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 17, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part V

In this issue we will conclude 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.

Next week, we will begin a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church provide us with the guidance we need to start a new commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead. Today's study focuses on presumptuousness.



26. Presumptuousness may have many forms; one may be presumptuous by word, gesture, or look. It may lead a man to chatter, to worldly talk, to doing something ridiculous, provoking others to unseemly mirth. It is presumptuousness, too, if a man touches another without need, points at someone who is laughing, pushes him, snatches something out of his hands, shamelessly stares at him; all this is the work of presumptuousness, all this comes of having no fear of God in the soul and so little by little a man becomes utterly careless. Therefore God, when He gave the commandments of the law, said, "Ye shall cause the children of Israel to beware of their uncleannesses" (Leviticus 15:31), for without reverence and modesty man cannot honor even God Himself, nor can he keep a single commandment. Hence nothing is more harmful than presumptuousness; it is the mother of all passions, since it banishes reverence, drives the fear of God away from the soul, and gives birth to carelessness.

28. Over whatever you have to do, even if it be very urgent and demands great care, I would not have you argue or be agitated. For rest assured, everything you do, be it great or small, is but one eighth of the problem, whereas to keep one's state undisturbed even if thereby one should fail to accomplish the task, is the other seven eighths. So if you are busy at some task and wish to do it perfectly, try to accomplish it -- which, as I said, would be one eighth of the problem, and at the same time to preserve your state unharmed -- which constitutes seven eighths. If, however, in order to accomplish your task you would inevitably be carried away and harm yourself or another by arguing with him, you should not lose seven for the sake of preserving one eighth.

29. The wise Solomon says in the Proverbs, "They that have no guidance fall like leaves: but in counsel there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14). So you see what the Holy Scriptures teach us? They enjoin us not to rely on ourselves, not to regard ourselves as knowing all, not to believe that we can control ourselves, for we need help, are in need of those who would counsel us according to God. No men are more unfortunate or nearer perdition than those who have no teachers on the way of God. For what does it mean that where no guidance is, the people fall like leaves? A leaf is at first green, flourishing, beautiful; then it gradually withers, falls and is finally trampled underfoot. So is it with a man who has no guide; at first he is always zealous in fasting, vigil, silence, obedience and other virtues; then his zeal little by little cools down and, having no one to instruct, support and fire him with zeal, he insensibly withers, falls and finally becomes a slave of the enemies, who do with him what they will.

30. Of those who revel their thoughts and actions and who do everything with counsel the Wise One says, "in much counsel there is safety" (Proverbs 9:14). He does not say, "in the counsels of many" that is, in seeking counsel from everyone, but in seeking counsel in all things -- naturally from one we trust; and not in such a way as to tell one thing and conceal another, but to reveal everything and seek counsel in all things. For such a man, safety is assured "in much counsel."

31. When we do not reveal our thoughts and intentions and do not seek the counsel of the experienced, we hold on to our own will and follow our own justifications. Then, apparently doing something good, we spread nets for ourselves, and so without realizing it we perish. For how can we understand the will of God or completely surrender ourselves to it, when we trust ourselves and cling to our own will? Therefore Abba Pimen said that "our will is a brass wall between man and God."

32. The devil trips up as he likes the man who trusts his own mind and keeps to his own will. But he has no access to a man who does everything with counsel. That is why he hates questions and the guidance in response, hates the very voice, the very sound of such words. Is it not clear why? Because he knows that his evil wiles will at once be exposed when people begin to ask questions and talk of useful things. And there is nothing he fears more than being exposed, for then he can no longer be wily as he wills. When a man asks and hears the advice of someone experienced, "do this, but do not do that" or, "now is not the time for that" or sometimes "now is the time," the devil cannot find how to harm or bring him down, since he always seeks counsel and protects himself on all sides. So the saying "in much counsel there is safety" is fulfilled for him.

33. The enemy likes those who rely on their own understanding, for they help him and sets traps for themselves. I know of no other way for a monk to fall than when he trusts his own heart. Some say a man falls because of this or that, but I know of no other fall except when a man follows his own lead. If you see a man fallen, know that he followed his own lead. Nothing is more dangerous, nothing more pernicious than this. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 160 - 163