13. THE MONKS OF GAZA C. 500
I. THE DESERT OF GAZA
Egypt had been the high-place of the anchoritic and cenobitic life for nearly two centuries. beginning with Antony in 271, then Pachomius in 320 to the death of Arsenius in 450.
From the north of Egypt to the south of Palestine, the desert of Gaza was very soon inhabited by monks: Hilarion came to settle there about 307 after he had been trained by Antony; and several monasteries formed round him. We have seen that the system of lauras flourished in the south of Palestine; there a monk was trained in a monastery, but he did not inevitably stay there for the rest of his life. He could lead a more solitary life, returning to the monastery each Saturday; or even stay in solitude. Some lived in complete seclusion. It is this mixture of cenobitism and anchoritism which we find among the monks of Gaza at the period we shall now study, the first half of the sixth century, which is contemporary with St Benedict. These monks lived more than a century after the desert Fathers whom we studied in the Apophthegmata.
At the end of the fifth century, a monastery was founded in this region by Seridos who
became the first superior. It was famous for the holy monks who lived there. Many are
unknown to us, but some have left texts which enable us to know the authors well and also
give us the names of some of them. These texts are the the letters of direction of two
solitaries: Barsanuphius and John and the spiritual writings of a cenobite, Dorotheus:
instructions to monks, letters, and the life of his disciple, Dositheus.
These texts reveal a spirituality imbued with the Gospel. Its writers are human, rich in experience and remarkable for their balance; the emphasis is always on what is essential.
II. THE SPIRITUAL MASTERS
Though he founded a monastery, he was a humble and retiring man about whom we know very little. He was trained by Barsanuphius who did not hesitate to treat him severely. A hard and rough formation which had him practice complete submission to his master and a heroic obedience, led him to great perfection. Barsanuphius called him his 'true and well-loved son'.
However, although he himself put Seridos through a severe training, he advised him to use discretion when as abbot he was too demanding of his monks. Barsanuphius quoted this text from the book of Proverbs: "Churn the milk and you will get butter, but if you squeeze the udder too hard blood will come forth". (30:33 in a different translation). Seridos was a condescending father to his monks.
His outstanding wisdom, teaching and holiness earned him the name: 'The Grand Old Man'. He was born in Egypt about 460. First he embraced the anchoritic life, then he came to live as a solitary near the monastery of abba Seridos. He bade Seridos write letters at his dictation addressed to people outside, and guarded his solitude so fiercely that some monks doubted his existence, thinking that Seridos had imagined this mysterious and invisible person in order to bolster his own authority.
Beneath his rather austere replies, one senses great humility, a sensitivity mistrustful of itself, and great charity. We see too sometimes in his writings the heights of contemplation and familiarity with God to which he had attained.
On the death of Seridos, followed a little later by that of John, his solitude became total; he stopped all correspondence and we hear no more of him. When alive, he was thought not to exist; dead, he was thought to be still alive at the end of the sixth century.
A disciple of Barsanuphius like Seridos, he too was a solitary and had close connections with the 'Grand Old Man'. In the letters, Barsanuphius calls him : 'The other Old Man'. He is also called 'The Prophet'. He was Barsanuphius' double, his 'other self' (Text 1). They are a remarkable example of spiritual friendship; God enabled them to know each other's thoughts.
John lived for 18 years in a separate cell to Barsanuphius. He also got others to write letters to those who asked his advice. First it was Seridos, then Dorotheus. John seemed to enjoy unalterable peace. His humility was evident by his constant self-effacement in the presence of 'the Grand Old Man'. We have the story of his death which gives us a final example of his charity (Text 2).
Because of his writings, which are easy to read and contain precious teaching, Dorotheus is the most important of these monks of Gaza. He is the nearest to us in spirit. He was born at the beginning of the fifth century at Antioch. His family was Christian; he received a good education and solid human formation as is clear from his works. Entering the monastery of Seridos, he put himself straight away under the direction of Barsanuphius and John. We can, thanks to the letters, follow the formation of a young monk who was to become one of the greatest names in spirituality; a unique occurrence in monastic history. Trials and temptations were not spared the novice from the moment he entered the monastery, as we see in this correspondance. His great strength in these struggles lay in his willingness to open his heart to his abbas (Text 3). The fruit of this humble transparency was a peace such that Dorotheus was no longer disturbed by trials (Text 4).
Soon, Dorotheus was given important responsibilities in the monastery. First he was made guest-master, then also infirmarian and spiritual director, notably of Dositheus. These many occupations were a trial for someone who aspired to a humble and hidden life of silence: how could he keep the thought of God when he was pestered on all sides? He was tempted to become a hermit. Here again it was by opening his heart that he overcame it. Dorotheus told his two Old Men of being torn between action and contemplation. Abba John answered him (Text 5). A purely contemplative life is good, but only for those who are perfect. The mixed life is best for Dorotheus, uniting contemplation and the practice of fraternal charity. In the counsels of Barsanuphius we find the same teaching on continual prayer as Basil: the mindfulness of God is not far from keeping the commandment (Text 6).
Seridos died about 560 and John followed three weeks later. Barsanuphius was a complete recluse. At this time, Dorotheus left the monastery. Why? Was it because he had been criticised for his moderation by the other monks, champions of an excessive ascesis? Did he want to become an anchorite? We do not know. Even if it was for the latter reason, Dorotheus could not remain long in solitude. His reputation spread. Disciples came to live with him and he was constrained to found a cenobitic monastery.
