The un-sexy demonology of John Cassian

Having finished A New Kind of Christian, the next “book that ‘normal’ people read” I’m going through is Michael Green’s 1981 volume, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (from the ‘I Believe’ series). Obviously not a book that normal people read anymore, but I hope that some normal people read it in the 80s, because it is very good so far.

I have just finished Green’s chapter about temptation, and I am reminded of the awkward conversations I would have about demonology when I was researching John Cassian (d. c. 435). Specifically, the lack of any Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness or The Oath business. Cassian acknowledges this sort of demonology, but he is not going to spend time on it.

It’s a bit disappointing for the sensationalists. Why tantalise us with the idea of demons who wait at crossroads to mug people if you aren’t going to give us any details? Other stories from the Desert Fathers give us great details! I forget the source, but there’s this one time that a guy took shelter in an old tomb, and a bunch of demons turned up, and he overheard them talking about all the monks they tempted. Or there are the temptations of St Antony, wherein he wrestled with the denizens of Hell all night:

Including Funnel Butt:

John of Ephesus tells the story of some demons who made a woman levitate and appear like the BVM and fool some monks into praying to her.

Cassian doesn’t deny the reality of such things. After all, they say that The Exorcist is based on real events. But these sensationalist stories are not his main event.

Cassian’s demonology is all about temptation. How do the demons tempt you to sin? How do they try to distract you from prayer? What sorts of thoughts do they encourage? How much power do they have in terms of temptation? Can they implant an idea in your mind? Can demons really see the future?

Let me tell you, when you follow, ‘I study demonology,’ with, ‘specifically how demons tempt people to sin,’ your rocketing coolness plummets.

But the un-sexy demonology of John Cassian is just the demonology we need. I remember this scene in This Present Darkness (the aforementioned Peretti novel) where some dude is literally wrestling with demons in his living room. Let me tell you — you probably do wrestle with demons in your living room.

The demon of wrath.

The demon of greed.

The demon of gluttony.

The demon of laziness.

The demons of gossip and slander.

The demon of saying that malicious thing.

And so on.

Our passions are disordered, and the demonic prey on that. Their main goal, though, as Cassian’s Conferences would tell us, and which is, I believe, the lesson from St Antony’s battle with Funnel Butt, is to keep us from prayer. Watch out, then, for

The demon of distraction.

He comes clothed as a Netflix of Light.

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Martin of Tours: Where Demonology and Scatology Meet

I was going to give you another post about St Columba and how we read/use hagiography and miracles, but then I starting reading Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin of Tours. It includes this:

During this same period and in the same town, as Martin was entering a house belonging to the head of some family, he stopped on the very threshold, explaining that he could see a horrifying demon in the entrance hall to the house. When he ordered it to depart, the demon seized the owner’s cook, who was in the inner part of the building. The wretched thing began to tear him with its teeth and to maul anyone it came across. The house was thrown into confusion, the household members panicked, and the people turned and ran. Martin stood in the way of this raving creature and first ordered it to stop. But when it raged and showed its teeth and, with its mouth wide open, threatened to bite him, Martin put his fingers in its mouth and said, ‘If you have any power, eat these.’ But then, as if it had received white-hot metal in its jaws, it withdrew its teeth a long way, refusing to touch the holy man’s fingers. Forced by these punishments and torments to flee from the body of the man who was possessed, it was not allowed to leave through his mouth but was expelled in a flow of diarrhoea, leaving behind it foul traces. (XVII.5-7, trans. Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Lives, p. 150)

As the title indicates — and as those of you who know me in person — what drew me to this particular demon story was its exodus from the cook’s body in diarrhoea. *Insert boyish/teenage-style chuckle here.* Demon diarrhoea. Hilarious.

Anyway, the demon diarrhoea in this story is actually interesting beyond the scatalogical humour it affords for me and many other men the world over. It is interesting because of the physicality of it. In the late fourth century when Sulpicius was writing this Life, the vision of the spirit world that was becoming current at the theological level was of an immaterial, non-corporeal spirit world. That is, spirit don’t have bodies; they cannot touch you. Angels and demons — along with the Trinity and the human spirit — are of this category.

