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Dorotheos of Gaza
Dorotheos of Gaza provides an interesting glimpse into monastic life during the middle of the sixth century. His writings reflect a background in philosophy and rhetoric. In addition, his dependence on the teachings of The Desert Fathers is evident throughout. Dorotheos enlivened his discourses with illustrations from everyday life in the monastic community. The story of his life and a synopsis of his teachings will make an important contribution to an understanding of this important segment of early Christianity.
The Life of Dorotheos
We know very little about the early years of Dorotheos. Apparently he was reared in Antioch (Vita Barsanuphius, 9). Scholars have attempted to reconstruct something of his youth by extrapolating from texts. It is conjectured that Dorotheos' father may have been a physician and that Dorotheos was forced to depart from Antioch after the death of his parents in the earthquake of 526 CE (Wheeler 26). He eventually made his way to Gaza where he studied at the rhetorical school located there.
Dorotheos provides us with a description of his character during his school days at Gaza:
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 up to stroke a wild animal. As I persevered 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 (sofisths) 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. So it was that I took no notice of, or pleasure in, anything except what I was reading (Dorotheos, On Vigilance and Sobriety, 164).Since the chronology of Dorotheos is undocumented, it is impossible to know whether the "master" to whom he refers is Procopius (fl. 491-518 CE) or Choricius (fl. c 520 - c 540 CE). Procopius seems likely, since we have some extant letters of Procopius addressed to a monk named Dorotheos (PG 87:2792).
We have no indication of the role Dorotheos came to have at the school. We do know that at some point he left the school to enter a monastery also located at Gaza, but, again, we don't know when and why. Evidence suggests that this change occured during the transition between the administration of Procopius and that of Choricus. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that there was a "positive transfer of learning" from the school to the monastery: Dorotheos' enthusiasm for study carried over into his desire to acquire virtue.
Two distinct periods characterize Dorotheos' monastic experience. The first was spent with a community at Gaza; the second was the period after which Dorotheos left the monastery, having progressed to a more solitary existence. During the first period, Dorotheos had several tasks. For nine years he was appointed to take care of Abba John (Dorotheos, On the Fear of God 117, 118). His main task at the monastery was to run the infirmary along with his young disciple, Dosithy. At times he was also required to take care of any guests. By the time Dorotheos wrote his Discourses, he was no longer a part of the cenobium, though he still had a role within local monastic communities. He was given charge over younger and less mature brothers. Here, Dorotheos used his rhetorical powers to encourage the brothers in their endeavors serving in this capacity as an archimandrite. This role is described by Wheeler:
The duties of the archimandrite would be somewhat on the lines of an abbot visitor in our days. Periodically he would make the rounds of all the monasteries under his charge, to see that monks were maintaining a serious religious life, to draw attention to abuses, to straighten out difficulties, and to give conferences and encouragement to all those in need of it (Wheeler 64).The fourteen Discourses of Dorotheos were "lectures" which he delivered to surrounding monastic communities.
Major Themes in the Discourses Of Dorotheos
In the Discourses, Dorotheos refers to the existing circumstances of the brothers. His instructions to them are both theoretical and practical; while speaking of how to attain the virtue of humility, for instance, he goes on to give several examples of how he learned humility. Almost every lesson concludes with paraenesis, a few words of encouragement and exhortation.
Dorotheos is very systematic in these texts. He often categorizes concepts into a number of constituent ideas or progressive steps. This same progression is evident in the topics of the Discourses, though we cannot be positive that they are in their original order. According to a letter from the supposed compiler, they were collected from several locations after the death of their author (Wheeler 64). However, internal evidence suggests that the order is accurate. Almost all of them dove-tail with the next. The first explains the basis for the solitary life and its meaning. The fourteenth ends with a full description of the individual's pursuit of virtue and how the virtues work together. In what follows, I will focus on some of the major themes in the Discourses.
Human Passion and the Need for Obedience
In their primal state, the first humans existed in accord with their nature possessing all of the virtues (Dorotheos, On Renunciation 77). After their disobedience, the passions became masters. The subsequent history of humanity has been largely that of disobedience exhibited in idolatry. The law and the prophets did not succeed in reforming people. It was only through the New Adam that humanity could be restored. This restoration returned humanity to its original condition. Through Holy Baptism the person was set free and sins were forgiven. That person then had the power to conquer the passions and live virtuously (Dorotheos, On Renunciation 79-81; On Cutting Off Passionate Desires 173; On Building Up Virtues 205, 206). According to Dorotheos, Christ taught that the way to overcome the passions is through obedience. A person disobeys out of pride and arrogance; the antidote, then, is humility. If Adam and Eve had only humbled themselves, Dorotheos argues, there would not have been any need for this cycle.
Dorotheos constructs a scenario in which the person is tempted toward disobedience, first in a small way. If the person gives in to the small temptation, greater ones follow until eventually a habit is formed. He tells of one brother who started stealing food. When he was given access to all the food he wanted, he continued to steal anyway--it had become a habit (Dorotheos, On Cutting Off Passionate Desires 178, 179). Thankfully, conscience was given to aid reason in determining right from wrong. Even so, it is possible to ignore conscience and become insensitive to its judgments. This is another way in which habits are formed and sin results (Dorotheos, On Conscience 104-107).
