Abba Dorotheos, An Instruction


Life and Sayings of Abba Dorotheos (*) — Instruction XI

115. It happened that a great Elder was with his disciples in a place where there were all kinds of cypresses, large and small. He said to one of his disciples: ‘Pull up that little cypress plant’. It was very small and the monk had no difficulty in pulling it up with one hand. Then the Elder indicated another, bigger than the first, and said ‘Pull that one up as well’. After giving it a shake, the monk used both hands to uproot it. He then pointed to another, even bigger, and the monk uprooted that, too, though with more effort. The Elder then pointed to another one, even bigger. The monk shook it hard and expended much effort and sweat before finally uprooting it. The next one was even bigger and despite his sweat and efforts, the monk wasn’t able to pull it up. When the Elder saw that he couldn’t, he told another brother to go and help him, and together they uprooted it. Then the Elder said to the monks: ‘That’s how it is with the passions, my brethren. While they’re little, if we want, we can cut them off easily. But if we ignore them, as being unimportant, they become hardier and then more effort is required. And if they strike deep roots within us, then, no matter how hard we try, we can’t cut them off on our own, unless we have the help of some saints, who, after God, will defend us’.


Do you see the power that the words of the holy Elders have? The Prophet teaches us about this when he writes in the Psalm: ‘Wretched daughter of Babylon! Blessed is he who will deal with you as you have dealt with us. Blessed is he who will seize your infants and dash them against the rock (Ps. 136, 8-9. Septuagint).


116. But let’s investigate his words in turn. Babylon is called confusion, since this is Babel, which is the same as Sychem [Shechem][1]. The daughter of Babylon is the name for enmity. Because first the soul becomes confused and loses its discernment[2] and then it commits sin. He calls her ‘wretched’, because, as I’ve told you before, evil is without substance and without form. It’s born from non-existence, because of our heedlessness and disappears again when we fight it, returning to nonentity. On this, the saint says: ‘Blessed is he who will repay you for the evil you’ve done to us’. So, on the one hand, we have to recognize what we’ve given, and, on the other, what we’ve received in exchange and what we should pay back. We gave our will, and, in exchange, received sin. He extols the promise given as repayment: that we will not do the same thing again. And he adds: ‘Blessed is he who will seize your infants and dash them against the rock’. By this he means: ‘Blessed is he who doesn’t allow your offspring, that is wicked thoughts, to grow, even in the beginning and thus work their evil in him. On the contrary, while they’re still weak, before they’re nourished and increase against him, he grabs hold of them and dashes them against the rock, which is Christ. In this way he exterminates them by having recourse to Christ’.

117. This is how the Elders and Holy Scripture all agree and extol those who strive to cut off their passions while they’re still weak, before their pain and bitterness are felt. So, let’s work with a will, my brethren, and we’ll find mercy. Just a little effort and we’ll find abundant rest.

The Fathers said that we should carefully cleanse every facet of our soul. In other words, that we should examine, every evening, how we’ve spent the day and then, in the morning, how we’ve spent the night. And we repent to God for any sins we’ve committed. Truth to tell, since we’re so sinful we should really examine ourselves every six hours to see how we’ve spent them and how we’ve sinned. Each of us should say: ‘Have I perhaps hurt someone with what I’ve said? Perhaps I saw them doing something and judged them or derided them or gossiped about them. Did I perhaps ask the cellarer for something, and complained when he wouldn’t give it to me? Was the food not so good and I said something derogatory about the cook and hurt his feelings? Did I perhaps complain to myself because I felt disgusted about something?’ Because if you go on complaining to yourself, that’s a sin. And again he says: ‘Did the canonarch or one of the other brothers say something to me and I couldn’t take it and spoke back to him?’ So, every day we have to ask ourselves how we’ve done. And the same goes for the nights. Did we get up willingly for the vigil? Did we not pay attention to the monk who woke us, or did we complain about him? We have to understand that the monk who wakes us for the vigil is doing us a great favour and is the harbinger of great, good things, since he’s waking us up to speak to God, to seek forgiveness for our sins and enlightenment. So aren’t we under an obligation to thank him? Really, we should be aware that through the assistance of our brother, we’ve gained our salvation. 

