18 June 2009

'The Constant Companion of Monastics'—Holy Abba Dorotheus of Gaza

Today, 5 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Abba Dorotheus of Gaza (c. 505-565?). Unfortunately, as Eric Wheeler notes in the Introduction to his translation of St Dorotheus’s famous Discourses, ‘In the monastic milieu of those early centuries there were several interesting and distinguished characters bearing the name of Dorotheos. Although separated in time and place there was a tendency among early hagiographers to identify one with another’ (Introduction, Discourses & Sayings, by St Dorotheus of Gaza, trans. Eric P. Wheeler [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1977], p. 23). The Holy Apostles Convent translation of Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and Sinai Desert (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997) from the Great Synaxaristes lists St Dorotheus of Gaza, the author of the Discourses, on 13 August along with his disciple, St Dositheus of Thawatha (pp. 326-332), while the only Saint listed for 5 June is Hieromartyr Dorotheus, Bishop of Gaza, who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. But a number of other sources list the author of the Discourses on 5 June (except the Orthodox Wiki article, which has confused him with an Egyptian hermit of the 4th century celebrated on 16 September—somebody please fix this!). I personally have elected to post on St Dorotheus today, not because I have a clue what day is the correct one, but to reserve 13 August for St Dositheus.

As I’ve already mentioned, the St Dorotheus about whom I am writing is the author of the Discourses. He was born in Antioch and, according to the Holy Apostles account, ‘we know that he devoted much time in diligent study of the secular sciences’ (p. 326). Wheeler points out that ‘when he was learning to read he approached a book as though he were going up to stroke a wild animal—this “towards the end of his childhood”’ (p. 23), and the HA account sums up his education with the following observations:

Studying with much zeal and eagerness, Dorotheus acquired a broad knowledge and developed his natural gift with words.

. . . The saint was wont to read the Rules of St Basil the Great. He studied them carefully and strove to fulfill them in deed.

From reading the works of Dorotheus, it is apparent that he was familiar with pagan writers, but he is incomparably better versed in the writings of the holy fathers and Teachers of the Orthodox Church: Saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, and many of the renowned ascetics of the first Christian centuries. (p. 327)

Wheeler believes that his connection with Gaza and ‘his own affirmation that he studied with fury to become a master of eloquence, invites the conclusion that he established himself there for a considerable tim as a professor of rhetoric’ (p. 28). At any rate, he seems to have come under the influence of Ss Barsanuphius and John the Prophet, two desert-dwelling elders near the cœnobium under St Seridos at Thawatha in Palestine, and according to Wheeler ‘had had frequent correspondence with them on the affairs of the soul’ (p. 35). Thus it was that when he decided to leave the world to become a monk, it was to Thawatha that he repaired, placing himself under obedience to St John, as he himself says, ‘When I was in the cenobium I used to reveal everything to old Abba John, for I never set out to do anything contrary to his judgment’ (Discourses, p. 126).

During his years under obedience, St Dorotheus served at one time as guest-master and at another as chief-infirmarian of the monastery. In the latter position, ‘Dorotheus became a model of love of neighbor and, at the same time, treated the wounds and infirmities of the souls of the brethren’ (HA, p. 331), but only with the full approval of his elders (Wheeler, p. 45). Unfortunately, very little is known with certainty about the rest of his life. The traditional account is that he ‘left the cœnobium and became an abbot of another monastery’ (HA, p. 332), and even Fr Georges Florovsky (The Byzantine Ascetic & Spiritual Fathers, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 10 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz: Bchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 201) and Chitty (The Desert a City [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995], p. 140) seem to accept this tradition.

