Abba Dorotheus on the Spiritual Life

Dear friends,

I introduce you to St. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza. 

Here’s his biography, culled from his wikipedia page

Dorotheus of Gaza (Greek: Δωρόθεος τῆς Γάζης Dorotheos tes Gazes; 505 – 565 or 620,) or Abba Dorotheus, was a Christian monk and abbot. He joined the monastery Abba Serid (or Abba Sveridus) near Gaza through the influence of elders Barsanuphius and John. Around 540 he founded his own monastery nearby and became abbot there. It was to the monks of this monastery that he addressed his instructions/teaching (ἀσκητικά, “ascetics”) of which a considerable number have survived and have been compiled into Directions on Spiritual Training, originally composed in Greek and translated in medieval Syriac, Arabic, Georgian, and Church Slavonic. It is typical that at the heading of his teachings he announces that he offers his teaching “following the death of Abba John the Prophet and the complete silence of Abba Barsanuphius”. It seems that as long his holy spiritual fathers lived he thought that he should live in obedience, keep silent and not give his own teaching. Only after the demise of one and the decision of the other not to speak did he decide to record his ascetic experiences, in order to edify the monks at the new monastery.


Dositheus was a disciple of Dorotheus and himself considered a Saint. The story is that as a young man Dositheus, an army page, lead a wild and dissolute life. He became curious, however, after hearing numerous stories about the city of Jerusalem and made a journey there about 520-525AD. It was at Golgotha that an unknown woman who turned out to be Virgin Mary struck up a conversation with him about eternal torments in hell, which led to his converting from paganism to Christianity. He became a monk at Gaza under the supervision of Dorotheus, who had a long and steady struggle to teach Dositheus discipline. Dorotheus was criticized by many of the monastery for his lax disciple.

Dositheus was noted, however, for his humility, self-denial and gentle and supportive ways with the sick, and he worked in the infirmary. It was probably here that he contracted tuberculosis or a similar condition.He died about 530AD, five years after becoming a monk. As he lay dying Dositheus begged Dorotheus to “pray for an early release from his sufferings”. Dorotheus answered, “Have a little patience. God’s mercy is near.” Soon after he said to him, “Depart in peace and appear in joy before the blessed Trinity, and pray for us”. After his death, Dorotheus declared that Dositheus had surpassed the rest (of his disciples) in virtue without the practice of any extraordinary austerity. Dositheus was Canonized, he is the patron saint of respiratory diseases and his Feast day is February 23. 

I haven’t had the time or inclination to read his Discourses, but here are some of his Directions on spiritual practice (from Wikipedia and this page, which has the first 33):