[1] Babel does, indeed, mean ‘confusion’, but it’s not immediately apparent why Abba Dorotheos mentions Shechem. The tower of Babel was in the land of Shinar, roughly ‘Mesopotamia’.
[2] Discernment/discretion/discrimination. Described by Cassian the Roman as the ‘pinnacle and queen of the virtues’ (Philokalia, vol. 1) and by John of the Ladder as ‘the eye and lamp of the soul, ‘the sure understanding of the will of God in every place, time and thing’ (Discourse 26).

* Life and Sayings of Abba Dorotheos was the first book my (now hermit) Gerondas recommended to me, upon ‘discovering’ the Church at my 20s. What a treasure! This book has travelled with me all over the world ever since, a constant point of reference!

On the Forty Days of Lent





Abba Dorotheos

In the Law it is written that God commanded the sons of Israel to give a tenth part of all they had acquired during each year, and thereby bring a blessing upon all their deeds. With this in mind, the Holy Apostles established and committed to us as a help and benefaction for our souls something yet greater and more exalted–that we should set apart a tenth portion of the very days of our lives and devote them to God. Thereby might we also receive a blessing for all our deeds, and yearly cleanse the sins we have committed over the course of the whole year. Thus discerning, they have sanctified for us out of the 365 days of the year these seven weeks of Holy Great Lent.
So they set apart these seven weeks; but later the Fathers deemed it wise to add yet another week: first of all, so that those wishing to initiate themselves in the ascesis of the fast over the course of this week might accustom themselves to it and prepare themselves for it; and secondly, in order to render honor to the number of days of the Great Fast which our Lord Jesus Christ fasted. For after subtracting Saturdays and Sundays from the eight weeks we have forty days; the fast on Great Saturday is particularly honored, because it is most sacred, and the only Saturday throughout the year on which a fast it kept.
Seven weeks minus Saturdays and Sundays make thirty-five days, then to this is added the fast of Holy and Great Saturday and half of the Bright and Light-bearing night; thus we have thirty-six and a half days, which equals exactly a tenth part of the 365 days of the year. For the tenth part of three hundred is thirty, the tenth part of sixty is six, and a tenth part of five is one-half (of the Bright Day). So, as we have said, there are thirty-six and a half days–the tenth portion of the whole year which, as I have said, the Holy Apostles have sanctified for us for repentance and the cleansing of the sins of the whole year.

So blessed, O brethren, is he who preserves himself well in these holy days as he should. For though it might happen that being human we sin out of infirmity or negligence, still God has given these holy days in order that, striving with heedfulness and humility of wisdom, we take care for ourselves and repent for all of our sins, and we will be cleansed of the sins we committed during the whole year. Then our souls will be delivered from their weight, and we will arrive at the Holy Day of the Resurrection cleansed, receive Communion of the Holy Mysteries uncondemned, having become new through the repentance of the Holy Fast. In spiritual rejoicing, with God’s help, we will celebrate the entire Holy Pentecost season–for the Pentecost season, as the Holy Fathers say, is the repose and resurrection of the soul. This is signified by our not kneeling during whole Holy Pentecost season.

Thus he who desires during these days of Lent to be cleansed of the sins he has committed over the course of the whole year should first of all refrain from eating much food, for the lack of limitation in food, as the Fathers say, gives birth to every evil in man. … However we must not limit our temperance to food, but refrain also from every other sin. Just as we fast with our stomachs, we should fast also from every other sin; just as we fast with the belly, we should fast also with the tongue, restraining it from slander, from lying, idle-talking, from belittlement, from anger, and in a word, from every sin that is performed by the tongue. We must likewise fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things, not give freedom to our eyes, not look at anyone shamelessly and without fear. The hands and feet should also be constrained from every evil deed. Having fasted, as St. Basil the Great says, by a favorable fast, removing ourselves from all the sins of all of our senses, we shall attain to the holy day of the Resurrection, having become as we have said, new, pure and worthy of Communion of the Holy Mysteries. …