We know nothing about this monastery, the life that Dorotheus led, or his death. But we have a precious treasure in the instructions which he gave to his monks and which tell us of his experience.
Barsanuphius, John, Seridos, Dorotheus, each in his own way exemplifies the ideal of the spiritual father. The simple and pure life of Dositheus, as Dorotheus tells it, shows us the ideal of the disciple, the model novice.
Dositheus was a general's batman and no doubt destined for the army; but he was converted during a journey to Palestine after a vision of the Virgin in Gethsemani. He entered the monastery of abba Seridos who confided him to Dorotheus. The novice was not very strong. Wisely, Dorotheus made his ascesis consist in forgoing his own will at every opportunity and in detachment from things given for his use (Text 7), in the of practice humility (Text 8), obedience, gentleness, patience and fraternal charity (Text 9) always. In the formation Dorotheus gave his novice, this constant fidelity in little things, anticipating the teaching of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, was united to mindfulness of God (Text 10). this wise and sound formation, Dositheus soon achieved sanctity. He left this world after having received from Barsanuphius the assurance that all his sins were forgiven and his bidding: "Go forth in peace! Take your place with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and be our ambassador before God", which made his death an act of obedience.
The life of Dositheus ends with these words: "Dositheus became a friend of God in a short time! Yes, God judged him worthy of such great honour because he knew how to obey and to say 'no' to his own will".
1) THE LETTERS OF THE SOLITARIES
From the letters of John and Barsanuphius we can see in writing how a young man must have been trained by an abbaamong the anchorites. This exchange of letters between master and disciple shows us how this relationship functioned: the master led by the Spirit, the disciple a man of desire. We read of the struggles undergone by the disciple, his temptations, and the victory gained through humble openness. We see too how the masters knew how to accommodate themselves to the disciple and help him grow, the balanced formation and true sense of values they communicated.
Close to the teachings of the Apophthegmata, these letters do not say all that can be said, although they record perhaps more personal confidences. Like the Apophthegmata, they are written for the needs of someone already advanced in the spiritual life, and so adapt to the way of life and state of soul of the recipient. Their teaching cannot be systematised or used without discernment. For instance, John said to Dorotheus: "You must obey the abba in everything, even if it seems sinful" (288). That is also the teaching of the Apophthegmata. It is not that of Basil.
The teaching of Barsanuphius is very close to that of John "his double". For both, the essence of perfection consists in charity. It is the roof of the spiritual house which we build (208). But this charity must be shown in deeds: to love is to observe the commandments, to renounce one's own will and to do the will of God (Text 11). Renunciation of one's own will is at the centre of this spirituality; everything else flows from it: humility means that one regards oneself as nothing, which makes obedience easy. Obedience and humility are the lynch pins (Text 12).
When one has renounced one's own will, one is completely open to the will of God (Text 13). It is amerimna which keeps the soul united to God in all circumstances (Text 14). This is why the letters insist on submission, on spiritual direction to preserve the interior liberty given by amerimna (Text 15).
The Fathers of Gaza help us to understand the nature of amerimna which is recommended by the Apophthegmata and represented as a stage towards hesychia and continual prayer. It is abandonment to divine Providence in the depths of humility, which Fr de Caussade and dom Léhodey taught in our day. It is the trust of the child, which is at the heart of the teaching of St Thérèse.
The monks of Gaza saw the surrender ('abandonment') which is amerimna as the preparation for hesychia; the highest degree of amerimna is hesychia, the repose of contemplation (Text 16). In this text we see that Barsanuphius experienced the heights of contemplation. For him, hesychia is hardly possible except in the solitary life, but he recognises that contemplation is possible amid the worries of life in a monastery (Text 17).
The teaching on prayer in the letters of the two solitaries is much the same; they speak of it a lot. Like Cassian, they place charity at the summit of perfection because they realise that it coincides with the highest forms of contemplation and prayer. They show us the way to get there.
As the foundation there is first of all humility and purification of the passions (Text 18). This text shows that we must never completely abandon the Pater, nor, as they say elsewhere, the Kyrie eleison and psalmody. The Pater is for sinners as well as the perfect. Both of them recommend to their correspondants continual prayer under the form of 'remembrance of God', an habitual union with God retained amid exterior occupations, reading and conversations. Dorotheus, when overburdened with work, asked Barsanuphius if it was possible to retain remembrance of God. Here is his reply (Text 19). To a layman Barsanuphius explained how to advance in prayer (Text 20). He recommended the prayer of Jesus: "Let us never cease to call upon the Name of God to find help, for this is prayer" (425). It is the chief remedy which destroys the passions and keeps us humble (424).
2) THE INSTRUCTIONS OF DOROTHEUS
In the works of their disciple Dorotheus, we find the same teaching, but it is more systematic. Dorotheus presents it to his monks in a more general and methodical form; but he is still concrete and practical.
