Abba Dorotheos of Gaza Between the fourth and seventh centuries, the desert of Palestine became home to a large number of monks and monasteries. From these, several great elders emerged, including St. Barsanuphius (nicknamed ‘the Great Old Man’) and St. John the Prophet (nicknamed ‘the Other Old Man’) in the sixth century. These two elders kept up an ongoing correspondence with the young monks of Palestine in order to provide spiritual counsel and guidance. Of these letters, over seventy contain questions from one of their most well-known disciples, Dorotheos of Gaza (Aug. 13), while he was a novice and then a young monk. Through letters, Dorotheos asked about how to cut off one’s own will, fight against the passions, and avoid attachment to material possessions. He gained great spiritual wisdom through their response and through conversations with numerous other holy elders (including Abba Zosimas) that he met while traveling the Palestinian desert. This wisdom along with the experience gained thereafter bore much spiritual fruit years later in the sayings and writings of Dorotheos.
We know little of Dorotheos’ early life. He seems to have been well-educated and affluent, perhaps coming from Antioch in the late fifth century. For reasons unknown, Dorotheos gave it all up and journeyed to the Palestinian desert to live the monastic life. In his early years, he displayed a great zeal for reading and the acquisition of knowledge. Later, upon entering the Monastery of Abba Seridos in Gaza, he reasoned that if he displayed the same zeal for following Christ’s commandments as he did with reading he would make great progress. Dorotheos’ obedience in the monastery included greeting visitors, being a cell attendant for St. John the Prophet, and later the head of the infirmary. Through these labors, he endured many trials, including mistreatment by some of the brethren. Yet, he patiently and humbly endured it all without complaint or vengeance.
Through the counsel of the great elders and later from the experience gained through a life of prayer, watchfulness, and strict ascesis, Dorotheos became an expert on how to live the inner life, the knowledge of which he shared in homilies and sayings with younger monks. He later gathered these teachings in a book called Discourses While Dorotheos’ Discourses is for monastics, it is also of great spiritual benefit for those of us living in the world. Dorotheos writes with clarity and simplicity and yet conveys a great depth of spiritual wisdom gained through counsel and experience. He wrote about the importance of humility, of love for God and neighbor, the cutting off of one’s own will, and many other topics about the spiritual life. Here are but a few samples from his writing:
“An Abba once said about what brings a man to humility, ‘The way to humility are bodily labors done intelligently, considering oneself below all others, and ceaseless prayer to God.’”
On Virtue and Vice
“Virtue or vice are formed in the soul by repeated actions. When we carry out what is good, we generate for ourselves a habit of virtue — that is, we take up a state proper to our nature, we return to a state of health. Vice is foreign to us, something unnatural. A man with a single passion, set into a habit, is destined to punishment. We must go on fighting and praying to God night and day lest we fall into temptation.”
“As we have said, if someone, at the beginning of agitation, stops it, blames himself, when it is smoking and sparking, and repents before it reaches excitement and rage, he will be peaceful. If he does not become quiet after the anger but remains troubled and audacious he is, as we have said, like the person who adds wood to the fire and it gets progressively hotter until there is a great blaze.”
On Ignoring the Failings of Our Neighbor
“Those who want to be saved pay no attention to the failings of their neighbors, but always look for their own and so make progress. Such was the man who, seeing that his brother had sinned, sighed and said, ‘Woe unto me! As he has sinned today, so shall I sin tomorrow. This one will repent his sin, while I shall not have repented as I ought.’”
Much more spiritual wisdom can be found in Abba Dorotheos’ Discourses and other writings. In all, they give us evidence that he indeed practiced the commandments with the same zeal he reasoned was necessary when he first entered the monastery. Of Dorotheos’ later life, we only know that after his elders passed, he moved further into the desert to live the life of a hermit. However, as often happens, seekers of wisdom eventually found him. He started a new monastery in Gaza of which we know nothing else and sometime thereafter he reposed.