Introduction by John Coffman
Among the Desert Fathers (and others) the instruction to build up virtue in the soul is likened to the building of a house. Abba Dorotheos of Gaza (one of the most celebrated Desert Fathers whose Instructions the Church’s monastic tradition receives as a basic spiritual handbook) goes into much analogous detail on this. The theme teaches us that just like one would not randomly build portions of a house, but build it from the bottom to the top, so there is a definite and revealed order that one follows when purifying the soul. May our readers find Abba Dorotheos’ instruction edifying to properly advance in the spiritual life. Abba Dorotheos, Pray to God for us!
About the midwives who spared the lives of the male progeny of the Israelites, it is said that, on account of their fear of God, they built houses for themselves (Ex. 1:21). Is this a reference to visible dwellings? And is there any significance to the fact that they built these houses out of the fear of God? For are we not taught that, if required, we should even abandon the homes that we have out of a fear of God? Obviously, we are not speaking of material houses, but about the building up of the soul, which one fortifies by observing the commandments of God. Holy Scripture teaches us that the fear of God prepares the soul to observe the commandments of God, and that by keeping them the house of the soul is fortified. Let us also, my brothers, look after ourselves; let us also fear God and build houses for ourselves, that we might find shelter therein when the winter snows, the rain, and lightning and thunder come. For one who does not have a house in the winter will find himself in great difficulty.
150. In what way, however, does one build a house for the soul? From the construction of a visible home, we can learn precisely about this matter. For a person who wants to build a material house must secure it on all sides, building up all four of its walls simultaneously and not looking after one wall with care, yet all the while ignoring the others. Otherwise, he will gain nothing, but will squander his time and money. So it is with the soul. A man must not disregard any part of the edifice in building up the house of his soul, but he must erect it symmetrically. Exactly this is what is meant by what Abba John says: “I desire that a man attain a little from each of the virtues and not do as some do: i.e., struggle for one virtue only, concentrating on and working towards it alone, and ignoring the rest of the virtues” (cf. Abba John, PG 65:216A). They may feel some disposition towards that virtue and thus are not bothered by the passion to which it is opposed. Hence, they are outsmarted by the other passions that beset them, and show no interest in them, having the impression that they have achieved a great feat. They remind one of a man who builds one wall as high as he can, centering all of his attention on its height, thinking that he has achieved something momentous. He does not understand, however, that if a strong wind comes along, it will knock that wall down, since it was built independently and without being connected to the other walls. Nor can a roof be built on a single wall, since it would be unsupported by the other three walls. This is not how a house is built. Rather, if one wishes to make for himself a house that is protected by a roof, he must build it with standing walls on all sides, so as to secure it against all risk.
151. I will tell you how. First of all, he must lay a foundation, which is faith, for “without faith,” as the Apostles says, “it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). And on this foundation one must build, in a symmetrical fashion, his dwelling. Has the builder been given an opportunity to be obedient? Then he must lay a stone of obedience. Is it the case that some brother is angry at him? Then he must place a stone of long-suffering. Has an opportunity for self-control arisen? Then he must lay a stone of self-control. Thus, in every circumstance that comes along for him to act on some virtue, one must lay a stone in building up his house, raising it all around on a stone of sympathy, a stone of cutting off the will, a stone of meekness, and a stone of like virtues. But in addition to all of these, the builder must cultivate the virtues of patience and of stalwartness, for these are the cornerstones on which the structure is fixed and by which the walls are joined to one another, keeping them from tilting and thus producing cracks between them. Without these virtues, one lacks the power to bring together any of the other virtues whatsoever. If one is not stalwart of soul, neither will he be patient.
And without patience, he cannot achieve anything. For this reason, the Lord said: “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19). One who builds a house must also put mortar between the stones. For if he places stone on stone, without placing mortar between then, the stones will crack and -the structure will collapse. Mortar is humility, since it comes from the soil and is trodden upon by everyone. Any virtue, therefore, that comes about without humility is not a virtue, as the Gerontikon tells us: “Just as it is impossible to build a boat without nails, so it is not possible to be saved without humility” (St. Athanasios the Great PG 28:1521B). Therefore, whatever good deed one may do, he must do it with humility, that the good deed may be maintained by humility. Moreover, a house must have so-called lintels (a linking beam in the opening of a wall or window). They, representing the virtue of discretion, strengthen a structure, linking one stone to another and holding the house together and bestowing on it great beauty. The roof is love, which is the perfection of all of the virtues, since it is the completion of a house (See Col. 3:14) After the roof, one constructs a parapet (railing or low wall along a roof or balcony) And what is the parapet? We find it defined in the Law: “If you build a house and appoint rooms, you should also make a parapet all around it, so that your children do not fall [from the roof or terrace]” (Deut. 22:8).
This parapet [also] signifies humility, since it is a belt girding all of the virtues. And just as every virtue must come about in humility—in accord with the way that we noted above: that every stone is laid on mortar (mud)—so humility is needful for the perfection of the virtues. When the Saints progress in virtue, they naturally achieve humility. As I always tell you: “The closer one comes to God, so much the more he sees himself as a sinner.” But who are the children whom the Law says should not “fall from the roof”? These “children” are the thoughts that are engendered in the soul, which must be guarded by humility (which, as we said, represents the perfection of the virtues), so that they do not fall from the roof.
152. And so, the house is complete. It has its rafters in place and a roof. Look at the railing (parapet) surrounding it. In a word, the house is ready. But is something perhaps missing? Yes, something has been left out. And what is this? It is the skilled house builder. If the builder is not a skilled artisan, the house will be crooked and will collapse at the first opportunity. An artisan is someone who works with full knowledge (epignosis as translated into Modern Greek) of his craft. Thus, there are at times those who can expend effort in acquiring the virtues, but, since they labor without full knowledge, lose their way and, drawn here and there, without being able to complete their work.
Abba Dorotheos of Gaza, "Abba Dorotheos of Gaza: His Letters and Various of His Sayings," trans. Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Etna (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2017), 222-228. '"