  • Do not wish for everything to be done according to your determination, but wish that it is how it should be, and in this way, you will attain peace with everyone. And believe that everything that happens to us, even the most insignificant, occurs through God’s Providence. Then you will be able to endure everything that comes upon you without any agitation.
  • In creating man God implanted in him something Divine—a certain thought, like a spark, having both light and warmth, a thought which illumines the mind and shows what is good and what bad. This is called conscience and it is a natural law. By following this law—conscience—the patriarchs and all the saints pleased God, even before the law was written. But when, through the fall, men covered up and trampled down conscience, there arose the need of written law, of the holy Prophets, of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, to uncover and raise it up, to rekindle this buried spark by the keeping of His holy commandments.  
  • Over whatever you have to do, even if it be very urgent and demands great care, I would not have you argue or be agitated. For rest assured, everything you do, be it great or small, is but one eighth of the problem, whereas to keep one’s state undisturbed even if thereby one should fail to accomplish the task, is the other seven eighths. So if you are busy at some task and wish to do it perfectly, try to accomplish it—which, as I said, would be one eighth of the problem—and at the same time to preserve your state unharmed, which constitutes seven eighths. If, however, in order to accomplish your task you would inevitably be carried away and harm yourself or another by arguing with him, you should not lose seven for the sake of preserving one eighth.  
  • Let us examine as to why a person sometimes gets annoyed when he hears an insult, and other times he endures it without getting agitated. What is the reason for this contrast? And is there one reason or are there several? There are several reasons, although they are all born from a main one. Sometimes it happens that after praying or completing a benevolent exercise, the person finds himself in a kind spiritual disposition and therefore, is amenable to his brother and doesn’t get annoyed over his words. It also happens that a person is partial to another, and as a consequence, endures without any annoyance, everything that the individual inflicts upon him. It also happens that a person may despise the individual who wants to insult him, and therefore ignores him.
  • I heard of one person that when he came to one of his friends and found the room in disarray and even dirty, he would say to himself: “Blessed is this person, because having deferred his concerns for earthly cares, he has concentrated his mind that much toward Heaven, that he doesn’t even have time to tidy up his room.” But when he came to another friend’s place and found his room tidy and neat, he would say to himself; “The soul of this person is as clean as his room, and the condition of the room speaks of his soul.” And he never judged another that he was negligent or proud, but through his kind disposition, saw good in everyone and received benefits from everyone. May the good Lord grant us the same kind disposition, so that we too may receive benefits from everyone and so that we never notice the failings of others.    
  • When St. Anthony saw all the nets of the devil spread out, he sighed and asked God, “Who can escape them?” God answered him, “Humility escapes them” and, what is still more wonderful, added, “They will not even touch it.” Do you see the power of this virtue? Indeed there is nothing stronger than humility, for nothing can conquer it. If some affliction befalls a humble man, he immediately blames himself for deserving it and will not reproach or blame another. Thus he endures everything that may befall him untroubled, without grief, with perfect calm; and so he is angered by no one and angers none.  
  • No one can describe in words what humility is and how it is born in the soul, unless he learns this from experience. From words alone no one can know it. One day Abba Zossima was speaking of humility, when a sophist who was present asked him: “Do you not know that you have virtues? After all, you see that you are obeying the commandments: how then in that case do you regard yourself as a sinner?” The staretz could not find how to answer him but said simply, “I do not know what to say to you, but I consider myself a sinner.” And when the sophist went on bothering him with the question “How?”, the staretz continued to repeat the same thing: “I know not how, but I truly regard myself as such. Do not confuse me.” Or again, when Abba Agathon was nearing death the brethren asked him, “Are you not afraid, father?” He answered, “As far as I could I have made myself keep the commandments, but I am a man, and how can I know whether what I have done is pleasing to God. For God’s judgment is one thing and man’s another.”  
  • For it is clear that a man inclines himself towards humility if, knowing that he can achieve no virtue without God’s help, he never ceases to pray, asking God to show him mercy. Thus a man who prays without ceasing, if he achieves something, knows why he achieved it, and can take no pride in it; for he cannot attribute it to his own powers, but attributes all his achievements to God, always renders thanks to Him and constantly calls upon Him, trembling lest he be deprived of help. Thus he prays with humility and is made humble by prayer. The more he progresses in virtue the greater becomes his humility, and as his humility grows he receives help and again progresses in humility.  
  • St. John says, “Perfect love casteth out fear” (I John 4:18). How is it then that the holy Prophet David says, “Fear the Lord, all ye his saints” (Psalms 33:9)? This shows that there are two kinds of fear: the first, initial, the second perfect; one belongs to beginners, the other to perfect saints, who have attained to the measure of perfect love. He who obeys God’s will through fear of torment is still a beginner; and he who fulfils the will of God through love for God in order to please Him, is brought by this love into perfect fear; and through this fear, when once he has tasted the delight of being with God, he is afraid to fall away, is afraid to be deprived of it. It is this perfect fear, born of love, which casts out the initial fear.  
    This sequence is expressed by the Prophet David in the following words: “Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalms 33:14). “Turn away from evil,” that is, avoid all evil in general, turn away from every action which leads to sin. But having said this he did not stop there, but added “and do good.” For sometimes a man does no evil, but neither does he any good: for example, he harms no one but also does not show mercy; or he does not hate but neither does he love. Having said this David continued, “seek peace, and pursue it.” He did not merely say “seek,” but pursue it with diligence to acquire it. Follow carefully these words in your mind and note the subtlety shown by the Saint.  
  •  The fathers said that man acquires the fear of God if he keeps death and torments in his memory, if each evening he questions himself as to how he spent the day, and each morning how he passed the night, if he is not presumptuous and, finally, if he remains in close communion with a man who fears God. For they relate that once a certain brother asked a staretz, “What should I do, father, in order to fear God?” The staretz answered, “Go, live with a man who fears God; and by the very fact that he fears God, he will teach you too to fear Him.” We repel the fear of God from ourselves by doing everything contrary to what has been said—we have neither memory of death nor memory of torments, we have no attention on ourselves and do not question ourselves about how we spend our time, but live heedlessly and commune with men who have no fear of God, and we are presumptuous.

    [I personally would only encourage the “close communion with a man who fears God”; I select this passage mostly to show that obsession with death and pain and worries about how one is spending one’s time are quite natural, and could even be seen as a good sign — they are the result of the cognitive dissonance of sharing a world with people who do not share our values, and show that one is trying one’s best.]  
  • The wise Solomon says in the Proverbs, “They that have no guidance fall like leaves: but in counsel there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). So you see what the Holy Scriptures teach us? They enjoin us not to rely on ourselves, not to regard ourselves as knowing all, not to believe that we can control ourselves, for we need help, are in need of those who would counsel us according to God. No men are more unfortunate or nearer perdition than those who have no teachers on the way of God. For what does it mean that where no guidance is, the people fall like leaves? A leaf is at first green, flourishing, beautiful; then it gradually withers, falls and is finally trampled underfoot. So is it with a man who has no guide; at first he is always zealous in fasting, vigil, silence, obedience and other virtues; then his zeal little by little cools down and, having no one to instruct, support and fire him with zeal, he insensibly withers, falls and finally becomes a slave of the enemies, who do with him what they will.

    [………….…………………………………………………………………….ugh. So true.]  
  • Of those who reveal their thoughts and actions and who do everything with counsel the Wise One says, “in much counsel there is safety” (Proverbs 9:14). He does not say, “in the counsels of many” that is, in seeking counsel from everyone, but in seeking counsel in all things—naturally from one we trust; and not in such a way as to tell one thing and conceal another, but to reveal everything and seek counsel in all things. For such a man, safety is assured “in much counsel.”