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Writing this today, 20th October 2023, I remember how I used to think about Gaza in the sixth century, and reflect sadly on the disappearance of the monastery of Seridos at Thawatha, and its inhabitants. And now, how much more do I feel an unbearable sadness for Gaza and its people. The excursion into the past below in no way minimizes the horror of what is happening today.…….

Of all the early ascetics, there are a handful for whom I have a special affection. Of these, three residents of the monastery of Seridos in Gaza, hold a special place. The monastery became famous for a a period in the sixth century, and then disappeared without a trace in the sands, somewhere between Gaza City and the ancient port of Maiuma. Its fame (if one can call it such) lives on in the letters of Barsanuphios and John, and the Discourses of Dorotheos of Gaza.

The monastery was apparently founded by the Abbot, Seridos, around 500 A.D. At some point, an Egyptian ascetic, who had gained considerable fame, and was anxious to escape his followers and find a quiet place to settle, arrived at Thawatha. This was Barsanuphios, He settled in a cell near the monastery as a recluse, communicating with the outside world through Seridos, to whom he dictated answers to the many letters he received asking for help and advice. Some years later, (between 525 and 527), he was followed by his disciple, known as John the Prophet, who also lived in reclusion and joined

the letter writing. In all, they wrote an incredible total of 848 letters which have been preserved and make, to my mind, the most fascinating reading.

Barsanuphios and John have never attained the fame of other ascetics of the early Church. There may be several reasons for this: The sheer volume of the letters makes them unwieldy for description and quotation. In addition, Barsanuphios’ mother tongue was Coptic, and his Greek, containing many ‘copticisms’, is not of the most elegant. (We may presume to say the same for John). His spirituality is not conveyed in the same impressive way as that of the more famous ascetics: he often writes in a lively, down to earth manner, which is amusing, but his letters concerning such matters as grief, suffering and death are deeply touching.

Dorotheos, on the other hand, a devoted disciple of the two ‘Old Men’, was a cultured and educated Greek speaker, and his Didascalia reflect this. They contain fascinating personal anecdotes about his life in the monastery which he entered as a monk, and, as someone with medical knowledge, was put in charge of the infirmary. His letters to Barsanuphios and John, written long before his Didascalia, reveal the problems of communal life for a sensitive and thoughtful person who lacked confidence and depended on them for advice and support.

What happened to the monastery? Several of Barsanuphios’ letters are answers to questions about its future. He says in one reply, ‘Brother, no-one knows what this place will become except God alone…’ and gives the assurance that the Lord will not abandon it. In another, to a monk who worries about what will happen to the monastery after Barsanuphios’ death, he says, ‘God cannot overlook the labour, the asceticism, the compunction and the austerity of our fathers, both those who have gone to their rest and those now living, but he should say, “I will spare this place for my sake and that of those who have served me and who serve me (now) really and truly”. Nevertheless, I believe without doubt that there are those here, in this place who are capable of winning over God on behalf of the myriads of men, and they will not be rejected. For he does their will, and they can ask that the eyes of the Lord will be on this place night and day’.

Both Seridos and John died between 540 and 543, and Barsanuphios then gave up writing letters, shut himself in his cell and was never seen again. The cell, and therefore presumably the monastery, was in existence fifty years later when the patriarch of Jerusalem ordered it to be opened, and a ball of fire shot out and burned some of those standing by. But, in spite of Barsanuphios’ plea, the monastery of Seridos is now lost, buried somewhere between Gaza City and the sea, leaving us a small, poignant note from the past amid the horrors of today.

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