His Instructions are probably jottings taken by a disciple during the conversations Dorotheus had with his monks; their style is simple and without frills. This is very rare in ancient monastic writings: there is no literary fiction here as in Cassian. We have the simplicity once again of the Apophthegmata. But beneath this simplicity there are treasures of perception and a deep psychological understanding; Dorotheus knows the human heart, its resources but also its frailty in face of the devil's snares. He knows the Scriptures and the Fathers too and how to use them to get his message across gently and with a smile, sprinkled with anecdotes and memories.
Instruction 1 is noteworthy. It gives us a summary of his spiritual teaching. In order to explain the need for Christian and monastic asceticism, Dorotheus, who was inspired by the greatest of the Greek Fathers: Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius and the Cappadocians, put it at the heart of the mystery of salvation. He goes back to the beginnings of humanity, to the fall and its consequences (Text 21). Then he shows the liberating work of Christ (Text 22). This liberation goes deeper than the Law. That told us what we must not do. The commandments of Christ tackled the cause of evil (Text 23). Thus he bids us avoid the cause of evil which is the passions, rather than evil itself.
Dorotheus realised that Christ goes further (Text 24). He concludes: "Let him who would find true repose for his soul learn humility! "There he will find all joy, glory and repose, but in pride he will find quite the opposite".
This is the way of every Christian; all must obey the commandments. Dorotheus goes on to develop the way for monks (Text 25). First there is the theme of renunciation, seen as renunciation of the world as in Cassian (13-14). Like Evagrius and Cassian, Dorotheus first gives the meaning of the monk's habit. Then he goes on to renunciation properly so-called. From his masters Barsanuphius and John, Dorotheus learnt the great lesson of renunciation of one's own will (Text 26). This detachment is the amerimna which Barsanuphius and John speak of.
The whole teaching of Dorotheus is summarized in this first instruction.
Elsewhere we find complementary points: the need for a guide to discern our passions and to be sure we are not doing our own will (Text 27), and of course charity towards our neighbour. Dorotheus uses a comparison to show the link between the love of God and love of our neighbour (Text 28). We find here the same teaching as Athanasius gave in the 'Life of Antony'.
Dorotheus also underlines the necessity of vigilance, the nepsis of the Apophthegmata, taking up the concept we found in Cassian and Basil (Text 29).
The Instructions of Dorotheus are not so rich on prayer as the Letters of the two solitaries. He shows it is necessary: we must pray to ask God to help us. He gives it as a remedy against resentment. Barsanuphius had taught him to be thankful in all circumstances. We find the same lesson in many of the passages of the Instructions.
IV. CONCLUSION : REPOSE
The term hesychia, for the two solitaries, was the repose of contemplation. Dorotheus too was attracted by hesychia at the beginning of his religious life, but his two spiritual masters made him realise that the eremitical life was not for him. After having been torn between his desire for solitude and the difficulties of the active life, Dorotheus learnt to find repose at the heart of a life of obedience and service of his neighbour. His ideal was cenobitic. He only spoke of hesychia twice in his works, and that in passing.
It was to repose that Dorotheus continually invited his monks, showing them how to attain it. He meant a repose, not of body, but of soul. It is not the repose of a soul without temptations, which thinks itself free of them (Text 30). Rather it is a repose tied to amerimna, to surrender, which we have already mentioned; a repose which is the outcome of the spiritual struggle (Text 31).
The cenobitic teaching of Dorotheus not only concerns cenobites. He also instructed lay people of Gaza who came to visit him. He was read by thousands, for his teaching was above all Christian and moreover its 'social' character made it valued among Christians anxious to lead a life of perfection in the world.
This is why the works of Dorotheus were frequently translated and widely read by both monks and lay people. He was also read by the monks of Sinai, of Mount Athos and in Russia. In the West, partial translations were found in Monte Cassino. Later his works were translated by many Benedictines; he was recommended by Mabillon. Outside the cloister, Dominicans and Jesuits also used him. His teaching is always contemporary, as he explains the teaching of the Gospel in a picturesque way, with examples taken from daily life.
Dorotheus of Gaza : Discourses and Sayings - CSS 33
Early Fathers from the Philokalia; Kladoubovsky & Palmer - Faber
Saint Dositheus - Witnesses for Christ; A.I.M._
13. THE MONKS OF GAZA
1) Who were these monks of Gaza, and what kind of life did they lead?
2) In which works do we find their teaching?
3) Have you read the life of Dositheus? What do you like best about it?
4) Is the teaching of the desert Fathers found among the monks of Gaza?
5) What do they teach us about prayer?
13. THE MONKS OF GAZA
1. Barsanuphius - Letter 188
What can I say about my blessed child, who is humble and obedient, who is one with me and has completely renounced all his own wishes, even to death. The Lord said: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father". He also said of the disciple that he could be "like his master". "Whoever has ears to hear, let him listen".
Abba John lived in the first cell which had built for the Grand Old Man outside the monastery. He lived there as a recluse for eighteen years, until his death which he foretold as follows: I will die less that eight days after Abba Seridos. When we begged him not to leave us orphans, he said: "If Abba Seridos had stayed, I would have stayed another five years, but because God has taken him, I will not stay any longer". Then Abba Elien, the new superior of the monastery, begged Abba Barsanuphius with prayers and tears, that John might stay with us especially as he himself no longer wrote letters. Abba John knew this in spirit. When we came the next day with supplies, he said to Abba Elien: "Why did you beg Abba Barsanuphius about me? Do not go to all that trouble, for I shall not stay". Then, as we were all weeping at his feet, Abba Elien decided to ask: "Give me at least two weeks so that I may consult you about the monastery and its government". The Old Man, moved with pity and urged by the spirit who dwelt within him said: "Oh well! you may have me for three weeks". Abba Elien questioned him continually about each detail of the government of the monastery. When two weeks had gone by, he asked us not to speak about his death before it happened. Having called to him all the brothers and all those who were in the monastery, he embraced each one and sent them all away. Then he gave up his soul to God in peace.