As with the Egyptian monks, Dorotheos adopts an asceticism. But where the Egyptians are harsh, Dorotheos is mild. This is illustrated by an Egyption focus on sexual temptations that are absent in Dorotheos. Antony was noted to have said "He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication" (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers 3). There is very little discussion of this sort of temptation in Dorotheos. The stories he chooses to relate which have to do with sexual temptation emphasize other issues such as self-accusation, pride/humility, and compassion.
Adam and Eve were deceived by the devil in the garden. In essence, they were also deceived by their senses. So, Dorotheos cautions against giving in too easily to appearances. Being suspicious is a type of falsehood which the devil uses to incite the person to sin in other ways. Dorotheos tells of a time when he saw a woman walk by with a pitcher of water. He immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was a harlot. He was troubled by this and sought the advice of Abba John, who counseled him never to trust suspicions (Dorotheos, On Consultation 127ff). Dorotheos claims that every time a monk falls, the cause can be traced back to trusting his own judgment (Dorotheos, On Consultation 126). Therefore a person needs to seek consultation from others and depend on their judgment.
Each person is in one of three states with regard to the passions: he is either indulging them, checking them, or uprooting them (Dorotheos, On Vigilance and Sobriety 167). If the passions are not extirpated during one's earthly existence, they are present beyond the grave. This concept has implications both for Dorotheos' view of the afterlife and his attitude towards the body. Dorotheos talks about how some monks think that it would be better to die and be rid of their troubles. But he explains that while we are in this life we have the body. The soul finds relief and comfort in this body. If the monk, then, is unable to uproot the passions, he will be tormented by them after death in an incorporeal existence. So it is better to continue in this life and attempt to extirpate the passions rather than to seek escape from this life through death.
The struggle with the passions is never over in this life. Dorotheos relates how Abba Agathon, who was considered to be one of the most holy saints, was still afraid of God's judgment at the point of his death (Dorotheos, On Humility 100). Dorotheos compares this to harvesting a field: the crop is not secure until it has been stored in the barn. So also a person must not ever consider the struggle to be over until the very end (Dorotheos, On Fear of Punishment 186,187). Even so, Dorotheos is quite optimistic and positive about the human condition. Humanity has not been left with the curse of Adam. Because of the New Adam, humanity is restored to the original state of Eden, but Eden includes the presence of the devil, the tempter. So, each person is always faced with the choice of obedience or disobedience.
The Goal of Life: Achieving Tranquility by Acquiring Humility
Dorotheos considers the cause of all sin to be pride. Pride leads to disobedience which, in turn, results in sin. This was the cause of the very first sin in the garden. The converse of this is the remedy which Christ provides--humility (Dorotheos, On Renunciation 79-81). Humility is the central virtue according to Dorotheos. This is a trait that he shares with Egyptian and Palestinian monks. One of the ancients is supposed to have said, "Before anything else we need humility" (Dorotheos, On Humility 94). Humility is also able to overcome the passions: "In point of fact humility protects the soul from all the passions and also from every temptation" (Dorotheos, On Humility 96).
Dorotheos constructs two metaphors to illustrate the virtuous life. Although he constantly refers to the centrality of humility and the goal of tranquility, these metaphors consolidate the main issues. The first is "the road to tranquility." Here, Dorotheos portrays the pursuit of virtue and the struggle against the passions as a journey along a road (Dorotheos, On Vigilance and Sobriety 165ff). From this he emphasizes two aspects of the journey. One is the need to continue straight down the road, not veering to the left or right. The other concerns the progress toward the destination.
The mildness of Dorothean asceticism is exhibited in his location of virtue in the middle between defect and excess. A person can easily be led to one side or the other. It is the person's duty to maintain the middle ground: "And so courage stands in the middle between cowardice and foolhardiness; humility in the middle between arrogance and obsequiousness. Modesty is a mean between bashfulness and boldness" (Dorotheos, On Vigilance and Sobriety 166). Dorotheos suggests that there could be a person who possesses these virtues--who is travelling down the middle of the road--but who eats, drinks, and sleeps like the average person. This one is esteemed but also warned about the imminent danger that excess or neglect might cause.
The traveller must also make progress on the journey. The markers alongside the road show how far one has come. These milestones depict the progress of the soul in indulging, checking or uprooting the passions (Dorotheos, On Vigilance and Sobriety 167). In order to reach the final destination, which is figuratively indicated as Jerusalem, the Holy City, the traveller must achieve the final goal of uprooting the passions.
Dorotheos illustrates the three states of the soul in another way.
A man who gives way to his passions and suffers for it is like a man who is shot at by an enemy, catches the arrow in his hands, and then plunges it into his own heart. A man who is resisting his passions is like a man who is shot at by an enemy, and although the arrow hits him, it does not seriously wound him because he is wearing a breastplate. But the man who is uprooting his passions is like a man who is shot at by an enemy, but who strikes the arrow and shatters it or turns it back into his enemy's heart (Dorotheos, On Vigilance and Sobriety 170).
