English

A portrait

Dorotheus of Gaza (Sixth Century) Humility and Communion

The Letter from Calcutta quotes this text from Dorotheus of Gaza on page 4:

“Imagine that the world is a circle, that God is the center, and that the radii are the different ways human beings live. When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the center of the circle, they come closer to one another at the same time as to God. The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another. And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God.” (Instructions VI.)

Son of a wealthy family, very cultivated, so enamored of reading that he brought his library to the monastery, as a young man Dorotheus entered the community of Abba Serid near Gaza in Palestine. He became the spiritual son of Barsanuphius and John, two contemplatives known for the depth of their correspondence. These “great old men,” as they are called in the monastic tradition, moderated his absolute desire for contemplation and for this purpose suggested that he build a hospital for ill or elderly monks. The experience led him gradually to leave behind his properties, his books, his rich garments. He became the head nurse of the hospital built and paid for by his family.

His correspondence with Barsanuphius is famous for the “contract” which the two concluded: Barsanuphius would take Dorotheus’ sins upon himself (he suffered from an emotional life he had trouble controlling) on the condition that Dorotheus keep from pride, malicious gossip and needless words. In a moment of doubt, when he was thinking of leaving the monastery, he received these words of Barsanuphius which enlightened him: “Like the anchor of a ship, so will the prayer of those who are here with you be for you.” From these difficulties a strong attraction for the common life would be born, and the assurance that the prayer of others can support a vocation for one’s entire lifetime.

He would remember how sensitively these two “old men” accompanied him when, after their death, he founded his own community a few miles from his first monastery. For those who joined him there, he wrote down the “Instructions” that have come down to us. Characterized by a realistic outlook that does not ask for the impossible, he proposed a life made up of peaceful self-renunciation, with no excesses and resolutely communal. For him, the community forms a true body where each member exercises a particular function. A monk’s solitude does not imply isolation. He wrote: “We should do what is said of Abba Anthony: he gathered and kept the good he saw in each of those he went to visit—from one, gentleness, from another, humility, from still another, the love of solitude. In this way he had all the qualities of each person in himself. That is what we should do, too, and visit one another for this purpose.” (Letter 1, 181.)

Dorotheus inserted into the wisdom of the desert a significant contribution of pagan wisdom. He insisted in particular on the role of personal conscience, a divine spark in every person, and defined virtue in the fashion of Aristotle as “the middle-ground between excess and lack”.

Dorotheus emphasized “keeping the commandments”, the only thing able to bring the grace received in baptism to the roots of evil in us, and on “openness of heart” to the man or woman who accompanies us. He especially condemned monastic pride, ascetical competition among monks, and placed humility at the summit of the spiritual life. The advice he gave his monks to resist temptations without rigidity, but instead with calm and gentleness, still remains fully relevant today. At a time when many feel paralyzed by the fear of failure or doubt, these encouraging words of Dorotheus need to be heard again: “At the time of trial, remain patient, pray and do not try to conquer the thoughts that come from the tempter by human reasoning. Abba Peomen knew this, and stated that the advice ‘do not worry about tomorrow’ (Matthew 6:34) was meant for someone being tempted. Convinced that this is true, abandon your own thoughts, however good they may be, and keep a firm hope in God ‘who can do infinitely more than what we ask or think’ (Ephesians 3:20).” (Letter 8, 193.)

Last updated: 4 October 2007