3. Dorotheus, Instruction V:66
When I was in the monastery of Abba Seridos, I used to confide everything to the old man, Abba John, and I never did anything without his advice. Sometimes my thoughts said to me: "This is what the Old Man will tell you; so why bother him?" But I answered: "Damn you and your discernment, your understanding, your prudence and your knowledge! What you know comes from the devil". Then I went to ask Abba John, and sometimes it happened that his reply was exactly what I had already thought. Then my thoughts said: "Now what? It is what I told you. You have disturbed the Old Man unnecessarily". And I replied: "Now I know that it comes from the Holy Spirit. What comes from you is bad, it comes from the devil, from your passions". So I never allowed myself to follow my thoughts without taking counsel.
4. Dorotheus, Instruction 1:25.
You have no experience of this unquestioning obedience, nor do you know the repose one finds in it. One day I asked the Old Man, Abba John, the disciple of Barsanuphius,: "Master, the Scripture says that we shall enter the Kingdom of heaven through many tribulations. Yet at the moment I have none. What must I do so as not to lose my soul?" For then I had no troubles, no cares. If a thought came to me, I took a tablet and wrote to the Old Man. I had not even finished writing when I found relief and benefit, such was my freedom from care and my repose. Nevertheless, as I did not know the power of virtue and as I had heard that we must enter the Kingdom of heaven through much tribulation, I was worried that I had no troubles. But when I told the Old Man of my fears, he said to me: "Do not be upset, you have no need to be. All those who give their obedience to the Fathers possess this freedom from care and this repose.".
5. John, Letter 315
Do not be presumptuous in solitude, nor contemptuous in the difficulties of business; take the middle way where you will not fall, but will keep humble in solitude and watchful in the difficulties of business. There are no fixed times for recollection of spirit, neither hours nor even days. But events must be accepted with thanksgiving. You must be compassionate with all those who are troubled in the monastery and in this way fulfil the precept of the Apostle. If anyone is afflicted, you must share his affliction, console and strengthen him, for this is compassion. It is good to show compassion to those who are sick and to help in their healing.
6. Barsanuphius, Letter 328
Brother, all day long you are mindful of God and you do not realise it! In fact, to receive a commandment and to try and keep it is both submission and remembrance of God. Brother John was right in telling you: "Send out leaves first and in God's good time you will bear fruit as well" You do not know what is best. Go along with the advice of those who know. That is humility, and in that way you will find the grace of God.
7. Dorotheus, Life of Dositheus 8
Another time a brother went to the market and brought back a very good knife. It was a beautiful knife. Dositheus took it and handed it to Abba Dorotheus and said: "Brother X has brought this knife and I have taken it. If you agree, we will keep it in the infirmary because it is very good for cutting the bread into small pieces". But Abba Dorotheus did not want to have beautiful things for the infirmary. He wanted only sturdy things and nothing else. So he said to Dorotheus: "Bring the knife, I want to see if it is a good one. Dorotheus gave him the knife saying: "Yes Father, it is very good for slicing the bread small". Dorotheus also saw that it was very good for that; but he did not want Dositheus to be attached to anything too much, so he did not let him keep the knife. He said to him: "Dositheus, does this knife really please you? Do you want to be the slave of this knife or the slave of God? It is true, Dositheus, this knife does please you and see, you are attached to it! What do you want? This knife is your master, not God! Are you not ashamed?
Dositheus listened. He bent his head and said nothing. Dorotheus reproached him for a long time. In the end he said to him: "Come now, put this knife here and do not touch it!" Dositheus was very careful not to touch the knife, he did not even take it to hand to someone. All the other brothers used it, he was the only one not to go near it. And Dositheus never said: "All the others have the right to use it except me. Why?" But he did everything he was told with joy.
8. Dorotheus, Life of Dositheus, 7
Dositheus was very good at making the beds of those who were ill. He had a guileless heart and said openly any thought that came to him. For example, often Dositheus made a bed with great care. Abba Dorotheus passed by, Dositheus saw him and said: "Father, Father, I have been saying to myself, I am good at making beds, I am!" Dorotheus answered: "Oh, my son! you are a good servant now! You have become a good worker, but have you become a good monk?
9. Dorotheus, Life of Dositheus 6
Dositheus took good care of those who were ill in the infirmary; however he was not always patient with them. Once he spoke to them crossly. Then he wept, he left everything and went to the store-room. The other brothers working in the infirmary wanted to cheer him up and went to see him. But Dositheus was still sad. So the brothers said to Abba Dorotheus: "Please come and see Dositheus. He is weeping and we do not know why". Dorotheus went to the store-room; he saw the brother sitting on the ground weeping and said to him: "What is the matter Dositheus? What is wrong with you? Why are you weeping?" Dositheus answered: "Forgive me, Father. I was angry and spoke unkindly to my brother". "What, Dositheus, you were angry! Are you not ashamed to let yourself become angry and speak unkindly to your brother! He is Christ and it is Christ you are wounding. Do you still not know this?" Dositheus bent his head and said nothing. Dorotheus saw that he had wept enough, so he said to him: "God forgives you! Get up! From now on, make a fresh start! Be very careful and God will help us!" When Dositheus heard these words he got up straight away and ran off happily to serve the sick Yes, God had forgiven him, he was sure of it!
