiduously in order to attain it, to possess it wholly and to establish it in himself. He who has reached this stage tastes at last the blessedness of the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). And henceforth who can impel his soul to do good for the sake of anything but the enjoyment of that good itself? Then such a man knows also perfect fear.

25. The fathers said that man acquires the fear of God if he keeps death and torments in his memory, if each evening he questions himself as to how he spent the day, and each morning how he passed the night, if he is not presumptuous and, finally, if he remains in close communion with a man who fears God. For they relate that once a certain brother asked a staretz, "What should I do, father, in order to fear God?" The staretz answered, "Go, live with a man who fears God; and by the very fact that he fears God, he will teach you too to fear Him." We repel the fear of God from ourselves by doing everything contrary to what has been said -- we have neither memory of death nor memory of torments, we have no attention on ourselves and do not question ourselves about how we spend out time, but live heedlessly and commune with men who have no fear of God, and we are presumptuous. This last is the worst of all -- it is utter ruin -- for nothing drives the fear of God away from the soul more than presumptuousness. Abba Agathon, when asked about it, once said, "Presumptuousness is like a strong scorching wind, from which all flee when it begins to blow, and which kills all the fruit on the trees." May God save us from this all-destructive passion -- presumptuousness. END


from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 158 - 160