For Great Lent: the Timeless Instructions of Abba Dorotheos

Abba Dorotheus of Gaza. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza.
What is one of the first books given to anyone embarking upon the path of Orthodox Christianity? What is one of the books read almost cyclically in the refectories of Orthodox monasteries, so that monks and nuns might assimilate the “ABC’s” of spiritual life with every bite of their daily bread? What is one of the most quoted books of basic wisdom on how to live in peace and harmony with our neighbor? Answer: the book of instructions on spiritual life by Abba Dorotheos of Gaza.

There are English translations of this timeless, priceless book available. The most popular was published by Cistercian Publications (July 1, 1978), under the title, Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings. Some of Abba Dorotheos’s instructions also appear in the English translation of the Philokalia. Another translation from the original Greek by an Orthodox publisher in 2000, Athens is entitled, Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life. This version by Constantine Scouteris has an advantage for Orthodox readers over the Cistercian one because of its conceptual closeness to the accepted Greek text; for example the Cistercian translation translates geronda as “old man”, while the Orthodox understanding renders a bit more respect to an “elder”. Nevertheless, the older standby will probably remain in use by English language readers if only because of its lively language and readability.

Back before the Athens publication was released, an American monk, concerned about potential confusion in the Catholic rendering of Abba Dorotheos for Orthodox readers, dictated his own translation of this indispensible patristic work from the pre-revolutionary Russian translation. He chose that version for the simple reason that he did not know Greek. Although this translation never saw print, a transcript of it came into our hands, and after a little editing we have decided to make it available online for the spiritual benefit of our readers who may not have access to the above named, more polished texts. And what better time for this could there be than Great Lent, when we are trying extra hard to work on ourselves, on our interaction with others, our attitude, and dedication to living the Gospel commandments. Thus, over the course of this holy Forty-Days Fast, we will be posting this book in daily portions.

The Life of Abba Dorotheos of Gaza

A full life of this Father does not exist; the following account, taken mainly from his own writings, was first presented as an introduction to the Russian translation of his writings (Edition of Optina Monastery, ninth printing, 1904).

Abba Dorotheos lived at about the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th centuries, although we have no means to determine the precise date of his birth and death. His teacher, the Elder Barsanuphius, was still alive about the year 590, when Evagrius wrote his Church history.

His early youth was spent in diligent study of the secular sciences. This is apparent from his own words (at the beginning of his Tenth Instruction), when he says of himself: "When I was studying secular sciences, they seemed to me at first extremely difficult, and when I would come to take a book, I would be in the same state as a man about to touch a wild beast; but when I continued to force myself, God helped me, and diligence became in me such a habit that from zeal for reading I would not notice what I ate or drank or how I slept. And I never allowed myself to be enticed to dinner by any of my friends, and I did not even enter into conversation with them while I was reading, although I was sociable and loved my comrades. When the philosopher would let us go, I would wash myself with water, for I became dry from immoderate reading and had need to refresh myself with water every day; coming home, I ate what I found prepared, having a book also beside me on the couch, and often I would become absorbed in it. Likewise at the time of sleeping, it would be beside me on my table, and having fallen asleep for a little, I would suddenly jump up in order to continue reading. Again in the evening, when I would return home, after Vespers, I would light a lamp and continue reading to midnight, and in general I was in such a state that from reading I knew not at all the sweetness of repose."

Studying with such zeal and eagerness, St. Dorotheos acquired a broad knowledge and developed in himself a natural gift with words, as is recalled by the unknown writer of a letter concerning his book of Instructions, who said that the Saint "was great in the gift of words" and, like a wise bee flying from flower to flower, gathered what was useful from the works of worldly philosophers and offered it in his Instructions for the general edification. Perhaps in this instance also the Saint followed the example of St. Basil the great, whose Rules he studied and strove to fulfill in actual deed. From the Instructions of St. Dorotheos and his questions to the holy Elders it is clearly apparent that he knew well the works of pagan writers, but he knew incomparably better the writings of the holy Fathers and teacher of the Church: Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, and many illustrious ascetics of the first Christian centuries; and his living together with the great Elders and his labors in asceticism enriched him with practical knowledge, of which his Instructions testify.