Nonetheless, here we have a text that, despite its ‘high’ literary Latin, represents popular Christianity at some level. Of course, the idea of demons being involved in physical matter upon their exorcism from a human host is found in Scripture, when Christ commands Legion to enter a herd of nearby pigs. This physicality of the demonic remains, despite the high Platonic philosophy that comes to dominate Christian thought with people like Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers.

We have seen it in Besa’s fifth-century Life of Shenoute here and Adamnán’s seventh-/eighth-century Life of Columba here (being one of the most popular Coptic monk-saints and Scottish monk-saints respectively). Demonic physicality is also affirmed in the monastic Life par excellence, ‘Athanasius”s Life of St. Antony, as seen here and here. Although he does not linger on it, somewhere in the Conferences, John Cassian mentions demons who lurk at crossroads and mug travellers.

What makes Martin’s confrontation with the demoniac baker and its physicality different from the above is that, although the text blurs the person of the cook and the person of the demon, it is evident by the end that the cook is possessed. Martin accordingly expels the demon from the cook’s body — appropriate for a man who began his ecclesiastical career as an exorcist.

Nonetheless, the demonic diarrhoea — one of the crappiest ways for a demon to go — reaffirms the physicality of the demon.

I think this sort of tangible story with all the gorey details, so to speak, is an important difference between hagiography and other monastic literature. As I said above, John Cassian does not linger on demons who mug people. That sort of story, along with miracles, is not really what he’s into. Cassian’s literature is about how to fight the demons in daily life — and that means the constant struggle to your last breath against temptation (as goes one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers), it means regulating your thoughts, it means learning what arouses your concupiscible passions and what arouses your irascible passions.

Not whether or not demons can be expelled from a human person the same way as too many burritos.

The purpose of hagiography is always to edify the reader, as claimed by Sulpicius in his Life of Martin. It is to provide an example for monks to imitate. It is to strengthen the faith of the reader. It is to say, ‘If you are simply fighting temptation, look at the crap St Martin had to put up with!!’ But unlike what one may call monastic manuals such as Cassian’s work or Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer and Antirrhetikos (or Talking Back), most hagiography does not give the reader very specific instructions as to what the holy life looks like for imitation (although I would argue some of John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints do).

At the end of the day, I think this particular story is there to show us a. Martin’s holiness, b. what Christ can do with his saints, and c. the lowliness of evil spirits in the face of the fearless Christian. Those, I suppose, are lessons worth taking away.

A Story Involving Relics from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor

In Book 9.6 of the Chronicle (or Ecclesiastical History) of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, a Justinianic Syriac Monophysite, we read this story:

After [the Persian Emperor] Kavadh, his son Khusro reigned. His mother, during the life of her husband Kavadh, was possessed by a demon, and all the magi, sorcerers, and enchanters who were called by her husband Kavadh, who very much loved her, did not profit her at all, but truth be told, they added demons upon demons to her. She was sent in the fourth [indiction year] in the days of the dux Liberarius to the blessed Moses who had a monastery above Dara, some two parasangs from the region. He was famous, and she was with him a few days and was purified, and returned to her land, having taken from this holy Moses of the monastery called Tarmel the blessing of the bones of Cyriacus the martyr so that she could take refuge in it for her protection, so that the [evil] spirit would not return upon her; and she built for him in a secret [place] a house of prayer in her land in order to honour [him], and he was venerated there. When she remembered the grace that had happened to her through this blessed Moses of Tarmel, she aided the country of the Romans with a purpose and reason that are described below. (Trans Robert R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn in the TTH trans, ed. Geoffrey Greatrex)

According to n. 95, p. 328, Christian literature abounds with stories of Persian monarchs being cured by saints, and according to the Armenian version of Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, Khusro’s mother was actually baptised.

This story reminds me of a biblical parallel (and no doubt on purpose), the story of Na’aman in 2 Kings 5. Na’aman was a Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. Like the Persian Queen Mother in Pseudo-Zachariah, he went to the man of God, in this case the Prophet Elisha (successor to Elijah). To make a long story short, Na’aman was cured by washing in the River Jordan and returned healthy and hale to his people. He vowed that he would worship YHWH in secret — whenever his master bowed to the god Rimmon, he would bow as well, but secretly incline his heart to the God of Elisha. Khusro’s mother also worshipped in secret according to Pseudo-Zachariah, building a shrine to St. Cyriacus (apparently a popular martyr’s name).

