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 7, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part II

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 humility.



9. We have left the world, so let us leave also our attachment to it. For attachments tie us again to the world and unite us with it, even if they concern insignificant, ordinary and worthless things. If we wish to be completely transformed and freed from attachments, let us learn to cut off our own desires, even in the least important things. For nothing brings more profit to men than renouncing their own will, since in truth a man gains a greater benefit from this than from any other virtue. Indeed, the cutting off of one's own will and desires can be practiced at every moment. Suppose a man is walking; his thought says to him, "Look at this and at that," but he cuts off his desire and says nothing. He meets some people talking; his thought says to him: "have a few words with them," but he cuts off his desire and says nothing. He comes to the kitchen; his thought says: "let us go and see what the cook is preparing," but he cuts off his desire and does not go, and so on and so on. But cutting off his desires in this way he acquires a habit of cutting them off and, beginning with small things, ends by easily and calmly cutting them off in big things as well. Thus, finally he begins to have no will of his own at all and remains unperturbed, whatever may happen. Thus by cutting off their own will men acquire non-attachment and from non-attachment, with God's help, they rise to complete passionlessness.


10. A certain staretz [NOTE: this is a Russian term which literally means, "old man," but in religious literature it refers to a spiritual father of great wisdom and insight] said: "Above all we need humility." Why did he say this? Why did he not say that above all we need self-mastery, since the Apostle says, "Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things" (I Corinthians 9:25). Or why did he not say that above all we need the fear of God, since the Scriptures say, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7). Or why did he not say that above all we need mercy or faith, since it is said, "By mercy and truth iniquity is purged" (Proverbs 16:6) and, "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). Why then, laying aside all these which are so needful, does the staretz stress only humility? He shows us by this that neither fear of God, nor mercy, nor faith nor self- mastery, nor any other virtue can be achieved without humility. Moreover, humility destroys all the arrows of the enemy. All the saints followed the way of humility and labored at it. "Look upon mine affliction and my trouble; and forgive all my sins" (Psalms 24:18), and again, "I was brought low, and he delivered me" (Psalms 114:6).

11. The same staretz said, "Humility is neither angered nor angers anyone. Humility attracts God's grace to the soul; and God's grace, when it comes, delivers the soul from these two grievous passions. For what can be more grievous than to be angry with one's neighbor or to anger him? But what am I saying, that humility delivers from only two passions? It delivers the soul from every passion and every temptation."

12. When St. Anthony saw all the nets of the devil spread out, he sighed and asked God, "Who can escape them?" God answered him, "Humility escapes them" and, what is still more wonderful, added, "They will not even touch it." Do you see the power of this virtue? Indeed there is nothing stronger than humility, for nothing can conquer it. If some affliction befalls a humble man, he immediately blames himself for deserving it and will not reproach or blame another. Thus he endures everything that may befall (him) untroubled, without grief, with perfect calm; and so he is angered by no one and angers none.


13. There are two kinds of humility, as there are two kinds of pride. The first kind of pride is when a man reproaches his brother, condemns and reviles him as someone of no account, regarding himself as his superior. If such a man does not speedily come to his senses and try to mend his ways, he comes, little by little, to the second kind of pride, which puffs itself up in the face of God Himself and ascribes to itself its achievements and virtues, as though the man has done it all himself, with his own intelligence and knowledge, and not with the help of God. From this can be seen what constitutes the two kinds of humility.

14. The first humility consists in considering that one's brother has better judgment and is in all things superior to oneself -- or in considering oneself below all men. The second humility consists in ascribing one's achievements to God. This is the perfect humility of the saints.

15. No one can describe in words what humility is and how it is born in the soul, unless he learns this from experience. From words alone no one can know it. One day Abba Zossima was speaking of humility, when a sophist who was present asked him: "Do you not know that you have virtues? After all, you see that you are obeying the commandments: how then in that case do you regard yourself as a sinner?" The staretz could not find how to answer him but said simply, "I do not know what to say to you, but I consider myself a sinner." And when the sophist went on bothering him with the question "How?", the staretz continued to repeat the same thing: "I know not how, but I truly regard myself such. Do not confuse me." Or again, when Abba Agathon was nearing death the brethren asked him, "Are you not afraid, father?" He answered, "As far as I could I have made myself keep the commandments, but I am a man, and how can I know whether what I have done is pleasing to God. For God's judgment is one thing and man's another.

16. A staretz once said about what brings a man to humility, "The ways to humility are bodily labors done intelligently, considering oneself below all others, and ceaseless prayer to God." Bodily labors bring the soul to humility, because the soul suffers with the body and shares in all that happens to it; as bodily labors humble the body, the soul is humbled with it. Considering oneself lower than all is a distinctive feature of humility, and if a man practices it and becomes accustomed to it, this by itself implants humility and uproots what we have called the first pride. For how can a man puff himself up before anyone, or blame or belittle anyone if he regards himself as lower than all? In the same way the practice of unceasing prayer obviously goes against the second kind of pride. For it is clear that a man inclines himself towards humility if, knowing that he can achieve no virtue without God's help, he never ceases to pray, asking God to show him mercy. Thus a man who prays without ceasing, if he achieves something, knows why he achieved it, and can take no pride in it; for he cannot attribute it to his own powers, but attributes all his achievements to God, always renders thanks to Him and constantly calls upon Him, trembling lest he be deprived of help. Thus he prays with humility and is made humble by prayer. The more he progresses in virtue the greater becomes his humility, and as his humility grows he receives help and again progresses in humility. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 154 - 157