Although we do not know anything of the Saint's background, from his conversations with the great Elders it is apparent that he was well-to-do, and that even before entering monasticism he made use of the instructions of the illustrious ascetics, Sts. Barsanuphius and John. This is shown by the reply which St. John gave him to a question regarding the distribution of one's property: "Brother! To your first questions I replied as to one still in need of milk. But now, when you speak of complete renunciation of the world, listen attentively, according to the word of Scripture: Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it (Ps. 80:10). From this it is clear that St. John gave him advice before his complete renunciation of the world. Unfortunately, not all these soul-benefiting words of the holy elders have come down to us; we have only those which have been preserved in the book of Replies of Sts. Barsanuphius and John.

We do not know what inspired St. Dorotheos to leave the world, but, examining his Instructions and in particular his questions to the holy Elders, one may conclude that he left the world with only one thing in mind—to attain Evangelic perfection through fulfilling the commandments of God. He himself speaks of holy men in his first Instruction: "They understood that, being in the world, they could not easily perform virtues, and they desired for themselves a special form of life, a special form of activity—I speak of the monastic life—and they began to flee from the world and live in deserts."

Most likely a beneficent influence on the Saint's resolution was exercised by the conversations of the holy Elders; for in entering the monastery of St. Seridos, Dorotheos immediately gave himself over to absolute obedience to St. John the Prophet, so that he allowed himself to do nothing without consulting him. "When I was living in coenobitism," says the Saint of himself, "I revealed all my thoughts to the Elder, Abba John, and never, as I have said, did I decide to do anything without consulting him. Sometimes a thought would tell me: won't the Elder tell you the same thing? Why do you want to disturb him? But I replied to the thought: anathema to you, and to your reasoning, and to your reason, and to your sophistry, and to your knowledge, for what you know you know from demons. And so I went and asked the Elder. And it happened sometimes that he answered me that same thing that had been in my mind. Then the thought would say to me: Well? You see it's the same thing I told you: didn't you disturb the Elder for nothing? But I answered the thought: now it is good, now it is from the Holy Spirit; but your suggestion was evil, from the demons, and it was the doing of a passionate state of the soul. And thus I never allowed myself to obey my own thought without having asked the Elder.

Remembrance of the great diligence with which he had studied secular sciences inspired St. Dorotheos also to labors of virtue. "When I entered the monastery," he writes in his tenth Instruction, "I said to myself: if in studying secular sciences such a desire was born in me and such fervor from occupying myself with reading, and it became a habit with me, then how much more will it be so in the studying of virtue; and from this example I drew much strength and eagerness."

A picture of his inner life and his success under the guidance of the Elders is revealed to us in part from his questions to his spiritual fathers and instructors in piety; and in his Instructions we find several cases that testify to how he forced himself to virtue and how he succeeded in this. Always accusing himself, he strove to hide the defects of his neighbors with love, and their offenses with regard to him he ascribed to temptation or to a simplicity that had no evil intentions. Thus in his fourth Instruction the Saint cites several examples from which it is clear that, being strongly offended, he patiently bore this, and living for nine years in the coenobitic life, as he himself says, he said no offending word to anyone.

The obedience assigned to him by abbot Seridos consisted in receiving and giving comfort to visitors, and here more than once was shown his great patience and his eagerness to serve God and his neighbors. "When I was living in coenobitism," St. Dorotheos says of himself, "The Abbot, at the advice of the elders, made me the receiver of visitors, while not long before this I had had a severe illness. And thus it happened that visitors would come in the evening and I would spend the evening with them; then camel-drivers would come, and I would serve them; and often after I had gone to sleep, another need would arise, and they would wake me up, and meanwhile the hour of the Vigil would also be approaching. Hardly would I have fallen asleep when the canonarch would wake me up; but from labor or from illness I would be exhausted, and sleep would again take such possession of me that, weakened by fever, I would not remember myself and would answer through sleep: "Very well, my lord, may God remember your love and reward you; you have commanded, I will come, O lord." Then when he went out, I would again fall asleep and be very sad that I was late in going to church. And since the canonarch couldn't wait for me, I begged two brethren, one to wake me up, and that other not to let me doze at the Vigil; and believe me, brethren, I revered them as if through them my salvation was accomplished, and maintained toward them great piety."

