Dorotheos of Gaza and the Discourse of Healing in Gazan Monasticism

by Kyle A. Schenkewitz (Author)
©2016 Monographs VII, 190 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 357


Serving as a dynamic figure in the monastic school, Dorotheos of Gaza transformed the traditional understanding of healing in the spiritual life. Gazan monastic teachers, Isaiah of Scetis, Barsanuphius, John, and Dorotheos, utilized this discourse of healing to instruct and guide their followers in the monastic life.
As a predominant part of human existence, sickness and suffering were sought to be understood and interpreted. For some teachers, healing was purely a metaphor for spiritual renewal brought about through illness and pain. For others, physical distress was instructive for renewed endurance and trust. Driven by a new distinction, Dorotheos pursued the concept of healing as an extension beyond the metaphor and into the physical reality experienced in the body. Encouraging his followers to pursue this idea, he further developed the importance of healing in his tradition by emphasizing the significance of physical and spiritual well-being. The life of healing he envisioned was a life full of virtue, carefully navigating all disruptions of life, and strengthening the soul and the body.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Praise for Dorotheos of Gaza and the Discourse of Healing in Gazan Monasticism
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowlegments
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: Monasticism in Gaza
  • Isaiah’s Community at Beth Dallatha
  • Seridos’s Community at Tawatha
  • Dorotheos’s Community at Maiumas
  • Chapter Three: The Discourse of Healing and Gazan Monasticism
  • Isaiah
  • Christ in Isaiah
  • Health and Illness in Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius and John
  • Christ and Physicians in Barsanuphius and John
  • Health and Illness in Barsanuphius and John
  • Zosimas
  • Dorotheos
  • Christ as Physician in Dorotheos
  • Health and Illness in Dorotheos
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Four: Healing in the Drama of Salvation
  • Creation in Dorotheos
  • Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius
  • John
  • The Fall in Dorotheos
  • Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius
  • Healing in Dorotheos
  • Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius
  • Monastic Life in Dorotheos
  • Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius
  • John
  • Passions
  • Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius
  • John
  • Dorotheos
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Five: Virtue in the Monastic Life
  • House for the Soul: A Shared Metaphor
  • Isaiah
  • Barsanuphius
  • Dorotheos
  • Conclusion
  • The Role of Virtue in the Monastic Life
  • Isaiah
  • Virtue and Monasticism
  • Virtue and the Monk
  • Barsanuphius and John
  • Virtue Privately
  • Virtue Positively
  • Dorotheos
  • Virtue Conceived
  • Virtue Practiced
  • Virtue Acquired
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Six: The Ascetic Body
  • Isaiah and the Body
  • Barsanuphius and John’s Approach to the Body
  • Dorotheos and the Body
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Seven: Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

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This book is the culmination of a long road of persistence, encouragement, and trust from family and friends along life’s way. The work has not been easy, but it has been enjoyable. I am very thankful to the support of my wife and daughter who send me off each morning with a squeeze-hug and kiss. This work would not be possible without the resources and support of Saint Louis University, its Library, and its Department of Theological Studies, especially Fr. Kenneth Steinhauser. The Church of St. Michael and St. George has been a constant source of prayer and assistance as my spiritual home and employer. I would also like to thank Timothy Chapman for his editorial skills in transforming my rough ideas into clear prose.

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Four great monastic teachers emerged from the fifth to mid-sixth centuries in Gaza: Isaiah, Barsanuphius, John, and Dorotheos. Contemporary scholarship has not clarified Dorotheos’s distinctive place among these teachers nor fully examined his contribution to his monastic tradition. This book proposes an innovative approach to understanding Dorotheos’s monastic teaching by analyzing the shared discourse of healing in the monastic school of Gaza. Dorotheos diverged from his tradition’s understanding of humanity’s salvation and the monastic life by emphasizing virtue as integral to a healthy life and the positive role of the body in asceticism. The comparison of Dorotheos with his contemporaries distinguishes him as a dynamic figure intent upon retaining inherited approaches to monastic living, but offering his own interpretation of the spiritual and physical healing inherent to the monastic life.