10. Dorotheus, Life of Dositheus 10
Dositheus' thoughts were always on God. Abba Dorotheus had taught him to say always, according to the custom: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!" and from time to time: "Son of God, help!" Dositheus prayed without ceasing in this way. When he fell ill, Dorotheus said to him: "Dositheus, think of the prayer. Pay attention to it and do not lose it". Dositheus answered: "Yes Father, pray for me". Some time later, Dositheus was more seriously ill. Dorotheus asked him again: "What about the prayer, Dositheus? Are you holding on to it all the time?" He answered: "Yes Father, with the help of your prayers".
Time went by and Dositheus became even worse. He had no strength and they carried him in a sheet. Dorotheus said to him: "How is the prayer going, Dositheus?" He answered: "Forgive me, Father, I no longer have the strength to pray". Then Dorotheus said to him: "Well, leave the prayer. Only be mindful of God, and remember that He is before you".
11. John. Letter 574
Dearly beloved brother, faith in God, for one who is surrendered to God, consists in no longer having the freedom to go his own way, but to abandon himself until his last breath. He accepts everything that happens to him from God with thanksgiving: "Giving thanks in everything". For if someone refuses what comes from God, he is disobeying God and seeking to follow his own will.
12. Barsanuphius Letter 582
The one who dies in humility and obedience in the monastery will be saved by Christ; for the Lord Jesus has given him his word. But if someone follows his own will and pretends to obey and be humble, he will be judged by God
One who behaves according to his own will for the well-being of his body and not for the profit of his soul must constantly be admonished for the sake of him "who wishes everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of his truth".
13. Barsanuphius Letter 38
The one I have entrusted you to knows what you need before you ask him. Since you know this, be without anxiety. It is by letting go of all anxiety that you will approach the city; and by being apart from men that you will dwell there. It is dying to all men that will enable you to inherit the city and its treasures.
14. Barsanuphius Letter 2
I hope that you too will enter into the repose of God. For it is "through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God". Have no doubt in your soul and do not relax in your heart, but remember the word of the Apostle: "Though the outer man is falling away, the inner man, on the other hand, is renewed day by day". If then, you do not endure tribulation, you will not mount the cross. But if you bear up under tribulation, you will enter through the great door of his repose, and you will live in quietness from then on, in complete freedom from all care. The soul which is strong and joined to the Lord whatever may happen, will be vigilant in faith, joyful in hope, exultant in charity, protected in the Holy Trinity. For him the word will be fulfilled: "Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad". Such is the life of the man of God who is free from care.
15. Barsanuphius Letter 247
Brother, let him who wants to be saved and longs to be a child of God acquire great humility, obedience, submission and modesty. You ask: "Tell me what I must do". This is what I answer, and I guarantee that you will not be burned by the passions of the enemy. For they will be burnt away by humility as by a fire, and the heart enlightened by Christ will rejoice in his own peace.
16. Barsanuphius Letter 207
May the Lord make you worthy to drink at "the fountain of wisdom"! All those who have drunk there have forgotten themselves, they have left behind the old man. From the fountain of wisdom they are led to another fountain, that of "unfailing charity", and having reached that degree, they have attained the place where there is no agitation or distraction. They have become wholly spirit, wholly eye, utterly alive, wholly light, wholly perfect, wholly gods. They have laboured hard, they have been lifted up, glorified, made famous and perfect. They were first dead and now they are alive. They rejoice and give joy. They rejoice in the undivided Trinity and give joy to the heavenly powers.
Seek to join them, run like them, covet their faith, gain their humility, their endurance in every circumstance, so that you may receive their inheritance. Lay hold of their indestructible charity so that you may find yourself with them in the marvellous possession of those things which "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, which God has prepared for those who love him".
17. Barsanuphius Letter 9
Do not lose courage in the afflictions and hardships which you endure for us and for our monastery, for this too is to give one's life for one's brothers, and I am sure that the reward of such labour will be very great. I will tell you the word of the Apostle to Timothy: "You, my child, must find strength in the grace of the Holy Spirit". Indeed, I can see how you will find repose, and I rejoice with you in the Lord. For insofar as you live outside yourself, you will find tribulation and hardship. But once you have come to the harbour of quietness, you will find repose and peace. Our Master, in truth, is no liar when he says: "I will give them a hundredfold in this world, and in the world to come life eternal". So work with enthusiasm, brother, to obtain charity and repose to the full.
18. Barsanuphius Letter 150
The Lord teaches us how to acquire perfect humility when he says: "Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls". If then you wish to acquire perfect humility, learn what he suffered, and be prepared to suffer the same. Turn away from your own will in everything, for he said: "I came down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of my Father who is in heaven". This is perfect humility: to bear the injuries and insults which our Master, Jesus has suffered.