Laboring thus in asceticism, St. Dorotheos attained a high level of spiritual maturity, and being made head of the infirmary which his brother had established in the monastery of Abbot Seridos, he served for all as a profitable example of love of neighbor, and at the same time treated the wounds and infirmities of the souls of the brethren. His profound humility was expressed in the very words with which he speaks of this in his eleventh Instruction. "When I lived in the coenobium, the brethren in their simplicity, I think, confessed to me their thoughts, and the Abbot at the advice of the Elders commanded me to take this concern upon myself." Under his guidance that simple-hearted performer of obedience, Dositheus, also came to flourish in such a short time [see below].

Having as his instructor from his very entrance into the monastery St. John the Prophet, St. Dorotheos received instruction from him as from the mouth of God, and considered himself fortunate that in his abode in coenobitic life he was honored to serve him, as he himself speaks of this in his Instruction on Divine Fear: "When I was still in the monastery of Abba Seridos, it happened that the servant of the Elder, Abba John, the disciple of the Abba Barsanuphius, became ill, and the Abba commanded me to serve the Elder. And I kissed the very door of his cell from outside with the same feeling with which someone else might bow down to the honorable Cross, and all the more was I happy to serve him." Imitating in everything the examples of the holy ascetics, and fulfilling in deed the grace-giving instructions of his fathers—Barsanuphius the Great, John and Abbot Seridos—St. Dorotheos was undoubtedly also the heir of their spiritual gifts. For Divine Providence did not leave him under a bushel of obscurity, but placed him on the lampstand of leadership—and all the while he desired solitude and silence, as is apparent from his questions to the Elders.

After the death of Abba Seridos and St. John the Prophet, when their common preceptor Barsanuphius the Great shut himself up completely in his cell, St. Dorotheos left the coenobium of Abba Seridos and was an abbot. Most likely it is to this time that are to be dated the Instructions which he spoke to his disciples; these Instructions (twenty-one in number) and several epistles constitute all that remains to us an inheritance from the writings of the Saint, although the light of his teaching spread not only to monasteries but in the world, too; for many, drawn by the glory of his ascetic labors and his virtues, hastened to him for advice and instruction, as is witnessed by the anonymous writer of the letter in which is contained the life of Dositheus. He says that the Saint, in accord with the gifts given him by God, fulfilled his holy and peace-bearing service equally toward rich and poor, wise and ignorant, women and men, old and young, sorrowing and rejoicing, strangers and friends, laymen and monks, rulers and subjects, slaves and free: he was constantly everything to everyone and gained very many.

Very unfortunately, a complete biography of this great ascetic has not come down to us; without doubt it would have been most edifying. Having selected from his own writings that little that we have now presented to the reader, we do not consider it superfluous to add to this the testimony also of St. Theodore the Studite concerning the authenticity and purity of the writings of St. Dorotheos. In his testament St. Theodore speaks thus: "I accept every God-inspired book of the Old and New Testaments, and likewise the lives and divine writings of all the God-bearing fathers, teachers, and ascetics. I say this for the sake of the noxious Pamphilus, who, coming from the East slandered these venerable fathers, that is, Mark, Isaiah, Barsanuphius, Dorotheos, and Hesychius; not that Barsanuphius and that Dorotheos who were one in thought with the Acephalites and the so-called Decacerates and were for this given over to anathema by St. Sophronius in his book, for they are completely distinct from those I mentioned above, whom I, according to the tradition of the Fathers, accept, having inquired concerning this of the Most Holy ruling Patriarch Tarasius and other worthy Eastern Fathers; yea, and in the teachings of the above-mentioned Fathers I not only found not a trace of impiety, but on the contrary much spiritual profit." Another ancient writer, Nilos, also testifies in accordance with this. His words were printed in the form of a foreword to the book of Instructions of St. Abba Dorotheos, in the Greek original and in the Slavonic translation of it. "Let it be known," he says, "concerning this soul-benefiting book, that there were two Dorothei and two Barsanuphii: the ones who opposed the teaching of Severus, and the others who were in everything Orthodox and attained perfection in ascetic labors. It is these latter who are mentioned in the present book, and therefore we accept it with love as the work of this Abba Dorotheos who is blessed and most glorious among the Fathers."

3/28/2013

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