Dorotheos of Gaza
by David Bertaina
Reprinted with permission from Sophia, Winter 2009
Saints are not always distant figures of an ancient apostolic past. A holy person can be your next door neighbor. Even more, God is calling you to holiness as one set apart from the world. In fact, it is our very fear of being called to something extraordinary that prevents us from hearing the call of Christ. And yet, that call is precisely to do the ordinary things which Christ patterned for his followers the disciples. It is both ordinary and extraordinary to be a Christian! In reviewing the histories of saints, one finds both the ordinary and the extraordinary in all people to varying degrees. For this historical reminiscence, I will refer you to the extraordinarily ordinary life of Dorotheos of Gaza (ca. AD 500 – sometime after 565; Feast Day is September 16).
Most people in our society believe that to live out a monastic calling is something extraordinary. It requires not only God’s call and holiness, but superhuman ability. On the other hand, to be a monk is to live a very ordinary life. The routine practices of service, commitment to others, and prayer, are virtues that one acquires by developing ordinary practices and habits that form one’s character. As a monk living in the desert of Gazaduring the sixth century, Dorotheos found these ordinary practices opened up his experience to the extraordinary mystery of God and led to a deeply personal spirituality tied into the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. For Dorotheos, the goal is to become one of the “friends of God.”
Gaza was once a place of relative tranquility. The desert of Gaza, which stretches from northern Egyptthrough southern Palestine, began as a home for monks seeking out solitude away from the Egyptian desert during the fourth century. It was a haven for Arab, Syriac, and Greek Christians in the area, who wanted to model their lives after the holy monks of Egypt. By the fifth century, it was home to a number of solitary monks and monasteries of monks living in community.
Dorotheos was born around AD 500 in Antioch. He came from a Christian family and he was well-educated in philosophy and rhetoric. His spiritual reflections reveal a man who recognized the frailties of human nature and yet the potential for perfection based on the Gospel message. For instance, he frankly tells us how he went from struggling to enjoying reading as a child: “When towards the end of my childhood I was learning to read, at the beginning I used to wear myself out by worlkng 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.” Sometime later, Dorotheos left Antioch for Gaza and went to a school of rhetoric. Sometime soon after, Dorotheos became a monk at the monastery of Seridos in Gaza, where he began learning from other prominent monks there including two other Fathers of the Church, Barsanuphios and John. Dorotheos accepted several positions at the monastery that revealed his extraordinary capacity to do the ordinary around the monastery. While Barsanuphios and John were solitudes focused on contemplation, Dorotheos mixed his spiritual discernment with communal life and action. First, he served as the guest-master for the monastery and its visitors. Later, Dorotheos became the medic for the community and eventually he served as a spiritual director for younger monks in Gaza .
Around AD 540, Dorotheos founded his own monastery in the desertof Gazaand became its abbot. Many of his writings that have passed down to our times must come from the spiritual directions that he gave to the young monks there. For instance, Dorotheos wrote:
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, he saw goodness 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.
For Dorotheos, the goal in our lives should be to achieve tranquility through humility, as exemplified in this story.
The legacy of Dorotheos reveals his teachings as an ordinary way for Christians today to learn about the mysteries of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Although Dorotheos lived in a monastery in Gaza, his works are not only concerned with monastic life. For instance, he taught many lay people who came to Gaza – ordinary Arab, Syriac, and Greek seekers who found his instructions a simple way of living life in Christ. It was this simplistic characteristic of living a perfect yet realistic Christian life that made Dorotheos so attractive to his contemporaries and to Christians today.
Moreover, the legacy of Dorotheos reached beyond the monastery and its visitors. His works were disseminated throughout the Christian world. His spiritual writings have remained relevant throughout the history of the Church. Other Christians translated his discourses and sayings for both monks and lay people, so that we find his writings in the collections of the monasteries at Mount Sinai, Mount Athos and Russia monasteries. His legacy as a spiritual author also spread to the West, where his works are found at the monastery of Monte Cassino. The Benedictines translated his works for their communities, and they have also been used by many Roman Catholic orders such as the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Preaching Jesus Christ in the context of daily life, the sayings and discourses of Dorotheos will always remain popular among ordinary and extraordinary Christians.
Dr. David Bertaina
Assistant Professor of History
University of Illinois – Springfield