Perfect prayer is to speak to God without distraction, gathering one's thoughts and feelings together; and the way thither is to die to every man, to the world and to everything in the world. There is nothing we need to say to God in prayer but: "Deliver me from evil", and: "May your will be done in me". Do this in such a way that your spirit is present to God and speaks to him. We know that we are praying when we are delivered from distractions and when our spirit rejoices in being full of light in the Lord.
19. Barsanuphius Letter 150
Concerning continual remembrance of God, each one should practice it as well as he can. As for yourself, be content to humble yourself, for I know better than you what is best for you and I beg God to give it to you. All things are possible for him.
20. Barsanuphius Letter 150
Continual prayer is for the perfect who are able to control their spirit and keep it in the fear of God, so that it does not drift away or become absorbed in a compelling distractions or fantasy. One who cannot keep his spirit continually in the presence of the God should unite meditation with vocal prayer. Look at those who swim in the sea. Those who know how to swim jump in with confidence. They know that the sea will not engulf a good swimmer. But one who is only just learning to swim makes for the bank as soon as he feels he is going to sink down under the water, frightened of being unable to breathe. Then, taking courage, he may strike out again into the water. He tries this many time to learn to swim well, until he has acquired the ease of experienced swimmers.
21. Dorotheus, Instructions 1.
In the beginning when God created man, "he put him in Paradise", as holy Scripture says, adorned with every virtue. He commanded him not to eat of the tree in the middle of Paradise. So man lived in the delights of Paradise, in prayer and contemplation. He was filled with glory and honour. His faculties were healthy, in the natural state in which he had been created.
For God "made man in his own image", that is, immortal, free and adorned with every virtue. But when he had disobeyed the command and eaten from the tree that God had commanded him not to eat from, he was expelled from Paradise. Fallen from his natural state, he found himself in a state contrary to nature, that is to say, in a state of sin, love of glory, attachment to the pleasures of this life, and the other passions dominating him. Then, evil gradually increased and "death reigned".
22. Dorotheus, Instructions, 1:4.
Then in his goodness and love for men, God sent his only-begotten Son, for God alone knew how to heal and overcome such misery. So our Lord came, being made man for our sakes, "to heal like by like, soul by soul, flesh by flesh" as St Gregory says, "for he became completely man, without sin". He took our very being and he became a new Adam, "in the image of him whom he had created". He restored the state of nature to what it had been in the beginning. As man, he raised up fallen man. He delivered him from slavery and the tendency to sin.
23. Dorotheus, Instructions 1:5-6.
God knew our weakness and saw that even after baptism we would sin again - Is it not written: "the heart of man is evil from his youth"? - In his goodness he has given us holy commandments to purify us. If we really want to we can be made pure again not only from our sins but even from our passions by keeping the commandments.
The passions are different from sins. The passions are anger, vainglory, love of pleasure, hatred, evil desires and similar things. But sins are the acts which follow from these passions, when we actually do the things which our passions would have us do. Indeed, it is possible to experience the passions without in fact giving way to them.
Therefore God has given us commandments to purify us even from our passions, the evil dispositions of our inner person. He has enabled us to discern good and evil, and to recpgnise the causs of sin which he has shown us. "The law says: Do not commit adultery; but I tell you: Do not have evil desires. The law says: Do not kill; but I tell you: Do not get angry". If you have an evil desire, even though you do not actually commit adultery, the craving goes on agitating you interiorly until you have committed the act itself. If you are irritated and annoyed with your brother, there comes a moment when you will speak ill of him, then you will plot against him, and so, little by little, you will come finally to murder him.
24. Dorotheus, Instructions 1:7
Finally Christ shows us how we come to despise and disobey the precepts of God. He gives us the remedy so that we may obey and be saved,
What is the remedy and what is the cause of our contempt? Listen to what our Saviour himself says: "Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls". See how in a single word he shows us the root and cause of all evil; and also the remedy, the source of all good. He shows us that it is pride that makes us fall, and that it is impossible to win mercy except by its opposite, humility.
So, pride gives rise to contempt and harmful disobedience, while humility yields obedience and salvation of souls. I am speaking about true humility, not about abasement in words and attitudes, but a really humble disposition deep within the heart and spirit. That is what the Lord meant when he said: "I am gentle and humble of heart".
25. Dorotheus, Instructions 1:11-12.
The Fathers knew that it was not easy to attain virtue in the world. They thought of an existence apart, a special way of life, I mean the monastic life; and they began to flee the world to live in deserts and spend their lives in fasting, sleeping on the ground, in vigils and other hardships, in complete renunciation of homeland, relatives, riches and possessions. In a word, they crucified themselves to the world.
They not only kept the commandments, but they offered a gift to God in this way: the commandments of Christ have been given to all Christians, and every Christian is bound to observe them. This is, as it were, the tribute paid to a king. Will anyone who refuses to pay the tribute to the king escape punishment? But there are some great and illustrious people who, not content with paying the tribute to the king, also offer him gifts and so merit great honour, favour and respect.
So too the Fathers not only kept the commandments but offered gifts to God. These gifts are virginity and poverty. They are not commanded, they are given.