Dorotheos carefully indicated the need for health of soul and body. His conception of asceticism did not denigrate the body for the sake of the soul’s health but sought to provide therapy and training for the body so that it could gain and retain its own health and be conducive to the healing of the soul. The monastic life, for Dorotheos, was not conceived as patient suffering until the release of death but the rehabilitation and restoration of human life. Dorotheos envisioned humanity as depicted in Eden: flourishing, contemplating God, and full of virtue. The monastic life was a reconstitution of humanity’s health through asceticism ← 1 | 2 → and cultivation of virtue. The body was an important aspect in each respect. The positive role of the body in the monastic life distinguished Dorotheos from his contemporaries and established his teaching as a decisive development in the monastic school of Gaza. The discourse of healing was essential to Dorotheos’s monastic vision. Christian monastics inherited an approach to health and medicine that reached back to Hippocrates and Galen. At times tenuous, health of body and soul were complementary for most early Christians. Dorotheos was able to draw upon a long custom of Christian monastic health care, for which Basil the Great stood as an important figure. The provision of bodily health care was not at odds with the monastic life but was integral to the stability and function of monastic communities themselves and the laypersons of surrounding areas. By using the metaphor of healing as an interpretive lens through which to re-consider Dorotheos’s works, I illumine new facets of his teachings that corroborate Peter Brown’s observation of the importance of the body for Dorotheos and open up new avenues of research that consider how the discourse of healing, both physical and spiritual, was used in monastic teaching.1

Much of Dorotheos’s epistolary exchange with his spiritual mentors, Barsanuphius and John, revolved around his role as monastic infirmarian. Dorotheos was concerned with the daily routine of actively enjoying and providing spiritual and physical health in the infirmary. He attended to patients, directed his own disciples, and interacted with laypersons and visitors. This duty was as troublesome for Dorotheos as it was formative. Dorotheos’s monastic maturation in the infirmary reverberated throughout his leaving Seridos’s coenobium and settling with his own monks nearby. Dorotheos incorporated the importance of daily living to his vision of monasticism’s goal of slowly and steadily returning to a state of health. Dorotheos translated his tradition into a discourse that was familiar to him. The healing he provided in the infirmary was analogous to the spiritual healing he would provide as a spiritual teacher. Dorotheos first offered spiritual direction while working in the infirmary. His first disciple, Dositheos, accompanied him in the infirmary, providing care to monks and laypersons. In his own monastery, Dorotheos’s task was to guide and direct his monastics to a life of health. Dorotheos viewed the Christian life, generally, and the monastic life, more intensely, as a daily enterprise of cultivating and habituating health within the body and soul such that the individual could prosper within the monastic community.

Dorotheos employed numerous metaphors of physical healing to illustrate the spiritual healing that takes place in the individual who sought Christ as a physician. These metaphors demonstrated his familiarity with medical healing and served as means to illustrate the similarities of healing in body and soul. For ← 2 | 3 → Dorotheos, healing was more than a metaphor; it constituted a reality in which a monk’s soul and body were united in the harmonious excellence of the healthy life.

This study will reassess Dorotheos’s significance within the monastic school of Gaza and demonstrate that his distinctive vision complicates portrayals of the Gazan monastic tradition. More specifically, Dorotheos introduced a conception of healing in the monastic life as acquisition of virtue in conjunction with a positive view of the body’s role in the Christian life. This investigation will proceed from the observations of Lucien Regnault, that “Plutôt que de nous attarder aux points de détail où Dorotheé n’est que l’écho de la tradition, nous avons préféré insister sur ce qui nous paraît les plus essentiel et le plus caractéristique.”2 Regnault recongnized Dorotheos’s participation in a living tradition. He further described Dorotheos as being faithful “à toute la tradition, et n’en laisse rien perdre.”3 This study will locate Dorotheos within his monastic tradition and will also explore his contribution to that tradition, interpreting and contributing his own perspective.4

Dorotheos founded his monastic teachings upon the interrelatedness of health for body and soul, providing a distinct vision of the monastic life that emphasized a positive role of the body as he employed the discourse of healing. While Isaiah, Barsanuphius, and John emphasized a monk’s endurance of illness and suffering as preparation for future union with God, Dorotheos encouraged the transformation of humanity from a state of sickness to a state of health. He asserted that Christ restored health to humanity from the sickness incurred through sin and he claimed that Christ’s teachings provided the way of life free from passion and rich in virtue. The distinctive character of his monastic teaching balances his care for the spiritual and physical health of his monastics.

Dorotheos continually cast his spiritual guidance in the mold of diagnosis and treatment of a spiritual disorder. His teaching can be noted for at least three distinctive marks. First, Dorotheos held that the natural state of humanity at creation was a state of health and did not include passion (πάθος).5 The passions were a sickness incurred as a result of the fall. Dorotheos argued that the salvation of humanity was a return to the natural state at creation, rather than a completely new state. Second, Dorotheos discussed Christ’s role as the physician who heals humanity’s sickness but also as the teacher who provides the prescription for maintaining a life of health. In his spiritual teaching, Dorotheos emphasized that attaining virtue (ἀρετή) constituted the healthy life. Third, Dorotheos emphasized the interrelatedness of body and soul in the health of the human person rather than the denigration of the body for the sake of the soul.

