Dorotheos of Gaza and the Discourse of Healing in Gazan Monasticism

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Kyle A. Schenkewitz
American University Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Peter Lang Publishing
    , November
     2015.
     190 pages.
     $79.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781433132216.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this volume, Kyle A. Schenkewitz focuses on Dorotheos of Gaza, one of several Gazan monastics who left a substantial written corpus. He explores Dorotheos’s teachings on the relationships and interplay between illness, sickness, and monastic ascetical practices, and the ways that these are understood and changed as a monk attempts to form a holy self before God. He argues that Dorotheos’s service working in a monastic infirmary, and spirituality.

Dorotheos of Gaza and the Discourse of Healing in Gazan Monasticism opens with an overview of the various ideas about illness, sickness, and the place of the body in monastic practice. Monastic thought about the body’s role in salvation was remarkably diverse. Three teachings were central to Dorotheos’s canon: that the state of creation lacked the passions; that salvation was a return to a natural state, not a completely new creation; and that the body had an integral role to play in salvation and could not be denigrated. Schenkewitz compares three sets of Gazan writings: the Asceticon of Isaiah of Gaza, the Erotapokriseis of Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, and the Instruction of Dorotheos. The differences between these works show the development of monastic theology in Gaza, as well as the diversity of understandings of the body, illness, and asceticism within early Christian monasticism.

The notion of healing was especially important to the Gazan monastics and they often spoke of the monastic life as a way of healing. They did so, according to Schenkewitz, using understandings of medicine that were drawn from non-Christian writers and other classical sources. Basil the Great started linking healing of the body to healing of the soul. In the writings of Barsanuphius and John, illness was a trial, which monks had to endure, and healing finally came after death. However, Dorotheos was more optimistic and believed that monastic practice allowed one to return to health in this life through the work of Christ. Monastic practice would return one to health of body and correct perception not encumbered by the passions.

For Dorotheos, Christ was a physician who could always cure the soul of its passion with the right medicine, since Christ did not suffer from the limitations of human physicians. Thus, the goal of monastic practice was to train the body and the soul to maintain health and balance in the face of difficult situations, and not to denigrate the body. This is a remarkably different picture of asceticism than that found in other early Christian writers who viewed the body as something that had to be subdued in order for salvation to be achieved. For Dorotheos, the body was healed in this life, not in the life to come, and he had more confidence in God’s ability to allow a monk to advance in that practice than did other Gazan monastics.

For Dorotheos, it was the healing of the body that showed most clearly God’s design for the drama of salvation. Unlike other Gazan monastics who believed that the passions of the soul were natural, Dorotheos believed that the passions of the soul were not natural, but were the result of the fall. Once healed by grace, the soul could maintain its balance without the passions. For Dorotheos, bodily health was not something to be ashamed of, and sickness was not always a route to spiritual growth. Rather, Dorotheos saw that health could lead one to be more receptive to grace, and the practice of virtues.

Schenkewitz closes with comments on asceticism and conflicts over how early monastics understood the body’s role in salvation. Dorotheos did not set the soul and the body at odds; rather he saw practice as a way of restoring health to both body and soul.

This is an important book, one that expands our understanding of the role of health and illness in early Christianity, and one that will rightly join works by Andrew Crislip and Gary Ferngren  as redefining our understanding of how Christians approached health and illness. It is also an important work on theological anthropology. Schenkewitz carefully attends to diversity within monastic sources, and argues for a more complex notion of the varieties of ascetical practices and beliefs about asceticism, even within a single monastic community.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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.

Keywords: 

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