26. Dorotheus, Instructions 1:20.
If we want to be set free and enjoy perfect freedom, let us learn to renounce our wills. Then progressing little by little with God's help we shall achieve detachment. There is nothing so profitable for a man as to renounce his own will. Truly, in this way we progress, so to say, beyond all virtue. Like a traveller who finds a short cut and by taking it reduces his journey considerably, so too one who journeys by this way of renunciation of the will. For in renouncing one's will we attain detachment, and through detachment we come, with God's help to perfect apatheia.
It is possible, in a short time, to renounce ten desires. This is how: A brother takes a walk, he sees something, the thought comes to him "Look at that", then he says: "No, I will not look at it". He renounces his desire and does not look. Then he finds some brothers talking. A thought suggests itself: "You go and have a word too". He renounces his desire and does not speak. Then another thought comes to him: "Go and ask the cook what he is preparing". He does not go and renounces the desire. He happens to see something, the idea comes to ask who brought it. He renounces his desire and does not ask.
So, by these repeated renunciations he acquires a habit. After such little things he can renounce even big things easily. In this way he finally comes to have no desires of his own. Whatever happens, he is satisfied, as if it was what he himself wanted. Then, not wanting to do his own will, he finds that he is always doing what he wants; for everything that happens without his desiring it is pleasing to him. So he has no attachments and from this detachment, as I said, he attains apatheia.
27. Dorotheus, Instructions 5:
In the book of Proverbs it says: "Those who have no guide fall like leaves. There is safety in much counsel". See, brethren, the force of these words. See what Scripture is teaching us. It puts us on our guard against following our own understanding, our own wisdom, so that we should not think we can guide ourselves. We need help, we need a guide to God. No one is more wretched or vulnerable than those who have no one to guide them on the way to God.
Of those, on the contrary, who reveal their thoughts and do everything with counsel, Scripture says: "There is safety in much counsel". By "much counsel", it does not mean that we should consult everybody, but that we should consult someone in whom we can have the fullest confidence. If a man does not confide everything about himself, particularly if he has just abandoned a life of evil habits, the devil will discover that he is self-willed and self-opiniated and use it to bring about his downfall.
See how the evil one loved the brother whom he described to Abba Macarius: "I have a brother who swings like a weathercock when he sees me". He loves such monks, he is delighted with those who do not let themselves be guided by one who can, under God, help them and lend them a hand.
You see why the enemy "hates the safe way"; because he always wants our destruction. You see why he loves those who have confidence in themselves, because they work with the devil, laying snares for themselves. For my part, I know of no monk falling except through being too sure of himself. Some say the man fell for this or that reason, but I repeat, I do not know of any fall happening except for this reason. Have you seen someone fall? Be sure that he was his own guide. Nothing is worse, nothing more fatal, than to be one's own guide.
28. Dorotheus, Instructions 6
The more one is united to his neighbour, the more one is united to God. To help you understand the meaning of this word, I will give you an example taken from the Fathers: Imagine a circle traced on the ground, and its centre. We call the centre the middle of the circle. Concentrate on what I am telling you. Imagine that this circle is the world. The centre is God, and the rays are the different paths or ways of life of men. When the saints, desiring to approach God, walk towards the centre of the circle, they come nearer to each other as well as to God, the more they approach the centre of the circle. The nearer they come to God, the nearer they come to each other. And the nearer they come to each other, the closer they are to God.
You can understand that it is the same in the opposite sense, when we turn away from God towards external things; it is obvious that the further we go from God, the further we are from each other, and the further we are from each other the further we are from God as well.
Such is the nature of charity. The nearer we are to the edge of the circle, the less we love God and the further we are from our neighbour. But if we love God, the closer we come to him through the love we have for him, the more we are united in charity to our neighbour; and the more we are united to our neighbour, the more we are united to God.
29. Dorotheus, Instructions 10.
If someone wants to acquire virtue, he should not let himself become distracted or dissipated. One who wants to learn carpentry does not practise another trade. It is the same for those who wish to acquire the spiritual craft. They must not be occupied with other things but apply themselves night and day to what they must do to become masters. Those who do not, not only do not make progress, but, having no goal, they tire and wander off. Without vigilance and struggle one easily falls away from virtue.
30. Dorotheus, Instructions 7
It happened that a brother, thinking himself to be in peace and tranquillity, was nevertheless troubled by a brother who came and said something offensive to him. He felt he was justified in saying to himself: "If that brother had not come and upset me, I should not have sinned". But it is a delusion, and false reasoning! Did the one who spoke to him implant passion in him? He simply revealed the passion that was already there so that he could repent, if he would. The brother was like pure wheat bread, looking good on the outside, but which, once broken, reveals that it is rotten inside. He thought he was at peace, but there was a passion within him which he ignored. A single word from his brother brought to light the rottennness within him.
If he wishes to receive mercy, let him repent, let him purify himself and make progress and he will see that he should rather thank his brother for having done him so much good.
31. Dorotheus, Instructions 13
The soul which has ceased to commit sin and has crossed the spiritual sea, must first struggle in the fight and in many afflictions. It is in this way that, through many tribulations, it will enter holy repose. "For we must pass through many tribulations to enter the Kingdom of Heaven".