Dorotheos utilized the metaphor of healing through his discourses. Averil Cameron claimed, “Metaphor is at the heart of Christian language.”6 In her study of Christian use of rhetoric within the Greco-Roman world, she observed how ← 3 | 4 → “increasing recourse was also made even in learned writings to such figurative tropes as metaphor and simile, and with them, to paradox, those features so deep seated in all the less formal types of religious discourse and inherent in Christian language.”7 In his 2003 study, Krankheit und Heilung in der Theologie der frühen Kirchenväter, Michael Dörnemann stated that metaphor is “nicht nur eine sprachliche Ausdrucksform, sondern bereits eine Form des Denkens.”8 Dörnemann explored the notion of illness and healing in early Christian writers9 by utilizing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory of conceptual metaphors in Metaphors We Live By combined with insights from Christa Baldauf on metaphor theory.10 Lakoff and Johnson explained, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”11 Metaphors characterize one’s conceptual system and enable a person to understand experiences and concepts in a consistent manner. They assert that metaphors are inherent in one’s conceptual system and that “human thought processes are largely metaphorical.”12 For Lakoff and Johnson, metaphors are more than mere linguistic expressions, but operate at the cognitive level. Additionally, metaphors are based upon the experiences of everyday life. Lakoff and Johnson hold that conceptual metaphors are inseparable from their experiential basis.13 For example, a culture where argument is understood as war would not be able to comprehend an argument in a culture where argument is understood as dance. In the former case, the metaphor “ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR.”14 Lived experience of, say, a culture where ARGUMENT IS WAR affects the way one comprehends and expresses the idea of ARGUMENT through conceptual metaphors. Likewise, Dorotheos utilized the metaphor of healing to convey his conception of the narrative of salvation and the monastic life. Baldauf described the use of metaphor as “das Verständnis kognitiver Routinen.”15 Through metaphor, one can conceptualize difficult and even non-tangible ideas through easily comprehended concepts.

Healing was used as just such a metaphor for the salvific activity of Christ. In her study, Amanda Porterfield held that “Recent historians also pointed to the interest in medicine shown by early Christian writers and to the frequent use of medical metaphors in Christian discourse.”16 Porterfield showed that though analogies between Christ and physicians were plentiful, they were “always accompanied by an insistence on Christ’s superiority to any human physician or material form of medicine.”17 In another recent study, Anne Elizabeth Meredith anticipated the emphasis here given to Dorotheos by articulating how for Christians “medical metaphors used by the Greek and Roman philosophers proved to be very useful indeed. The use of medical metaphors, however, was not simply absorption of a stock metaphor. For many Christians, the analogy between philosophy ← 4 | 5 → (Christianity) and medicine became a primary way in which they conceptualized salvation.”18 Dorotheos employed the metaphor of healing in his method of addressing spiritual ailments, the work of Christ, the healthy life, and the interconnectedness of body and soul. Healing became a metaphor for Christ’s work in and through the individual.

Dorotheos’s continual use of anecdotes and explanations of physical healing in his spiritual instructions indicated how he incorporated the metaphor of healing into his spiritual teaching. When he explained the importance of forgiveness without resentment to his monks, Dorotheos utilized the metaphor of a wound to explain the process of spiritual healing that takes place when one truly forgives. Dorotheos stated that one who forgives another “is like a person with a wound (τραῦμα). He puts a plaster (ἔμπλαστρον) on it and temporarily heals it through that and it forms a scar.”19 A monk who retained resentment toward his brother, however, was not perfectly healed. “He still retained the problem of resentment that is like the scar from which the wound is easily reopened if it receives a small blow.”20 The wound of the injured monk was not perfectly healed and left him vulnerable to animosity toward the one who injured him. Only through complete spiritual healing would one become impervious to re-injury, much like the healing of a scar where “no disfigurement remains and you cannot discern where the wound was.”21 Dorotheos’s understanding of physical healing was a vital resource for his understanding of spiritual healing, but, more broadly, it influenced how he conceived the salvific healing of Christ’s example and teaching.

Recent scholarship has not adequately established the distinctive character of Dorotheos’s teaching in comparison to the monastic tradition of his region, nor has it given due attention to the positive role for the body in his monastic instructions. The most recent works on Dorotheos’s monastic instructions suggest how scholarly inquiry has shifted away from highlighting Dorotheos as an important contributor in his monastic context by subsuming him within his tradition.


VII, 190
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Gaza Scetis Religion
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Kyle A. Schenkewitz (Author)

Kyle A. Schenkewitz holds a PhD in historical theology from Saint Louis University. He is currently Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University and serves at The Church of St. Michael and St. George.


Title: Dorotheos of Gaza and the Discourse of Healing in Gazan Monasticism
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204 pages