But Wheeler makes a strong case that St Dorotheus did not leave Thawatha, but rather ‘graduated’ from the cœnobitic life to the eremitic around the time of the repose of Ss Seridos and John, the final withdrawal of St Barsanuphius, and the succession to the abbacy of a certain ‘Elien’ whom Wheeler strongly believes to be St Dorotheus’s brother according to the flesh. Thus, his statement ‘When I was in the cenobium’ (p. 126), should not be read as ‘implying that he is no longer living at Thawatha, but that he had passed from one section of the monastic complex to another, viz. from the common life to the solitary life’ (p. 61). As evidence that he didn’t leave entirely however, Wheeler cites the general fidelity of St Dorotheus to the teachings of his elders, among which was a tremendous emphasis on stability. Wheeler quotes St Barsanuphius writing to St Dorotheus—

But you are so blind you do not see what beneficence God has extended and continues to extend to you, through the prayers of the saints and of blessed Abraham who has said both to you and to your brother, ‘If you remain in this place, you will have me for your intercessor’. (p. 60)

Wheeler suggests that he was likely the spiritual father of the cœnobium and its hermitages in his final years, and that it was during this period that he gave his Discourses (p. 69), compiled by a disciple around 600 (p. 66). Nothing is known of the circumstances of his repose, which Wheeler believes to have been subsequent but near to 560 (p. 67), and thanks in part to the vicissitudes of history, his tomb was unfortunately ‘lost to view a short time after his death (p. 71).

But St Dorotheus’s name has been preserved through his literary achievements. Derwas Chitty mentions that St Dorotheus may have been the editor of the Questions and Answers of Ss Barsanuphius and John, as well as of the collection of sayings of the Abba Zosimas (p. 140). But concerning his own work, the Discourses, Chitty writes (p. 140):

Abba Dorotheus has himself left us a body of ascetical works in the tradition of his masters, Varsanuphius and John, but in fact far better known in the West, appearing in Migne’s Patrology (PG LXXXVIII, 1611-1844). This, as has recently been pointed out in the article on Dorotheus in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, and at greater length by Dom Lucien Régnault of Solesmes in the Revue d’ Ascétique et de Mystique (No. 130, April-June, 1957; pp. 141-9) is due to their discovery and use by the first generation of Jesuits, on whom they seem to have had considerable influence, being among the short list of books approved to be read by novices entering the Society.

Citing the 1686 translation by the Trappist founder, Abbé de Rancé, Wheeler notes, ‘The Cistercians, the Benedictines and, strangely enough, the Jesuits have during the past centuries found spiritual nourishment in the works of Dorotheos’ (p. 19).

Needless to say, the Discourses have enjoyed perhaps an even greater fame in the East. Fr Florovsky calls them 'a model manual in monastic communities', pointing out, 'The venerable Theodore the Studite (759-826) valued the work very highly' (p. 201). St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) includes them in his list of indispensable reading for cœnobitic monks (The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore] [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991], p. 22). In a helpful post on St Dorotheus’s teaching on fasting, the sadly missed blogger, Felix Culpa, calls the Discourses ‘the constant companion of monastics’. They are marked not only by the divine wisdom of the whole patristic tradition, but by a touching personal quality exemplified by the Saint’s frequent references to his own experiences and shortcomings. Chrysogonus Waddell opens his Preface to Wheeler’s translation with the observation:

There is something extraordinary (and comforting) about any spiritual writer who can begin an Instruction On Fear of the Punishment to Come with the candid admission that his current bout with rheumatism of the feet was probably occasioned by too much convivial cheer in the guest-house refectory. But this is Dorotheos. (p. 9)

I shall give two excerpts below, and now that I’ve got started, I’d like to do one or two more in the next week or so! First, here is the passage referred to above where St Dorotheus discusses his early education:

When towards the end of my childhood I was learning to read, at the beginning I used to wear myself out by working at it too hard and when I went to take up a book I was like someone going upt to stroke a wild animal. As I preserved in forcing myself to go on, however, God came to my assistance and I became so engrossed in reading that I did not know what I was eating or drinking, or how I slept, I was so enthused about my reading. I was never drawn away to a meal with one of my friends or to a meeting with him at reading time in spite of the fact that I had many friends and delighted in their company.