Another factor for progress along the road is self-examination. If the soul is neglected, a passion may grow to be too strong to uproot (Dorotheos, On Cutting Off Passionate Desires 173ff). Careful scrutiny is called for not just at night and in the morning, but every six hours (Dorotheos, On Cutting Off Passionate Desires 175). This is the only way that the traveller will be able to complete the journey and arrive at the Holy City, which is synonymous with angelic existence in heaven. As we have seen, it is only by having uprooted the passions that a person will arrive at this heavenly goal. The attainment of the virtuous life is salvation.
The second metaphor that illustrates the life of virtue is that of a house. For strength, stability, and safety, there needs to be a balance of the virtues just as a house requires four equal walls. Dorotheos describes each facet of the house with an analogous virtue (Dorotheos, pp. 202ff). The foundation represents faith, the stones obedience, patience, self-control, forebearance, mortifying self-will, meekness, etc. The cornerstones symbolize perseverance and courage, the mortar humility, and the tie-beams or braces discretion, while the roof signifies charity and the crown (or the railing around the roof) humility, which is the perfection of all the virtues and their guardian. The children that one often finds around the house are indicative of thoughts generated in the soul, while the builder represents the one seeking virtue. Here, even though humility has a greater role than the other virtues, they all are needed to form a strong structure.
We have now described the goal of the virtuous life, but, in so doing, we have neglected a crucial point. The person travelling on the King's Highway or who is building a house of virtue is not alone. Every aspect of the life of virtue is connected to others.
The Interdependence of the Monks
The monastic pattern at Gaza was that of a central community bordered by more solitary units. Both quiet contemplation and constructive conversation were important. In fact, monks depended on each other in many ways.
Dorotheos contends that a person should not rely on his own judgment but consult others, especially a superior. Abba Macarius taught this lesson to a brother who depended on his own strength. It wasn't until after Macarius convinced the brother to confide in him that the demon began to consider this human to be an enemy and no longer a friend (Dorotheos, On Consultation 125-126).
In another story, Dorotheos illustrates this same interdependence. A spiritual father was teaching an important lesson about why it is helpful to uproot the passions when they first begin to grow. To do this, he asked a monk to try to pull up cypress trees. The monk began with a very small plant and gradually worked up to where he was not able to pull up the tree. But he was able with the help of other monks. Praying for one another also helps to strengthen each other's fight against the passions (Dorotheos, On Cutting Off Passionate Desires 174).
The brothers within the community are actually members of the same body. If one part of the body is wounded, Dorotheos says, you do not cut it off, but try to heal it. "Would he not rather bathe it and take away the poison and put a plaster on it, sign it with the cross, apply a relic, and pray and beg the saints to pray for its cure..." (Dorotheos, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor 138). So each member functions together for the benefit of the whole.
Dorotheos maps out the relationship which the brothers have to each other and to God. A circle represents the world with God at the center. The radii are human lives. The progress that each makes toward God brings him closer to the other brothers. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God (Dorotheos, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor 139). The community, then, is crucial for the progress of each member's maturity.
When Dorotheos describes monastic life, he couches it in terms of the Garden of Eden. The monastic life is a return to the Edenic existence by the saving power of the New Adam who restores humanity to this original condition. But, though it is feasible that a Christian living in the world might be able to uproot the passions, it is not likely. The ancient Fathers determined that it was necessary to withdraw from the world in order not to be distracted by its temptations. Within this community the monks are able to help each other in the struggle against the passions and the acquiring of virtue.
In spite of the contingencies of his writings, Dorotheos develops a systematic examination of monastic life. No matter in what context he was writing and speaking, Dorotheos maintained the core of his philosophy. To achieve tranquility in this life and angelic happiness in the next, a person must uproot the passions by constant self-examination with humility relying always on the assistance and judgments of the Fathers.
His sensitivity to the brothers is evident even in his rhetoric. Dorotheos' discourses are paraneitic. He repeatedly exhorts his audience to continue in their spiritual journey. Even in the one discourse in which he uses blame, it is a very mild form. Dorotheos' choice of stories from the Fathers and from his own experiences relates a milder form of asceticism which emphasizes the difficulties of the monastic life and the central purpose of the discipline. For Dorotheos the person is more important than the practice.
In many ways, it seems that Dorotheos left the rhetorical school to take up the philosophical life. The wedding of pagan themes with Christian theology at the School of Gaza became the synthesis of the philosophical life--acquiring virtue by uprooting the passions in order to achieve tranquility--with Christian salvation. This, of course, was not a unique endeavor. On the one hand, Dorotheos built upon the tradition of the great hermits of Egyptian monasticism, while, on the other hand, he had the model of rhetoricians such as Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. It is clear, if we can believe what Dorotheos says of himself, that he did not seek leadership through his rhetorical abilities, but only wanted to apply the same zeal he had for rhetoric to the acquisition of virtue.
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