As the winds bring rain, so tribulations call forth the mercy of God on the soul, as the winds bring rain. Yet too much rain rots the tender flower buds and destroys the fruit, while the wind slowly dries them out and makes them hardy - so it is with the soul; relaxation, carelessness and too much rest weakens and dissipates it. Temptations, on the other hand, pull it together and unite it to God. The prophet said: "Lord, in tribulation we are mindful of you". We must not let ourselves be troubled or discouraged in temptation, but have patience, give thanks, and ceaselessly beg God, with humility, to have pity on our weakness and protect us in every temptation, for his glory.
13. THE MONKS OF GAZA
OF THE TEXTS
We find in these texts many things which we have met before. The "freedom from care" mentioned here is amerimna.
John recommends a "middle way", that is to say a way in which action, fraternal charity and contemplation are practised together. The "watchfulness" or vigilance mentioned is the nepsis found in the Apophthegmata. "There are no fixed times for recollection of spirit" means continual prayer, the goal of hesychia for the Fathers.
Here we are very close to the teaching of Basil: action = "leaves" leads the soul to remembrance of God, contemplation = "fruits".
There is probably the trace of an Apophthegm here too: "Someone asked Abba Agathon: Which is better, bodily suffering or interior watchfulness? The old man answered: "Man is like a tree: corporal affliction is the foliage, and interior watchfulness the fruit. It is obvious that our concern is for the fruit, that is to say, guarding of the heart. But we need the protection and the adornment of the leaves which are bodily affliction".
Dositheus received the gift of tears which accompanied his humility.
"According to the custom" means the custom of melete. We have here a good example to illustrate what we have already found in the Apophthegmata concerning melete: it can take two forms: 'catanytic' (which pricks), the first formula; or 'auxiliatrice' (seeking help) which is the second.
Refer back to the distinction which Basil made between prayers: the formulas of melete and prayer, the mindfulness of God which Dositheus was bidden to keep when he no longer had the strength to practice melete.
"He accepts everything that happens to him from God with thanksgiving", as did St Thérèse of the Child Jesus in a later age; she wrote at the beginning of her Gospel that she always carried with her: "You fill me with joy in all that you do".
"The one I have entrusted you to". The spiritual Father is the intermediary between God and the disciple.
"without anxiety" = amerimna
"the city" is hesychia; contemplation "its treasures". Thus letting go of all anxiety, which is amerimna, introduces one to contemplation.
"Repose", or rest, a theme which comes from Hebrews 3 & 4. Repose, like the "city", is contemplation, the fruit of affliction, as the repose of the resurrection is the fruit of the cross. It is perfect amerimna.
"Tell me what I must do". Surrender to the spiritual master, who represents God, brings "tranquillity" and "repose".
"Have forgotten themselves". This makes us think of the Dark night of St John of the Cross: "I kept silence, in forgetfulness. My head resting on the Beloved. Everything ceased. I rested there. Surrendering my cares. Among the lilies, forgotten". "Surrendering my cares", "without agitation or distraction", as it says further on in this text 16. It is so true: God manifests himself in the same way, under the same conditions, to the great contemplatives of every age and country!
"Wholly gods". This is the theme of divinization dear to the Greek Fathers.
At the end of the passage we find the same distinction made by Cassian: the immediate aim is charity, the goal is eternal life.
In this passage we find again the optimistic idea that man was created good that we have seen in Antony and Basil. The "natural state" is good. Sin is a state "contrary to nature".
A celebrated text which illustrates the idea already mentioned by Athanasius in the 'Life of
Antony': the nearer one comes to God, the nearer one is to other people, our brothers and sisters. Evagrius too said: "Separated from all, united to all".
The "spiritual sea" refers to the Red Sea, and the story of the Exodus; "holy repose" is the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Heaven.
13. THE MONKS OF GAZA
1) Who were these monks of Gaza, and what kind of life did they lead?
Barsanuphius, "The Grand Old Man", was a solitary near the monastery of Seridos who had been formed by him and who was the father of the monastery
John was the disciple of Barsanuphius; he was a solitary too.
Dorotheus entered the monastery of Seridos and was taught by Barsanuphius and John. He was a cenobite.
Dositheus was a young convert, Dorotheus' novice; he died very quickly of consumption.
2) In which works do we find their teaching?
In the 'Letters' of Barsanuphius and John and the 'Instructions' of Dorotheus of Gaza, together with the 'Life of Dositheus'.
3) Have you read the life of Dositheus? What do you like best about it?
This is a more personal question. Dositheus was remarkable for his fidelity in little things, and outstanding in the renunciation of his own will which quickly led him to sanctity.
4) Is the teaching of the Desert Fathers found among the monks of Gaza?
We find their method of formation of the young by an abba in the letters of Barsanuphius and John to Dorotheus: the master is a man led by the Spirit - the disciple a man of desire.
We also find that their whole life tends towards the repose of contemplation through hesychia. This is also found in the schemes of Evagrius and Cassian; the foundation is humility and the purification of the passions by asceticism and the practice of the virtues. The ascent to charity is perfected through amerimna, melete and apatheia. Hesychia brings us to charity.
5) What do they teach us about prayer?
The two solitaries show us that the foundation of prayer is humility and the purification of
the passions. Prayer develops by the exercise of mindfulness of God which leads to continual prayer. They recommend the Pater and the 'Prayer of Jesus'.
The life of Dositheus shows us that Dorotheus put this teaching into practice. Moreover he presents prayer as a remedy for rancour.