St Dorotheus of Gaza: Have You Built a House for Yourself?

Feast of St Athenogenes the Holy Martyr of Heracleopolis

dorotheos_Square.jpgHOLY SCRIPTURE says of the midwives who kept alive the Israelites’ male children, that through the god-fearing midwives they made themselves houses (cf. Ex. 1.21). Does it mean they made visible houses? How can they say they acquired houses through the fear of God when we do the opposite, and learn in time, through fear of God to give up the houses we have? Evidently this does not refer to visible houses but to the house of the soul which each one builds up for himself by keeping God’s commandments. Through this Holy Scripture teaches us that the fear of God prepares the soul to keep the commandments, and through the commandments the house of the soul is built up. Let us take hold of them, brothers, and let us fear God, and we shall build houses for ourselves where we shall find shelter in winter weather, in the season of storm-cloud, lightning, and rain; for not to have a home in winter-time is a great hardship.

How the house of the soul is built we can learn from the building of a material house and from the knowledge and care it demands. A man who wants to build a house must see that it is solid and thoroughly safe and he raises it four-square on a solid foundation. He does not concentrate on one part and neglect the rest since this is of no use but defeats his aim and makes vain the expense and labor. So it is with the soul: we must on no account neglect any part of it, but build it up equally and harmoniously. This is what Abba John means when he says, “I would rather a man acquire a little of each one of the virtues than master one virtue as some have done, persisting in it and practicing only that but neglecting the rest.

They may indeed have a certain pre-eminence in that one virtue and, therefore, not be weighed down by the contrary vice, but they remain caught by their other passions and burdened by them and do not pay attention to them, thinking instead that they have acquired something grand. They are like a man who builds one wall and raises it up as high as he can and, considering the height of the wall, thinks what a great work he has done. He does not know that one good strong wind coming along will blow it down because it stands by itself, nor from only one wall has that man gained a shelter for himself, for he is exposed on the other sides. That is not the way to do it. If a man wants to build a home and make a refuge for himself he must build up all four walls and protect himself all round.

—St Dorotheus of Gaza, On the Structure and Harmony of the Virtues of the Soul

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