Yet unlike Na’aman, the Persian Queen does not convert. She does not offer prayers to Christ our God. Instead, she takes back with her some sort of relic — I imagine the “oil of the saints’, oil that has made contact with a relic and is used for the purposes of healing the sick and casting out demons. The tomb of St. Euthymius in the Judean Desert has a hole through which to pour the oil, and it comes out a little drain at the bottom for you to gather it; such oil recurs frequently throughout the Life of Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), and Cyril of Scythopolis often speaks of the “oil of the holy Cross”, which is probably a similar idea.

Her reverence is for the holy man and the saint who cured her, not, to use the popular Byzantine turn of phrase, “Christ our God.” This is too bad, really. The Church should certainly be seeking to heal those who are sick, be it with demonic possession or physical ailments, but what about the ultimate, deepest sickness, the fallenness of the human soul? Should not Moses have introduced this Persian aristocrat to Christ the Physician? Perhaps he tried, and she would have none of it.

Alas, then, that this woman was cured of a temporal sickness but refused the medicine of the eternal sickness, taking away superstition rather than true religion! No doubt the history of the Church is full of such stories.

Fighting the Demons 3: St. Columba

So far we have seen stories of St. Antony and St. Savvas fighting the demons as well as an aberrant one about Shenoute. Today, let us look at this week’s saint, Columba, and a story about him and some demons, for this one is notably different from any of the above.

The story is in Book III of The Life of St. Columba by Adomnán of Iona. In Chapter 8, he writes:

One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone. There, soon after he had begun his prayers — as he later disclosed to a few of the brethren — he saw a line of foul, black devils armed with iron spikes and drawn up ready for battle. The holy man realized in the spirit that they wanted to attack his monastery and slaughter many of the brethren with their stakes. Though he was alone against such an army of countless opponents, he was protected by the armour of St Paul and flung himself into a great conflict. The battle continued most of the day, and the hosts were unable to vanquish him while he could not drive them away from Iona on his own. Then the angels of God came to his aid, as he afterwards told a few of the brethren, and the devils were terrified of them and left the place.

The demons proceeded to Tiree where they invaded a monastery and caused sickness, of which many died. Only one died in Baithéne’s monastery because of the prayerful efforts of the abbot.

What this demon story has in common with the other two under discussion is the fact that the saint has gone out alone to pray when the demons attack. The lesson here, I believe, is that the Christian is to remember Christ’s exhortation and example to pray in secret, and spend time alone with God — and that, when we do this, the forces of evil will take note. The battle will ensue.

St. Columba is kept safe in this battle because of the armour of St. Paul, the armour of God, from Ephesians 6:10-17:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (NIV)

This armour is what we need as we wage peace in the battle against the forces of evil.

In this story, interestingly enough, we get a Peretti-an twist in the arrival of angels, unlike the arrival of Christ to aid Sts. Antony and Savvas. Of course, the image of the demons is much in keeping with the sort of thing Frank Peretti relishes, yet the battle is not. Savvas wins through prayer, the armour of God, and the mere arrival of angels, whose appearance is so fearsome to the demons that they flee.

This story reminds us that, if we have the supernatural worldview that accepts the demonic, the angelic is also a part of the broad world of the spiritual cosmos surrounding us on all sides. Angels are the messengers of God (literally), and they fight alongside the Christians in the battle against evil. First and foremost, we are not alone because Christ will never leave us or forsake us. We are also not alone, however, because the Lord of Hosts will send his hosts to battle with us and for us.

The arrival of angels is a reminder of the whole realm of “spiritual warfare”, the sort of thing evangelical teenagers get really excited about. Who knows what a battle in the heavenlies would like (Do they fight with swords or appear as people or chuck around mountains?) — but the biblical record seems to indicate that it does go on, and our role is that of faithfulness in prayer and growth in virtue.