When the master dismissed us I used to take a bath—which I needed daily to counteract the exhaustion from excessive study—then I hurried to where I was staying without thinking about eating, for I could not take it easy or order food for myself, but I had a faithful companion and he prepared for me whatever he wished. I took whatever I found prepared for me, propped up a book beside me, and in a short time was lost in it. For the siesta I had the same book as a companion by my chair, and if sleep overpowered me for a short time I was quickly on my feet again and at my reading. It was the same in the evening when I got back after lamplighting. I used to grasp my lamp and go on with my reading until midnight. So it was that I took no notice of, or pleasure in, anything except what I was reading. When, therefore, I came to the monastery I used to say to myself, ‘If for the sake of public speaking so much endurance and fervor is needed fully to acquire the art of reading, how much more is needed for the acquisition of virtue.’ From this consideration I received much strength and encouragement. If anyone wants to acquire virtue he ought not to let himself be distracted or puffed up with vain hopes. . . . For unless a man drives himself and fights against his evil inclinations he readily falls away and diverges from the path of virtue. (pp. 164-5)

Second, here is an example of St Dorotheus’s eminently practical teaching on the active life of struggle for the virtues:

But virtue and vice are formed in the soul by repeated actions, and ingrained habits bring peace, or punishment, with them. We speak of virtue bringing rest to the soul and vice bringing punishment—why the difference? Because virtue belongs to the nature we possess; the seeds of virtue are ineradicable. I say, therefore, that insofar as 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 which belongs to us, as diseased eyes recover their normal reactions to light, or from any other state of weakness, we return to the normal state of healthy which belongs to our very nature. In the case of vice it is entirely different, by doing repeatedly what is evil we acquire a habit which is foreign to us, something unnatural. We put ourselves, as it were, into a permanent state of pestilential sickness, so that we can no longer be healed without many tears, which have the power to attract Christ’s compassion to us. (p. 180)

For more on St Dorotheus see this article. For more excerpts from the Discourses, see the these pages at Inner Light Productions: I, II, III, IV, and V.


+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

It's almost as if you're daring me not to comment, Aaron. Surely you knew that the subject of my (never completed) doctoral research at Oxford was "Spiritual Direction and Charismatic Authority in the Correspondence of Barsanuphios the Great and John of Gaza"! No? Well, now you do.

I'm very grateful for you for posting twice on this great Abba, and for promising more to come. Anyone who has spent any time with him knows him to be among the most attractive figures in the monastic literature. And anyone who has read the correspondence of his spiritual fathers, John (principally) and Barsanuphios (John's director), knows that he was formed by two of the greatest fathers the Church has known. Dom Francois Neyt identified more than 150 of the 850 letters that make up the B & J corpus as being addressed to Dorotheos, beginning with responses to his first enquiries into the monastic life and continuing through his various ministries within the monastery, culminating in his own ministry of spritual direction. There really is nothing like it in the epistolography of late antiquity. A critical edition of the letters, with French translation by Neyt, P. de Angelis-Noah and Lucien Regnault, was finally published by "Sources Chretiennes," in 5 volumes, earlier this decade (Nos. 426, 427, 450, 451, and 468). Fr John Chryssavgis (a friend for nearly 30 years) put out the first complete English translation (based in part on my own incomplete work) in 2 volumes of "The Fathers of the Church" series, published by Catholic University of America Press, just a couple of years ago. Lastly, no serious student of the so-called Gaza School (Barsanuphios, John, Dorotheos and Dositheos) can afford to be without the excellent work of Jennifer Hevelone-Harper, whose "Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Direction in Sixth-Century Gaza" was published by John Hopkins University Press in 2005.

I don't mean for any of this to distract you from your own thesis. But I do hope you'll file it all away for that glorious post-thesis future, for which you no doubt fervently pray!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the mini-biblio, Your Grace! I'd love to get Fr Chryssavgis's translation (I had wondered if there was a complete translation yet) of the letters, as well as Hevelone-Harper's study. The critical edition would, of course, be nice to have, but I can only imagine how much 5 vols. of the SC would run! I bet 2 vols. of the FC series isn't exactly cheap either.

Well, the price should help to keep me focused, if nothing else does...