This is much preferable to those who wish us all to become exorcists, for oftentimes that demonstrates an obsession with the Dark, with something that remains mostly unknown to we poor mortals.

Finally, the demons are driven by Columba to Tiree where they cause disease. Here we have an example of what our mediaeval forebears are constantly accused of doing, of attributing everything to the spiritual forces and being generally “superstitious.”

I have no wisdom to draw from the demonic source of disease. It, too, is driven away by prayer, but we know that already. When I consider the mediaeval universe and the bigness of today’s universe, physical and spiritual, I am reluctant to rule out the possibility of spiritually-caused disease. It’s not a strictly rational belief, but I don’t think the world is, either.

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.

Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.

Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony

In Frank Peretti’s bestselling thriller This Present Darkness there is a scene wherein one of the characters engages in physical combat with demons in his living room. No joke. This sort of presentation of demonology, while it certainly entertained me as a teenager, draws attention away from the real fight with the demons, a fight that usually has as its great champion Christ.

Even if you don’t believe in demons, I think the lessons we have to learn from the ancient demon stories are applicable. So please, keep reading.

A very good description of the real fight with demons, a fight that takes place at the level of temptation, not at the level of wrestling matches, is John Cassian’s in The Institutes when he deals with the Eight Thoughts (precursors to Seven Deadly Sins). However, hagiography does give us some interesting demon stories, so I’m going to give you three posts and three stories battle with demons: St. Antony (below), St. Savvas (here), and St. Columba (here).

Other saints who have similar stories are St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), one of John of Ephesus’ saints whose name escapes me, and some other tales from the Desert Fathers. This is probably literary borrowing, not historical truth, but I believe it has a lesson inside.

What can we learn from patristic and mediaeval hagiography? I mean, we’re not likely to wrestle with demons Peretti-style, nor are we likely to be tempted Antony-style. So what on earth can these ancient demon stories say to (post)moderns in the 21st century?

Case One: The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

This is the locus classicus of monastic hagiography as well as the battle with demons. Evagrius and Cassian may give us the more nuanced, psychological vision of how we combat the tempters, but here Athanasius gives us a very vivid picture of St. Antony’s temptations from demons and the fight against them. I’ve posted on this before here.

This time, rather than focussing on the strange menagerie comprised by the denizens of Hell, let us focus on what actually happens to St. Antony.

If you read this encounter of St. Antony with the demonic, which we can find at 8.7-10.9 of the Life which is pp. 14-16 of White’s translation in Early Christian Lives and available through the CCEL here. In some ways, this account is Frank Peretti-esque, especially with the Devil and his minions beating St. Antony up.

Despite being beaten, however, we see that Antony continues to inhabit the tombs and prays continually. He also recites verses from the Psalms against the temptations that assail him. Ultimately, regardless of everything the adversary throws at him, he prevails in the combat.

At the end of it all, he is granted a vision of Christ.

St. Antony immediately asks why Christ didn’t help him. Apparently Christ was testing him, but then goes on to assure him that he will be present with Antony through the rest of the saint’s testing with demonic powers.

What can we learn, then? I mean, we aren’t likely to be beaten. And those of us who even believe in demons don’t tend to dwell on them and often live as though they don’t exist. Is there any edification for today’s reader, then?

I think so. (No surprise there.)

First, as I mentioned when I first posted about the Temptations of St. Antony, our saint does battle with prayer as his chief weapon. We should never forget this piece of our arsenal when we are beset by temptations or evil in any of its forms, be it within ourselves or in the unjust world we see around us. Prayer is a walkie-talkie for the battlefield of Christian life (I think J Piper said that).

Second, St. Antony quotes Scripture at the demons. We need to hold the Scriptures in our minds. We need to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible. We need to memorise it, pray it, study it, read it, recite it. If you want to have a biblical mindset, you need the Bible in your mind (this is part of the advice Abba Chaeremon gives Cassian in one of the Conferences).

Third, Christ was there all along. He is our champion. This role becomes very important in other monastic encounters with demons, from Palestine to Ireland. Hagiography is essentially Christocentric; Jesus is the reason the saints can do the great things that they do. We need to remember this, as well as the Old Testament name YHWH Nissi — YHWH is our banner. He fights our battles.